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 Airbnb.com 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.

Paris.

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.

Trees.

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.

Berlin.

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.

“There’s a space on the entry form there for local address during stay — I don’t really know where I’m staying yet, so I didn’t put anything in there.”

“Oh don’t worry, we’ll get around to that when we do. Where are you coming from today?”

“USA. Well, Los Angeles. California.”

“‘Occupation: Writer’? What kind of writing do you do?”

“Technical, mostly. Tech stuff.”

“What kind of tech stuff?”

“Oh, everything. Apple products. Video games.”

“Uh huh. Are you meeting anyone here in the UK?”

“Well yes. But not right away. I am getting dinner with someone on Tuesday, and then hanging with some friends on Friday?”

“You’re meeting Tuesday in France?”

“France? No! Not in France. On Friday, I said.”

“Uh huh. How do you not know where you’re staying? Are you traveling alone?”

“I am alone. But I just don’t exactly know what the plan is yet, exactly where I’ll be.”

“Well if you’re traveling alone, then you’re the only one who knows the plan, right?”

“Yes, I am. But I don’t know if — There is no plan, I guess. I have a hostel address where I have a few nights reserved.”

“Uh huh. Can you show me your ticket for flying back to the United States?”

“Well, I don’t have one. Wait, no, I mean I have one, but it’s not printed or anything. It’s on my phone. Does that work?”

“Sigh. [reads email on iPhone, sees that flight back to the US is on May 1] Now wait. It says here you’re flying back May 1. But you said you’re only going to be in the UK for two weeks.”

“Well, I am going to France after that. And then a few other places.”

“What other places?”

“France, and then Germany. And then Holland. Probably.”

“How are you getting to France?”

“I am hoping to buy a train ticket?”

“Uh huh. [checks something on the computer, looks dubious]”

[smiles weakly, tries not to act nervous and jet lagged]

“All right. [stamps passport, opens gate] Come on in.”

And that’s how you get into the UK.

I got through the lines at Heathrow without too much of a problem, but as you can read above, I felt a surprising amount of nervousness. Walking through the endless hallways and passageways out of the airport (which reminded me of Chicago’s O’Hare, actually), I didn’t quite feel like I was in another country yet — I did hear an occasional English accent here and there, but I also heard Indian accents, and Spanish, and Japanese. It was so international that I might as well have been at a Dodgers game.

There were little differences — there was a sign for “way out” rather than exit, and as I walked past some emergency fire hydrants, I realized they were the first once I’d ever seen in real life that hadn’t been approved by some sort of US government agency. Little things like that struck me as I made my way through the byways of Heathrow out into this new country.

My first goal was to get a ticket for the Tube and somehow get into the city. After a little bit of confusion at the standard kiosk (a kind gentleman in an official looking uniform helped me out), I went to the counter, and my Mastercard seemed to get me an Oyster card. London is split into zones, I was told, but a seven day pass for zones 1-6 should be what I wanted. And just like that, with one swipe of my Bank of America card (and probably a nice chunk of fees for converting the currency, I was mobile.

I was impressed by the Tube, but the most interesting thing about it was that the line I rode away from Heathrow was headed to a final stop called “Cockfoster’s.” Yes, I did laugh, every time that woman mentioned the destination. I also laughed when I heard “Mind the gap.” It was riding in on the train yesterday when I finally wrote up yesterday’s post about flying in, and despite how tired I was, I was immensely happy. I was in Britain, with the English country flying past me, and I was headed to my destination.

Not having a constant Internet connection on my iPhone has been the biggest issue so far — I really depend on constant information at home, from directions to address lookup, and of course my usual Twitter, email, and so on. When I came up at the Piccadilly Circus stop, I wasn’t so interested in the incredible architecture and crowds right away as I was in just finding some Internet to hook up to and figure out where my hostel was supposed to be. I was online for just a little bit yesterday — just enough to get my bearings and an address.

For these first few nights, I am staying at a hostel just across from the British Museum, and it’s about as “hostel” as these things get. I slept in the upper bunk of a bunk bed last night, and I don’t know if it’s just because the building I was in also happens to be under construction, but I could feel every single movement inside that building in that bed. It wasn’t completely miserable — I believe I’ve staved off jetlag as well as possible, but “luxury accomodations” they are not. I have invested in a lock for my computer bag while I’m sleeping, and I think I’m going to rent a safe to keep my tech in today while I go touristing around the city.

The hostal hasn’t been all bad — I’ve met a nice guy named Thomas from Norway, and a nice girl named Tami from Spain. I slept above a guy from Brazil (whose name I didn’t catch), and in a room with three other girls, who I believe said they were from Belgium. They all speak in a hurried language that sounds Russian when talking together, but when you speak to one of them in English, they instantly smile and respond to you in perfect British accents. So yes, I believe they may indeed be spies.

Most of the day after getting off the train yesterday was just about decompressing and finding out the lay of the land, but I did check one big important goal off my list: I went to a pub for a pint. The Princess Louise is the one I landed on, just a few blocks away from my hostel.

It was gorgeous inside, with decorative designs all over the walls, and old wood everywhere. I have no information on how old the bar actually is, but it was in a sort of “parlor” configuration — there were little booths all around the bar in the center of the room, and people were hanging out in those little booths all together. There were all kinds of people — young English guys in expensive suits and coats, old gray-haired Englishmen drawing pints in twos and threes, working men sitting alone at the bar, and young couples sitting in corners and talking.

I was almost exhausted from jet lag at this point, and I wasn’t exactly sure how much money I had to spend on alcohol this evening, but I settled on something called a Soverign Best. I just barely caught a glimpse of the bartender making it — it sure looked to me like he put some sort of syrup or something in glass before pulling it from the tap.

But when he passed it over to me (and I paid him a few pounds, plus one extra for a tip), I took it, sipped it, and tasted a sweet, fruity, very hearty beer. After a long day of traveling, it was just excellent. I took a seat in a back corner of the bar, sat with my beer, and just relaxed, enjoying the fact that I was in London and having a pint.

Drinking, in America, is about all sorts of things — sometimes, you go to bars to pick up members of the opposite sex, sometimes you go to watch sports, and sometimes you just go to get wasted. But in this pub, in this country, at least, I was surrounded by the idea of “gathering”. The British have a thing for “gathering,” as far as I can tell in my roughly 24 hours here — even walking the streets last night looking for my hostel and this pub, I would pass doorways and see clumps of people standing around, talking, and enjoying themselves. In America, there’s a very clear line between “in the bar” and “waiting to get in,” but in Britain, that line doesn’t seem quite as clear.

In fact, I don’t know if you can see them in the picture above, but the Princess Louise actually has countertops outside on the street, so those drinking can take their beers outside and continue the conversation out there. This wasn’t the only pub I saw that spread out on to the street, either — there were a few others that had clumps of people standing around with beers outside, and even one restaurant that had brought tables out on to the street for the evening crowd.

It’s not at all about drinking outside in a Las Vegas or Mardi Gras kind of way, where you’re getting away with something out on a public street. Instead, it’s about being public in general, about enjoying not only your own company, but spreading out on to the street and enjoying everyone else’s. I finished my pint, happy to be in everyone’s company, alone as I was, and made my way back to the hostel to try and catch up on sleep.

Today: It’s off to Westminster, to see Big Ben, the Eye, Parliament, and everything else around there. Remember, if you’re in London, we’re planning on a meetup on Friday evening, 5pm, at the Oxford Circus Tube stop. We’ll go from there out to dinner, drinking, and whatever. And even if you can’t make that (or even if you can and just want to hang out), feel free to email me or offer any recommendations at all.

In real life, we almost never get to see an actual finish line. Change comes slowly, instead — it creeps up on us little by little, in incremental motions and movements, until we realize just how much we’ve been overwhelmed.

Change hit me early on Sunday morning as I packed — all of my finely-laid plans over the last few months went out the window as soon as I tried to fit four days’ worth of clothes into the Brain Bag. There just wasn’t enough room — even without all of my tech, I was just trying to do too much with too little.

In the end, I ended up using a different Tom Bihn bag, and after much frustrating discussion with myself, I decided to go ahead and also bring the usual laptop bag I use at conventions. In the end, the decision to bring that one was strangely calming: Of course I would bring the bag I always use. Why wouldn’t I? Why did I even think, over all these months, that I wouldn’t?

And of course I did bring my iPad. After all that, after all the back and forth about whether I would use it or whether I wanted to carry it around or not, I brought it along anyway.

After the frustration of packing (Did I remember everything? What disastrous decisions did I make? I drove my friend Dan crazy with worried questions while he, in return, drove me to the airport), the journey itself was fairly mundane. There was a line at the terminal to check in, another line for security, and another line to board. I’ve been to LAX many times before, and though I did hear a few English accents board the plane with me, I’d done all of this before.

The TVs on board showed The Artist and Friends with Benefits, and I read The Art of Fielding (well written, though I had trouble caring about the characters) on my iPad and listened to music. As we flew east, night fell. Of course, it fell a few hours faster than usual, but it didn’t seem like it — one moment we were flying back over Los Angeles, the next the sun was setting as we flew over the Rockies, and the next it was dark outside. I’ve seen that all going back and forth from Chicago before.

I played Fairway Solitaire and Civ Revolution. I tried to get some sleep. My back was injured in San Francisco a few weeks ago, and while it’s mostly OK now, the plane seats didn’t do any favors. My silent seat mate slept like a log somehow, and I had to bend my leg uncomfortably to keep it from rubbing against him.

The flight crew (all English) served chicken or steak, cooked up in little boxes all branded with Virgin Atlantic’s logo. I got a kick out of them offering me tea afterwards — I forgot how much England likes its tea. I’ll have to have tea while here for sure.

And then, at some point during the night, maybe about 1am Los Angeles time and 5am local time, I looked out of the plane window next to me. I was hoping to maybe see the ocean, see what it was like to have just water spanning the world below.

Instead, I saw the sun rise over Greenland. It was just beautiful — the pink light reflected off of countless ranges of mountains below, no sign of civilization in sight. Just endless snow without a footprint to be seen. It was surreal, to say the least.

And I was struck by how I’d gotten there. I’d driven with a friend to LAX — that’s no big deal, I’ve been there plenty of times now, either to pick people up or leave or arrive myself. I’d checked in to a plane, and flown for six hours or so, all things I’ve done before. But just following those usual tasks had taken me to a place I’d never been before, shown me something I didn’t even think I’d see.

Those mountains were so big — the world we live in is so big. I’m so wrapped up in the day-to-day; picking which computer bag to bring, or whether I should carry my iPad or not, that I forget, or just plain don’t know that there are endless, uninhabited mountain ranges out there, an entire world that exists and has existed for much longer than anyone reading this has ever been alive.

Change doesn’t show up all in a hurry — it sneaks into our lives piece by piece, and when those pieces arrive, we don’t even see them as change. They’re just minute parts of our day to day, usually just written off as coincidences or even challenged as frustrations. But even the mundane and the boring can lead the way to something surprising, a whole world that you’ve never seen before.

Tomorrow:
-I have to go get a haircut, just because if I don’t, I’m probably not getting another one for a month. And given that I’ll probably meet a lot of foreigners overseas, I should really look my best.
-I need to do laundry. I’m only packing a few days of clothes, but almost all of them are dirty, and if I clean everything, I can pick my favorites to bring with me.
-I need to stop by CVS and pick up a few extras: Toothbrush, first aid kit, maybe some soap. Have to make sure I can bring whatever I buy on the plane, otherwise I’ll just buy it when I get there.
-Have to sign some checks to pay bills and rent for the month that I’m gone. Just because I won’t be living here in America doesn’t mean I don’t have to pay for Internet, phone, and the apartment, unfortunately.
-I have two improv shows tomorrow evening, and my team is hosting the night at IO West. So after everything else is done, I’ll drive over to Hollywood and do those.

Saturday:
-This is packing day — I’ve already got my Tom Bihn Brain Bag all ready to get packed up, but on Saturday I’ll take some time making sure I’ve got room for everything, and making sure that the bag isn’t too heavy to haul through the world’s airports and train stations. I’m really hoping that I’ll be able to ditch it from time to time when I go touristing, but at worst I’ll need to just carry it on my back, so it’ll have to be as light as possible. Saturday morning is where I’ll probably make my final cuts in terms of what’s going.
-I need to run and make some final safety copies of my documents, just in case.
-And I need to stop by the bank, and see if I can get some money. Probably some British pounds to start. Pounds of what? I don’t know.
-Later on Saturday evening, some friends and I are getting together for dinner, and I’ve got one more improv show, and then probably drinks after that. It’s a going away party of sorts, but I’m only going away for a month.

Sunday:
-I’ll have to cook breakfast — I’ve tried to time out my spoilable foods in order to clean out the fridge before I leave, but we’ll see how this works. I don’t want to have to throw out uneaten eggs if I don’t have to, but that’s probably better than leaving them alone for a month.
-Hopefully by this point I’ll be all packed. I might do a Tipoaa podcast on Sunday morning if T is around, or maybe I’ll just record a video to show you all what my setup looks like. Other than that, hopefully everything will be taken care of by then, so I’ll probably just hang around, clean the house up before I go, feel nervous, and try to get some work done.
-My flight on Virgin America actually leaves at 5:45 in the evening. I’ve never checked in to an international flight, so I’ll probably give it a few hours and bring a book. So around 2, my friend will probably pick me up from the apartment. I’ll show him the place, give him my keys so he can come get mail and make sure it hasn’t burned down every few days or so, and then we’ll go to LAX.
-I’ll check in, board the plane, read, sleep, and work for the better part of a day from a plane seat.

And then twenty or so hours later, around noon British Standard Time on Monday, I’ll arrive at Heathrow. I have a hostel to check in to that evening, and then goal number one will probably be to deal with the jetlag.

As I’ve said, I’ll be writing here on the blog every day during my trip. I am bringing a camera for videos and stills as well, and I’ll probably embed some maps as well. In fact, let’s try one. Here’s where we’ll be doing the meetup in London next Friday:


View Larger Map

Pretty snazzy! In short, stay tuned — you’ll be able to follow me wherever I go. I’m nervous already for this trip, but I know that it’s really going to be something wild and wonderful. Three days left.


Well there you go.

After eight months of working on my free time on nights and weekends, I am proud to finally announce that Apple has approved my iPhone game Antithesis, and it is now available to download from the store itself. In fact, you may have already seen it — I’ve been Twittering about it all day long, and both Touch Arcade and AppAdvice have kindly put together posts about it:

“The concept for the game is cool too. It’s a Pong battle, so to speak, where you control a black paddle and defend against a stream of black balls, while an AI-controlled white paddle does the same. The line in the middle shifts back and forth between both sides depending on who is playing better in a series of waves. Like most game jam titles, it isn’t the deepest game in the world, but it’s really cool reading the whole process and seeing the game in various stages of development then finally playing the end product.”
Touch Arcade

“Although I have yet to experience Antithesis fully, it looks like the perfect game to pass the time. Besides, Schramm’s very funny iTunes page alone makes the game something to consider.”
AppAdvice

How great is that? I am a guy who writes about iPhone games who has had people kind enough to write about my iPhone game? And now I’m writing about their writing about my iPhone game! IPHONE WRITINGCEPTION!

On a serious note, I am really glad to have this released. Over the last year, I have had two big goals to try and meet: The first one was to finally release my ebook, and I did that with The Shape of Teeth a little while ago. And the second was to actually turn this game, with my limited coding knowledge, into something I was proud of releasing, and get it approved by Apple. Ladies and gentlemen, done and done. Thank you so much for all your support — if you want to play Antithesis, you can download it from Apple’s App Store now. The next goal is going to Europe for the first time, and my plane leaves on Sunday.

I have a few things to tell you about the game: First, there is one bug so far, and that is that I messed up the sorting option on the leaderboards. There are two of them, one for the longest time the game’s been played, and one for the most cycles survived (play the game if you haven’t yet to figure out what those two things mean). Unfortunately, I set a setting on those that counted them from the lowest score up (as in golf) instead of from the highest score down (as in baseball). Obviously I want the people who have the highest scores in those cases to be on top of the leaderboards, so I apologize — right now they’re not.

But if that’s the bad news, I have good news as well: I will fix that issue, and a few others people are having, in Antithesis 1.1! Yes, I wasn’t sure if I would bother with any updates for this app, because I wasn’t sure how people would react to it. But the response has been great already, and so my very next goal will be to get out a point version update.

In addition to the leaderboard fixes, the update will include fixes a few other issues people are having (there’s an issue with backgrounding the app that should be fixed as well). I’d also like to add an options screen, because quite a few people have asked for a “Right hand mode” to play it from the other side. Multiplayer seems a little hard for me to actually promise right now (though there’s a chance I may still try to work it out), but I can promise one more big thing for 1.1: Universal iPad support. I went back and forth about supporting the iPad before release, and in the end decided I was basically just done with the app and wanted to get it out. But because people have been so interested and because people have asked for it, I will go ahead and put in the extra few hours it will take to get the game running the way it should on the iPad.

I have also had a few other ideas already, and I’m generally a much better coder now than when I started the game, so you can probably expect a few more fun surprises in the 1.1 update as well. The one caveat is that you will need an Online Pass subscription to play it, but fortunately for you I’m just kidding. It will be completely free to anyone who’s bought the app.

Thanks again for your support. If you haven’t yet bought the app and you have an iPhone (or an iPad — remember, universal support is coming, and the game is plenty playable now at 2x), please do buy it. And if you have bought it, please drop me a rating and/or a review in iTunes. Really appreciate it. Enjoy the game!

Every once in a while, I ask for questions on my Twitter and Facebook accounts, and then post the answers here. I’ve got two big things going on in my life this week. First up, the first product of my programming hobby is finally arriving on the App Store: A game I put together called Antithesis is coming out as soon as this evening. You can see the beginnings of the project right over here, and I’ll put another post together on it when it finally releases.

Second, of course, as I’ve been blogging about lately, I’m headed to Europe — getting on a plane on Sunday and going to London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, and Amsterdam. So here are some answers to your questions about both of those things:

@stefanhayden asks, (regardless of either of those subjects): What are your top concerts you want to see before you die?

