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The drunk and brotherly Berlin Christmas

About: Berlin, December 2005

Written: in Gaithersburg, MD

The beginning of the Christmas evening was picture-book perfect, could have printed it on a postcard. We had gathered in an old apartment in East Berlin, a place belonging to one of my brother’s friends. These old buildings are wonderful – spacious rooms, tall ceilings, delightfully creaky floors. Everyone was prim and polite, nice shirts for the parents.

The company had the following composition. Our mother was there, and the host’s mother. They were the adults. Everyone else was my brother’s age, thereabouts, or younger. Also, most of them were artists and musicians of various stripes, most certainly more comfortable sucking cigarettes and beer at a bar. However, Christmas is a family holiday, so here we were – tables covered with an army of plates and polite conversations about jobs and vacation plans.

The dinner table, however, was just the façade. The kitchen housed a growing array of empty vodka bottles, even though only wine was served at the dinner. The younger people were serving dinner, and almost every trip to the kitchen was accompanied by a round of shots. As the evening wore on, the matrons grew content and sleepy. The youngsters grew their grins.

Eventually the dinner wrapped up, and we were dismissed like so many schoolchildren. The adults went to bed, and we practically ran out into the frosty air. The plan was simple – hit an immigrant bar with a live band and continue drinking on the way. Intoxication was our propellant.

Berlin is dotted with tiny stores that seem to be open at all odd hours. They are stocked with the goods you need at the odd hours – cheap liquor, cigarettes, and junk food. The store owner spoke neither Russian nor English, and I only speak a few broken words of German, yet we somehow got conversational. Seasonal greetings. My brother lives in Berlin and I love him. A bottle of vodka and a pack of smokes. It’s a cross-cultural kind of sentiment that anyone can relate to.

When booze enters the brain, it gets behind the emotional steering wheel and steps on the gas. Whichever way you were pointing before, that’s where you’re going. Alcohol does not decide on euphoria or loathing. It amplifies whatever you’ve got in you. Alcohol is not a steady driver, and if your mood swings, it swings all the way. Drinking a bottle of vodka is like climbing into a cannon and lighting a fuse. You really have no idea where you’ll end up. You could find yourself surveying a glorious and proud morning, or sniveling in tears on the floor of a stranger’s kitchen. The best protection is surrounding yourself with a group of happy people. Of course, artists are exactly the kind of people who are happy with a little swerving in their heads. Here, we hit paydirt.

There is no ban on open containers in Berlin. I chugged from my bottle an then waived it at a police cruiser. The officer did not care. He looked bored, and probably wrote me off as another dumb tourist.

The bar was housed underneath a raised highway. It was crammed with people speaking a slew of languages with a heavy Russian accent. The place seemed more like a subverted house or office than a club. One room was the bar. Another room kept a band playing covers of song from Russian movies – upbeat rock-n-roll and pop. A couple more rooms filled with couches, abandoned coats, and people whose minds have wandered off and gotten lost in the soft shadows.

As soon as we had walked in, my brother disappeared. One of his friends took me under his wing, taking responsibility for the little brother. He pulled me toward the bar for a drink. You stick to whatever is working, so it was vodka shots. There was a two-for-one special, and that was alright with us. The shot glasses were doubles. So four shots each to get us started.

Electric alcohol filled our veins. Food, company, music, brisk winter air – all these staved off the most disorienting stages of intoxication. Time, as is its habits in the protracted infinite midnight hours of revelry and drink, curled up on the soft edges of things. Alcohol compresses and intensifies every experience. Lag may accumulate in your mind, perceptions becoming less precise, yet the sense of connected grows. Eventually, however, everything tips over into a vortex.

The vortex bars perception of time and space. Vertigo may occur with disastrous consequences. Yet even in the vortex it is possible to hold. The swirling reality is a fantastic adventure if you can keep your feet. It is like falling down an infinite tunnel. If you can keep clear of the walls, it is an exhilarating trip and the walls rushing by present a fascinating, if senseless picture. Though should you catch a wall, or encounter a particularly mean-spirited gust of wind, the flight turns into a terrifying and painful tumble.

The vortex found me when I took four consecutive shots of whiskey. I set down the shotglass and felt its instant pull. There was no resisting it. The world began to dissolve, and time became disordered. My memory became a chaotic mesh of images and perceptions steeped in a soup of music and smoke. Everything is anchored at a singular point – my forehead touching the cool tiled wall above a urinal. The rest of the club is a spectacular, spinning flourish.

Miraculously, the vortex deposited everyone gently in street. The feeling of that moment can be described thus – coats carelessly flung open. Everyone carried the heat of the club and the booze. As the large group debated what to do about breakfast, smaller groups separated and went off.  A guy from our group left with a girl who was decided not his girlfriend. The vortex must have tripped him up after all. His actual girlfriend was still with us but too drunk to notice.

