This World Over

“Will you tell them about that far off and mythical land. . .” – XTC “This World Over”

I am Andy Candor, 31 years-old, American and hungry.  I consider myself a crack traveler.  I am non-threatening, engaging, intelligent, empathetic, alert, and open.  Like an improvisational actor, I accept what my fellows players suggest to me.  I do not deny the construction of an edifice as long as no one gets hurt when it falls down.  I tend to thrive where people speak English and can boast of previous success stories from extended stays in the UK, Western Europe, Scandinavia, and Southeast Asia.  In these particular realms I have indulged myself, acknowledged the shortness of life and, most importantly, I have gained proficiency at dealing with myself.

Tomorrow I leave my hometown of Hogtowne, Florida for a month long study abroad in Ireland and the UK.  Right now I am I packing my Tumi roller bag and contemplating taking a cigarette break before packing up my expensive and hip Freitag laptop bag which I bought in Amsterdam a few years ago.  Smoking is a disgusting habit and one that I have picked up within the last few months.  Before this I had quit for ten years.  That was until I met my neighbor Sultana, a 27-year old Greek girl who is a graduate student studying for her English PhD at Hogtowne’s own Florida College.  I met her one night as she was smoking one of those thin, girly cigarettes on our neighborhood garden porch.  I asked if I could bum one and we ended up talking over several of them.  I got her number, became her facebook friend and through a little back and forth initiated by me (mainly text driven), took her out to dinner about two weeks later.

We went to a nice restaurant in The Plantation, a large development in Hogtowne with a snazzy town centre.  We had what I thought was a good time.  She even appeared delighted that the menu featured a Halloumi cheese salad, a Greek specialty.  Back at our place we had several more smokes and chatted.  I left her with a non-threatening, friendly hug and never heard from her again.  Because she lives across the porch from me, I have to pass her door every time I leave my apartment.  She drove by me the other day, made eye contact, and didn’t even wave.  So she got a free meal and I got a smoking habit.  How pathetic.

I am jealous of Sultana too.  The previous fall I applied to eighteen masters and PhD in programs in English (my undergraduate major) and was rejected from Florida College, among other schools.  The fuckers in the Florida College English department never even sent me an official rejection letter.  I found out of my status by e-mailing the graduate advisor.  I ended up getting into one school out of eighteen, The University of Chicago no less, but since they could not provide me with funding I had to decline the offer.  (The Chicago program is a creative writing option within a larger, interdisciplinary humanities master’s program.  The tuition for this year-long program is $43,000.  Knowing that I am not yet Stephen King, I cannot justify taking out the loans).  I am pissed.  I was denied by Ole Miss, Georgia, and Florida College but was admitted to the top ranked school in my pool of eighteen.  Yet I cannot attend.  So where am I to go instead?

Nowhere.  My hand is forced to remain in my second master’s degree program here at Florida College, this one in public relations.  After a year of studying in the discipline I struggle to describe what public relations is.  However, I do have strands of thought.

Indulge me:  organizations are comprised of people, as such they invariably fuck up.  Sometimes these fuck ups are misunderstandings, oversights or, trendy today, lapses in security (a hacker unearths e-mail addresses from a telephone company, that’s always happening it seems).  These are relatively easy fixes.  Issue a press release, go on CNN and offer customers the reassurance that the problem will be corrected.  Maybe even cut them a deal on their next bill.  But consider a grand fuck up, an oil spill perhaps.  When oil spills, the burden falls on management to communicate the bad news to upset stakeholders (fishermen, activists, the government, John Q. Public, and, worst of all, media).  Managers disdain stakeholders because they are distracting from their commitments to shareholders.  Ill prepared to deal with the onslaught of public ire, managers fumble for tactics of appeasement which are usually disingenuous and ineffective.  Enter the public relations professional, who, if he is worth his meager salary, should be prepared to consult management to pull ripcord and admit to negligence.  But doing so invites lawsuits so management resists, creating more public ire.  The public relations practitioner, demoralized by his failed attempts to convince management to suck wind, can either tuck tail or remain indignant.  Graduate students are trained to choose the latter approach.  Crises are, after all, a chance for the public relations practitioner to shine as they are perhaps the only opportunity for him to enter the so called “dominant coalition” of an organization.  In calmer times, when the pelicans have been scrubbed and combed, and the public’s attention swayed to yet another grand fuck up by a different organization, the public relations practitioner is subsumed back into being marketing’s bitch or into a benign role as a manager of the internal/external communication function of the organization.  Management shuts its door on the public relations guy and demands that all news will be good news from here on.  The poor guy retreats to write press releases and waits patiently for another inevitable fuck-up where he can again try and prove his invaluable worth.