I always wanted to see The Police in concert, and I lamented for a long time when I was a teenager that they had broken up. Then they got back together, and when they announced they were coming to Wrigley Field when I lived just about three blocks from there, the only tickets I could find were about $200. I probably should have just paid. I did buy the DVD of that tour, and it’s great to watch, but I do kind of regret I haven’t ever seen them.

Other than that, I don’t know — I’ve been to Lollapalooza to see Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, and Radiohead all in the space of just three days. That’s probably as good as concerts will ever get for me. As for bands I’ve been listening to lately, I wouldn’t mind seeing The Shins or The Decemberists perform. I’ve never seen Tom Petty — that would be cool. But I’ve already seen most of the bands I really love: Bad Religion, Cake (so many times), Guster, Okkervil River, and so on.

@markusn (who helped me out immensely on this game, and is thanked in the credits) asks: Is Antithesis a game about relationships?

Antithesis isn’t that great a game, to be honest. I feel kind of bad — people are telling me that they’re excited to play it, and I think people will like it, but if you expect it to be something really awesome, like Journey or Jetpack Joyride or any really serious great games, then you’ll be disappointed. The whole point of the project was to help me learn how to develop games, and then actually publish one on the App Store, and to that extent, it’s been an overwhelming success. I haven’t even sold a copy, and it’s been a really great experience for me.

All of that said, if you want me to put my philosophical game critic hat on for a second and wax elegantly about what Antithesis is, I would say it’s a metaphor for life. (slight spoilers here, if there is such a thing for this game…) It’s troubling and confusing at first — you do the best you can and hope that’s what you’re supposed to do. Then things get complicated, and you get under attack in ways you didn’t think you could. You learn to fight back, and you actually have some success at first, but eventually you discover that there is no winning, really. The game ends, and you find that even though you basically lost, you have a strange peace with that. After all, you’ll do better next time, right?

I have a lot more to say about the design of Antithesis, and I’ll be doing that in a few different places going forward. And oh man, wait until you see my next project. I will say right now: There is a small easter egg in Antithesis that reveals what I’m working on next. I have very little faith that anyone will actually find it.

@philhassey asks: What was the funnest bit about making the game? was this your first game ever?

The funnest bit about making the game was the moment I first put it in other people’s hands. While I was making it, I didn’t actually have an Apple developer account — I did everything in the iOS simulator in Apple’s Xcode app. I did show it a few people then, but they didn’t really get it — the mouse/touchpad on my Macbook Pro was just a standin for the actual touchscreen, and while I was able to play it, nobody else was.

About three months ago, though, I finally had the app working the way I wanted it to, and I paid the $100 you need to pay to actually become an Apple developer and run your code on the iPhone itself. I loaded up my code and went to meet my friend Mark Alderson for lunch, and I offered him the chance to be the first outside of me to actually play the game.

The second I put that device in his hands, I was astounded. Some things I thought would be completely unclear he picked up on right away, and things that I thought would be the easiest to get across, he didn’t understand at all. Bugs that I didn’t think anyone would ever notice, he found immediately. And while the whole experience was probably pretty mundane to him, for me, it was amazing. It was like actual telepathy — I had spent months basically putting these ideas and these mechanics together in my head, and watching him play, I actually got to see the signal coming back.

Since then, of course, I’ve shown it to maybe fifty or sixty people, and it’s gotten to the point where I’ve memorized, almost to the second, what people are thinking when they play the game. A lot of the issues Mark had, I’ve fixed. And some of the issues people have had, I just decided to leave in, not because I was necessarily lazy, but because I thought they got it right. I do think that the game, as is, does what I want it to do. It could probably be better, yes, but I think it’s communicating my thoughts in a pretty accurate way, and finding that point was really, really fun.

Here’s my entire game design resume:

  • I learned to program in Color Basic for my old Tandy Color Computer. I remember writing an app once for one of my babysitters that would ask her name, and when she typed it in, the computer would return, “HELLO DANA! HOW ARE YOU?” She was so thrilled with that, and you could probably credit that evening with my hot babysitter as one of the reasons I love computers so much.
  • I wrote an address book app for a Basic class in elementary school. My teacher was so impressed he asked me to help teach the class. No one ever used the app, but it did take addresses, and then save them to and from a floppy drive.
  • I also once programmed a text adventure game on my TI-82 calculator. Yes, a text adventure game. Yes, a calculator. No one but me ever played it, and it’s been lost to history. But I do remember drawing up a map and actually programming in room descriptions and even a few puzzles for the text adventure. You could move north, south, east, or west, and I believe the final puzzle was standing in front of a big tree near my high school and typing “YELL PASSWORD” to get into the final room.
  • After that, I didn’t really do any programming until around 2008 or so. I have read a few books over the years — I once tried to learn C++ — but none of them ever took. But I always had it in the back of my head as something I’d really like to do, not necessarily as a job, but definitely as a hobby.
  • A friend and I were sitting around and made a card game (for use with a standard playing deck) called Bombs a few years ago. Maybe someday I’ll turn that into a video game.
  • Last year, I finally started trying to get serious about game design — I made a few games using a few simple scripting programs. After that, I started reading up on Cocos 2D, and I have a few prototypes that I made that I haven’t really gotten to pan out yet (though I may someday try to actually make them — there’s a few good ideas there).
  • And finally, I went to 360iDev last year, first and foremost to cover it for TUAW, but secondarily with the idea that I would join the Game Jam and actually try to get a game prototype going. I did a fair amount of work that weekend on the game that would eventually become Antithesis, but it was still in a barely playable state at that point. After that, I spent most of my spare time in the last four months of last year and the first three months of this year trying to get the code working right. I would say that I actually had the game done right around GDC this year, and then most of the work after that has just been making sure everything works for the App Store.

So I don’t know — Antithesis is definitely my first published game, my first thing I’ve made out of code that I’m selling to people. But I’ve had a long history of unsuccessful coding, and the recent run with Objective-C and iOS development has taken me at least a couple of years to actually figure out. Speaking of…

@steeljaw asks: How did you get started developing for the iPhone? Any tutorials/online training?

Oh man, I tried everything. Here’s how you learn to code for iOS, starting from zero knowledge at all:

1) Learn Objective-C. If you don’t know anything about computers, you probably have to go back even further than this, maybe learning Ruby or some other relatively easy programming language. Technically, I started by learning BASIC way back when I was a kid. But that’s procedural programming, not object-oriented programming, and that’s been my biggest issue with all this stuff so far. So yes, learn Objective-C, probably from this book. Buy it, read it a few times, and do all the exercises in it.

2) Learn how to use Xcode. If you just want to make an iPhone app, you can use Apple’s Interface Builder to create all of the buttons and menus and things, and that is a whole lot easier, let me tell you, than actually coding your own game. This book is another good one to read a few times, and it will definitely help with how Apple has you doing development and how to hook into Apple’s operating systems. It’s funny — you learn Objective-C using variables like “x” and “index,” and then once you actually break open the sample code in Xcode, everything is actually an NSNumber or an NSInteger. There’s theoretical programming (which is what you learn from that first book, when all of your variables are clear and clean), and then there’s the reality (which is what you learn from Cocoa Programming, when most of your code is just calls to pre-built methods and properties). So yes, learn how Objective-C should work first, and then learn how it actually works.

3) If you want to make a game, you’ll probably be using Cocos2D, which is what I used, and what I’m using on my next project, and is generally the standard for 2D (and even some 3D) games on iOS. You can’t really jump in here if you’re really a beginner — I tried, and got completely lost before I had to back up and start over again a few times. It’s relatively simple to do once you figure out all of that NSInteger stuff from Xcode, but again, you need that theory before anything else. If you do want to learn Cocos2D, Ray Wenderlich’s site is just incredible. That guy is amazing, and I probably can’t count how many great app developers he’s probably responsible for.

4) Finally, two pieces of advice, one theoretical and one practical. The practical one first: Take a class! I only took one class throughout this whole ordeal, but I probably should have taken way more. For me, actually hearing this stuff out of the mouth of a human being was extremely helpful. A friend of mine, who also taught herself programming, told me that she just went to a local college and audited a few classes for free, and I really wish I’d thought of that before I bought all of these books and started doing all of this reading. If you really don’t know how to program, definitely consider taking a class, because having people around you is probably way less frustrating than what I actually did.

Second: Don’t stop, ever. I think programming is intrinsically frustrating: You write some code, hit run, and then what you really wanted to happen doesn’t. Usually, it breaks apart spectacularly. And while it is exciting to finally get your program doing something right, realistically you never actually get that “aha!” moment. Most of the time, you just realize how stupid you’ve been, fix the problem, and then the computer smugly does exactly what you wanted all along, no apology at all for those hours you just wasted. In other words, don’t give up — it’s tough, and if you really want to do this stuff, you just have to keep doing it. When I first started, I strategically picked and planned out my time programming, trying to work on exactly the right thing to help me learn. But I’ve since learned that’s all bunk: I learn a ton no matter what I’m doing. So I don’t worry about it any more — I just sit down to program, and then do whatever I want.

Sorry, this is really long! But only a few more left:

@JssSandals asks: Are you going to Belgium, specifically Bruges? If so go to Cambrinus, it has 400 beers available & tasty food.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going in Europe yet — right now, I have the first week planned in terms of where I’m staying, and after that it’s one big blank. I do want to get to London, and Paris, and Berlin and Munich and Amsterdam, and I presume there’ll be plenty in those cities for me to see already. BUT, if you have a day or two in Europe and don’t mind coming to pick me up and drive me around, I will happily go wherever you recommend. I’m open. I don’t know where Bruges is or how far it is from Germany or Holland. But Google Maps tells me it’s kind of in between those two? If you want to come give me a ride, I will happily buy the beer. Not all 400, but at least a few!

@Nicktv asks: What is the price going to be for Antithesis? Pretty excited for it!

So here’s the thing: I was originally just going to release the game for free. I really just wanted to make an app and release it, and I didn’t want to take money from anyone for it.

Then, development took way longer than I thought, and was pretty frustrating. Plus, I paid $100 for the developers’ account, so I’m already down $100. And the new iPad came out, and I want a DSLR camera. So there’s that. Plus, I’m going to Europe, and probably paying for 400 beers. So now I kind of want some money. Not a lot — it’ll be 99 cents.

I don’t expect to sell that many copies, to be honest — someone at GDC told me I’d probably sell about 20, and I think that’s probably about right. I’m not promoting the app or advertising it or anything. I will send promo codes out to a few of my fellow app reviewers, but really only because I know them, not because I want this thing reviewed. I have no idea what Touch Arcade would say about my app officially — I bet it wouldn’t be very nice.

But I could definitely see an argument that says I’m crossing a line here releasing this thing as a developer, given what I do for a living (basically, write about games and iOS). I don’t know. Obviously, I think I can be objective with apps that I’m technically competing against. And while yes, you could argue that I have helped make the App Store popular with my writing and thus shouldn’t try to profit from it, I would argue that Apple didn’t need me to make the App Store popular. My editors have agreed with me — I believe I will even be writing a post on TUAW about what I learned from the whole process, though obviously it will have a clear disclaimer that I am the developer of the app in question.

So if you want to yell at me for crossing a line by releasing an app, go ahead. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I feel that I’ve been careful and will continue to be so, and that releasing an app won’t hurt my objectivity when talking about Apple, the App Store, or any other apps. But yes, Antithesis is going to be 99 cents at launch. In the (very, very, very) unlikely scenario that it blows up Angry Birds-style and I make way more money than I think it was worth, I will probably drop it to free.

Finally:

@prenden2 asks: Are there any travelling-in-Europe clichés that you’re looking forward to recreating? Holding up the Leaning Tower pics, etc.

Honestly, I’m kind of looking to avoid most of the European trip cliches. I will see the Eiffel Tower and all of London’s famous sights, but I’m more interested in soaking in the culture — sitting in the cafes working (and coding) on wi-fi, and just walking the streets to see just how different they are from the streets I’ve lived all my life on. The one exception is that I am definitely going to 221B Baker Street as soon as I possibly can. I know it’s a tourist trap, and I know nothing actually happened there. But Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective have had such an impact on my life that I have got to hit that tourist trap right away. I am really excited about that one.

Oh, and smoking weed in Amsterdam.

I’m kidding! I don’t do drugs. If I did, I probably wouldn’t post about it on the Internet anyway.

To tell you the absolute truth: I’m a little scared.

I’ve reached the point here where most of the events I’m starting to hear about are all happening in April. On Facebook, I’m getting invites to parties and shows, and in my email I’m hearing about work events to demo a game or hit up a convention. And it’s starting to become very apparent to me that if anything happens in the United States of America in April of 2012, I won’t be a part of it. I’ll be overseas, farther away that I’ve ever been from my stuff, my friends, my world, and my life.

And to be honest, that’s a little scary. I wouldn’t say that I planned this trip on a whim — I’ve wanted to do this for over twenty years, and it was almost eight months ago now that I actually decided to make the leap on April 1. But at the same time, there’s really no pressing reason for me to go. I’m going just because I want to, just because I’ve never done anything like this and I’ve decided it’s time. And I almost wonder if that’s presumptuous of me — if maybe the world will decide that no, it would rather keep me in Los Angeles for now.

I have this kind of feeling before almost any big trip, the thought that maybe I should just call the whole thing off and play things safe. This afternoon, I went to the bookstore to finally look through guidebooks to see if there was something I should buy or use, and the enormity of what I’m going to see in the next month hit me pretty hard. I don’t think I’ll have too many issues in England, and France, I think, is enough of a tourist destination that even without a strong knowledge of the language, I’ll probably be able to play the stupid American and make it through. Even so, that’s two full weeks — I can’t remember ever being away from home for that long since college, at least.

And after that, things will get tougher, I imagine. I’ll be headed into Germany, where I don’t speak a word of the language, where even the smallest bits of culture and tradition might be different from what I know. Amsterdam is even more foreign: I looked at the names of the streets in the guidebooks, and there’s not a “Maple” or “Main” among them. Even German streets, I know, are strasse. Amsterdam’s are things like Herengracht, Zeedijk, and Oudebrugsteeg. Oudebrugsteeg! It’s like a cat walked across the keyboard, and that’s what the street name turned out to be.

I’m scared of the usual things, too — I’m a little scared of getting lost (though I am usually good about that), and I’m scared of not having a place to stay one night, or getting robbed, or worse. I have the first week’s nights (well, the first few nights, at least) planned out in a hostel in London, and just the idea of hostels themselves seems less than safe. I worry I’ll miss something, my bag will get stolen, and I’ll lose everything. Maybe I’ll end up in the middle of a foreign city, penniless and alone. Or even worse, maybe I’ll get hurt. I can barely stay healthy in the US as it is, apparently.

And after all of that worrying, I get yet another invite from a friend, reminding me that they’re having a party right in the middle of the month, or I get invited out to go see PAX East for work, which I’ve also never gotten to see or do. Late at night, sometimes a little panic will hit me. What am I doing? Am I making the right choice here? Going on vacation is one thing. Setting out across another continent, heretofore unseen, is something else.

But I’ll conquer that fear, I’m sure. I get on the plane in exactly one week — in fact, as I write this, one week from now I’ll be hurtling in a metal tube somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. So yes, I’m a little scared. But I’m going anyway, and I’m sure, on that second flight one month after that, it’ll all have been worth it.

Here’s what I’m bringing to Europe with me:

  • A Brain Bag from Tom Bihn to carry everything in. This thing is gorgeous — I emailed Tom Bihn asking if they would help me out with a bag in return for writing a little something about them as I traveled around Europe, and they sent me this beauty of a backpack. It is perfect for what I’m planning to do: I have a bulkier suitcase (with a handle and roller wheels) that I use for traveling around to conventions and things, but I figured that would be too much of a pain to haul around the European continent with me. This backpack seems just right, though — it’s really excellent and sturdy, there are plenty of pockets and places to keep all of the stuff I’m carrying around, and it’s roomy but compact enough to put on my back if I decide it’s not safe to leave anything in the hostels where I’ll be staying most of the time. I am really looking forward to getting this bag all put together and really putting it to good use.
  • A Runnur “backpack-olier.” I bought this thing at Macworld, and it seemed like a good idea at a time — it’s a strap with a whole bunch of pockets in it and a carabiner on the bottom. It will probably either be the best idea I’ve ever had or the worst — my plan is that I will be able to leave my pack somewhere safe, and then just carry this thing around all the time, with all of my various important items stored on it. But the few times I’ve tried it on, I basically look like a goober. It’s pretty unwieldy. So I don’t know. I will probably bring it, because it might be helpful. But it may end up just living at the bottom of my backpack if it doesn’t work out.
  • My MacBook (and a power cable). I practically bought my iPad 2 last year with an eye towards taking it to Europe with me and leaving the laptop behind, but in the past few months, that idea has seemed less and less intriguing to me, to the point where I’m now planning to take the laptop and leave the iPad at home. The biggest reason is for work — I am planning on taking some time off during the trip, but much of the time I’ll still be posting things online, and of course I’ll be updating the blog here with my writing. I do have a Clamcase for the iPad, and that works relatively well, but I just don’t like typing on it nearly as much as typing directly on my MacBook. It’s weird — my iPad in theory was supposed to be a very portable computer, but in practice, it’s much more of a housecat that I expected. And the last nail in the iPad’s coffin in terms of bringing it along was that I’m hoping to spend my vacation doing some coding in Xcode, which obviously requires the laptop.
  • My iPhone. I am planning on keeping airplane mode on for the entire month that I’m gone — I have no interest in spending tons of money on phone roaming charges (unless I have an emergency need to do so). But I will use the phone as a camera, and as a games console, and as an e-reader, and for the various apps I’ve installed on it. The phone is sort of my concession — I’d like to bring the iPad for all of that stuff, but I just think it’ll be too heavy to haul around all day, and obviously the phone was built for a pocket.
  • Four days’ worth of clothes. This might be the riskiest thing I’m doing in terms of packing — I read this idea written up by Rick Steves a while ago, and I really liked it. I don’t want to haul a full month’s worth of clothes around with me, and there’s really no need to do so. What I’m going to do is pick a few good t-shirts, a collared shirt or two, three good pairs of paints, and then socks and underwear for a few days, and then that’s all I’ll carry. Steves recommended actually washing these in a sink, but I am thinking I’ll probably seek out a laundry somewhere when I need to. I really think this will be good enough to keep me going, and will keep my footprint small when I’m moving around. And of course, I plan to pick up a few pieces of clothing while there, so I’ll eventually have those, too — if I really need anything, I’ll buy it.
  • Shoes. I just recently bought some new tennis shoes, and they’re not 100% broken in, so there’s a small possibility I will take my old and very beaten up pair. But I will be walking a lot on this trip, I’m sure, and comfort is going to be important, usually moreso than looks. If I bring the new shoes, they’re pretty black and subtle, so I don’t think I’ll bother with anything more formal.
  • A few sweaters and my hoodie jacket.
  • Passport and ID, of course.
  • My 80 GB iPod. The iPhone won’t hold all my music, especially since it’s full of apps, but this guy does.
  • A notebook and pen, just in case.
  • A first-aid kit. I’m clumsy!
  • Hand wipes, tissues, and sanitizer. Other sundry toiletries — nothing the TSA won’t let me fly with.
  • Maybe my DSi and charger. It might be too much to bother carrying around, but c’mon, I need games.
  • My Canon Powershot A520. Maybe. Honestly, I don’t like this camera very much — I bought it like 8 years ago, and it’s very old and slow, and it’s only 4 megapixels. The camera on my iPhone is better than this camera, basically. But I also don’t want to go on a once-in-a-lifetime trip of Europe taking pictures with a cell phone, smart as Apple’s engineers are. I kind of wanted to buy a nice DSLR, but they run $500 at minimum, and there are a few problems with that. One, I borrowed my friend’s camera to see what it was like, and it’s just too big and bulky to really carry around all day. I’m pretty sure that I’ll break it, or get it stolen, or just stick out like a tourist. Second, I don’t really have half a grand or more to spend before this trip as it is. It’s a shame, really — I do want to get some solid pictures, but I just haven’t found any cameras of the quality I’m looking for within my price range that seem right. Maybe I will buy one before I leave still.

