Friday, August 31, 2007


This one will be brief, but informative. Unless you have business in Bratislava, (like hockey,) I don't necessarily recommend spending more than three days here. Maybe it's just the hostel. I've shifted rooms three times in six days, and last night was by far the funniest. Again, the traveler's ability to laugh at inconvenience is invaluable. I stayed up late looking for sandwiches after some loudmouths of questionable quality stole the rest of my pasta. I guess since it was on plates, they assumed the hostel refrigerator was a restaurant and just helped themselves. Their timing was poor, though, because I returned from my day's journey just in time to see them rinsing what was very clearly spaghetti residue from two plates that looked suspiciously like mine. They'd just been to Tesco, also. They could've easily eaten their own food, but instead they gave me a handy conduit for revenge. After a fruitless 3AM search for a sandwich in the streets of Bratislava, I went back to the hostel and made myself a lovely meal of a sandwich and two beers--at the Brits' expense. Left a note on the fridge: "thanks for the sandwich and beer, lads! Hope the pasta was lovely!"
But it gets better. I'm fed, watered, and finally ready for bed, and I walk into my room and notice something. It's a Goldilocks moment: "someone's sleeping in my bed!" I'm pretty sure I'd never had a Ludacris song stuck in my head before, but there's a first time for everything. "WHO LET THESE HOES IN MY ROOM?!?!?!?" I blinked, guffawed, and headed down to inform the reception. So I've been moved from a six-bed dorm to an eight-bed dorm to a ten-bed dorm. Woohoo!
My lodging, however, may be much cheaper in the future. I met a guy in the hostel the other day, George, who turned me on to this thing called couch surfing. Young people volunteer space in their apartments to visiting foreigners, and expenses are minimal; just help pay for food. But moreover, it will perhaps be especially helpful to have a few contacts in countries like Belarus before I go in--they're likely to have a much more nuanced knowledge of the visa regime than an outsider would, and hell, they might know some hockey players.
And speaking of hockey players, I watched a men's league game and finally got the intestinal fortitude to go to the locker room and ask if anyone spoke English. I talked to the youngest guy in there (about 18-19), and he seemed very eager to practice his English skills. I get on the ice tomorrow for a tryout, but I can skate with these guys. Hence, though Bratislava may be a tourist trap, I'll be here a while. Assuming I don't just totally suck at my tryout, my first game will be on Sunday morning, and then I'll have a pickup game Sunday night. Gonna be a long day, that one. Gotta make sure to eat all the pasta I can...before another batch of Brits get to it.

Wish me luck, and I'll be sure to update by Monday with all the gory details.

But seriously...who let those hoes in my room?

J. Brandon Harris, the man who would be king

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Finding Paydirt in Bratsvegas

To preface my Bratislava adventures, I'd like to share a little quotation from my journal:

"Leaving Brno should be simple enough. Getting to my hostel in Bratislava, however, may be another story. I think I may already hear circus calliope music in the background."

Compared to the nightmarish affair at the Prague bus station, getting my train business in order was remarkably simple. What followed, however, was not. I arrived in Bratislava Main Station with my remaining Czech Crowns, and looked around at the exchange rates. Though they promised "no commission!," but it seemed the exchange rates themselves were arbitrary. The prices in the station had no grounding in reality, and were more centered on fleecing than business. It was an ill omen, I think, because the stories have only been piling up since then. I decided to withdraw some money from the ATM and be done with it, then I realized I'd need coins to get on public transit. I wasn't about to pay the equivalent of US$4 for a bottle of water just to make change, so I decided to get walking. In retrospect, this may have been a poor choice. It was 95 degrees and I hadn't eaten since breakfast. Did I mention that the hostel was over a mile away? I've started taking pictures of my luggage whenever I depart or arrive somewhere. I'm expecting to see a progression--you know, wheels falling off, nylon ripping. My sincere hope is that the Slavic peoples believe in duct tape. I also took a half-mile detour around a cluster of gypsies who seemed a little more interested in me than I found appropriate. Needless to say I felt like death (and had a mood to match) when I finally arrived at the hostel.
Now let me tell you about my present accommodations. The hostel is tolerable. With the exception of the unventilated bathroom (which smells like a bizarre combination of a beauty salon, a wet dog, and an Eastern European toilet), the hostel is clean, the beds are sleepable, the location is central, and the little garden courtyard is really nice. In other news, the staff is surly, the rooms are extremely hot and all face east, and it takes eight flights of stairs to get to my room. Since this is an exercise in being positive, the heat and exposure issues just guarantee that I get up at a reasonable hour (though I may not be especially happy about it), and the stairs insure I get plenty of off-ice exercise. The staff, however, can all die in a fire. I'm also less than pleased that this place is a full $10 over my daily housing budget. So long, beer fund.

My first day in Bratislava bore great resemblance to my first day in both Prague and Brno. I actually had a map with a scale this time, though, and I calculated it: I walked 13km and saw the northern half of the city. Walking this far wasn't altogether necessary, except that Bratislava has a general flaw in its city planning. When you get out of the center (which is tiny, compared to the outlying commie sprawl), Bratislava is composed of four-to-six-lane boulevards which go in kilometer-long straight blocks with no turns or outlets. Thus changing direction, especially when you're as stubborn as I am, becomes very difficult. "Never get out of the boat" has become one of my guiding principles, and, in following, I never backtrack unless I know EXACTLY how and why. If I need to change direction, I alter my course and take the opportunity to see a little more of the city. But generally speaking, turning on my heel and going back simply isn't done. My body frequently regrets this policy, but so far, my mind hasn't.