As yet, the scholastic foundations of the discipline of public relations are thin.  Essentially this one guy James Grunig (the “pre-eminent” scholar in public relations) received a $500,000 grant in the 80’s and began what was called The Excellence Study.  Tributaries of scholarship have since flowed into public relations theory building.  Resplendent with acronyms and supplemented with quantitative and qualitative studies (mostly surveys) the academic literature has grown such that there are now two academic journals devoted to the discipline.  Practitioners and academics in the field are even trying to argue that public relations is a bona fide profession, like doctoring and lawyering.  There are accreditations in the field and efforts to develop a public relations code of ethics.  At least they’re trying.

I don’t think I’ve nailed public relations on the head but I’ve given you a good start.  Bottom line is, be able to give a good handshake and admit that the organization you work for has fucked up.  The public just might tolerate your honesty.  The main question I have from studying public relations at the graduate level is, “How can I monetize my degree?”  I haven’t a clue.  So how did I get into this field of study anyways?

One answer is that I failed to get into one year MBA programs which would have rounded out the one-year international business master’s degree which I obtained last year from Florida College.  My failures were that I had an out of character poor test score, did not sit for interviews and applied in the dreaded third round.  Thus, when I got my rejection e-mails from Kellogg, Emory and Florida College’s one year MBA programs, I was pissed off but hardly surprised.  I had failed to play the game and I got what I deserved.

I was a bit surprised not to get into Florida College’s business school though, but it makes sense when you consider its top priority: improving its ranking.  This puts a kid’s test scores at a premium.  The school has also reduced its class size, creating the aura of selectivity.  The changes have helped make it competitive with the likes of The University of Washington and Boston College.  Nevertheless, when it comes to admissions it feigns the ego of a top twenty school.  Being a hometown kid I thought I was a shoo-in.  But Florida College is more likely to admit a native Iranian (or my sexy Greek neighbor) than a native Hogtowne boy.  Oh well, in my one year of studying business at Florida College, I studied the same shit as MBA students and got a cooler sounding degree: international business.  Plus I had a cohort of 105 students versus just 30 in the MBA program meaning that the network I built (the main point of playing the pretend reality game that is B-school) was three times larger than that of the MBA students.  Unless overly concerned with letters and pedigree, an employer shouldn’t care.  But in practice this is not the case.  Managers easily confuse accolades with accomplishments and often people place a higher priority on paper qualifications versus personal effectiveness.  Pedigree as a barometer of achievement is firmly entrenched.

But I opine.  Though I am confident in my ability to compete in the boardroom, admittedly, I cringe when I tell people I have a business degree and they ask, “an MBA?”  No, not exactly, think of my business degree as a “diet” MBA, I squirm.  If an MBA specifically is required for a position, I am SOL.  However, I say this: if you as an employer are adamant that one has to possess an MBA specifically to work for your company then I likely do not want to work for you.  Why?  Because that is a rigid, limiting position, clearly at odds with the flexibility required of a clever capitalist and a thought leader.  If a home-schooled Eskimo, proficient in SQL, walks into your office with a tight cover letter and proper references and you turn him down because he lacks an MBA that’s your loss.  I sound embittered but I believe I am correct.  Again, accolades are not always the reflection of ability.  Though they have studied the law, lawyers do not necessarily make the best public officials or rhetoricians.  The hayseed can be more effective than the scholar.  The “C” student runs your office.  Sometimes you have to say fuck pedigree.  I guess keep that in mind.