That’s what I already have. These things I still need to buy, and recommendations are welcome:

  • A power converter. I know outlets overseas are a nightmare, and as I said, I will be using my computer a lot, so I’ll definitely need to invest in some kind of all-in-one solution that works in France, England, Germany, and Holland at least. I don’t know if that exists, but if it does, I’ll have to find it.
  • A guidebook. I have only done a little looking for this so far — most of my research has just been online. But once over there, obviously, I don’t know how often I’ll be able to find wi-fi, and without roaming on my phone, I will probably need a good old dead tree resource for maps, finding hostels, and things like that. Honestly, I’ve been thinking I might wait on this until I get over there — I don’t know if it’s smart for me to buy a guide to all of Europe until I know exactly where I’m going to be. I may just go local, and buy guides for the specific areas I’m visiting when I get there. But we’ll see — it probably wouldn’t hurt to have at least one book with lots of info in it, just in case I get completely lost somewhere.
  • A coat. I actually don’t own a winter coat — I had a really nice one back in Chicago, obviously, but right before I left it was misplaced in a bar, and then I moved out to LA a month later. I’ve never really needed once since then. I am not sure what weather is like in Europe in April — I’m sure it’ll be a little more chilly than LA, obviously, but it’s probably Spring-esque, right? We’ll see. I’d hate to buy a big coat, bring it, and then never need it. I may just plan to buy one over there if needed.
  • Money. Well, I have money, of course, but it’s all stored up in ones and zeros right now. I need to check in with my bank and see if my regular cards will work overseas, and what the conversion rates will be like. Obviously I won’t be carrying a ton of money around all at once, but I have heard that most conversion places will charge per conversion, so I’ll have to be smart about that. Hopefully, my bank will offer a card or maybe a special account. Seems like there must be a good solution for that, right?
  • Anything else? I want to travel as light as possible, obviously, but if there’s something I’ll constantly use, it’ll probably be better for me to have it than to run around worrying about where I can buy it and with how many shillings or deutschmarks or whatever else these strange people use to purchase goods and services.

It occurs to me that this list will probably sound naive, eventually — here’s me planning for what I believe are all possible contingencies, and of course I’m sure as soon as I step off that plane (or even get on it — I’ve never flown for that long before), I’ll run into all sorts of things I’ve forgotten and have no way to deal with. But that’s the fun, I guess. That’s really what this trip will be, I expect: A series of problems that I either have prepared for and know how to solve right away, or that I have to grow and learn and figure out how to deal with right there on the spot.

I guess the fact that sounds exciting to me means I’m doing this the right way.

Oh, one more thing: I will start off the trip in London, and I’m planning to be there from April 2 (when I arrive) until I leave for Paris around April 11. If you’re in town and want to meet up, please get in touch with me, either via email (mike@mikeschramm.com) or over on Twitter (@mikeschramm). I am looking to do all sorts of things in London town, including eat out at some great restaurants and drink a lot of beer, so if you’re interested in showing me good places to do either of those things, please let me know. I also won’t have a car, but I do want to see some of the countryside, so if you want to do some driving and touristing, I’m very interested.

And if you are free on Friday, April 6, I am planning at least one big meetup, for anyone around and available. My friend Turpster tells me that the Oxford Circus tube station at Oxford and Regent Streets is a place with some cool bars and restaurants around it, so we’re going to meet there at 5pm on Friday April 6 if you want to come out and get some dinner and drinks. I’ll be around all week, so if you can’t make that, like I said, I’m down for other stuff for sure (you can see the last post for a list of what I’m looking to do). But I think it’ll be fun to meet some lovely British people all in a big group, so come by on Friday if you can. If you can’t be there right at 5, I’ll tweet where we decide to go, so you can follow along.

Less than two weeks to go! I’m going to Europe!

So I haven’t done much planning for my trip to Europe next month (which I originally talked about in the last post, and will be writing about more, both before I leave, and then every day while I’m gone). As I explained last time, I want it to be fairly spontaneous — I want it to feel like a once-in-a-lifetime event, and since I’m going to be by myself for most of it, I want to take full advantage of not worrying about making sure someone else knows where we’re going. If I want to spend the entire day just people watching in a Paris cafe, I want the freedom to do just that.

But of course the flip side of that is that I worry that I’ll miss some things. I mean, of course I’ll miss things (there’s no way I can possibly see everything I want to see, even in a month), but I’ve certainly gone out on adventures before, even when just getting used to a new neighborhood that I’ve just moved to, and not realized that just two streets over there was a street market which was awesome, or a pizza place which would turn out to be a classic. The first time I walked up to Chicago’s Andersonville, for example, which later became one of my favorite neighborhoods, I didn’t even find the actual main drag.

So I am planning just a little bit. So far, my planning has taken the form of a list, just a wish list, of sorts, of places I’d like to go, and things I’d like to see and do. This is of course not at all complete, and every time someone recommends something to me that sounds good (or I find it recommended in a list online), I’ve added it here. So far, here’s what I have for the places I plan to visit:

things to do in london:
-221b baker street
-have a curry
-have a chinese
-go into the country for a few days (Yorkshire)
-big ben
-Globe theater
-westminster abbey
-visit dublin?
-leeds, newcastle
-shoreditch – pubs, nightclubs
-greenwitch from embankment station
-portobello market
-st. Paul’s cathedral for the view

paris:
-louvre
-eiffel tower
-work/write in a cafe
-notre dame
-catacombs
-Cimetière du Père-Lachaise
-stroll the seine
-go into the south of france for a few days

berlin:
-bier
-more bier
-grunewald (forest park)
-reichstag/holocaust memorial
-wurst
-Charlottenburg gardens
-burgermeister
-Schlemmerbuffet

munich:
-St. Peters
-Marienplatz

amsterdam:
-appsterdam
-Anne Frank house

Some of those things, as you can see, are pretty common. Of course I want to visit the Louvre in Paris, and yes I should probably see Big Ben at some point. But some are way more experiential. I want to drink bier, not beer, in a German biergarten. And I want to not just eat some indian curry in London, but I want to actually “have a curry,” as I understand they say there. I have no idea what I’d find, for example, in the south of France, but I know I’ve heard it’s good, and I think I’d like it there. I don’t even know if there is a spot along the Seine river where you can actually stroll it, but man I want to find one, and do it.

And the other thing that really strikes me about this list, so far, is that it basically sounds like fantasy. I might as well have written “Visit Hogwarts” or “Explore Rivendell” on here for all that these places mean to me. When I was a kid, I discovered the works of Arthur Conan Doyle in one big book, and I read that book about fifty times, marveling at Holmes’ adventures told in Watson’s past tense prose. Obviously, 221B Baker Street is probably just a tourist trap these days, a meaningless little loft where they charge you too much to see a fictional person’s apartment, but for me, just the name of that place has a huge meaning, and it’s amazing to me that I’ll get to see it in person, after reading and thinking about and dreaming about it for all these years.

The Globe Theater is another one — Shakespeare for me, is, well, Shakespeare, a legendary name attached to what probably isn’t even a real person, whose writings literally shaped the language to their own classic ends. To stand in the same square block where he actually stood? Unthinkable to me.

The age of the place throws me off as well — here in the US, the oldest buildings you’ll find anywhere are barely 250 years old. I’ve stood in Independence Hall, and smelled old wood and mold in various old houses on the East Coast. But something like Westminster Abbey was built in 1245 — that’s almost eight hundred years ago, four times as old as any building I’ve ever been in. Imagine the meaning of a place like that, the history! That’s a church that I’ve never experienced before, a whole social era that I’ve never seen with my own eyes. There are an estimated six million people buried in the Paris Catacombs. That’s twice as many as live in the city of Los Angeles itself, and nearly half as many people as live in the entire LA area. These are things that can only exist on a fictional level in my mind right now, like great stories in old fantasy books, and I’m going to see them for myself.

And finally, I don’t mean at all to make light of the Holocaust and World War 2 by suggesting that they’re not real to me — obviously these are terrible events that are a frighteningly real part of our history. But I’ve only experienced it through films: The Sound of Music, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List. What will it be like to stand in those very places that those things really happened in? I have no idea.

But I do want to go and see them. So now, I type them in on this little list in my text file. And for now, they mean almost nothing to me — a reference to a film I once saw, or an author I really liked as a kid. In less than a month, I’ll be there, and see these things. And even I couldn’t tell you right now, just what they’ll mean to me after that.

When I was a senior in high school, I took Mrs. Eichhorn’s classical literature class. Mrs. Eichhorn was a tough old lady (we jokingly called her “The Third Eich,” not because she was mean, but just because she graded hard and we were high school kids and it was funny) who might as well have gotten to teach the seniors at my high school just because she won the passion contest in the teachers’ lounge. Don’t get me wrong — I had some really talented teachers in high school (I make a living writing now, so they must have been pretty good), but Mrs. Eich really loved this stuff. She made us all read Heinlein and Dickens and Faulkner and Hemingway. She made us read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, promising us that it was the greatest novel ever written. I didn’t agree with her then, but that was, again, because I was a high school student. After having read through the book as an older man, I’ve since come around to her point of view.

Anyway, Eichhorn took some of her students on a trip to Europe every year — it was a very famous experience at my high school, and unless you were a big sports star or happened to already have a college-level affinity for math (neither of which were true about me), Eichhorn’s trip basically served as the highlight of your high school career, both as the experience of traveling through Europe with a garrulous and opinionated teacher who’d been there for many, many years in a row, and as the experience of being thousands of miles away from anyone you grew up with, with just your peers for hotel room company.

At the exact time that this trip was offered to me, I was forehead deep in the drama department. I had started out in high school along the football star path, but then quickly discovered, after a few health-threatening days of practice in full pads and a 101-degree St. Louis summer, that it wasn’t for me. So I’d turned to drama, and specifically the tech side. I rigged lights, I cut boards to build sets, I painted backgrounds and I set up speakers and screwed wheels on things. I was fascinated with the theater and the way it worked, and well on my way to a college degree where I’d eventually invest in the art of combining technology and imagination. On the very week that Eichhorn was scheduled to take us on her trip, the drama department was set to open up a high school production of Kiss Me Kate, and mere days before I had to fill out the final paperwork (all of the various consent forms and parental approvals required to follow a teacher around another continent), I was asked by my high school drama teacher to be a full tech director for the play.

Tech director was quite an honor: My drama teacher, Mrs. Rothermich (who I actually dedicated The Shape of Teeth to) was always listed in the programs as the “director” of our plays (except for the yearly one-acts show, where students got to direct), and this was basically her asking me if I wanted to share the marquee. Of course I did. But the show itself, which I definitely wouldn’t be able to miss, was supposed to open the exact same day I would have arrived in Europe.

I felt my life split into two different paths. In one, I went with Eich to Europe — I studied classical art, I learned all about the masters, I became an international traveler as a teenager (and, let’s be honest, I probably made out with some of the other girls on the trip). In the other, I stayed home — I tech directed, I went on to study technology and how to combine it with great art and storytelling, and I made out with some of the girls in the theater.

In the end, as you probably have guessed, I took the second option. I decided that while Europe would always be there, I would never get to tech direct my senior high school play again, and so I stayed home. I worked like crazy on Kiss Me Kate — I designed and built a three-part stage that actually split up and rotated around for the scenes in front of and behind the play-inside-a-play, and the whole show was a huge success. I have all of my old programs still, including the one listing me as tech director alongside my teacher (and signed by all of my friends, including plenty of cute high school girls telling me what a great job I’d done). I of course went on to a great and spectacular career, one that’s still continuing to break new ground to this day, making me the hero of millions all over the world. Happy ending for everyone, really.

Except that now I’m nearly 32. I’ve done a lot of what I set out to do — I do have a career doing what I love, I’ve made a lot of great friends in many different places, and just a few years ago, I finally moved out here to the west coast — I see palm trees and sunshine outside my windows, and I can walk down to the beach whenever I want.

And yet I’ve never been to Europe. In fact, though my parents are huge travelers (not only have they driven us around to every state, and up into Canada and down into Mexico), I’ve never even been off of this continent. Up until a few months ago, I never even had a passport. Never needed one. The last time I had the option to go overseas was back in high school, on that trip with the Third Eich, and for reasons listed above, I turned it down.

So last October, driving home through the streets of Los Angeles, I decided it was probably time. For a while, I’d been waiting on a trip overseas, waiting for the right vacation group, or for even the right relationship, to have someone to bring along with me. But there’s no reason to just sit here and wait for that, I decided. I’ve waited long enough. I said to myself, way back in high school, when I decided on the play instead of the trip, that I’d always have the chance to go to Europe again. And last October — I can specifically remember the exact moment — I decided it was time to take it.

I jumped through the hoops of grabbing a passport last November, getting my birth certificate out of the safe deposit box, and paying the fees as requested (including the expedited fees, just in case) to a surly, jaded postal worker who regarded me warily, as if she couldn’t believe that someone had actually gotten all of the paperwork together in exactly the right order for her. Last December, I went online, and bought a ticket to London.

The ticket was kind of a concern: How long should I go for, and where? I am both unlucky to be a freelancer, in that no one’s actually hired me for a full-time, benefits-enabled job just yet, and lucky to be a freelancer, in that I have a pretty flexible schedule, and work on the Internet from wherever I please. So I have a little bit of extra space and wiggle room in my job — I don’t actually have to be in an office anywhere, as long as I log in and deliver what I need to when it’s needed. And I didn’t want to make the trip too short; this is a big deal for me, and I want it to feel like it is, like it’s meaningful progress in my life.

So I decided to be both gratuitous and careful. I did buy a round-trip ticket (as opposed to an open-ended one), and I will leave and come out of London, England. I will leave Los Angeles on April 1st (April Fool’s Day, yes, but I am serious), on a Monday afternoon, and I will arrive back at LAX on May 1st, 2012. In between that time, I am planning to tour the continent — my four main destinations are going to be London, Paris, Berlin, and then Amsterdam, but I also want to make sure that I arrive with only a skeleton of a schedule. If I want to flesh it out with an unplanned trip to Rome, or a few day jaunt over to Prague, I want to be able to do that.

And, as you can tell from this already-too-long introduction, I am going to be writing about it. I am going to write every single day while I’m on the trip, and even quite a bit before it (and maybe a little bit after it). I have said a lot about why I’m taking this trip in this initial essay, but I have more to say about what I’m doing and why, and I’m sure I’ll have endless reactions to all of the new and wild and incredible I encounter while over there on my journey. I am fortunate enough (especially as a writer) to be the kind of person for whom almost everything can be fascinating, and I’m sure I’ll have no shortage of fascination overseas.

Anyway, that’s enough to start. In the coming days and weeks, I’ll tell you about the schedule I’m putting together, and if you have suggestions for what I should see or do while over there, please email (mike@mikeschramm.com) or tweet them to me and let me know. I will also tell you about how I plan to pack for the trip — so far, it’s the smartest packing scheme I’ve ever come up with (helped out by the fine folks at Tom Bihn, who kindly have sent me some luggage to try). And I aim to tell you about my relative lack of plans for lodging. Of all of the ideas I have in my head about going to Europe, the places I’ll get to lay my head number fewest among them, so I am very open for recommendations and insight on that front as well. In fact, if you are a European person and have a place for me to stay, I will very likely take you up on it.

Man, am I excited. All of my writing will show up here on the site, but depending on what people think of it and how it comes out, I may try to publish it elsewhere, in a book or on another blog. Stay tuned, also, for photos and videos, and lots of other fun documentation of my trip and where I am and what I’m doing. Obviously, that probably won’t start in earnest until April 1, but there will be some things up here before I leave for sure.

I don’t know where Eichhorn is right now — I assume, given that she was older when I was in high school twenty years ago, that she’s not still teaching, and even if so, she’s definitely not taking a pack of high school kids on a trip around Europe. But I do fondly remember her class, and her passion for brilliant literature, and her constant offer, to high school seniors, to take them overseas and show them what real history, and real art, and real sculpture and architecture, and what real real is like. And I hope that this trip, crazy as it will probably be, lives up to what I had to turn down all of those years ago. I can’t wait.