In my serpentine course around northern Bratislava, I saw lots of things that should have been sports arenas. Some were, most weren't. Many were originally sports arenas, but they've since been converted into betting offices for the gambling-crazed Slovak population. Seems odd to me. I even saw a damned street sign for the winter stadium, but it led me to a tennis complex. I knew the rink was somewhere in the area, so I kept looking. I bypassed it by one block (argh) and walked seven or eight more kilometers before deciding I'd go back to the same neighborhood and try again. I found it.

I also found something else: pick-up hockey. Paydirt. I'll finally be able to put on the pads this Wednesday and give the Slavs something to think about. Most of them were better than me, but not by as much as I would have expected. Needless to say that this discovery has extended my planned stay in Bratislava. To be honest, I'll be out of cultural things to do by the end of this week. They have public skates every day, however, and and this will be the first city where I can spend most of my time pursuing my project.

My adventures as a drinking mom continue, even when the drinking hasn't even started yet. My first night here, some Irishmen told me about a club they went to on the night previous, Charlie Club. The sign on the door read 50SK entry for guys, 30SK entry for girls. The irishmen came up and asked for tickets in english, and the bouncer said "three hundred." The difference between 50SK and 300SK is the difference between $2 and $12.75...just because you have a passport of the wrong color. I heard the story once, and since the storyteller was kind of an ass, I thought he might have asked for the "additional fee" through his conduct. When I heard the same thing from someone of more substantial character, however, I started telling people to avoid the place. Since I'm in cities for a couple of weeks at a time, people usually come to me for advice on good clubs. Generally I have some recommendations, but since I've been in Bratislava, I've just said: "don't waste your money; go to Tesco and get a pile of dirt cheap beer. Then when you go out, you won't have to buy drinks, and if you're drunk when you get there, you won't really notice if the place sucks." They just blink.

But a more specific drinking mom story is as follows: I went to a staff-recommended bar on the river with a different group of Irishmen, and on the way, a couple of them started playing football (that's soccer to us American dolts) in the street with a water bottle. The time comes for Josh to walk a little ahead of the group and not answer when called. Surely enough, in swoop the police, like angry bats with guns. I watched from a distance, and when things were looking less favorable (because of the language barrier, and because the Irishmen had left their passports at the hostel), I stepped in and asked the officer in Slovak if he understood Russian. He said he did, and I told him that I'd been watching them, and they hadn't broken anything or caused any trouble. He asked to see my passport. When he saw I was American, he gave me a look of surprise and utter confusion. He showed my passport to his colleague, and they had a whispered conversation. He turns to me and says to the Irishmen "ok, there is no problem. Go home." Home we went, but we stopped at the river bar first. I didn't buy anything, because beer was $4/bottle. That's even ridiculous by American standards. But, like the tourists they were, even though they complained the whole time, my party shelled out for drink after drink (including a couple for me, out of gratitude). Instead, I just basked in the accomplishment of saving five drunken Irishmen from the brawny arms of the Bratislava police. There's always a way to get your drinks for free...even if you're a guy. It usually just involves a little cleverness and goodwill.

Going back to beer prices, modern Bratislava was designed by former commie party bosses to wring tourists of their money as quickly and efficiently as possible. It's an objective scientific/historical fact. Prague was about 15% tourist trap. Bratislava (the part of it worth seeing, anyway) is about 60% tourist trap. In restaurants, though there are menus and price lists, the amount you're charged here can often vary from waiter to waiter, bartender to bartender. The reliable thing, however, is the price quoted you is inevitably higher than the one on the menu.

In conclusion, I think the Czech Republic spoiled me a little bit. Bratislava's castle was a little disappointing, but from the castle overlook, I noticed that Slovakia uses wind power. Pretty exciting, I think. I'll put it this way. If I hadn't started in Prague, Bratislava would be super cool. But now it seems more But there's hockey here, so I'm happy, and mostly free of distractions.

Speaking of distractions, I like comments. Give me comments. Loads of them.

I love and miss you all...especially those of you who are back at Sewanee, you lucky bastards.

Josh Harris, friend of police and hooligans alike

Friday, August 24, 2007

Self-Mutilation and the Superfluous Man.

Moto GP/Hungarians

Between being sociable and scrambling to find pickup hockey in the summer, I haven't written in a substantial while. However, this is not for a lack of eventful happenings. When we last left our hero (laff laff), he was walking the Brno 15k. Since then, I've returned to the new rink twice to skate; it's the best ice I've ever gotten to play on--really hard and smooth. The skate was a lot more crowded than the ones in Prague, but there was still plenty of room. The European rink provides a lot more space and room for finesse, but it also makes public skates a lot less chaotic. Needless to say public skates are also substantially faster than in the ice-barren backwaters of Arkansas. The new rink is near the old rink. The old rink had its roof cave in sometime in the last two years, and it has since been overrun by gangs and other people of suspect character. It's quite a place, even from a distance...I didnt' really want to go very close.

I actually made it to the charity game I mentioned in my last post. It was a lot of fun, and you could see the players' unbelievable skill, but you could also tell that they were just having a good time out there. It was no contact, and the final score was 13-10. Jagr's Team won (big surprise). It was awesome, however, to see so many talented players in one place. As something of a non sequitur, the girl at the hostel reception desk told me I looked like Ales Hemsky, one of the goal scorers for the Unicef team. Cool. The beer was also ludicrously find me a stadium in America where the beer is $1.50. Go ahead. I dare you. When you find it, tell me so I can go camp in the parking lot.