Another answer for why I am studying public relations is that, once rejected from business schools in May, I had to scramble to find programs that were still admitting students for the fall semester.  Any discipline would have to do.  The only school I could find that was still admitting students was the school of mass communication.  I met with a professor emeritus and told him I had leanings towards journalism (a lie, I was more inclined to get the MBA) but he said that I would be a better fit for public relations.  It was a growing field and in high demand.  Furthermore, there was a need for qualified males to round out the classroom.  I wrote essays and, thankfully, was admitted.  So there.

I have finished my cigarette on my garden porch.  No sign of the Greek girl tonight.  I haven’t seen her in weeks, not since she didn’t wave to me.  I go inside where it is nicely air-conditioned to pack my Freitag laptop bag.

I put in my Macbook, three new journals, my flight info, my required readings, a Crown Royal Bag filled with pound and Euro coins leftover from previous travels, a plastic bag from a Kiehl’s men’s sampler which I use as a pen and marker bag, my JVC pocket videorecorder / camera and the syllabi of my courses:  English and Irish Culture and Travel Reporting.  I am to play the role of journalist and participant observer during the trip.  This blog is an assignment.

I have been to both England and Ireland on several occasions and am less excited than usual.  I might have preferred Spain or Italy as I still have yet to visit them but the England trip is plug and play, offered directly through the school of mass com and led by a professor who has done this for years and not only is he good at arranging these, you can tell he’s passionate about it.  Other perks include the ratio of girls to guys, 49:7.  No bullshit.  I am packing my bags for a trip with 49 21-year old girls, a chorus of chattering minds a generation below me.  I have no idea what angle to take with this herd.  Do I creep?  Play it cool?  I’m highly single.

I have made promises to people.  I have promised to call my family, bring back a bottle of Irish brown whiskey to my friend Leonard, send funny postcards to my best friends.  But I end up doing none of these.

I fall asleep on my couch watching ESPN, a 24-hour network that has you watch guys in better shape than you do shit while you sit on your ass.

Freitag Bags –

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Kings Cross

I.  The Lighthouse

It is spring 2005 and my roommate, my older sister, wants me out of her house yesterday.  I leave dirty dishes in the sink and drink every night at O’Patricks on Dale Mabry Boulevard in Tampa, Florida.  When I come home in the middle of the night, I enter through the ratchety garage door which wakes her and her husband up.  Late at night I eat food out of her fridge and then pass out on her couch in front of her big-screen TV.  I sleep on the couch until the Florida sun pierces through the sliding glass windows and warms my face awake.  I have become a waste of space.  She is not charging me rent and I am abusing my privilege.  She yells at me, often.

For weeks I flounder, twiddling my Yamaha acoustic guitar in my sister’s pool area.  On a Thursday in early April, in a burst of inspiration, I drive to Sears and buy a video-camera and return home to record myself playing my original songs on guitar.  On the video I sing and play every song that I have “written.”  I emphasize written because I do not know where my musical ideas come from and I have yet to write down firm lyrics.  Instead I am improvisational.  I do my best to sing what sounds good.  The words that leave my mouth sound depressing and negative but I am not depressed.

I play my heart out in front of the video-camera. My recorded voice sounds nasal and suppressed; I have not yet learned how to free my inner beast.  In addition to my original songs I play a minor pentatonic scale in the first position, the only scale I know.  I make my demo tape in an hour and return the camera the next day to Sears no questions asked.  But the video is not in the right format.  I need to change the film from Super 8 to DVD and I do not have the technology.  I look online and find a guy in Clearwater who does.

When I arrive at the guy’s studio I see large murals of spaceships hovering above lush vegetation and futuristic buildings.  He talks on the phone while he makes my DVD.

“The consultant says I have too much heavy metal in my system,”  I hear him moan into the receiver.

After minutes of eavesdropping I realize he is a Scientologist.  It creeps me out but it is reasonable, Clearwater, Florida being the world capital of L. Ron Hubbard’s fleet of parishioners.  He makes my DVD and I leave.