This is something I’ve been seeing happen for a while, but it’s still pretty astounding to me. Back when I was a kid, a great fantasy or sci-fi story was something that your friend told you about, or (if you were really lucky) something that you found on your own, on a shelf in a library. I found my favorite book, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by myself in my elementary school’s library, and I think it’s one of the many reasons I love that story so much. And when I was a kid, this is basically how I found all of my favorite fantasy and sci-fi stories: I read Lord of the Rings’ three books as a kid, CS Lewis’ Narnia tales, and all of Ray Bradbury’s and Asimov’s great sci-fi work. Later in life, I found a lot of things on my own, from graphic novels to sci-fi epics, and plunged through those as well: Grand stories with larger-than-life heroes, great death scenes, and hugely epic settings.

And lately, however, I’ve seen a lot of those tales brought to life in movies and television. Lord of the Rings obviously became a popular and epic movie series, Watchmen and V for Vendetta were both recreated in sparkling movie form, and over in television, things have gotten even geekier. The Walking Dead, which used to be a little graphic novel about a zombie apocalypse, is now a huge show on AMC, the same network that makes Mad Men. And I’m just now watching through the first season of Game of Thrones, which is not only an awesome HBO show, but a quality adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s really terrific novels.

Back when Lord of the Rings first came out in theaters, I remember walking past a group of young girls at a mall or just on the street somewhere, and as I passed, I was surprised to find that they weren’t talking about boys or clothes or makeup — all things that most of the girls I went to school with usually talked about. Nope — they were talking about how incredibly cool Gandalf is, and just what the limits of his power might be. One of them had even heard that he wasn’t even a human; he might even be a god of some kind!

That made me laugh out loud. I don’t mean that in a condescending way — I mean it in a joyful way. It amazes me that the stuff I once found on bookshelves by myself, hiding out during lunch because I didn’t want to sit alone in the cafeteria, was being discussed and joked about by the same kinds of kids I was hiding from. I love that people are shocked and excited when someone important dies on The Walking Dead, and “cool kids” in living rooms everywhere come away from their televisions with their imaginations racing. I just a few minutes ago watched the scene in Game of Thrones of Viserys being “crowned.” I remember how great and satisfying that scene was in the book (because, come on, he was a punk the whole entire time), and it makes me smile to think that a whole other world of people is getting to experience and respond to that story.

I just tweeted about this, because it’s fascinating to me, and I also wonder: What’s next? Just a few years ago, I figured these stories were geeky distractions, things I loved but could never really share with the world at large. But now that everyone is getting to know these characters, and being charmed, and annoyed, and thrilled by them. What else will see see go “mainstream”?

Here’s what I hope:

Bone, by Jeff Smith. This is such a terrific story with such well-built and worthwhile characters, and it really takes that epic feeling and makes it both very humorous and human. It’ll take a special director to make a movie out of this one, because so much of this work is really built for a comic book page, for the art of sequential art (not to mention the special effects involved in a world with Bone and friends, not to mention the rat creatures and their masters). But there are so many great moments and characters in here that I’d love to see the rest of the world meet them on a big screen.

Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons. To my mind, this and the next two books are as good as sci-fi gets. The images in Hyperion, especially, are just astounding, mind-blowing, insert adjective here stuff. This is another hard sell, probably, because it is so complex and literary, and there are so many characters and so much going on that it would be tough to make this really translate to a wider audience. But seeing the Shrike and the Treeships on screen, and having the average person on the street know just how crazy that stuff is? It would be so great.

Snow Crash and The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. Hyperion is the most intelligent sci-fi out there, but Snow Crash is the freakin’ coolest. You could almost argue that we’ve already seen this stuff on the big screen: Snow Crash was one of the books that defined cyberpunk, and movies like The Matrix have already carried out that idea on film pretty far. I reread the Diamond Age about a year ago, and I was astounded to find that I already owned one of the interactive, talking, connected books that it describes: It’s my iPad 2. But still, the characters and settings in these books would be fantastic to see portrayed, and I’d love to see Hiro Protagonist and Nell acknowledged as the cultural heroes they should be.

Concrete by Paul Chadwick. I cannot tell you here, in this small space, just how good Concrete is. It’s the kind of book that makes me believe, if everyone in the world was able to read and understand it (and yes I know how sadly impossible that is), that the world really would be a better place. It’s such a thoughtful and smart and real piece about the human condition that it should probably be a crime more people haven’t read it, or even know about it. Even at comic book stores, some clerks these days won’t know what this book is, and that’s a shame. I would love for someone like Frank Darabont to come along and do for Concrete what he did for the Walking Dead: Take an obscure, very medium and genre specific story, and adapt it wonderfully and faithfully for a larger audience. If ever there’s a story that the world could use, this is probably it.

Jennifer Government by Max Barry. This choice is just me being selfish, basically. I love this book, I think it’s one of the most deftly cinematic things I’ve ever read, and while it probably won’t change anyone’s mind the way a Concrete TV show would, I would love to see Jennifer Government and her world brought to life somehow. I am in love with the girl with the barcode under her eye, and Hack and the Johns Nike, and Buy Matsui, and Billy NRA, and all of the other wacky characters in this story. Of these stories, I think this one is probably the closest to ever actually come to film, and I hope it finally gets there, because it seems like it would be so much fun.

I’ve seen this question in a few places recently (including in the Joystiq tipline), and I just had a reader send it directly to me via my inbox. Over the last few days, a few people have asked me and other game journalists and sites something akin to the following: “The Entertainment Software Association supports the horrible and ignorant SOPA/PIPA legislation. The ESA also runs the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, convention every year in LA. So will you, Mike, as a guy who writes about games and technology, decline to cover E3 this year, in order to show your opposition to SOPA?”

Most of the times I’ve seen this question this week, it’s actually been about Joystiq, not me personally. And before I actually talk about this, I should say that I’m not in enough of a position of leadership at Joystiq where I even have the ability to choose whether we as a site cover a show or not. I have covered E3 for Joystiq for the past few years, and if I’m asked to go again, I definitely will, but plans haven’t been made yet and I don’t know what my plans are. So all of what I’m about to say about this is completely my own opinion — I can only speak for myself in this case, which is why this is here and not on Joystiq itself. I am pretty sure, knowing most of my talented colleagues on Joystiq and elsewhere, that a lot of games writers will agree with me, but of course their opinions are their own.

At any rate, here’s the answer: No, I will not decline to cover the ESA or E3. Yes, if I’m lucky enough to be asked to cover the convention, I will. And no, of course I’m not in favor of SOPA or PIPA, or any other legislation that puts the interests of a few selfish idiots over the benefits of so many.

But Mike, you say, the ESA supports this stupid legislation openly! Why not send a message to them by refusing to cover their convention?

Well, for a few reasons. First of all, and most obviously, E3 is the biggest game event (in the United States, at least) of the year. Many of the biggest game reveals and interviews (both in my career and in the industry overall) happen at E3, and any journalist who stays away from it for a political reason is simply not doing his or her job. My first duty is to my readers, and my readers want to know about E3, and I have a duty to tell them about it. Not to mention that doing my job makes me money I need to live. So there’s that.

Now, you might suggest that if all of the journalists decide to heroically pull out of E3, maybe the ESA will get a message, or maybe they’ll even cancel it. But honestly, I don’t think that will happen. Because here’s the real thing about E3: It’s not really about the journalists anyway.

I’ve gone to E3 for three or four years now, and guess how much I’ve ever paid to the ESA? Zero dollars. I’ve gone in with a big shiny press badge around my neck, I’ve had the lunches they offer to the press every day, I’ve sipped their coffee and eaten their free cookies, I’ve sat down on their couches and hiked all over the giant convention center that they rent out every year. I’ve cost them way more money than they’ve ever seen from me. If you really want me to stick it to the ESA financially, you should suggest I go to E3, and take up as much space in their convention center as I can. The E3 show isn’t for me — I benefit from it in terms of doing my job, but the ESA isn’t at all dependent on whether I show up or not.

Nope — the ESA is most dependent not on games journalists, but on exhibitors. It’s dependent on the games companies there showing off new titles, on the various accessory manufacturers who pay to rent all those rooms in the convention center, and on the public relations firms that build all of those booths and schedule all of my appointments there. The ESA doesn’t financially benefit from me being there at all. Instead, it’s the companies I cover at E3 that hold the real power. They’re why I’m there too, after all — if the ESA held E3 and none of those game companies showed up, I’d probably stay home and play games.

Now, of course, my press can help sell (or not sell) those companies’ games, and so yes, they’re there spending all of that money on the ESA because they’re trying to get covered by me and the rest of the press. And yes, the ESA does care that I come, but not because it loves me or cares about my opinion. The ESA only cares that I and other journalists show up so that it can sell booth space, and sell memberships to the association, and maintain its status as an influential industry organization. But I don’t affect any of those things directly — again, I work for my readers, and nobody else.

So here’s the deal. Instead of asking me and other journalists to betray both our livelihoods and the readers we serve, you should go to the people that the ESA really cares about: The exhibitors. Already, one studio has decided to not exhibit at E3, and asking other game studios and publishers to do the same would affect the ESA’s bottom line much more, and hopefully convince the organization that its position on SOPA is wrong. I’ll still cover studios, even if they aren’t at E3 — I just saw Red5 at CES, and am really looking forward to Firefall, and will happily write about it whether I see it at E3 or not.

Plus, talking directly to studios and publishers mean you have the power: If they refuse you, you can boycott them or their games until they make a move on the ESA’s stance. Yes, you can boycott my site if you really disagree with my position, but the ESA doesn’t even advertise on my sites, as far as I know. Even if a boycott of Joystiq is super successful, you’re just hurting me and my parent company, not anyone having to do with the ESA.

I’m heartily against SOPA — I’ve called my congresspeople, I’ve talked to my friends and family about how wrong it is, and I support any effort to defeat it. But when you ask me to support SOPA by not doing my job at E3, you’re asking the wrong thing for both of us. The ESA takes its money and power from the game companies that are its members, and if you really want the ESA to pull a turnaround, you should instead be talking to them. Good luck to you — I look forward to seeing (or writing) a post on Joystiq saying that the ESA, due to pressure from its members in the industry, has decided to change its position on this heinous legislation.

Update: And there you go. I will say this about the whole SOPA deal — obviously it took some pretty heinous legislation to bring down the Internet’s fury, but God bless the American legislative system on this one. People talked, power listened.

Unfortunately, while 2011 was an interesting year for me for a lot of reasons (did I mention that I have published my book? Please buy it!), it wasn’t necessarily because I kept up with my usual music, movies, and video games. I was pretty lazy about picking up new media this past year. I did pick up some, and I will go ahead and choose my favorites of the year, just because it’s tradition. But aside from video games (which is basically my work these days), I only really can list the music (and books) and movies (and TV) that I liked in 2011, not any definitive list of the best of the year. Maybe that defeats the purpose, but I’ll go ahead and list a few of them out anyway.

Music

Radiohead’s The King of Limbs was probably the first new album that I got into this year — I didn’t like it nearly as much as their past work (I liked In Rainbows much better), but it was still a solid offering. Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues was great, I really liked Jay Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne collaboration, and M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was another really great album.

Honorable mentions go to Cake’s Showroom of Compassion (a little disappointing, but any Cake album is great in my book), The Decemberists’ The King is Dead, and Childish Gambino’s Camp, which I think is great, but a little overrated, just because of how awesome Community and Donald Glover are even outside of the rhymes.

Books

Oh man — this is really embarrassing, because I didn’t read nearly as much as I was supposed to this year. All I really have for actual 2011 books are the ones I want to read: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, Lev Grossman’s Magician novels, and Ready Player One by the great Ernie Cline. I read Dance of Dragons and thought it was all right. But my favorite books this year, as I’ve said a few times already, are two Warhammer 40k omnibuses by Dan Abnett: Eisenhorn and then Ravenor. The Warhammer 40k setting is so awesome, you guys, and Abnett really knows exactly how to portray it in the most interesting way. Hopefully once I finish with my Warhammer 40k obsession I can get back into some more literary reading.

Movies (and TV)

There are so many great movies I haven’t seen yet this year (Drive, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Shame, The King’s Speech, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), so I probably haven’t even seen the top five movies from 2011 that I liked most. But I did like The Muppets, Source Code, Captain America, Super 8 (probably the best of the year so far for me), and X-men: First Class.

On TV, I did really enjoy The Walking Dead, though not as much as most people, I think. The BBC sitcom Pulling was probably the best thing I saw (it’s on Netflix — I’m not sure when it came out in Britain), but I also liked Community, Parks and Recreation, Damages, Sons of Anarchy, Archer, and Happy Endings.

Video Games

I’ll refer you to Joystiq on this one — my “Best of the Rest” picks will be up in a little bit, and I’ll link it right here when it’s out. [Update: And here it is!]

But in the meantime, here are my top five of the year:

1. Skyrim: I’ve told this story already, but I wasn’t a fan of Oblivion or Morrowind. In those games, the graphics and the bugs got in the way of true immersion in those varied worlds — I never stuck around in them long enough to really enjoy myself. But Skyrim’s revamped engine and interface smoothes over almost all of my issues with it, and what’s left, then, is a really fantastic, filled out fantasy world, one that’s living and breathing and gorgeous, in which I am the hero. When you bent Oblivion or Morrowind to your will, they usually broke, and usually in a way that ruined your immersion. But when you bend Skyrim, it bends beautifully, and meets you with XP and loot on the other side. Just a brilliant game, brilliantly done.

1.25. Batman: Arkham City: It’s almost too bad Skyrim did come out this year, because otherwise my GotY would be Batman, no question at all. I love Batman, as you might already know, and Arkham City is a great sequel to Arkham Asylum (which was my GotY the year it came out, even with Bioshock and Portal in the running). The way that Rocksteady took the closed-in, perfectly designed environments of Arkham Asylum and placed them outside in an open world is just plain genius, and the controls and setting are fascinating enough to me that I’m only about 20 Riddler trophies away from collecting all 400 to 100% the game yet again.

3. Portal 2: In the first game, GlaDOS’ character really made the whole show work. Yes, it was a great first-person puzzle game, and yes, the story and setting were well-done. But the first Portal was really about GlaDOS, a fully-formed, complete character that interacted with the player in a really meaningful and amazing way. How awesome is it, then, that Valve replicated that feat not once, not even twice, but three different times in the sequel. Not only did we get GlaDOS’ character redefined by placing her in a brand new spud of a setting, but we have the eminently quotable and likable Cave Johnson, and Wheatley, who is one of my favorite video game characters of all time. Stephen Merchant’s performance basically sets the bar for voicework in video games, as far as I’m concerned — every line is just delivered perfectly, and his work makes the story and the game a constant pleasure to play through time and time again.

4. Warhammer 40k: Space Marine: This was one of my favorite “video game” experiences of the year, and as I say in my Joystiq post, this was my favorite shooter of the year, even beating out bigger contenders like Modern Warfare 3 and Gears of War 3. As you can tell from my reading habits, I have fully fallen in love with the Warhammer 40k universe — I love the fantasy conventions translated over to sci-fi, and I love the scale of it: everything really is times 40,000, from the army size to the dreadnoughts and all of the various Space Marine powers and technologies. And of course Relic Entertainment loves this universe as well, and that’s evident in this game — everything from the architecture to the various Space Marine models and skins in multiplayer has been poured over and intelligently designed and laid out. From the over-the-top introduction of the dashing Captain Titus to the incredible climax of the story, this game is just terrific, and I hope it sets up lots of other, just as awesome Space Marine and Warhammer video games to come.

5. Jetpack Joyride: So many great iOS games this year, but this one takes the cake — it’s simple and fun, and yet also deep and rewarding. Halfbrick’s polish is astounding, from the amazing music to the various little animation touches (breaking the glass on the floor! High-fiving scientists for missions! And all of the various jetpacks and costumes are great too) and all of the missions and their various inventions and innovations. The game’s only one button (and there’s not even a button on the screen for it), but there’s so much addictive depth in the meta system that I’m still playing this one, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

Whew. There you go. If I missed something (and I’m sure I did), let me know.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you (just in time for my goal of releasing it in 2011) my ebook, The Shape of Teeth:

What is this, you may ask? Why, it’s an ebook, in EPUB format, of 14 of my best and favorite short stories and essays that I’ve written over the years. I’ve been writing little bits and gags for quite a while, and this book collects all of the best ones, and then some. There’s a foreword by my good friend Mark Turpin, art by a few other good friends, lots of little interstitial quotes and fun stuff that I’ve written and put together over the last few months, and lots of full color pictures for you to marvel at and enjoy. You can read some previews and excerpts of the stories right over here.

And now, you can own this ebook for yourself: It’s available for $7 right now.

To buy THE SHAPE OF TEETH, click here, go over to a site called TinyPay.me (they’re very trustworthy and easy to use), and then use a Paypal account or a credit card to purchase and download the book.

BUT WAIT! Instead of buying through that link above, you could buy THE DELUXE EDITION of THE SHAPE OF TEETH, which includes not only the core book itself (so don’t buy both!), but also two more exclusive stories to read, a brand new and never-before-seen introduction for those stories, as well as a 36-minute audio podcast featuring me both talking about and reading three stories from the core book. Those three stories are “It Came From the Black Lagoon, and Was Vaguely Unsatisfied,” “The Incident in the Town By the Sea,” and “Godzilla in Love.” Trust me — the book is great, but the Deluxe Edition is the one you really want and it’s available for only three dollars more, or $10.

To buy THE SHAPE OF TEETH DELUXE EDITION, click here, and go through to TinyPay.me, which will let you buy the book (which comes in a zip file with the extra stories and the mp3 audio recording included, all DRM free) with Paypal or a credit card.

If you have any questions about this book, have trouble with the files or the file formats, or anything else, I can be reached at mike@mikeschramm.com.

I am so thrilled that you’re here to read about this book, and thrilled to FINALLY be able to offer it up to you. I hope you all like it — I’ve spent quite a while working on it (it was written over a matter of years, though the actual editing took a few months of my free time and weekends), and boy am I glad that it’s finally out and being sold.

And stay tuned — my next project will probably finally be getting that iPhone app up off the ground, so if you like buying and/or downloading things that I’ve worked on, you’re in luck, because there’s more where this came from. Thanks again!

Hey folks! Here’s a quick excerpt from one of the stories in my ebook short story collection, The Shape of Teeth, available for sale right here on mikeschramm.com this coming Friday, December 30th!