Ice continues to be elusive. Public skates are only on weekends here, and I'm beginning to get a little frustrated. Part of me wants to stay in Brno beyond my ten days, because I feel like I must have overlooked something, but about 80% of me knows that it's in my best interests to just move on. It is summer, after all. There's not an empty football pitch in this whole town, and they're rife with walk-on games. There's a word for this whole situation, and methinks that word is dammit. By October I hope to be up to my ankles in pucks and ice shavings. (I should be careful what I wish for. I hear Poland is very cold, so the ice shavings might just be in the rink parking lots.) It's getting a shade colder every day, I think, which means soon I'm going buy another several pounds of luggage...winter clothing. Just what the Iditarod dog needs: another ten or fifteen pounds in the sled.

I've met even more characters in Brno than I did in Prague...and I was in Prague a solid twelve days more than I've been here. A brief cross-section of the stories:

Unbeknownst to me, Brno is the host site of one of the biggest motorcycle races in Europe. 100,000+ people (and it seems like just as many motorcycles) clog the city and turn it into a tumult for three days, and then leave a wake of burning rubber and empty beer bottles. And I thought this place was quiet.
The first night of the Moto GP, I met Vidor, Adam, and Mike, three Hungarians who told me that I'd never want for food, lodging, or things to do while I was in Hungary. I took them to a decent Czech place. I swear to god they drank nothing but absinthe the entire time they were here.
My Italian friend Matteo and I made a habit of getting delicious (if slightly dodgy) Gyros from a 24 hour place almost every night he was here. I've been trading idioms with other English speakers. An Aussie injected "Dodgy" into my vocabulary, I gave her "sketchy" as a present from the good old U.S. of A. I now also end many sentences with an interrogative "yeah?"

Lightheartedness aside, Matteo and I also saw something really alarming a couple of nights ago. I was keeping Matteo company while he smoked on the porch, and a guy came up to ask him for a cigarette. Matteo obliged, and he offered us a pull of his vodka. As I was taking him up on his offer, I noticed the kitchen knife in his right hand. A warning flag went up, but just as I was about to go inside and retreat from the possibly unpleasant developing situation, I noticed his left arm was dripping blood. Three straight, deep lines were carved into his arm, and the trail behind him was long and wide. I used my still fairly regrettable Czech to ask him what had happened, and he told me he'd done it to himself, over a girl. I guess it turns out my Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA) training was useful after all. I went inside to the first aid kit, and got the poor bastard a beer while I was at it. I was trying to tell him what to do as I dressed his wounds, but here my Czech abilities came to a grinding halt. Fortunately he spoke some English. He said he wanted to stay with us or go back out, since his father was on his way to pick him up. He went on to say that he hated his father. We kept him busy until dear old dad arrived. I thought it was probably better that way, since I was sure his family must have been worried sick, and the hostel probably didn't want blood-covered sheets. His father, brother, and girlfriend arrived in trio, and what followed was not for me to see. So that was my harrowing experience and good deed for the week. I think I'm actually still a little shaken up.

I also recieved an employment offer from an entrepreneur who's traveling around the world making contacts. It was an odd conversation, because what started out as a friendly conversation quickly became a job interview. My interview skills are good as ever, I suppose, because he wanted, in a few years, to make me director of American operations for Transcendental LTD. I told him I'd see.

Some of you may notice that one of my friends from Prague, Dominque, dedicated a song to me on facebook...Drinking Beers with Mom. This hearkens back to a fun Prague anecdote and foreshadows a fun Brno anecdote. One night I took care of my British metal buddies in Hostel Ujezd, and Dominique watched most of it and helped too. She said I was like the Hostel's "Drinking Mom." I've come to be pretty thrilled about this title, frankly. Last night I helped a big guy stand up and not pass out/throw up in the hostel hall. My legacy continues.

I think I'm more or less done in Brno; I feel stuck in a rut here, even though it's beautiful and peaceful enough. I think it probably doesn't help that the hostel is closing, and being in a place where things are ending and winding down generally puts me in a bad mood. I spent two hours today debating whether or not to leave the hostel. Oblomov lives. I think it's time for a change of scenery. I'll see what Bratislava has to offer; Slovakia, from what I hear, has a more favorable exchange rate, and lots of culture strewn among awful Communist buildings. Wish me luck.

Brno's ONLY Oblomovistic Drinking Mom,

J. Brandon Harris

Sunday, August 19, 2007

La Vie Greyhound

And I thought I was doing so well, too. I stretched my final hours in Prague as much as I could; I had a final beer with my British metal boys, said fond goodbyes to everyone at Ujezd...basically I didn't leave the hostel until 23:30. I knew I would be cutting it close. I caught the Metro at Narodni Trida thinking of all the chaotic transfers I would have to perform. When I got on the Metro, however, I remembered that the yellow line intersects with the red line at Florenc, the national bus station. For a short trip like Praha-Brno, the train ticket was $45, the bus ticket was $6. The price difference pretty much made my decision for me. I thought I was the bees' knees. I hauled all 55kg of luggage to the bus station without inconvenience or problem. Then began the shitstorm maelstrom. I arrived to a VERY empty bus station. Workers were hosing off the cobblestones, garbage collectors were collecting the garbage (as they are wont to do). Hmm. Suddenly a very official-looking man came up to me and said "the station closes at 12" in Czech. In my mind, I repeatedly smacked my forehead. Why didn't it occur to me that the bus station would close? Bollocks. It was a "dammit" moment, ala being stranded in Nashville when there was no room for me on the Greyhound back to Memphis. Only this time, instead of being a felicitous "when life gives you lemons" moment, I realized I had nowhere to put my luggage. No lockers anywhere. I considered biting the bullet and taking a night train, but that would have involved much more hauling than I was frankly willing to do. No, instead, I couldn't remove the words "it's gonna be a LOOOOONG night" from my thoughts. And a long night it was indeed.