This late in the night, there is a point where everyone needs to sit down for a bit, try to slow down and recapture their spinning reality. It’s not just a matter of making the walls stop their dance – the thoughts and emotions are doing the same thing. Yet as everyone who’s been through a trip like this know, there is an opportunity for a moment of spellbinding clarity here.

Soon we settled around someone’s apartment. A dozen people or so arranged themselves into the crooks and nannies of arm chairs and sofas. Conversations turned to arguing about music and movies. Memories of the past few hours formed a tinkling mess, like a heap of Christmas lights, and everyone sunk into the camaraderie afterglow that descends at the far end of an adventure, when you’ve reached the safe harbor.

I was in the kitchen with some bearded hippie. We were making pelmeni (Russian dumplings that are boiled). I was tending the pot while he was wrestling with another frozen package and eyeing me with suspicion – I lived in the States and therefore would not be qualified for this job. I returned his gaze and said my mother is from Siberia and I’ve been making these as long as I remember. He nodded sagely, and all was copacetic again.

Drunks don’t realize they are hungry until they are presented with food, at which point they become positively ravenous. Benders come with deep stomach pits. They devoured everything the hippie and I made. We probably stopped eating when we stopped cooking.

Somewhere in the back of the mind there is an awareness that you must get home. Though you may be in the cozy center of the universe, your own bed has a sweet magnetic raw on you. My brother and I walked out into the light grey morning and headed home.

We were the only ones in the street car, gently rocking along a similarly empty street. There was no more talking. It is the quietest stretch of time of the whole night. We simply shared the silence, the calm scenery quietly drifting by, the soft illumination of a clouded sky. The city was snug under the low cloud covers. My brother and I watched it dream. And that was all there was left. To be carried home by the momentum of the night.

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First dance

Written: May 7, 2011, in DC

About: blues dancing

Just as there is only one first kiss, there is only one first dance you have with someone. Sometimes that’s an instantly meaningful experience – when you simply know that the person is special, and you feel anxious about the approaching song’s end. Then sometimes it’s just another dance in a long line of dances.

Blues can be an especially intimate first dance. Not much structure in blues, at least compared to lindy or bal. It is much more about the musicality and the physical connection. The connection… There are two basic stances. The first is essentially a lindy position. The lead cradles the follow’s back as she lets him have her weight so the dancers counter-balance each other.

The close position is an embrace. The connection point starts at the hip and runs along the bodies all the way to the shoulders. Whereas in the open position the dancers essentially hang back from each other, here they lean in. The tiniest, most nuanced movements are transferred instantly between the dancers. The details that could easily be overlooked before – the position of the hand, the angle of the bodies, the tilt of the head – become meaningful. It’s not about the patterns anymore, it’s about moving precisely and together.

Of course, plunging into something of the sort with a stranger is not always easy. A gentlemanly lead lets the follow stay where she is most comfortable, and so the first dance will almost always start out in the open position. Though if the music is right, if it’s quite the vibe that both people are looking for, the comfort seeps in slowly, stepping closer with every chord and bar.

It is possible to slowly slide from one position into another. So upon a mutual but unspoken agreement, the follow will begin to drift closer. Her hand slowly walks up the lead’s shoulder. His hand comes to rest in the middle of her back, gently drawing her in. The bodies twist around each other slightly. The movements slow down as the conversation turns more private. Tension and apprehension of the first dance melt away. The follow’s head rests tenderly against the lead’s shoulder.

Of course, that is when blues really begins. When you both breathe out at ease, and just dance.


Exit, Stage West

Written: April 3, 2011

About: Tucson

I have lived in Tucson for about seven and a half years. That’s the second longest I’ve lived anywhere, and now I’m having the strange realization that Tucson is a place on the road, and no longer home. Well, perhaps it is a bit more than a place on the road. After all, having spent so much time here, I know how Tucson lives. I’ve seen it change. I have stores and stores of memories from here – from heartbreaking to euphoric to simply strange. Still, even though I can never be a tourist here, I’m not quite a local either.

The end of my stay here is not without its poetic moments. Since my new job is not covering my moving expenses, I’ve had to get rid of almost everything I own since I can’t afford to move it. All of my furniture, a lot of my clothes, much of my kitchenware, my computes. The only things which I have pretty much refused to give up are books and music. I have boxes full of volumes and CDs. An attachment that is sure to cost me in the near future.

My dance shoes have finally been worn through. These shoes have survived for about six years – an incredible feat for the kind of abuse that these shoes have taken. And my final weeks in Tucson is when they have finally started showing holes. Another chapter, another chapter, right?