A minute or two passes. The bus doesn’t come. The man in the gray suit takes out a handkerchief, wipes his forehead, and puts the handkerchief away.

“Man,” says the second man, the one in the gray suit. “I hope this bus shows up soon.”

“It won’t,” says the first man. “At least not for a while.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Think about it,” says the man in the black suit. “The bus coming is probably the end of whatever story we’re in. Something will happen, the bus will show up, and the story will end.”

“Yeah? Well we should make something happen then,” says the second man, excitedly. “You made that llama appear earlier. I bet we can just say what will happen and then it will!” He takes a step out into the street and screams into the sky. “Right then a million bucks appeared! And a steak dinner for free! And then a hundred naked beautiful nymphomaniac cheerleaders showed up!”

Nothing happens.

“I don’t think it’s that kind of story,” says the man in the black suit.

The second man steps back on the curb and sits down. Another moment passes.

What’s that? You want another excerpt from another story? Here you go!

“I fully respect the opinions and findings of the research team,” said Commander Me’reth into the microphone. She was careful to keep her face calm and her tone strong, despite knowing that her exact image in quantum duplicate was being broadcast across light years to the committee’s various homeworlds and stations. “It’s true, there is something important about Earth that surely the chronometer activity has shown. But I entreat you to find another way — there is too much beauty and power in this world to simply destroy it.”

The committee chairman arched an eyebrow at the commander and templed his long fingers in front of him. Grauthor was a relatively young Senator — he’d risen to power quickly on his homeworld (some suggested through less-than-appropriate means, though they’d never suggest that publicly or in front of the chairman himself), and already installed himself on some of the Senate’s most important committees. There were rumors that he was headed for the consul seat, but Me’reth didn’t believe it. Birthright or not, she imagined that the thin, ruthless Senator Grauthor of Arydon had nothing less than a full Emperorship in his sights. It was heresy, of course, to suggest that anyone would usurp the Emperor, but if anyone could do it, Grauthor would try. Maybe they should set up a research team to study the chronometers on that.

“Are you suggesting, commander,” asked Grauthor in a gravelly voice with the slightest hint of a sneer on his face, “that we should place this tiny, insignificant blue pinprick up above the soverignty of our Lord Emperor and his realm?” Me’reth didn’t flinch. “You claim the chronometers are not to be doubted, but if that’s true, this drop of filthy, backwoods water may someday present a threat to our families, our children, our very way of life! Pardon me, commander, but I would have it recorded that such a claim, if indeed you are saying so, borders on treason and even heresy itself!”

Oh man, I would pay A BILLION DOLLARS to be able to read both of those stories in full along with the 12 or so other stories in the collection! And the foreword by Mark “Turpster” Turpin! And the full glossary, and all sorts of little bits and pieces and addons! A billion dollars!

Well you don’t have to, because The Shape of Teeth epub is only seven dollars. That’s right, when it comes out on Friday, you’ll be able to buy it for only $7.

And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a Deluxe Edition available for $3 more, or just ten dollars. Ten dollars is cheaper than going to a movie theater in Los Angeles, and if you live in a place where going to see a movie is cheaper than ten dollars, then you should probably go see a movie. But then skip your dinner that night, because seriously, ten dollars isn’t much at all.

And what do you get with this Deluxe Edition? Why, two more stories, which you will probably love (or loathe, who knows), AND an mp3 of me, Mike Schramm, reading three of the stories from the book. What’s that? You want an excerpt of that mp3? Why, here you go friends!

The Shape of Teeth preview! (mp3)

What an incredible deal! What a purchase you can make to end your year! Please come back here to mikeschramm.com on Friday, and buy your copy, standard or Deluxe, of The Shape of Teeth! I will really appreciate it. Thank you very much!

Here we go, everybody!

Yes, the ebook you’ve been waiting for is finally, FINALLY (almost) here. The Shape of Teeth is an ebook collection of short stories, essays, and various other things I’ve written, both old and new. Some of them have been published before (some on this very site), but I’ve proofread and updated them specifically for this book. Some other things have been published on other sites, but they’ve since disappeared from the Internet. And some of the things in this book are completely new. Here’s what you’ll find if you buy it:

  • A foreword by the very funny and inimitable Mark “Turpster” Turpin. Yes, it’s rare to find this man writing and not talking or doing videos, but he’s written a very excellent and fun little piece to start this book off. I appreciate it very much currently, and you will too when you read it.
  • Art by the very talented gentlemen listed on the cover. They all did terrific work, and they did it out of the generosity of their hearts, only so my words could be broken up by some of their very fascinating images. You’ll love these pictures, I’m sure — some of them are in color, some in black and white, all are fascinating.
  • 14 (give or take a few) stories and essays written by yours truly, ranging from the scary to the silly, from the fun to the ephemeral. Some of these are just fun little jokes or pop culture bits, some of them are more in-depth and serious, and some of them are just plain weird and will make you wonder what I was thinking. There’s something for everyone — some of them you’ll love, some of them you’ll just like, and some of them will have you shaking your head.
  • A full glossary of defined terms for the uninformed (or apathetic).
  • A brand new three-part story that no one, even the early readers of this book, has ever actually read before.
  • Plenty of gorgeous, full color pictures like that one on the cover, all taken by someone who doesn’t exist.
  • Inspirational quotes to guide your way!
  • DRM-free! Not actually medically evaluated by an independent panel of doctors, but it’s probably not too dangerous for you.
  • And the book is available in a very convenient and easy-to-carry EPUB format, which means you can load it up on your e-reader of choice (or just use a free app like this one to read it on your computer).

This initial release will only be available as an EPUB download, but the book will eventually be on both the iBooks and Kindle stores, pending demand. The EPUB format is very versatile, though — if you have an iPad or a Kindle, it’ll be very easy to send it to yourself and open it up.

And what will this book and all of its wisdom and charm cost you, you ask? All of this can be yours for the low, low price of Seven American Dollars. ($7). That’s right — on December 30th, 2011, you’ll be able to come right back to this page, pay $7 via credit card or other available forms of payment TBD, and this ebook file is yours to do with as you please.

BUT WAIT! That’s not all!

That book sounds incredible, you say. How could it get any better?! Well let me tell you friend: it can. Because you could spend $7 on the book itself. OR, you could buy the Deluxe Edition of the ebook for just $3 more, which will land you at a nice round price of $10. And what does the Deluxe Edition get you?

  • An exclusive written story, never before published, which didn’t get included in the ebook itself. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of this one, but I’m often a very bad judge of what’s good and what isn’t, so with the Deluxe Edition, you can get this one and read it for yourself! Maybe you’ll like it.
  • Also, an exclusive essay, which is about Lindsay Lohan. It’s one of the first things I wrote that went viral, and it is pretty funny, if a little dated.
  • AND you’ll get the real prize here, which is a special MP3 audiobook version of three of the stories from The Shape of Teeth. You can hear me, Mike Schramm, reading these stories in my very own voice, with all of the inflections, pronunciations, and tones that I intended while writing them. If you like my podcasts, this will be fun — it’s like podcasting, only I’ve written all of the words I’ll be saying.
  • Plus, I will appreciate you as a good friend. And, you’ll get first dibs on anything else I put out ever (which, according to plans, will probably be iPhone apps, or more books, or who knows what).

Boy, when you put it that way, who wouldn’t want to just go ahead and spend the $10, right? That’s cheaper than most meals these days — skip lunch and read a book! All of this will be available to the public on December 30th, 2011, so stay tuned and get your wallets ready until then. Thanks for your patience! It’s finally coming out!

Hey folks. So I decided I wanted to watch a movie tonight, and rather than just choosing something for myself, I came up with an interesting experiment to try. I started up a poll via Twitter so you folks on the Internet could choose a movie for me, and then I promised that whatever the outcome of that poll, I’d sit down and write out my thoughts on the movie as I watch it. Here’s the poll — note that you can like or dislike options, or add your own if you have a better suggestion.

Right now, it seems like the haters are ruling things over there, as only a couple of movie choices have positive votes on them. I figured that even before the liveblog starts, I would give you my opinion of a few of the choices so you can have some context.

Currently, the first season of the Walking Dead is winning. I probably won’t watch the whole first season, and I’m actually currently watching that series on my own — I think I’m up to episode 3. So I’d probably just do two episodes of that if that wins. I’ve seen both Tron Legacy and Scott Pilgrim, but those might be fun to watch because I actually went on the junkets of both of those, interviewing the actor and directors about the movies. So I might actually have something interesting to say about those if they win. I own the DVD for Princess Mononoke, so I’ve obviously seen it a few times, and I do have things to say about anime. I also own the DVD of Super Troopers, and I actually met those guys once back at Ithaca College. I’ve seen Kick-Ass once, and I haven’t seen any of the other movies on the list at the moment — some of them look good, some of them not so much.

So there’s a little context. I’m heading out for a couple of hours now, so there’s plenty of time to put some votes and suggestions in over there. If The Walking Dead wins and someone else wants to suggest an episode for me to watch and commentate on, then I’ll choose the most highly rated one, otherwise I’ll just pick one myself. Good luck voting! Thanks for all your involvement so far — this is already fun for me. I’ll be back in this post later on this evening to type up the winner as I watch it live.

0:00 All right — the winner is The Walking Dead, season 1. As I said, I don’t have time to do the whole thing, and I’m in two episodes already, so I’m going to do episodes three and four. I’ll recap them and give you my opinions on the episode as I watch it live here. The whole thing should take 1:30 (two episodes, 45 minutes each), so that’s what the clock is.

I will say to begin that I think The Walking Dead show is pretty good. It’s well shot and well produced, but I haven’t yet been blown away by the writing or the characters (remember, I’m two episodes in). I’ve heard multiple people say that the series never lived up to the potential of the pilot, and I generally agree with that sentiment so far. It makes sense: You really have to be special if you want to use zombies and get something new done, and while The Walking Dead is a strong setting and has strong characters, we all kind of know zombies already. I am a huge fan of the comic books, I should say, too: I think there, the timing and even the scares can be pulled off a little bit better from panel to panel. But we’ll see — maybe I’ll see something in these two episodes that really sells me on the series.

0:01 This episode is called Tell it to the Frogs. I remember in the books that Sheriff Rick (that’s his name, right?) does eventually make it to the camp at some point, so I presume that will happen fairly soon here. There is no “Last time on The Walking Dead” on Netflix, but last I remember (spoilers!), the racist dude was left on top of the department store, and the Sheriff was exiting Atlanta with a van full of minorities and a really happy guy in a sports car.

And hey, we start this episode with Mr. Racist right again. I kind of thought his was a one-shot story, but I guess they did drop some tools out on the roof last episode, so I guess there’s more of him to tell about.

Aw, he’s delirious, and his wrists are all cut up. Are we supposed to feel sorry for Mr. Racist? Because I don’t. He’s racist, remember? Is it possible that there’s a racist with a heart of gold? “Hey guys, I really hate black people and mexicans, but boy … sometimes I just really need a friend, you know?”

2:08: Racist guy finally remember he’s at the top of an apartment building full of zombies chained to a pipe. He’s crying for Jesus. Would it be more poetic if these zombies didn’t used to be white people? “I deserve it,” he says. Man, they’re really trying to make you feel bad for the poor racist. I … still don’t?

4:01 What is he yelling? “I ain’t gonna start begging now,” I guess. “Don’t you worry about me begging ever.” How self sufficient. And here are the title credits. I really like the credits, actually — I saw that one shot of the empty highway even before the show was done shooting, and I was like, yup, that looks about right. I wonder why the title words show up the way they do. Maybe it’s like a zombie, shambling towards you? Left, then right, then left. The … Dead… Walking.

Now’s as good a time as any to tell you what I think about zombies. There are two things about zombies that really interest me in telling stories and entertainment. One is that they’re pretty much the perfect horror mechanic — they’re the living (ok, unliving) embodiment of all kinds of human fears. The main one is death, and that’s a fear that’s universal no matter who you are or where you’re from. No matter who you happen to be, death is coming for you, it’s inevitable, and when zombies start showing up, death isn’t just a quiet moan outside that people try and avoid talking about, it’s also trying to kick in the door and get to every last one of you. Zombie movies are also very much not just about your own death, but about the death of loved ones — every “oh no, he’s been bitten!” moment in a zombie movie is really about dealing with losing those closest to you. The premiere of Walking Dead, that story about the guy and his son trying to get over the wife/mother’s death, is about moving on and letting go of the people you love when bad things happen to them, which we’ll all have to deal with at some point and of course which we’re all anxious about. And then of course there are the other fears, like biological threats, creepy crawling hands, and all of that other stuff.

The other interesting thing about zombies is something I first heard someone (I don’t remember who, sorry) say about zombies in video games. Zombies are a human analog, in that they’re a way to show a lot of fun and exciting gory stuff, without actually doing anything bad to humans. The sheriff in WD can, for example, walking down the street, shoot five people right in the head, stuff an axe in the neck and forehead of five more, and then rip the head off of a woman and run away into a building. If he does that to real people, he’s a mass murderer and a maniac, but if he does that to zombies, he’s a real hero who’s just barely survived some major danger. Zombies let you do stuff like cut heads off and blow out brains, and even people who’s normally be sickened out by stuff like that if they saw it in a Human Centipede or Saw movie, think it’s awesome.

Oh hey, they just showed the racist’s name in the credits, and it’s Michael Rooker! I totally forgot — I saw Michael Rooker last year at Treyarch when they were doing promotion for the Black Ops zombie map that he stars in, and he was quite a character. He was supposed to be playing the map, but he wasn’t interested in actually playing Call of Duty — instead, he was drinking the free booze like crazy, and telling crude stories about women to the Activision PR guys. Unfortunately, I don’t remember any of the stories, but I do remember that Rooker was not kidding around about all of the various things he’d done to and then said about women. Lots of cursing. I thought about interviewing him for Joystiq, then decided against it and just talked to the devs for a bit.

4:44 One of the guys in the van says “Nobody’s going to be sad he didn’t come back” (about Rooker — now that he has a name, I kind of do care about him) ” … except maybe Darryl, his brother.” How convenient. He’s got a brother that we’re going to meet when they get back to the camp. I’m still not down with this — the guy was an unredeemable racist last episode, and the only reason he’s still there is because the fat dude dropped the key. That’s basically luck. And while I wouldn’t really put the guy to death, karma says he deserved it, and I ain’t fighting with karma.

5:33 Here’s the Sheriff’s wife and kid, hanging out with their would-be dad. “If you think this is bad,” says fake dad, “Wait until you start shaving!” Oh, that’s cute, he’s trying to be a father figure. I would love for this kid to not buy it at all, but of course he does. I don’t like this guy, I don’t like this kid, and honestly, don’t really like this lady.

I like the Sheriff, though!

7:12 The car is heading into the camp, still ringing with that alarm. I don’t buy that — don’t alarms shut off, especially when the car is turned on? It’d be funny if that alarm never, ever shuts off — five years later these people are still living out in the woods, all deaf, with a car alarm going off.

Also, the alarm was originally used as a lure for the zombies, if I recall correctly. Wouldn’t the people at the camp be angry that it’s still going? I guess they are yelling to turn it off, but it would have already attracted everything walking from miles around, no?

Oh — old soldier guy agrees with me. Him I like, too.

8:33 Should I be a little wary about the fact that the first camp the Sheriff runs into happens to be the exact one with his wife and kid in it? That’s what happens in the books, and I guess you could explain it away and say that there’s only one camp near Atlanta and so of course that’s the one that he’d end up at, but Atlanta’s a big city.

I should probably be more sentimental about this. This is a big scene, I guess. I like how it takes the lady (I can’t remember her name, but I think the actor’s name is Robin — she was in Prison Break) only like 30 seconds to get to “oh crap, I left a coma patient in the hospital and then shacked up with his buddy.” She’s so overcome with emotion — except when she has to remember to foreshadow exactly what happened.

I probably shouldn’t be so hard on the writers — the father stuff was just shorthand to show new viewers that this dude has moved into this family’s life a little too soon, I guess. But it doesn’t really endear me to the show.

11:40 See, this is why I like the sheriff — he’s smart. He understands, he’s honest, he’s our hero. When bad stuff happens at this camp (and trust me, I know it will, and not just because I’ve read the books), it won’t be because the sheriff did something dumb. It’ll be because these petty people with their stupid problems will cause all kinds of trouble. Look at Robin, all shifty. Leave the drama behind, woman!

Also, the soldier won’t mess anything up, either.

And here we go — one of the rednecks is a little too cold, wants the fire hotter. Shane apparently figures he hasn’t dealt with enough trouble (what with his surrogate wife and kid being retaken by a dude in a coma), and decides to pick a fight. Me? It’s late, we’ve had a rough day — I’d let the redneck light his fire and just let him get eaten when the zombies show up. But nope, Shane’s in a fussy mood because he can’t go hunting for frogs with the kid.

13:47 Pragmatic soldier brings Darryl up. Everybody claims they should tell the truth, soldier guy says no. Uh oh — I don’t agree with soldier guy on this; why lie? If Darryl gets angry, well, there are plenty of rooftops and pipes left in Atlanta, right?

The fat guy says that racist is probably still alive since he chained the door to the roof, and “that’s on us.” Actually, dude — it’s probably on the guy who dropped the key, right? That’s you, right? I wouldn’t start bringing “us” into this situation. “That’s on me,” is what you should say there.

And he’s racist.

15:44 Sheriff loves his kid. Don’t see how — what’s that kid done?

Then he jumps in bed with Robin. Did they even wash the sheets before Shane headed out? Because that’s funky.

“I want to take it all back,” she says. “The anger, and the bad times, and the mistakes.” Sheriff ain’t havin it. Also, it’s a little shameless and obvious to use “cocky” as an innuendo. Come on now, writers.

There’s Shane. I knew we’d get to him sleeping out in the rain. What’s he want? Go with another man’s lady, get burned, brother. I’d tell him to go talk to the sisters, but both of them are pretty annoying.