My goal is to send the video to The Guitar Academy, London.  I had looked it up on the internet the night before.  It is much cheaper to go to a similar school in California or Florida but I am one of those typical American Anglophiles having grown up on The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and upbeat British New-Wave pop.  I must want to waste the rest of my savings because the current Dollar/Pound ratio is $1.89.  Anglophilia is very expensive.

I send the DVD via overnight mail to the Academy on Friday, just one day after buying the video-camera.  To my surprise I get a phone message the next day from the Academy’s headmaster saying that I have been admitted to the March-December diploma program.  The demo has worked.  Later I would not be so surprised as I learned that the school, like most art institutions, was barely afloat and needed students however inexperienced or talented.  Regardless, when I get the phone call from the headmaster I am ecstatic.

Upon receiving the news I drive two miles to a Sam Ash where I pick out a black natural Stratocaster from high on the wall.  I buy it without even playing it in the store.  It is an American made rosewood fretboard 2004 Fender anniversary edition so I trust that the quality is assured.  I buy a jumbo black hard case with purple fur lining into which I place the new guitar.  The total cost of the guitar and case is $2,000 dollars, a significant cash outlay.  That night I go on Orbitz and purchase an expensive ticket to London departing in two days.

Early the next morning my sister watches me, bewildered.  On Thursday I had made the demo, on Friday sent it to The Guitar Academy, on Saturday was admitted, and now today, Sunday, I am packing up all of my belongings for a Monday departure.  She takes me to the airport Monday morning and I do not even kiss her goodbye.  I check the guitar and backpack, grab a coffee at Starbucks and take a monorail to Terminal C.  I finish my coffee and chug three draft beers at the Chili’s Too before I board the plane.  After a two hour delay on the tarmac, I am cleanly off.  A whim in the air.

BA flies direct from Tampa into London, Gatwick.  When I arrive, my backpack arrives with me but there is no guitar.  I go to baggage services where they kindly instruct me that they will deliver the guitar to my local address once it arrives.  Over the internet, using Craigslist, I have found a weekly rental in Acton, a town West of London, for 90 pounds a week.  From Gatwick I ride the train into Victoria Station and then take the Underground to West Acton where I then walk up a street north of the Overground train station to a brick row-house.  The landlord, Anup, is nice and charges me for the month up front before letting me into the house.  Less than 48 hours ago I was living rent free in my sister’s house.  I pay him his 90 pounds in cash and he shows me my room.  I share the house with a white Rastafarian film student and an Indian woman who is also the maid for the house.  Anup’s house is for sale and he is waiting for a buyer so he can then kick out us renters.  In the meantime he is making some extra cash as our landlord.

I show up the next morning for the first day at The Guitar Academy without my guitar.  It is kind of like showing up for the first day of class in elementary school without a pencil.  I feel like a dipshit all day.  I have to borrow the house guitar, an ugly, brown GS with a humbucker from hell.  When I plug in to play Key to the Highway by Ellmore James, a routine blues number, I sound like a pig in tornado.  For the first time in my life I find out I stink at guitar.

After the first day of class the guys go to the local, The King’s Den, for a beer.  The 19-year old kids in my program, nearly ten years my junior, drink heavily.  I try to keep up with them.  In the first week a kid named Dusty and another kid we call Snake sneak in beers at the Den between classes.  They end up dropping out of the program a few weeks later, their tuition paid in full.  Of the twelve people admitted to our class only six end up completing the Academy’s one-year diploma program.  Among the survivors are John, 34 and Ben, 32 both of whom become my best friends at the Academy.  I am a fresh 27 years old, not wide-eyed, but nonetheless excited with my life decisions.

After a month and a half in the Acton row-house I connect with my friend Bryan, who I know from The College and we decide on an apartment in Kings Cross.  We find a two-bedroom, one bath at Ice Wharf, two miles upstream from Camden Lock.  Ice Wharf is where men used to deliver block-ice on the weak stream of a system of canals that wind South from Birmingham to London.  Few people know that canals snake through modern London.  History books will tell you that London was built on top of dingy streams which once fed into the Thames.  Even today buildings leak on Fleet Street and filthy waters trickle down from Birmingham, England past Kings Cross through Morningside Crescent and into Camden.