The train of things leaving my hands has been enlightening. It’s been nice to realize that even though I haven’t had all that much, I actually need even less. Whether it’s something I’ve given away, or threw away, or sold, I’ve felt lighter and more empowered with each bit. It is a good feeling, knowing that I will rocket into a new life minimally encumbered. I want to carry memories and experiences, not items.

There is a beautiful and serene view of the Tucson sunrise from the A Mountain, just around the corner from the smoked-through, piss- and beer-stained Buffet. The cool Tucson night, bearing within it the improv and dancing madness – hours and hours of idealists imbibing and sweating their passions. So many stars in this night, an endless field of golden flickers so vast and deep. Cross the Gates Pass and get lost in this infinity, spend a good hour conversing with the distant worlds. Or if you want someone closer, there is Broadway Café and the Grill, always open and always up for a good conversation. What’s better than a milkshake and some hashbrowns to grease your mind and tongue, anyway. I’m walking down a street, bottle of Jack in my hand (my girlfriend), grinning, feeling punk, bounding up the stairs and into the house for an improv jam that will blow everything into the stratosphere. How much liquor have I poured into myself in these years? Enough to keep this burn alive. There’s blues on, and it’s blues like I’ve never heard before. There’s blues on. Someone is so very close, moving with me in comfort and perfection. The tiniest of movements like the loudest of words. My hands are covered in dark oil and tiny specks of aluminum and steel, a sharp and reassuring smell of the cutting fluid. The sun is out, wrapping everything in its fiery embrace. And then there is the sunset under a gradient sky, with the burning red mountains as the backdrop. And all the while, the saguaro whistle their quiet songs in the wind.

I’ve gone through so much here, and I miss you already, Tucson.

Kleine Arizona

Jan 1, 2011

Grünow, Germany

The scene was improbable, if not entirely absurd. In the midst of the frozen German country side, in a tiny village of Ollendorf, I was sitting in a cowboy-styled saloon, drinking Jim Beam, and listening to My Achy Breaky Heart. A bit earlier, a drummer and a guitar player took the stage, playing a few American classics, including putting out a very zealous Knocking on Heaven’s Door. The guitarist, who did all the singing, spot on, in English, did not actually speak English.

Yet, however unlikely, the place is real. It is called Ollendorf Saloon, and a guy named Hajo runs the joint. (He is also the drummer mentioned above; together with the guitarist and a couple of other people they make up a country rock band called Purple Boots.) It is not a gig from a cross-cultural comedic movie. It is simply there, making the world a slightly better place because of its genuine zest (and a little bit of absurdity).

We shared the table with a German couple. We mended a conversation out of bits of Russian, German, and English. Mostly we agreed that beer is good. So is vodka. Whiskey was up to some debate. The conversation was punctuated by smoking, orders for more alcohol, and dancing.

The saloon itself was a fairly small place. The space was only large enough for about four tables with a few chairs about. One side of the room was the stage, permanently adorned with a drum set bearing the Purple Boots logo and stacks of amps. Hajo takes music seriously. The other end is a small bar. Mostly it’s stocked with beer (on average, far superior to any actual saloon in the States) and wine, as well as a lone bottle of whiskey. Behind the bar are the bathrooms (also far superior to any actual saloon in the States).

Another note on the music. Most of the night, the choice was techno. That is not unusual for a German setting, but downright bizarre for an actual saloon (unless the jukebox somehow finds Rednex, the Swedish country / techno band). Many of the techno tracks sampled over actual country songs. I’m not sure whether that made the scene more or less strange. Eventually, Hajo did switch to a more traditional American bar fare (including a live recording of Achy Breaky Heart). This portion of the night also included Wonderful Tonight, a rare song by Eric Clapton I actually like. It made me miss my blues-dancing friends terribly. There is something to be said about the luxury of almost always having dancer friends around. You don’t appreciate it until a good song comes on, and they’re thousands of miles away.

The customers were enthusiastic, but drunk people are usually are, especially on New Year’s Eve. I don’t think they were enthusiastic specifically for the saloon setting. However, on this account, Hajo himself made up in spades. He was positively brimming with pride in the establishment. His daughter appeared to generally share in his love of the cowboy culture – she actually learned decent two-step swing.

How the saloon came into existence is a gem in itself. Hajo, apparently, has long loved the American South-West, specifically Arizona, and the cowboy culture. However, he was never able to afford to go there. So he decided to do the next best thing – build a Western saloon. This action itself is so undeniably romantic and beautiful, I actually feel better about the human race because of it. It’s a great thing that people like Hajo still exist.