21:59 Sheriff can’t stop thinking about the racist, but before he gets the ok to play hero, we get a zombie sighting. I wonder if the writers have a time limit on how long they can go on this show without showing zombies. If I was in charge, I would. You’re one of the only shows on TV where you can show zombies nonstop? Do it! I’d care a lot more about the “cocky” scene if they were also getting attacked by zombies at the same time. Just saying.

They beat the zombie down — and then keep beating it. Guys, guys, guys! Chill out! It’s twice dead now. This is one reason why I liked Shawn of the Dead so much — in that one, they figured out that you just have to hit the brain, and then you’re good to go. I don’t know exactly how long it’s been in Walking Dead since this all started, but you think they’d be more efficient at killing zombies by now than just having five guys with blunt objects stand around and beat on it, no?

Like, for example, use a crossbow like this guy who just walked out of the woods. This guy’s loud, disrespectful, sweaty and dirty, and violent. Must be Darryl? I guess he actually does know about the brains, but I also like how they say he can’t cut the deer meat off, but then he pulls a bloody arrow out of the zombie’s head and just carries it off. I guess he’s not going to lick it clean or anything, but wouldn’t that be just as infected?

Also, speaking of questions, are they worried about the zombie deer at all? Maybe the deer was dead from arrows before the zombie bit it. But I’m still not clear on what exactly happened in this world — maybe they should stand around and beat the deer to death too, just to be sure. And then maybe-Darryl can shoot it through the eye, too.

25:32 Oh, he’s calling for the racist. It is Darryl.

Also, the sheriff’s name is Rick Grimes. Darryl fights about as well as his brother, which means the Sheriff counters and beats him down.

27:23 I forgot they call zombies “geeks” in this show. Not really a fan of that — I don’t think anyone in this universe so far, not even the asian guy who loves his sports car, has ever shown any awareness that they’re actually in a zombie apocalypse. Don’t you kind of have to do that now?

I guess Walking Dead is getting away with it, and yes, I guess it might make things meta if the characters have foreknowledge of zombies and their behaviors and weaknesses, but is it weird that zombies show up in a universe where there’s apparently no cultural references to the zombie mythos? In Walking Dead’s universe, that means there was no Night of the Living Dead, no 28 Days, and no I am Legend (originally written, by the way, in 1954). Zombies are also based on voodoo mythology — is there no voodoo in the American South of this universe?

If this is all true, and you subscribe to the idea of multiple universes with infinite possibilities, this might mean that if our own world ever actually gets to its apocalypse, it just might be some thing we’ve never actually imagined before. That would kind of suck, because whatever disaster awaited us would likely have no actual cultural meaning attached to it. As I said before, zombies come preloaded with all sorts of human anxieties and fears, but if you’d never heard of zombies and they suddenly showed up, you might not understand what they were all about.

Perhaps I’m getting too heady. Back to the show.

28:00 “The hell with all ya’ll,” says a teary Darryl. “I’ll go get him.” The sheriff is going back too. I agree that this point that it’s the right thing for the sheriff to do as a hero, but are we al forgetting that the racist is a racist?

Huh, Shane remembers. Good for him. “We left him like an animal caught in a trap,” says the sheriff. Do we all buy that the sheriff really wants to save him now, but didn’t back when they were actually leaving him there? I guess it makes sense in terms of moving the show’s plot forward, but if he really feels this way now, I don’t really see him leaving the city in the first place. As soon as they said “Oh right we left the racist on the roof,” that would probably have been the time for him to talk about how nobody should die that way, right?

30:48 The wife and kid don’t want him to go. What are they going to do? Just live the rest of their lives in the woods?

I guess the show is doing a good job trying to create a tangled issue here — at the very least, the writers are trying to create a little drama, and then putting characters squarely on one side or the other. That’s commendable, and it works. The characters are doing a nice job of trying to lay out each side clearly. But I’m not down with the premise; I thought the racist guy’s story was done, and I don’t want him back anyway. What are they going to do when they find him, bring him back to the camp? He was violent, stupid, angry, completely belligerent, and that was before he got left on top of a roof with a bunch of zombies.

32:56 Pragmatic soldier guy is pragmatic. I guess the van is being set up for the next episode’s central conflict.

34:24 “Four men, four rounds. Let’s just hope that four is your lucky number.” Shane’s being a real douchebag. And yes, that’s what I meant to say. He’s not wrong about leaving the racist behind, but dude, you don’t have to be so cocky about it.

35:24 Wait! The kid shows signs of intelligence! “Think about it, Mom. Everything that’s happened to him so far, nothing’s killed him yet.” Now that’s some solid thinking, kid. Glad to see you got past the “I don’t want you to go” nonsense from before.

They park on railroad tracks (sure, that’s convenient) and decide to walk into the city. Come on now. There was a construction site that was zombie free last time! I think maybe they blew the gates open on that, but there wasn’t anyone living in there — wouldn’t it still be clean?

I do like the music, though. The best part of this series is the subtlety. It’s very Japanese in its horror: Western horror movies go for big reveals and big scares, but Eastern horror movies (which have leaked over into a lot of Hollywood movies lately) show you the danger and let you discover it for yourself. Like The Ring — Eastern horror movies will open up a closet door, and hold a shot there for ten or fifteen seconds, and it takes you about that long to realize that THERE’S A KID WITH GLOWING EYES IN THERE STARING AT YOU. Western horror movies would just show the protagonist opening the closet and freaking out. Walking Dead isn’t quite as subtle as supernatural horror, but it is careful and slow with the way it reveals and scares, and I do like that.

36:25 Shane took the kid to catch frogs!!! Unbelievable. “Listen kid, I know your dad who you thought was dead just rolled back into your life after I hooked up with your mom, and yes, I understand that your father went into the city to fight zombies and save a racist even against your wishes, and you might never see him again. But hey, how about that frog catching?” Stupid.

I hope Shane gets eaten. I don’t remember what happens to him in the comics — I think I remember the sheriff being responsible somehow.

37:44 Haha, practical black lady is questioning “the division of labor here.” Us too, lady. Us too.

Oh man and just when I start to like her, they give the girls a sassy girl talk chat. The annoying girl misses her vibrator, and “me too,” the scandalous old lady says before they all start cackling like a bunch of hens. Come on. I hope they all get eaten.

Fortunately, the redneck breaks it up. He is exactly right — they are definitely not in a comedy club. They are washing clothes in a dirt pond. There isn’t a cocktail waitress or a goofy poster in sight. Right on, redneck.

40:04 Robin has major issues with Shane. Apparently she completely hates him all of a sudden, but I’m not sure why that would be. Guilt, I guess? Oh, apparently he told her that the sheriff died. Poor Shane. He’s totally getting eaten, before or after somebody kills him.

Darryl pulls another blood-covered arrow from a zombie’s head as they go through the department store. I wonder if it’s the same arrow that he used on the other zombie.

41:45 Uh oh, annoying blonde #1 is picking a fight with redneck. Haha his job “sure ain’t listening to some smart-mouth uppity bitch.” Oh, redneck. Saying that stuff right in the middle of an abandoned quarry with five girls who were just talking about how much they miss their vibrators? Nice move, buddy!

It’s all or nothing with these writers — either you’re completely and totally lovable and vulnerable in a world full of soul-crushing threats, or you’re a big talkin’ moron who doesn’t know when to shut up. The only guy in the middle ground is the asian dude, but at least he got to drive the car around on the empty freeway for a while.

42:33 It’s sexual revolution all up in this quarry! Yes, at this point, redneck has hit his lady and bought his way right into evil territory, but that’s fine — time for Shane to redeem himself and do something at least a little heroic. Shane takes out a little frustration, and beats the redneck like a deer-chewing zombie.

43:49 Show’s almost over, let’s get ourselves to a cliffhanger! The Lucky Four army finally makes its way to the roof, and … The racist is gone. Well, most of him is gone.

You might says he’s been disarmed. Looks like that hacksaw came in handy. That pipe sure lost its grip on him. Hope he got his severance pay! I’m just kidding — what a performance by Michael Rooker. Let’s give him a nice hand, everybody!

That’s all I got. And credits — let’s start episode 4.

0:00 The annoying sisters somehow found a canoe and decided to take a little fishing trip in the canyon. They’re arguing about what their dad knows about fishing, but guys — THIS TALK IS NOT REALLY ABOUT FISHING. It’s about the differences between these two despite the fact that they’re sisters. See how that works? If you ever have to write a scene, just keep that in mind — make your characters use words about whatever they’re doing, but have them actually talk about what they mean to each other! It’s like magic.

“Because he knew we were so different. He knew that you needed to catch the fish, and I needed to throw them back,” says the younger sister. See how this works? Also, this whole episode (called “Vatos”) is going to be about how characters either need to keep what they’ve got or throw it away for the future. Trust me. We’re only two minutes in, but I’m a writer. I know.

The girl who wants to throw things away got a bite. Which means by the end of this episode, we’re probably going to be throwing a lot of things away.

3:49: Yup, the weird guy who’s with pragmatic soldier guy is digging a grave while dramatic music plays, and then we jump to the credits. I knew he was going to play a part in this episode — he was a little too excited about rubber hoses last time around. Nobody gets that excited about rubber hoses, and doesn’t have a lot more to say about them.

Then we jump to a little crossbow/bullet mexican standoff on the racist’s rooftop. Not sure why Darryl is so bummed. Maybe he thinks they ate every part of the racist but the hand.

We do know that they cut the door open when they entered, and there weren’t any other zombies around, so the racist must have headed off the roof. They follow the blood and — fire escape? Oh no — another door. Wait a minute, if they only went back because they were sure the racist was alive, and the black guy was sure the racist was alive because he chained the door up, what about the other door? Wouldn’t he have remembered “Well, I chained one door, but the other’s completely open — he’s probably dead, no need to go back.” I think he would have.

7:06 “Jim” is the pragmatic soldier’s friend’s name. Always the pragmatist, PS tells him to drink some water, at least. Look, PS, he’s just really frustrated about that rubber hose. What if the van doesn’t come back, and you have to take the RV somewhere? That hose fit perfectly!

Racist apparently escaped into a room where there JUST HAPPENS to be a portrait of a bunch of rich white guys on the wall. Whew! Nice catch for him, huh? He must have felt right at home walking into there. “Hello, good sir, welcome to the boardroom! Have a seat here and let me just shake your — oh.”

8:37 The annoying ladies caught a bunch of fish, apparently. If only they’d caught a vibrator, too — then everybody would be really happy.

9:51 This is a big department store building. Apparently the racist cauterized his hand on a stove, and then jumped out down a fire escape. I knew it!

It’s probably worth noting that I don’t remember any of this racist stuff from the comics — as far as I remember, they went straight out to the camp, and then things went crazy out there. I guess this all works in the show’s universe, but I still don’t like that premise that they left him and then came back. I wonder if the first two episodes were written together, shopped around as the pilot, and then these episodes came later. That would definitely add to what I said in the very beginning (man, this is long, right?) that the show doesn’t really live up to its initial bang.

The Lucky Four are convinced by Darryl to head out into Atlanta and find racist Merle. I gotta say — I don’t know where or how they’re going to find him. That’s a real stumper.

11:53 “Why you diggin, Jim? You headin to China?” Shane asks a creepy Jim. What did Robin ever see in this guy that she jumps in bed with him right after her husband supposedly dies?

Jim just wants to dig some graves, people. Man. Just leave him alone! Can’t a guy dig a bunch of graves and scare a couple of kids in peace? Let him dig!

Then Jim brings up the whole deal with Shane beating up the redneck, and says he’s wrong for getting involved in someone else’s marriage. Shane? Involved in someone else’s marriage? NO WAY. Robin should speak up here — Shane would never ever insert himself into someone else’s marr– oh. Oh. Never mind then.

13:34 Shane attacks Jim. And handcuffs him?!? Holy crap, people! Just let the guy dig some graves so he can deal with the death of his family! Why’s everybody so concerned about Jim hurting some dirt?

14:34 Asian guy is suggesting that he and Darryl can deal with the guns better than the Lucky Four all together. I agree — I should learn Asian guy’s name, because I think he’s beating out the sheriff as my favorite character.

Although, we just learned that he delivered pizzas before the apocalypse, which means we’re learning something lovable and endearing about him right before he’s about to undertake a dangerous mission. That … is probably bad.

16:08 The Asian (sorry — Korean) guy wakes up a zombie who was just sleeping in a car.

I’ll repeat that: A zombie was just sitting there sleeping in a car.

“Muuurrhmmmm… brainnnsss… hey, guys — I’m just, I’m getting a little crampy here. I’ve been shambling around for a few days now, and boy are my dogs barking. Does anybody — does anybody just mind if I just sit in this car for a second? Just gonna take a load off here, just for a little bit. That’s cool, right?”

“Boy, this carseat is kinda comfy. I know we don’t need to sleep any more guys, brains and all that, but I just — Look, I’m just going to close my eyes for a second here, guys. Well at least one of them — my eyelid got ripped off on the other one. Man, I’m really tired. I’m just … I’m just gonna…. lay my head… zzzz… brains…..”

“Oh hey! Was that an asian guy running past me?! Or was he Korean?”

16:48 Spanish-speaking kid shows up out of nowhere, his gangster buddies are right behind him. And Korean guy gets kidnapped. I knew it!

I like that the sheriff gets his hat back. Listen guys, I’ve never been in a zombie apocalypse myself, but I do know that if one goes down, there’s nothing you could really use more than a really solid hat. It protects your eyes and skin from the sun, keeps the sweat off your brow, and it makes you look darn stylish while you’re burying an axe in some dead girl’s head. Yup, there’s nothing better to have during a zombie plague than a hat. Oh, and maybe a big bag of guns. That helps, too.

18:34 JIM’S BEEN TIED TO A TREE! Listen, there are a lot of things you can do in a zombie apocalypse — you can steal cars and planes, you can kill zombies all you want, and according to Shane, you can even beat up rednecks and tell women that their husbands are dead to sleep with them.

But you hear me now people: Don’t you ever, EVER, dig a bunch of graves. Not on Shane’s watch. No siree — nobody’s digging graves at this camp! Take that, Jim, you grave digger.

18:54 “How long are you going to keep me like this,” asks Jim.

“Well, I don’t think you’re a danger to yourself or others,” says Shane. “But you better stay away from that dirt out there. It doesn’t appreciate being moved all around with a shovel for the purpose of burying dead people. YOU GOT THAT!”

Seriously, Shane. Digging graves. Leave him alone.

20:08 Jim thinks the sheriff is tough as nails? Didn’t Darryl think his racist brother was tough as nails too? Nails must be extra tough in this universe.

21:21 Darryl just called the mexican gang “this little turd and his douchebag friends.” Hey now — did you really mean to call him a douchebag? Oh, you did? Oh, never mind then.

Turd’s feisty, but he freaks out when he sees what Merle the racist left behind. He fell down on the floor there, sheriff — why don’t you give him a hand up? Turd’s in a gang though — he’s his own man, not interested in handouts.

I got more, you guys. Don’t worry, they’re coming.

22:27 The Unlucky Three head over to the gang’s HQ and get told about Guillermo, who’s apparently the leader of the gang. I kind of think it would be great if it was the Guillermo from Weeds leading the gang, but nope. Guillermo looks like one of the kids from The Wire, though he’s not as great an actor.

Uh oh, my writer’s intuition is kicking in. We haven’t heard from the racist in a while, which means he’ll probably show up at some point here, just as things are getting to a boil point with the gang. We’ll see. Along those lines, the writers aren’t really nailing the whole “keep things or throw them away” angle, but we’ve got Jim hanging on to his family and their deaths, and the Unlucky Three catching Turd, and trying to decide whether to hang on to him or the guns. Nobody’s had to make a real choice yet, but I guess that’s where we’re headed.

25:12 Turd’s name is Miguel, but I’ll keep calling him Turd. Asian guy’s name is Glen, so I’ll call him Glen.

And again, writers do a nice job here of putting the sheriff in a tough position, and using the black guy and Darryl to really hash out the two sides of the issue. That’s something I don’t always do in my writing enough — characters who have to make a choice should really get both sides of the issue explored for them or buy them, and that always makes the eventual decision that much more of a payoff.

28:57 I wonder what this Mexican gang’s story of the zombie apocalypse is like. What did they do when they first found out zombies were everywhere? What have they had to eat all this time? They’re in some completely outfitted auto shop, and the folks in the camp outside the city had to strip that muscle car for parts? And I thought the city was completely abandoned anyway?!?

Also, if I was a head writer/producer on this show, and I did have a rule about how long the show can go before zombies show up to fight, this episode would have already broken it. At least we have some gangster’s abuela to resolve this tough situation.

30:09 Haha, Guillermo completely folds when his grandma shows up! Unbelievable. He was going to really kill three/four men for a bunch of guns, but his grandma can tell him to back down? I don’t know, guys — I know you like this show, but that’s pretty goofy.

Oh but at least we get to see some of their story. They’ve been gardening in the backyard, apparently — they’re gardening gangstas! And there’s a nursing home! And one of the gangstas is a doctor!

Oh man, and Guillermo was in on it all along! He was joking about the dogs! But he still would have killed the sheriff! “Wouldn’t be the first time we had to.” Really? REALLY?

I don’t know guys — I think the gangsta nursing home might have just ended this show for me. It’s too goofy. “These people — the oldies? Staff took off, just left them here to die.” THE OLDIES! Come on now. Guillermo is a custodian! I guess that explains why he’s such a terrible actor.

Not buying this at all. Guillermo is explaining how mexican gangsters are willing to stay in a city crowded with zombies to protect a bunch of “oldies” in a nursing home (possibly even having to kill armed cops who come by) just because they care. No really. That’s what he’s explaining.

Maybe I take that stuff about how he’s such a terrible actor back. He literally just had to tell this show’s most unbelievable story all by himself. And this is a show where the sheriff found his family in the first camp, and a bunch of guys went back into a zombie infested city to save a racist who they accidentally left on a rooftop.

I dunno, guys. I dunno.

34:30 At least the Lucky Four are back together. About time for the racist to reappear?

Yup. “Dude, where’s our van?” “I left it right here, dude.” “Dude, where’s our van?” Oh no! Now Jim won’t ever get his rubber hose!

35:46 “I built up the rocks so the flames can be higher? See?” Yup, thanks buddy. That is clearly the argument that was tearing this camp apart. Now that the flames are higher, everybody’s going to be fine.