I set up camp outside the bus station at 00:30. I unsheathed my hockey stick and placed it on my lap to fend off the homeless. It sort of worked, until a man who smelled like body odor, unwashed flesh and rotten garbage came up to me. He wanted a cigarette. I obviously didn't have one, but someone had left an empty pack beside me. Now, know that this man was a trash collector. Not the kind who works for the city, but the kind who collects garbage for fun. Something of a hobby. He carried an impossibly grungy little plastic bag full of...whatsit. I gave him the empty pack, and he smiled with unabated delight. I'd made a friend; it was a pity that he was a friend I was not especially interested in having. I worked on my broken Czech, but between his grunts and mumbles, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to understand him even if I spoke fluently. To be frank, this guy was giving me a rash in a very bad way. When I told him I was American, his eyes lit up. He had something very important to tell me about...well, who else...John F. Kennedy. Screw the single bullet theory. Some homeless dude in Prague did it. He finally left me alone and I wrote some very odd things in my journal, like

"when you're human, the world is your oyster. When you're a dog, the world is your toilet. Dogs win."

After writing for about half an hour, an affable sort of drunk stumbled over and introduced himself as Jan. He was impressed by and interested in my hockey gear. Not the "I'm going to take you down an alley, beat the shit out of you, and steal your stuff" kind of interested, mind you, but the "I'm a fan of hockey" kind of interested. We talked as best we could about Czech hockey. Between his slurring and my inability to put together a coherent sentence, this was an interesting endeavor. Finally we gave up and played street hockey for about half an hour in the bus station parking lot. I figured it was high time for the game to end when the ball rolled under the wheel of a van...a police van. I went around the side to get my ball and I was greeted by four Czech police officers. I think I made their night. They were surprised to see someone playing hockey in a bus station parking lot at 3:00, and greeted me, "dobri vecer!" with an intonation of "well boo! who the hell are you?". After I talked to them a little, they asked if they could play. Then one of the officers (who was quite good, by my reckoning) started playing with the drunk. Yes. I played street hockey with a drunk and an officer of the law. I returned to my former post, the drunk went his stumbling merry way, and the officer bid me fond regards. Bizarre. I caught the 5:15 bus to Brno after my time in Bizarro-World Bus Station PurgatoryLand, and as soon as I found the hostel (at 9:15), I slept the sleep of the dead. I walked around the city center a bit, but that pales in comparison to my first full day in Brno.

The Brno 15k

I explored far more of the city than I really wanted to. I was seeking Hala Rondo, an old professional venue. (Incidentally, I'll be watching Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Pavel Kubina, and other NHL stars play in a charity game there on Tuesday.) I never found the damn place, but I ended up walking through the very edge of civilization, past mile after strange mile of fenced-in gardens...all tilled and worked by old people. "Well...this tears it. If I were in America, I would know I wasn't in Kansas anymore when I started seeing car dealerships." It was a day of self-fulfilling prophecy. Half a mile later...SAAB! VOLVO! VYPRODEJ! (sale). I winced a little. The car dealerships are almost always on the city's very periphery. I gave up on finding Hala Rondo; I had two more search options. Since I had no idea where "Sportovni" Boulevard was, I decided to shoot for a rink in Kralovo Pole, in the northwest of the city. I walked toward the nearest thing resembling sentient life and went north...north north north, following the Kralovo Pole signs through other suburbs. Apparently I did an utterly massive end-around on the city center, because I walked from the Southwest corner of the city all the way to the Northeast corner. My feet were wont to fall off, and I was dead close to giving up (I was miserably tired and it was raining to boot). Kralovo Pole isn't a street. It's a damn district. I had a lot of street-combing to do. I came to a wide street lined with factories. "I'm going to laugh my ass off if this is Sportovni." The day of self-fulfilling prophecy continued. Big red letters, "Sportovni." I dropped to my knees and started cackling maniacally as I got utterly drenched. From there I found the newest rink in Brno in short order, and went inside to watch a team play--a team that I could keep up with. It was the coldest I've been in years. I was wearing a soaked t-shirt in a 34-degree room. But I stuck it out and watched the whole game. I tried talking to some of the players afterward. No one spoke English, though, and they didn't seem especially interested in interacting with me. Better luck next time.

My free time has been spent talking politics with Hungarians and speaking Russian with Italians. How's that for weird? This trip just gets more and more surreal with each passing day.

In other news, I missed America for the first time today. Allow a rephrase: I was on the level with myself about missing America for the first time today. My parents are getting a new house and all my friends are going back to school VERY soon, and as solipsistic as this sounds, it's difficult to imagine all these things going on, all these people and places I love and care about...happening...without me. Batesville and Sewanee were fairly seminal parts of my life for the last...well, let's just say forever, and I'm frankly pretty sad at the prospect of not having them as parts of my life anymore. I miss helping my mom in the kitchen. I miss hanging out in my single with my friends. I miss going to flea markets with my father. I miss my fraternity, my professors, and the Society of Pretentious Film. I miss my Batesville friends and Heber Springs mischief. I even miss going to class (yeah, it's that bad).

And at the end of the day, I've decided that it's okay. It gives me something to anticipate on shitty days. Today, however, is not a shitty day. It's actually pretty beautiful, and I think I'll go for a walk and a brisk skate. Comments, as always, are not just welcome, but encouraged.

Love and best wishes.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

First Taste of Ice, a Strange Passage through the Land of the Gypsies, and Other Final 2007 Praha Adventures (Read: Wandering Rocks)

I have a hell of a lot of news to send your way, folks. Last you read, I was waiting until Monday, when the public rink opened. Since Saturday, life has been more or less a nonstop adventure...I've been so busy I haven't even had time to journal. Gag. I'll try to remember everything in chronological order, but for the purposes of keeping the narrative bite-sized, I'm breaking it up into subheadings. Here we go; hold on, cause there will be a lot of gear shifting.