Notice that as Shane comes down to talk to him, he’s hanging out with the sheriff’s kid again. Sure, Robin did just say about twenty minutes ago that he should stay away from her kid and her family, but that was before JIM STARTED DIGGING GRAVES. The world really has changed, people.

“I hope you understand the need for this time out.” I had no idea Shane had a psychology degree. Need some help getting over the horrible deaths of your family? Ask Dr. Shane, MD to help you out: he’ll punch you in the face, handcuff you, tie you to a tree, and you’ll feel better in no time!

36:38 The redneck is really smashed up, and as if we needed any more reasons to dislike him, he even intones a little sexual abuse to his kid. That I obviously can’t stand for — I liked him when he was breaking up the cackling ladies who clearly WERE NOT at a comedy club, and I understood him when he just wanted to keep a hold on his family, but he’s pretty clearly due for a zombie buffet at this point.

Also, the Lucky Four apparently have to run back to camp without that van. Seriously: Jim needs that rubber hose. I hope that van gets back in one piece.

37:24 Uh oh, pragmatic soldier winds his watch every day. Get the rope, Shane! Maybe it’s not just digging graves — maybe any repetitive motion isn’t allowed here at all.

Also, hey now, pragmatic soldier, with that “I give you a mausoleum watch to remember time” joke around the campfire. This ain’t no comedy club.

39:08 Just a few minutes left! Time for a cliffhanger. Yup, little annoying sister has to pee, and clearly nothing bad can happen now.

ZOMBIES! Guys, did you forget that this show was actually about zombies? Because I almost did. The last zombie we saw was the one waking up when Glen ran past, and … that’s been about it for this whole episode! Oh, and the ones Darryl killed with his arrows.

Oh redneck Earl, we barely knew ye. All we knew about you was that you hated women and abused your family. Surely there was more to know! Maybe we can see you in another life — an undead life.

Little annoying sister gets bitten too, which means the sisters are probably about to get even more annoying. Shane gets bitten, and none too soon. Luckily, the Lucky Four reappear to save the day. Oops — guess I was wrong; little sister isn’t going to be annoying for too much longer. Big sister will have to be doubly annoying for the both of them from now on. I guess they really are different — looks like giving up the things you catch is the wrong way to go.

But man, all those zombies really came out of nowhere, right? No zombies at that camp for weeks, and then they all just start suddenly stumbling in out of the forest? It’s weird — it’s almost like something changed, like something that wasn’t there before pulled them in. Something like the fire being larger, and … OH CRAP. Thanks for nothing, fire fixer.

Also, Jim is apparently psychic. THE END.

—-

Whew! I hope you guys enjoyed that — I can’t imagine anyone is still reading this, but there you go, one and half hours of commentary. I would like to hear from you if you enjoyed this, and I especially would like to hear what you think if you happen to watch these episodes while you read this. I don’t know if this was completely successful, but I may try this again at some point — maybe I’ll make an audio commentary instead. Thanks for reading! Lates ya’ll!

I’m going to go and dig some graves.

This week I’m in Denver, CO, where the 360iDev conference is currently going on — it’s a gathering of iPhone developers that I’m covering for TUAW (you can see most of my coverage right over here, with more to come). All week long, I’ve been chatting with developers, listening in on conversations and talks, and just generally learning about what iPhone and iPad app developers are dealing with and learning about.

Every time this conference meets, they do something called a “game jam,” in which all of the developers park themselves in a room with soda and snacks, and just jump into Xcode and work overnight on a brand new, original products. Some developers do it just for fun, some do it just to mess around with a new framework or check out a new feature of the language, and some of these developers have actually prototyped or even just coded games that later were actually released out for sale on the App Store. I’ve been to one of these before, but as you may have read, I recently started messing around with game development, and recently have been playing with iPhone dev as well, so I’m going to actually sit in on the game jam tonight, and try to get a working iPhone game made before I go to bed this evening.

I have no idea how it’s going to work, so I promise nothing. The theme, announced today at lunch, is “opposite,” and since I heard that theme (I tried not to come up with any ideas before they announced it, so I’m starting completely from scratch), I have narrowed down a pretty solid idea that I think I can pull off with the Cocos2D framework. It’s inspired by a few different things I’ve seen this week: It’s simple (because I’m not a very good or experienced coder — I need simple), it’s based on an old arcade game (because I went to a bar last night with old school arcade games, and really enjoyed the reminder of how pure and enjoyable old school arcade games can be), and it’s a pretty standard game with a crazy little twist (because Mike Lee said yesterday that the best ideas are 80% boring, with a nice 20% crazy frosting on top).

I’ll be liveblogging the whole process right here as I do it this evening — the game jam starts up at 8pm mountain time here in Denver, so come back here then if you want updates. I’ll be posting pictures, videos, and maybe even streaming, depending how the network connection here at the conference hotel holds up (spoiler: it probably won’t). I do want to document this, though (because I want to really test myself in terms of development, and really try to learn from it), so there will be plenty here to see if you come back later. In other words, stay tuned. This will, hopefully, be a lot of fun.

6:39pm: I’m about to head out to dinner, and then off to the game jam proper, but before I go, here’s a quick sketch I drew together in Sketches for iPhone with my original idea. As you can see, I am not an artist.


The basic influence (remember, the theme is “opposite”) is Pong, obviously. As soon as I heard the theme, I got an image in my mind of two forces, black and white, fighting it out in abstract, and Pong seemed like the ideal way to portray that. Plus, I just coded a breakout clone in cocos2d on the plane out here, and there’s a pretty complete Pong sample in the cocos2d documentation, so I think Pong is an idea I can actually code and get running without too much issue.

Instead of just battling with one ball, though, I had the idea that my black and white pong paddles will fight with a bunch of different balls. There will be a dynamically moving line separating the two (I’ve been meaning to mess around with the particle system in cocos2d, so hopefully I can make some black and white particles fly around and make the line sort of a “leaky vortex” kind of thing as it moves), and every time the ball passes over that line, I imagine it splitting into one of each color, as well as pushing the line a little bit to one side or the other. So the goal of the game won’t just be to keep balls from falling off the screen, but to bounce them back at the line, trying to push it back away towards the other player.

I have a few other ideas, much more murky. As you can see, some of the balls are bigger than the others — I have this idea that maybe the balls pick up steam and grow as they cross the line, which means keeping a ball bouncing for longer makes it more powerful with each bounce. Unfortunately, that would also make it more easy to keep in the air, so I can foresee some balance issues there.

I’m not sure if the opposing paddle (the white one) will be AI-driven, or an actual mirror of the black paddle, maybe requiring the player to move both his paddle and the opposite at the same time, but only trying to bounce the balls with the black one. And the other idea I have is that the line will move across the screen — it’ll start out as a relatively tame and quiet game with a black paddle and one ball on the white screen, but eventually that black vortex-y line will crawl leftward (maybe I can even do a dark humming sound effect that grows louder as the game goes on), and as it moves towards the black paddle, the player will be left with less and less room to maneuver as more and more action takes over the screen. That works with the theme too — you’ll be getting frightened by your opposite color crawling ever closer to you (even though that threatening color is the one your paddle happens to be as well).

Anyway, that’s my basic idea — we’ll have to see how that all plays out in with my very, very rudimentary coding and artistic skills. I have a feeling it’ll change a lot once I get things moving in the game; I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep it interesting and playable as just a basic Pong game, especially one that’s meant for one player rather than two (I know I could do two players on the same iPhone touch screen, but I’d rather make a single-player experience). But I think there’s enough to start with — I’ll go grab some dinner, and will update when I’ve actually sat down to start coding. If you’re around and watching, let me know what you think on Twitter, please!

8:22pm: Here we go. Xcode up and running, cocos2d Hello World built. First thing I’m going to do is create a new scene in cocos2d, and then a front and back layer. If this game works out, I will probably have a few different scenes, and I think it’ll be worth it to break from the template right now.

I’ll try to remember to update this often — from what I know about these things, it’s easy to get involved in the work and forget to document it. So I’ll try to make a note here every 20 minutes or so. Will set my iPhone timer if I forget.

9:07pm: Ran into my first issue — had to set the background color of the first layer to white. Got some good help from developer friend Markus (@markusn on Twitter) who I’m sure I’ll be bothering quite a bit this evening.

9:32pm: Had an issue trying to instantiate my first paddle, because I was trying to call a method called “paddleWithTexture” by using the selector “initWithTexture.” I messed around with it for a good five minutes, then asked Markus to come over and check it for me — with him looking over my shoulder, I ran to check the name of the method right away, and ended up looking stupid. I told him I was dumb and sorry for wasting his time, and he shook his head at me and said that kind of thing happened all the time — “you could spend two hours on stuff like that.” Coding is tough for everybody, apparently.

11:06pm: Speaking of spending two hours on something, after way too long I’ve finally got a ball and a paddle moving on the iPhone:

Had an issue with the ball not getting put in my ball array (apparently you have to allocate the memory for an object before you use it — go figure!), and I still have a problem of the paddle going off screen when it reaches the edges (not sure what the deal is there — maybe a float/int problem). But at least the ball and paddle are in there and working, collision works as well.

Next up, I’m going to try to build that line that goes across the screen — on one side, it’ll be black, and on the other it’ll be white. Then I have to figure out a way for the ball to interact with it when it crosses over (so you don’t see a black ball on a black backgound). We’ll see.

12:34am: I have been forgetting to update, obviously. I have the line going across the screen, and it’s easy enough to have the ball interact with it, but now I have a problem. Changing an image on a sprite is a pretty easy task — if you use a spritesheet, which I’ve never actually done. The other devs are telling me it’s a tough topic to learn at a game jam, and they say I should do a more brute force approach, but I’m torn. I should learn spritesheets at some point, right? Still working on it.

3:00am: Still working. This is a slog — I’m getting dragged down into stuff that’s a little bit over my head. I’m juggling a few different problems, but I am getting worn out. The game looks about like I want it to look, but the gameplay’s not quite close enough yet to start balancing it — I can’t seem to get the ball textures to switch color, and if I can’t get a white ball on a black background and vice versa, it’s not really playable. I’ll give it a little while longer yet.

4:29am: Ok, I’m going to call it. I’m not anywhere near done, though the game actually looks and plays somewhat all right:

What I did:
-I got sprites on a screen, and got them to move. The black paddle is moved by touch, and the white paddle currently just follows the black paddle, though I’m not sure if I’m going to leave it that way or not. But all of that was my own programming. The black section that crosses over the view is also all my own programming, which I was pretty impressed that I pulled off without any help.
-The ball does change color when it crosses the line, which was a big win for me. Huge thanks to both Markus Nigrin and Ray Wenderlich for helping out with that one — Ray’s site is great if you ever want to learn iPhone programming or cocos2d.
-I got collision working, which wasn’t so much me (though I did spend a good hour or so on it) as it was a developer named Max, who actually makes the great Soundrop app. He’s working on some really interesting stuff, and he (with just a little bit of input from me) really knocked the collision on this one out of the park.
-And I learned a heck of a lot, both by working on my own game and by watching and talking to the other devs here. I definitely feel like I’ve done quite a bit tonight, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot this week in general about how people deal with this stuff.

What I have to do yet:
-I never did get other balls to spawn, but it seems easy enough — with another hour or so of development, I’m sure I could get that going. That would really make the game more interesting and really bring the thing together.
-And the final piece of gameplay would be making all of those balls actually move the divide back and forth. That seems fairly easy too – I probably will implement it at some point in the future.
-I didn’t get to do any particle work — I really thought I’d get a chance to do that tonight. Oh well — I’ll take a look at it when I get home. All the devs here told me it would only be a few lines of code, once I actually figured it out.
-And I didn’t get to make a title screen, which was probably hoping for a little much anyway. I got all dragged down in the collision stuff, when I thought I’d already solved those problems in code. My biggest issue with the collision turned out to be that my paddle code was written for a horizontal paddle, so when I moved to a vertical paddle, it introduced a whole bunch of issues. And then when I mirrored the paddle on the other side, that broke a lot of stuff too. If I’d had better collision code in the first place, I could have gotten a lot more done.

Oh well. Definitely not a failure, but I thought I’d have more to show. Oh well. Stay tuned — I do see myself working on this one in the future, and maybe it’ll even turn into an app that people can play. I don’t have a developer account, otherwise I’d just release it for free, but if I pick up a dev account in the future and this gets into a form where people can play it, I’ll let you guys check it out. Have a good night! I’m off to pass out (and then wake up in three hours for another day of conferencing and then a long flight home to LA. Gooooood times.

Update: After a few more tweaks, here’s the game in action:

It’s not done yet, but it is actually playable. I may still mess around on it a bit, and if I ever get those last few things done, I may even try to release it out as a free game (if I end up spending the $99 to be a real app developer). I don’t know how fun it actually is, so I’d have to do some game balancing, but at the very least, if I added touch controls to that opposing paddle, it might be a pretty interesting two player game. We’ll see.

Update: It’s eight months later, and the game is now out! There’s more info about this game’s development right over here, too. Go buy it!

So a little while ago, I basically figured out how easy it was to progress toward your dreams. Not necessarily accomplish them — that is hard, and usually takes a lot of time and effort. But just moving towards your dreams is pretty easy. All you have to do is figure out what they are, and then put some actual work in going to get them accomplished. Pretty simple.

The first dream I had was publishing a book, and I can tell you that The Shape of Teeth (as I’m calling it — see last post) is coming along quite well. It’s been delayed again (sorry!), but I’ve got a few really talented and really nice artists putting together some art for me, and once that’s all set, I’ll assemble it and it will be ready for your reading enjoyment and pleasure in the ebook reader of your choice.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to follow another dream of mine, which is to actually develop some games. I still love writing, and I still plan to be a writer for the rest of my life. But just like some people build things out of wood or paint for fun on the weekends, I want to really try my hand at making some solid video games. This is one that I’ve struggled with for a while — to make really solid games, you not only have to be really good at math, and really understand computers, but you have to be good at art, and know how to have fun, and a whole bunch of other talents, some of which I don’t actually have.

Still, I’m driven to do this, so after a few unsuccessful starts with coding in various languages (did I mention that you have to be really good at math? I’m generally not), I decided to get all the way back to basics. When I was a kid, I used to literally code in BASIC, which is the old “20 GOTO 10” language that we all probably learned in school. And I wasn’t bad at that one — I programmed an address book, and some text adventures, and even a maze game in Extended Color BASIC on my Tandy computer. But since then, programming has all moved from messing around with variables in a pretty linear manner, to object-oriented programming. Now, you don’t get a $STRING and output it, you build an object that will input or output a string object whenever certain conditions are met. At least that’s how I think it works — I can’t seem to wrap my head around the structure and thinking behind object oriented stuff. It’s too complex for me.

So I decided to shoot low — I poked around for ways to build games without actually programming them, and I eventually landed on the bottom rung of the ladder, with a system called Scratch. Scratch was developed at MIT as an educational tool for kids — it’s as basic as programming gets. Instead of coding scripts, you just drag and drop certain visual rules together, and then those rules move images around, and if you put it all together in the right way, you can make a game. So I decided to sit down and play with this a little while back, and after about an hour or so, I had made my first game, simply called Cat Jumps Over The Dog. And here, in fact, it is:

Learn more about this project

Just press the spacebar to jump over the dog, as many times as you can. The record is somewhere around 130, I think.

Simple? Yes, but that was kind of the point — it was simply an experiment to see if I could build a real, working game, no matter how easy or how dumb it actually was. And I tweeted that out, and a few people actually played it. I even got beta-style feedback — players told me that seeing “You Lose,” even when they had really tried, was disappointing. And I got some good feedback on the flags in the background (which were the only part of the game that I actually drew myself — everything else in there was clipart from the Scratch app). It was at this point that I realized, holy crap, that I had made a game that people had then gone on to play. Dream, here I come!

I decided to ramp things up with Scratch a little bit then — the system is really simple, but I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to push the limits a little harder. I’ve always had an idea for a 2D game where you see a car driving from above, and you can pick up ammo and fire weapons at enemy cars — sort of like Spy Hunter, but without all of the instant reflexes required, and all of the crashing and danger. I worked for about a week and a half with Scratch, and even drew some of my own graphics for the game (which are terrible — I have never in my life had an aptitude for art or design, unfortunately). I used Scratch’s in-app music system to create some sounds for the game, and I implemented a few tough things to do in Scratch (you’d be surprised at how hard it is to determine collisions between objects sometimes, or make a van that spawns mines stop spawning them whenever it’s dead). The result of that work was my second game, Race Attack! (The title of which, my friends later informed me, had some unintended overtones of racial violence. Totally unintended! It’s just a game about racing and attacking.) You can use the arrow keys to steer your car, and then the spacebar to fire missles (when you have ammo).

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You’ll notice that in that one, the end of the game always says “Game Over” — except (hint hint) when you actually win. I programmed an actual ending to the game, unlike Cat Jumps Over The Dog, because people asked for one — just score 50 points to see it in action. And I couldn’t really resist throwing a fun nod in from one of my favorite games, Metroid.

Man, I had a heck of a good time making both of those games. Sure, you could argue that they’re boring and terrible, and that the art sucks. But I was overjoyed to make an actual game with an actual set of rules that people could actually play, and even get better at, and even succeed with. Even though Scratch is completely visual (and meant for children), I found parts of my brain that I hadn’t used in years lighting up and sparking like crazy: a problem would arise without a clear and convenient solution, and I’d turn it over in my head, even when I was away from the computer, and mess around with the code and try different things, until I finally would land on something that worked. And then I’d work on that thing, and make it better, and eventually I’d come up with a solution that wasn’t just clear and convenient, but actually quite elegant. In other words, I was coding, you guys! I was really doing it!

My success with Scratch has inspired me to go even further — I decided to move up the chain just a little bit to Gamesalad, which is another visual development system, though one that’s a little closer to code than Scratch’s Playschool-style development. Yes, I’m not really coding still, but I have found that Gamesalad’s system of actors is actually closer to object-oriented programming than I’ve ever come before, not to mention that I actually understand what I’m doing. Plus, it has the benefit of what’s supposed to be a pretty easy port over to iOS and even the Mac App Store, so while everything I’ve done over there has only been in HTML 5 so far, presumably I could eventually take a game to an actual commercial enterprise without a lot of trouble.