The German Ladies Go to Malebolge (But Josh Avoids Vanni Fucci)

Shortly after composing my blog on Saturday, I went out with the usual suspects--as though there is any such thing as "usual" here--and met, among others, two German girls. We talked about classical music and literature, and I consequently recommended Kutna Hora (the ossuary) to my fourth group of folks. They were slated to depart the next day, Sunday, and they were bound by train to Bratislava. I asked them their point of departure, and when they answered "Hlavni Nadrazi" I just said "oh." I wandered across Hlavni Nadrazi once, but that was during a cozy midday. Regardless, the place was crawling with mumbling, half-conscious homeless people in various degrees of intoxication and mental imbalance. I turned on my heel and left. These ladies, however, were taking the 1:00 am train to Bratislava. If the place was questionable during the day, I was fairly terrified to think of its nocturnal dwellers. Hence I decided the only gentlemanly and safe thing to do was to escort Carol and Ruth. After hunting down some postcards, we caught the last metro to Hlavni Nadrazi and had an hour to kill. Ruth and Carol wanted to go outside to smoke and drink coffee, so I went with them. Through the duration of my stay in Prague, I've wondered "so, where are the Gypsies? There are supposed to be Gypsies here." I found them. A whole lot of them. And they were all staring at me and the two little German girls...whispering, talking among themselves at a suspicious distance. I looked at the girls and said "ladies, I recommend you finish your smokes now. I'd really prefer to be somewhere that isn't here." Before going, I made sure to say "it's time for our train" in as many languages as I knew and at reasonable volume. By this point, I was trying to avoid having them waiting for me when the girls got their train. There were about fifteen of them by now, and, as expected, they milled around the only exit door as soon as we went in, but I kept making furtive glances back, and they were moving en masse toward another section of the train station. I'd like to think my little ruse worked, because I didn't see any of them when I walked out sporting my Muscovite scowl. The rest of my night was uneventful, but it was about the scariest moment on the trip yet. I'm quite glad I did it, though, because they seemed especially interested in the Germans.


Upon my return to the Hostel, there was a Brit nigh-dead drunk on the computer. I thought I'd strike up a conversation with him. He had been touring death metal fests all over Europe, and he was trying his damnedest to order a Nine Inch Nails ticket online. Though drunk off his face, He was a good guy, and since fine motor skills were eluding him, I helped him put in his info. I figured if I helped him buy the ticket, I'd have some company to the concert. Helping a drunk dude type in his credit card information is a special and irrevocable bond, I think. He thanked me profusely the next day and we've been buddies ever since.

Skating, no hockey

Monday came (as it often does,) and it was to be a big one. When I read about the public skating thing, it mentioned that they allowed you to play hockey, as long as you were careful. Coming from a U.S. public skating culture of insurance liabilities, I found that unlikely, so instead of buying sticks before I went, I thought I'd scope out the territory first. I thought it was better to skate than look like a weirdo with a hockey stick. (To be fair, though, anyone in Arkansas who owns a hockey stick looks like a weirdo, so you'd think I'd be used to it by now.) I had a good skate, and it seems the walks around Prague have been good for my endurance. But sure enough, there were guys playing hockey, and damn was I jealous. Furthermore, I could actually keep up with them. I checked the bench to see if they had extra sticks, but no. But I had learned a valuable piece of information--it only took me two and a half danm weeks to find, but I found a place to practice.

Stick Shopping Shenanigans

To my shame, I don't know the Russian word for hockey stick, much less the Czech one. So when I go stick shopping, I speak English. I speak English with a crankypants old hockey shopkeeper lady who knows about ten words of English. This proves to be unfortunate, since her English totally overlaps with my Czech. I even tried "baton," but she spoke less French than she did English. The communication breakdown was insurmountable, but when I asked her if she took credit cards (in Czech,) she directed me to an ATM. She took my absence as a handy opportunity to close the hockey shop half an hour early. Dammit.

NIN concert
I had to go back to the Slavia Praha rink later that day, but not for a game. I had the most awesome concert of my life to see. Pete and I went together, and the concert defied words. It was packed, and I might have heard three people speaking Czech out of the cast of thousands.


A bizarre karaoke dive bar followed. I thought it best to avoid singing Russian songs, so I opted for "Sultans of Swing" instead, and brought the house down. Then Pete's metal friends and I more or less screamed AC/DC's "Back in Black" all together. Not artful, but certainly entertaining. On the way back, Pete got propositioned by three prostitutes. He smiled at them, so I guess he had it coming. As a general rule, after 21:00, the Muscovite scowl comes on. It's served me well so far.

If at first you don't succeed...

Yesterday was chaos. I had too many things to do, and too few of them involved hockey for my liking. The obvious thing to do, therefore, was put off the non-hockey stuff for today. I'm on a mission, dammit, and it's a hockey mission. Stick shopping took an eternity, but I succeeded, because I had the money when I got there, and though the lady was clearly displeased, she took my money regardless. Victory was mine. I dashed to the public skating rink (on the other side of Prague) and 17:40. The rink closes at 18:00, but I got in a good brisk stick and puck skate. From there, I went to watch a fantastic movie about the Beastie Boys at the Island Outdoor Cinema. Then to bed, because I had a long day the next day.

And I Still Do...

I got my final fix of touristy Prague at St. Vitus' Cathedral, where I started to put together my photo montage of Eastern European stained glass as something of a side project. I climbed the 287 steps again to the top of the great south tower, and now I'm writing my final entry while I still have reliable internet. I'm sure I'll have a good story about getting a report from the Prague police, transit to Brno, and my final few hours of hockey in Prague. Speaking of, I have to get to the rink so I can get a couple of hours in before my chariot awaits. I know this one was rather long, but your comments are appreciated.

One city down, 30+ to go.



Saturday, August 11, 2007

Biding Time Until Monday.

I'd like to begin by thanking everyone for their encouragement. You have no idea how supported and cared for I feel, and that's incredibly valuable. I'm thousands of miles away from home, and I'm surrounded with people whom I socialize for a few days, and then we part ways. I have fun, but I miss the comfort of knowing people, and, furthermore, knowing that I can build lasting friendships with the company I keep. It's very difficult (impossible?) to do that in a hostel (hostile?) atmosphere, and it touches me deeply to know that I have such a network of supportive and kind people cheering me on. So thank you again, and I promise the preceding statements are the closest to maudlin sentiment I'll ever come in this blog.

Now to begin. It's been a while since my last update, and, quite frankly, that's because I haven't done a whole hell of a lot. I watched another day of games out at Slavia, and I honestly didn't see anywhere I would fit in. One of the pluses to the restaurant over the ice is that no one speaks English. It's a very culturally immersive atmosphere, and very good for my pronunciation. One of the minuses, however, is that no one speaks English. It's hard to make connections. I was thinking of talking to my bartender friend, having him call Jakob, and then buying Jakob drinks, dinner, and a couple rounds of pool if he'd be my interpreter and help me talk to coaches and rink staff. Then the rains came. It's been more or less torrential since Wednesday afternoon, and the weather was essentially prohibitive to any journey more than a kilometer from my hostel. The day it started, Thursday, I went to Charles Bridge at sunrise after staying up all night in the hopes of recovering the amazing pictures that were on my last camera (grumble grumble). The sky was clear until first light, then the clouds came in. Then the clouds turned grey. Then the clouds turned black and the bottom fell out. Before weather got too inclement, though, I had another rather regrettable experience with my countrymen. I was walking around on the bridge and heard the harsh twang of what could only be a Tennessee accent; a group of college-age gentlemen (?) were milling about, and I figured it couldn't hurt to investigate.

"Where y'all from?"

"Tennessee, man, and we're FUUUUUUUUUUCKed UUUUUUUUUUP."

"That's cool. I'm from Tennessee too, and I'm dead tired and sober as a sober stick."

Hence began a discussion of common acquaintances. (Names will be changed to protect the not-so-innocent). Finn, a UT-Knoxville student knew several Sewanee Kappa Alphas, and if you're known by the company you keep...well, suffice to say all parties involved have fairly low standing. They told me about their adventures in the five-story club on the Vltava, drunk as hell and zooed on ecstasy all night long. One gentleman regaled me of his unprotected untoward actions with a certain young the club bathroom stall. Oh, woe is me, to think of the unctuous lavatory passion I must have missed with the Bulgarian Beauty (swoon). And yes, poor Finn had to pay for it, but, as he said with a big dumb grin on his face, "man, I was just so hammered I didn't even care. She only wanted like $1,000 kc" (approx. US$50). I mumbled something under my breath about how I had little doubt that Chlamydia would be a lovely name for the forthcoming baby. The Tennesseeans had made plans to go to Kutna Hora, and they said they wanted me to come too, since I knew what was up. I do indeed know what's up, but I also know that, like the golden boys, these fellows should suffer a little. Maybe they will. Just remember kids, the sexual act in a standing position averages six to eight minutes. But human papilloma virus, like a diamond, is forever.

So since I've been more or less cooped up, I've been pissing my hostelmates off by hogging the internet. They want to check facebook; I have research to do. They can wait. I may have found a place to play at long sweet last. The T-Mobile Arena, a place with 15,000 capacity, seemed like an unlikely choice. It was. When I first scouted the T-Mobile out, however, I failed to notice the smaller building behind the monstrosity. That is the Mala Sportovni Hala...the little ice rink. Right under my nose, it was. I went there in the rain with skates and gloves in hand, but the place was, drumroll please, CLOSED. The arena restaurant was open, though, and the bar girl understood enough English to say "Otrevno Podelnik" (open Monday). So monday will be chaos. I'll skate, if not play hockey, from 14:00-18:00, and then have just enough time to clean up before the Nine Inch Nails concert at eight.

In other news, the count of people who say I speak English poorly is up to three. I really think I'm going to keep a running tally now. Apparently I "do not know how to articulate." The count is as follows: Germany 1, France 2, Josh nought. Being able to laugh things off has proven priceless on this trip. It seems to me that part of being adaptable is being able to have a sense of humor about things, even when the situation isn't necessarily that funny. Europeans picking on my English, however, is HILARIOUS.

Pictures come up when I find a computer that doesn't suck.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