My first game on Gamesalad is going to be an inside joke from The Incredible Podcast of Amazing Awesomeness — a while ago, a listener asked what kind of game we’d make if we ever made one, and we came up with the idea for Cat Wars 3: Feline Frenzy, which is a dual-stick “barker,” in which a dog takes on a whole army of cats (we figured that the best games in trilogies are always the last ones, so we’re starting with Cat Wars 3 rather than the two nonexistent earlier games in the series). I actually have a working version of the game running, and lots of ideas to put in it for later builds, but since my temporary art is so terrible, my Tipoaa co-host Turpster (who is actually an animation student and thus has a proclivity towards art) is revamping the art completely. I haven’t seen anything he’s done yet, but I’m sure it’ll look better than the junk I drew.

After he’s done with that (and we’re done with a few other things I want to put in the game), we’ll be actually releasing Cat Wars 3 as a free to play HTML5 game — my first real, actual game release. After that, there’s a chance we’ll take it to the iOS App Store, actually implementing the iPhone’s touch screen for the controls, and putting in a few more extras that would only be available on the App Store version. I don’t have a playable version of Cat Wars to share yet, but it’s coming soon — we’re aiming to have it out by the end of October at the latest, hopefully before then.

And then, guys, I have even more. I’m already working on another prototype in Gamesalad, and I really do want to learn to actually code, so I’ve been looking at Cocos2D and a few other “helpers” for developing my programming skills. Unfortunately, Cocos2D is an iPhone-only thing, and that requires an Apple Developer account, which I haven’t actually grabbed yet. If anyone knows of a similarly free and relatively simple system for making games on either Windows or Mac that would help me figure out this object oriented stuff, I’m all ears.

I also saw Notch coding in Java for his Ludum Dare project, and man, that really looked amazing, though he’s obviously a talented and very experienced programmer, two things that I am not yet. But I definitely have no end of game ideas, and the prototype I’m working on in Gamesalad is a game that I’ve wanted to play for a long time, though no one (as far as I know) has ever made it yet. I’d love to tell you more, but I don’t want to promise something I can’t do, so we’ll have to wait and see on that one.

In truth, I’m worried that the idea is a little too complex — that despite all of my success so far, I’ll end up bumping into a problem that just requires too much math (or, you know, an actual computer science degree, of which I don’t have course one) for me to ever actually understand and figure out. But for now, it’s still a lot of fun, and all of the issues I’ve come across have eventually been solved. After all, it turns out it’s not all that hard to actually follow your dream: Just go out and chase it down, one step at a time.

I’ve already told you about my plans for the Secret Schramm Project, and I also am pretty sure I told you I wanted to have it done by July. Obviously, that didn’t work out, given everything else I’ve done (I got on an improv team! I went to Comic-Con! I got my brother all married! I spent a week away from the Internet in Wisconsin!), but work continues nevertheless. I’m proud to say that after a lot of editing and tweaking and re-typing, I have finally gotten all of the stories I’ll be including in the book into an actual epub file using an actual epub editor (I’m using Sigil), so the content is more or less locked at this point. That’s a pretty big deal — if I wanted to sell the book, with no bells or whistles on it, I could do it today.

But let’s be honest, bells and whistles are the fun part. So now my goal is to add all of that stuff I told you about — some art to go in between the chapters, some extra pieces by people who aren’t named Mike Schramm, and some other fun things I love about books and have always wanted to create for one of mine.

Art is the first concern; I had a talk with an actual, for-real artist who didn’t know me well enough to be offended the other week, and asked about just how much money she expected to make for a commissioned drawing. Unfortunately, the figure she quoted me was way higher than I expected, and given that I was planning to ask some artists that I really admire to make work for me for much cheaper (and don’t want to offend them), the bottom line is that I just can’t afford to commission all of the artwork I’d need. So my new plan is to find some art that fits my pieces, and then ask nicely if I can use it for the book. The issue, of course, is that this is a book for sale, so obviously I don’t want to just Google some work and stick it in without compensation. But hopefully I will find some things that fit, and then maybe ask an artist I know well (very nicely) to do an original cover for me, and then hopefully the book will be a little more than just text.

I’m going to ask a few people to write things, and those should be pretty easy to slot in. I have a few ideas, as I said before, for more “book-y” things to include, so I will work on those and they should be pretty fun.

And of course I have settled on a title: “The Shape of Teeth.” Originally I was aiming to use a title of one of the stories (so I could do the traditional “… And Other Stories by Mike Schramm,” which I really like), but as I was going through them and editing them, I found this phrase which I not only liked the sound of, but which I think really fits the wacky theme that threads through all of this work. I like the idea of not teeth themselves (which would mean real danger), but the shape of teeth — something that hints at actual physical danger, but might end up being all in your mind anyway. Noone but me will probably ever get all of that out of the title, even after reading through the whole book, but just like everything else in this project, I put it in there just for me anyway.

I hope this all sounds interesting enough to you all that you’re excited to buy the book when it comes out. At this point, I’m probably aiming for mid to late September, but if it bleeds into October, that’s fine anyway. Fall is my favorite time of year, and it seems like a great time for magic, for stories, for huddling around a campfire in the dark woods and sharing some crazy, funny, or touching things you’ve heard lately. That’s what I hope this ends up being — I’d love to have been able to make a real book, something I could sell in a leather-bound edition that smells like creamy paper, with a built-in ribbon bookmark and an embossed title page. But instead, I’m crafting this ebook file for you, and my goal is to make it the most hand-crafted and pored-over digital document you’ve ever had the pleasure of paying a few bucks for. So stay tuned; more news soon.

So as you may or may not have heard from my many anxious tweets last weekend, I have basically reached the end of my improv training. I’ve been studying improvisation for the better part of the year now, originally just for the heck of it, but later on for two major reasons: a) it fascinates me — I like chasing both the form of improvised theater as a currently evolving art, and that mindset that you get in while performing well, a wacky little state of awareness and communication with everyone around you, including the audience and your fellow performers. And b) because it seems to make me a better person, not necessarily in a therapy/discovering myself way (though if I’m honest, I guess there’s some of that in there), but in an intelligent, well-studied, well-rounded individual kind of way. There are a lot of things that would meet this second criteria, I think, but in this case, improv just happens to be one of them. (I also spent last night doing some intermediate-to-advanced hardware repair on my Mac mini, and before that, I ran about seven miles for fun and exercise. So there’s your well-rounded for you.)

Anyway, I’m finishing level 7 at Los Angeles’ IO West theater, which is the graduation level, so in a few weeks I will have finished my training, and generally learned what improv is. But that’s only the beginning — I also auditioned last weekend to join one of the official teams at the theater, and after the previously mentioned anxiety, I was accepted. So I’ve joined a team, with a bunch of other folks, and we’re going to be performing some improv there in LA. I also occasionally perform with a group of friends called Motel TV, and I’ll probably join at least one more team or show before this is all done — I’d like to try some really down-to-Earth two-person improv at some point.

In other words, I have a lot of shows lately. I’m not sure of the best way to share them with you all (or if you even care — I know most people reading this probably don’t live in Los Angeles anyway). But I do feel the need to market them somehow, and so even if this isn’t the right place, I’m going to try to put my shows up here, so that interested parties can have some idea when I’ll be on stage.

Tonight is actually the first of many shows I’m in this month — my level 7 class is performing this evening at 7pm in IO West’s Del Close Theater. All of these shows, unless otherwise stated, are in that theater, which is right behind IO West over on Hollywood and Cahuenga Blvd. Valet parking is a cheap $5 right across the street, or you can usually find some meters over on Wilcox if you’re parking after 7pm in the evening.

This Thursday, Motel TV will be on stage with the Prism Box theater at 9pm. I believe that show is at the Elephant, 6322 Santa Monica Boulevard, but I may be wrong about that. I’ll update this when I know for sure.

Then on Friday, my brand new (still nameless) team will perform in the Del Close Theater. We go on at 9pm or thereabouts, and I recommend you make an evening out of it — there are a lot of solid teams performing in the DCT lately.

Next Sunday, we have another level 7 show, also at 7pm in the DCT. The level 7 class team, whose name is Wiffle Waffle, is also performing next Thursday and the Thursday after (the 14th and the 21st), both of those shows at 8pm, and on the main stage of the theater. That’s a big deal — each of those shows are $10, but if you want in, let me know ahead of time, and I can probably get you a comp.

Finally, on Tuesday the 19th, my unnamed team will be performing at 11pm out on the Mainstage. That whole night on the mainstage will be terrific, with great teams like Waterloo, Bandit, and Local 132 all performing. Buying one ticket at IO gets you in all night, so come early, grab a set, and then just enjoy a full night of improv finishing with me.

Hope some of you can come out! My challenge still hasn’t been accepted, so if anyone shows up before a show and says hi to me, I will throw in a World of Warcraft reference sometime during the show (or any reference you happen to want, as long as it’s not super obscene). Please come out if you can! Thanks!

Oh, and I do want you to come, but because I know you will all ask if there will be any videotape of these, I will tell you that there probably will be. Stay tuned for that. But please don’t let that stop you from coming to see us live — one of the many reasons I like improv so much is that it is still very much a live form. Works much better when you’re part of all of that communication going around.

Hey everybody! I haven’t written here in a little while, and unfortunately things have been so busy lately that I wasn’t able to do my usual E3 post, in which I round up all of the crazy stuff I saw and wrote about at E3 this year. You can basically see all of the stuff I wrote about for Joystiq in my posts over there, but I’ll specifically point you to these: Skulls of the Shogun, Payday: The Heist (the best title I wrote during the show, in my humble opinion), Torchlight 2, and Mass Effect 3. All amazing games.

I also finally got to play Star Wars: The Old Republic during the show. It’s been at E3 and other events I’ve been at before, but for various reasons, I’ve never had the time or been assigned to actually sit down and play it. I still wasn’t assigned at E3 to see it (the folks at Massively covered it very well already), but I did want to check it out to see if it was worth the fuss, and so I did. Huge thanks to the game director James Ohlen for putting up with my various jabs and jokes at his game’s expense while he kindly walked me through a couple of missions. I didn’t quite realize how close he was to the game’s development until it was too late, but hopefully he wasn’t too offended.

So what’s the verdict? In short, I loved it. I won’t call it a WoW killer because as far as I’m concerned, you can’t kill a game that’s already immortal, but Bioware has borrowed a lot of the things that made WoW such a great game, and added on some extra icing that will make SWTOR a must-see MMO experience. The much-discussed dialog scenes are completely awesome, in my estimation — while they are a little more wooden than your standard Mass Effect conversation, they still bring a heck of a lot to actually building and defining your character as you play.

There’s a lot of smart moves with the quests as well — Bioware has pretty much separated quest and story, and while some players might not dig that, I liked it a lot. You don’t get that many “kill 10 boars” quests, as far as I saw — instead, you’re told to go to a certain place for a story reason, and once there, you can get an optional quest to kill 10 boars or save 10 hostages, automatically granted when you kill your first boar or save your first hostage. That’s a small change but it makes a big difference, I think; if you’re presented with an unpleasant bit of grinding, you can choose to just skip it and still continue the story anyway. Of course, you can’t skip too many of those optional quests, or you won’t get the XP you need, but I think there’ll be a nice balance between grinding on enemies you like and skipping the grinds you find boring.

I did find a few hiccups, and these are what I joked about to the game director. You can have a mount in the game in the form of a landspeeder bike, which is awesome. But that bike will also jump in place when you press the spacebar, which I thought was silly — an out-of-place holdover from WoW’s animal mounts. The game also doesn’t take advantage of some improvements Blizzard has since given to WoW: I like WoW’s relatively new quest guides on the in-game map and the on-screen minimap. If you need to find a quest target in WoW, the game quickly and easily directs you to it. But SWTOR isn’t that helpful, and there were a few times I outright got lost, missing the help I am used to getting while questing in WoW.

No, the combat isn’t that different from other MMOs — while Bioware seems to be pushing it forward with mechanics like a cover system for one class and a few other various tweaks and additions, it still just felt to me like an MMO, where you stand there and use abilities, hoping that the enemy’s life bar runs out before yours does. I do like the addition of companions — not only do they add to the story and build the game’s surprisingly deep morality system, but they’re basically like party members who never leave, allowing you to do group-style content even if you’re solo or only with one other friend.

In short, the game seemed like a lot of fun, and after going back and forth on it for a little while, I’m very hopeful about how it will turn out. I think there’s a lot of polishing left to do in development, but I think we’ll see a big, solid launch from this one, and I think a few Bioware and Mass Effect fanboys who haven’t yet been convinced to jump in on an MMO will give this one a shot.

This post is long already, but I did want to mention one other thing I’m thinking about lately: Free-to-play games. It’s interesting — I’ve been following the free-to-play market for a few years now, and a couple of years ago, all of the best free-to-play games were coming out of Asia, specifically Korea and China. Developers wanted a bigger free-to-play market here in the US (and some Facebook-based companies like Zynga had it), but they couldn’t quite figure out how to get hardcore Western gamers to submit to a free-to-play model. Back then, microtransactions was a bad word — buying in-game items was akin to cheating.

Nowadays, of course, things are different — Riot Games is making big bucks with its League of Legends title, iOS games are selling in-app purchases like hotcakes, and just this week, both Valve and Blizzard have moved their games towards a free-to-play system, with Team Fortress 2 going completely free-to-play, and WoW becoming free-to-play up to level 20. What the heck happened?

I tweeted this yesterday, but I think what actually happened is this: For a long time, developers were trying to figure out how to convince Western audiences that free-to-play was OK, that these Korean games that required you to buy potions to win were actually fun. But in the end, they couldn’t do that — even big Nexon titles just aren’t taking off in the West the way they have overseas. So instead of changing the audience, developers instead changed the games. They simply took games people were already playing, and turned those free-to-play instead. And that’s a much easier transition: Team Fortress 2 had already been free for a short period, and a trial account for WoW was already easy to find (heck, I’ve got three referral keys sitting in my email right now), so why not push those out to a free audience?

I still think we won’t see big budget titles get released as free-to-play, unless they’re already supported by a serious microtransaction system like League of Legends (I don’t think, for example, that we’ll hear about Bioshock Infinite going free-to-play any time soon). But free-to-play is emerging as a way to make big audiences even bigger, so what I think we’ll see more of is established titles bringing out a free-to-play component. That will be things like a free-to-play Call of Duty game, free games from companies like Popcap, and things like CCP’s Dust 514, which is set to bring a larger and more varied audience to the already popular and profitable EVE Online.

Free-to-play is a fascinating model, and you don’t have to be a genius to see that it’s growing at a rapid pace. But I do find it interesting how it’s grown — developers tried to take the Western audience and bring it to the free-to-play games, and that didn’t work. So now we’re seeing developers take the games that people are already interested in, and bring those to a free-to-play audience. And that’s working, with a surprising amount of success.

This has really riled me up, and rather than doing what I’ve whined about in the past and sending a bunch of tweets about it, I just decided to throw a blog post together. This is pre-E3 week, and I’m technically too busy to write anything other than what I’m already supposed to be working on, but I’m pretty angry about this, so I’m putting this together quickly.

Here’s the deal: For a long time, Blizzard (who makes World of Warcraft, though if you don’t know that, none of this post will probably make any sense to you) has promised to include friends in the Dungeon Finder system. Right now, you can play with people from other realms, but they’re all random people, and while you can chat with your Real ID friends, you can’t actually meet up with them in the game if you happen to be on other realms. Fortunately, today, Blizzard has announced that it’s very close to releasing that functionality, finally allowing me to play with all of my Real ID friends across realms. Unfortunately, Blizzard wants to charge a premium fee for that service.

Here’s the thing: World of Warcraft already charges a premium fee. I’ve been paying $15 a month since I started playing the game, which is more money than I actually want to admit I’ve given them. Sure, I’ve gotten a lot of game out of that, but the world has changed since that original agreement started. Back then, $15 a month was worth it to play an online game, because there weren’t that many around that worked well. These days, there are tons of terrific online games around, many of which are much cheaper (my Xbox Live gold membership has been a bargain compared to WoW), and some of which are completely free.

It’s not that those games don’t charge — they do charge for customization or other services, and those charges are very reasonable and in large part allow those games to be very profitable. But WoW is already a premium game — it’s already the biggest drain on my gaming spending. If Blizzard wants to charge for optional services like realm transfers, character re-customization, mobile access, or even, yes, the idiotic Sparkle Pony, then fine. I can definitely stay away from using those services, because they’re all extra and optional.

But playing with my friends? That’s a pretty core part of an MMO, and it’s outright greedy of Blizzard to suggest that I, as one of their premium subscribers, need to pay another premium fee to enjoy their game with my friends in that way. You may argue that I’m being overly entitled, and sure, why not. I can play with my friends in League of Legends, and Portal 2, and Call of Duty, and Red Dead Redemption, and Crysis 2, and all of the other multiplayer games I play, without a premium charge. So yes, I do feel entitled to this kind of gameplay, especially when I’m already still paying $15 a month.

In the end, Blizzard can charge whatever it wants, but if they stick with a “premium charge” for this service, I won’t use it. They say that only the people inviting their friends have to pay the cost, and I feel that’s a little shady — I’m half tempted to ignore any invites from the service, just because I don’t want people paying for me when I’m clearly so vehemently against a system like this. Blizzard’s holding me and my friends hostage, keeping us apart until one of us cracks and ponies up the cash.

But most importantly, aside from any personal issue I have with the charges, I find it really sad that Blizzard, a company that’s always been about letting players play their games as they like, is so out of touch with what the real multiplayer game market is like. MMOs, at this point, are a free-to-play endeavor. For a few years now, the only MMO that’s really been able to get away with a subscription on a mass market level is World of Warcraft, and that’s because it’s worth it. If WoW were free already, I’d happily pony up a few bucks for the ability to play with my friends.

But it’s not, of course. And to ask your players to play extra for such a core feature, especially when they’re the players who’ve stuck around and continued to pay when lots of other players have moved on to free titles, shows a real disrespect for your player base and a real misunderstanding about what is happening in this market.




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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.