My First Smidgen of Prague Success

...was, in a word, terrifying. But it was multilevelled. I went to the rink down in southeast Prague. Though I didn't find the entrance to the rink, I found Restaurace Nad Ledem, which translates to "Restaurant Above the Ice." True to its billing, it was a restaurant with a big picture window that overlooked the rink. When I came in, they were running the Zamboni, so I ordered a Turkish coffee to pass the time. I ordered in (admittedly Russian-accented) Czech, and watched. The first group to come on was the youth elite team. Now, when I say youth, I mean ages 12-16. Though their skating was sometimes questionable...I was still pretty worried by the end of the session. Their puck skills are fantastic. "If these are just kids, how the hell am I going to keep up?" was the first question to spring to mind. But it had just begun. Next up was a summer league game--easily the most exciting game I've seen in a while. It was fast, clean, and full of finesse. These guys were 18-21, and I honestly wonder how many of them I'll see in the NHL someday. The game was between Slavia Praha (the home team) and the visiting Ceske Budejovice. Slavia Praha jumped out to an early 1-0 lead, but the visiting team scored four unanswered goals to make it 4-1 at the end of the second period. In the third, however, Slavia put three home and ended the game at 4-4. It was a fantastic comeback and a great game. My legs can keep up with most of them; my hands can't. These guys can pass, shoot, and stickhandle better than ANYTHING I ever saw in the states...yeah, Adam and Julien...if you're reading this, these guys would basically end you, except in one thing. Hitting. That's going to be my biggest asset, other than speed. The game was physical, but there weren't the brutal open-ice hits that I saw in the states. It's plenty legal here, but, if the youth practice was any indicator, they just don't teach it in Europe. The result is a much cleaner, faster game that's less about f=m*a and more about sharp puckhandling and passing. Again, it was amazing, though disheartening. If I learned a single thing, it's that I can't (obviously) keep up in the Czech Elite League...(you have no idea how relieved I was to hear that this team was composed of the best players in Prague). However, it provokes a question: where do the little guys play? You know, the ones who play for love of the game and all that frilly whatsit. Tomorrow I'm going inline rink scouting, and if it looks less formal, then I'll bite the bullet and go buy some inline hockey skates, which sucks, since I've already had one huge expenditure this week already.

Said expenditure prompts some good news, however. I replaced my camera, and I'll devote a day of this week to retracing my steps in Prague and making up for lost pictures. I suppose it's good that the theft occurred in my first city, in a way. The expenditure was also not as large as expected; it only came out to US $20 more than the one I got at Wal-Mart in the states. I got the same one not only because it was reliable, but I also suspected that acquainting myself with an electronics instruction manual written in Czech would be an exercise in frustration and possibly futility.

For my non sequitur of the day, I got really irritated when I was introducing myself to a couple of German girls at the hostel. I introduced myself in English and German, and they seemed more or less pleased. But when the conversation surpassed my German abilities (about two sentences later), the girl just made a snooty face and said "your American English is so bad. I cannot understand anything you say." It took every ounce of self control in my body to bite my tongue instead of saying "did it ever occur to you that YOUR English is the problematic part of this equation." I was a good boy, though, so I smiled and said guten nacht with a shit-eating grin on my face. So much for intercultural tolerance, sometimes. Just like the Frenchman the other day who came over and introduced himself. I introduced myself in French, and he asked me where I was from. When I told him "America," he grimaced and said "nobody's perfect, I guess." He hasn't spoken a word to me since. To put a positive spin on it, however, 85% of the Europeans I've encountered at least give me the benefit of the doubt; the above are just exceptions. I suspect that being able to grin and bear it when encountering anti-American sentiment will serve me well in my career prospects. It's a skill I'm developing.

Pictures are forthcoming.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Kielbasa of the Damned.

Hi there. My name is Josh Harris, and I've learned my lesson. I've learned my lesson not to eat ten-day-old unrefrigerated Hungarian spicy sausage. For the life of me I wanted to sally forth and watch the miracles of Czech hockey, but here's how my day went. My day didn't start until noon. I didn't sleep last night, because, in the interests of intercultural exchange, I taught a whole bunch of Italians and French folks how to play American card drinking games. En processe, I discovered that Italians cannot hold their liquor. All eight of them left drunk as skunks at 3:30 am, and I turned in their bottles for deposit money. Finders keepers, one would think, but because I'm a good sport, I used the money to buy them a round the next day and give them a good-natured ribbing. At any rate, noon befell me, sunlight and all, and I ate about half of this...sausage of the ancients. An hour later, I had a fever and was dizzy, sweating, and doing things to my bowels that would be best omitted from this blog. I didn't feel human again until about eight, when I had a fantastic meal. I'd never had roasted leg of rabbit before, but it was fantastic, ENORMOUS, and reasonably priced. I figure if I'm only averaging 1.5 meals a day, I might as well do those 1.5 right (Hungarian sausage excepted). In order to lead into the rest of the day's events, I'd like to wax philosophical for a moment.

I would really like to think that I'm doing America proud. I'm doing my damnedest to be inconspicuous, respectful, unobtrusive, and observant. And, at least in comparison to my countrymen, I think I'm probably doing a good job. I have become acquainted with two Americans from my hostel. They're a pair of baseball players from California. Read..."BASEball players." They're disgraceful. They're vile and have neither brains nor respect for women nor non-Americans. I've been babysitting the hell out of them, but tonight I figured it was time they recieved a comeuppance of some sort or another. So when the Jamaicans who sell pot and entice unwitting foreigners to come to the tourist-trappy titty bar accosted these gentlemen, I just stood back and watched. I thought it was time for them to learn their lesson. They're presumably still at yon Gomorrah, so more on that story as it develops. One of the Americans in question was especially excited about the free (green) sample which our...hmm...mountebank...yes, mountebank, Victor gave him. At that point Josh said "okay, these guys have crossed the stupidity line. Anything that happens from here, they have brought upon themselves." I stopped at a neighborhood bar, worked on my Czech, and here I am.
Earlier in the day I had an interesting encounter with a drunken Dutchman in the streets of Prague. I was out with my most recent company (six Italian guys and four French girls), and we all thought it would be fun to play with him a little and pretend we were of different nationalities. Most failed, but when I told him "Ya zhe Rossisskii chelovek," he believed me, but said with an inflection of utter puzzlement, "well, I'll be damned. You look Irish." Biggest complement I've gotten all week--granted, it's only Monday, but still...he complemented my language skills and my freckly good looks all at the same time. I'll be damned. So, assuming that there's no such thing as a food poisoning hangover, I'll be at least WATCHING the ice tomorrow. I also need to go camera shopping, which, I'm sure, will be a depressing endeavor, since electronics are fuck-all expensive here. Wish me luck and send me comments.

love for all, hugs for most, kisses for some.

America's #1 hooker deterrent,

J. Brandon Harris (because that other Josh Harris was a total wuss)

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Goodfellas Redux/Prague Spleen

The order of this entry is going to be a little backwards, because I'm dead set on using the following as my introductory line:

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to have an impromptu date with a Bulgarian hooker. I walk into the bar and a girl accosts me and says "hey, can I buy you drink?", which prompts me to think "my goodness, how novel," but also sends up a warning flag or two. We converse, and she's draping herself on me in ways that can only be described as unladylike. About a quarter of the way through my beer, she asks "so, you want to smoke grass? If you buy, I get really good stuff" (maybe it was from Memphis). Warning flags three and four come up. At about this time, I'm starting to get a more nuanced idea of this girl's...occupation, and the bar staff is looking at her with mixed degrees of disdain and disgust. I have backup in case anything gets strange, so at this point ít's a good idea to be a little know, go the extra step and turn this into an anecdote. She finishes her drink and says "okay, next I want shot of havana club rum...250 crowns. You buy." Now, the lady DID buy me a drink, so perhaps I owed it her, but 250 crowns is a shade less than $15. That's a fuck-off expensive drink in what was a pretty reasonable bar. I figured if I shelled out the money, I'd be buying something more than a drink. I pointed out that she wanted one hell of an expensive drink, and the subtlety fell off..."you give me drink money, you take me home."

I see.

"I thought such things were usually the consexquences of dinner and a're skipping a couple of steps." The grin on my face as I said this was irreverent and probably galling.

"You no like? You no want? My daddy will be here in couple hours, he give you better price. You no want?"


She gets up and goes off to work the room, and I mumble some Russian under my breath...tsiganka (Gypsy girl). Apparently this is close enough to the Czech word, because the barkeep stares me dead in the eye, nods firmly, and says something that sounds like"tochno"(exactly). The naughty lady of the night returns to the bar and asks me why I'm not gone yet. "I am running business here. If you no want, you leave." I smile and tell her I have a beer to finish. As guys come in, she keeps looking over to me angrily and saying "ciao. Ciao!" I just smile and nod.

This was the same bar where Fred, my French-Canadian friend, bought me my first nip of slivovice on the night prior. It's a 100-proof plum brandy that tastes like sin, orphans, and the liquid incarnation of suffering itself. After the shot, the only thing to say was "ow."

In other news, someone absconded with my camera yesterday. Dammit. I wake up; it's not in my locker, and I think "it's gonna be a BAD day." I was wrong. I found a place to play. Whether there are any openings for random Americans remains to be seen, but at the very least I can watch. I go first on Monday. More as things happen I spent last night more or less babysitting some people from my know, making sure they didn't go home with any Bulgarian hookers.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Too Many Stories, Too Little Time

Last I updated, my Bar friend was going to introduce me to his younger friend, Jakob. I thought we were going to the dacha. However, we went about Prague, and I saw some pretty alright places. in the process, I faced an interesting challenge--my Russian gets me by, but Jakob spoke no Russian. Furthermore, he spoke English very poorly. I had to will myself to make my vocabulary shrink so we could comunicate. It was an exercise in patience. Among the places we went, we hit up two little chuck e cheese-style billiard places. When Jakob lost two games, he complained that "heer tapels are baat". Obviously. So we went to another one. The tables were bad there too. ;-P
Here's where things get more complicated. The next day I met a really nice Indian guy named Deepak in my hostel, and we wandered around Prague until we met his pakistani friend. So let's talk about multiculturalism for a minute. An Indian, a Pakistani, and an American wander around Prague until they decide to take a bus to a little town outside Prague, Kutna Hora. Kutna Hora is known for several things: five-story communist apartment buildings, rubble, nice people, and Kostnice, a nice little 14th-century cistercian church in the woods. But it's no ordinary little church. It's an ossuary. The church is decorated with the bones of 40,000 dead, just waiting to inherit the kingdom of god. A chandelier utilizing every single human bone in its construction hung over the whole grisly procession, and a big graveyard was just outside the door. I told Deepak, "anyone who says that Christianity isn't a little fucked up needs to come here."

So this was the night of the thirtieth. Because of a booking error, I had nowhere to stay on the thirtieth. I ended up sleeping on the couch in Archie hostel, after checking several places for vacancies. That one took some smooth talking when the attendant came in the next morning. I slithered out of it and proceeded to haul my luggage across town. In the process, I've determined that I'm only staying in one hostel per city. Moving ONE of those bags across Prague would have been a nightmare, but two...well, with two I felt like I should be in the iditarod. My summer sled dog career over here seems to have more promise than My hockey career, though.
My efforts to play are continually thwarted. It's all closed. In the local woodwork, I hear whispered rumors of in-line hockey, and I remember hefting my inlines in my hands when I was packing and saying "nah...there's no way in hell I'm going to need these." Balls. But finding the rinks is rewarding, because I run across cool things everywhere I go. For instance, when scouting out a rink in southwest prague the other day, I stumbled on the Charles University Botanical Garden. It was gorgeous, and...well...I filched a tomato. Yes, I know, I'm ashamed too. It brings to mind a question Deepak asked me the other day: "Josh, do you think that life is a journey or a destination." Though I've always held this belief, It seems now more than ever that my life has very little to do with destinations, and everything to do with the things I encounter along the way.

"Never get out of the boat. Never get out of the boat...unless you're going all the way."

Instead of missing the states, I think it's more productive for everyone involved if I just wish you guys were here. So get your asses to Prague.

Hugs for most, kisses for some, love for all.

often licked, never beaten,

J. Brandon Harris, Conqueror of Europe.