At the time when Bryan and I move into Ice Wharf it is the pressing duty of London city developers to conclude renovations of nearby St. Pancras station.  St. Pancras will host a Eurostar line between London and France passing through the famed Chunnel.  But the project of renovation lacks momentum and passion.  St. Pancras station was built in the 1860’s in two years yet in 2005 it is taking twice as long for contractors and their sub-contractors and their own sub-sub-contractors to renovate it.  Kings Cross fares no better under this spoiled contractor system.  In Kings Cross, only the McDonalds on Pentonville Road looks new.

My roommate Bryan works in finance in Canary Wharf.  When he gets off of work we drink at a neighborhood bar we nickname “Satan’s Asshole” because it brings in the dregs of Kings Cross.  We love to people watch and judge the locals.  At 2:00 a.m. the “slags,” and “punters” pour into the cold street, their alcoholic breath steaming up the air.  This neighborhood is horrible.

On the main corner of Kings Cross, at the bisection of Caledonian Road and Pentonville Road is a lighthouse.  Everyone who has visited this old neighborhood has seen it.  The rebirth of the neighborhood will be when this lighthouse shines again.

At the Academy I start with the normal spring module of core courses: Rock, Blues, Music Theory, Fingerstyle, and Sight Reading.  For the first few weeks I cannot believe that I am in London taking a course in Rock.  What did you study in school?  Rock.

A gentle-spoken South African teaches us Music Theory.  I pounce on the material.  I find Music Theory fascinating.  Even though I stink at guitar I can still put my full effort in the academic thrust of theory.  I learn it quickly.  The simplest analogy that I can give to people struggling with the basics of music theory is that playing a scale is like playing hopscotch.  To play a major scale from its first tone you begin the hopscotch game from the beginning square and hop all the way through to the end.  To accomplish Dorian, the second mode in a major scale, you begin your game of hopscotch on the second square and when you finish you make sure to circle back around and step on the first square of the course.  Only when you step on this first square are you done with Dorian.  For Phrygian you begin on the third square and, once finished, circle back and hit the first two squares.  And so on through to Locrian.  This idea seemed to help me.

One day in Rock class guys start having a discussion about their favorite bands.  Rikki, the kid from Jersey (not New Jersey but the English Channel island) says he loves the Stereophonics and Bon Jovi.  Ben, my best friend, says he likes Pink Floyd and The Band.  I keep silent but want to say I like Jimi Hendrix and TheThe and The Beatles and The Ocean Blue and Aphex Twin but all of these tastes strung together sound weird.  Meanwhile our instructor, boiling in his skin and tuning his custom Ibanez guitar, listens in on our conversation.  When the boy we call Snake says his favorite band is Oasis, the instructor, seething in frustration, offers his opinion.

“Oasis is your favorite band?,” he yells, “That’s like saying my favorite meal is shite on toast.”  I get weak with laughter.  He proceeds to rock our faces off and speed through the lesson in order to punish us for our terrible music tastes.

In the spring I barely pass Rock, fail Fingerstyle, and ace Music Theory.  I could have studied Music Theory at a community college in Tampa but instead decided to come all the way to London.  My instructors think I am either wealthy or courageous or stupid or all three.  Wealthy, courageous, and stupid.  Life, like music, works in triads.

In the summer I decide to get part-time work and am hired at a small gym in Russell Square, a neighborhood just blocks southwest of “Kings Crotch” as Bryan and I now call it.  A Kiwi named James hires me to work at the gym.  London is full of Commonwealth expatriates like James who get to legally work in the UK for much longer and for more hours per week than Americans.

At the gym I operate the front desk and hand out towels to the patrons who walk in to workout or swim.  I also take down appointments for waxings, facials and massages at the spa.  The job is effeminate but I enjoy it.  I love to sweet talk the ladies who work the spa.  People like me.  I lose a ton of weight over the summer as I have a free membership to the gym and access to group fitness classes.  My favorite group class is “Legs, Bums and Tums” which exercises these obvious places and is populated with milky, obese, but determined English women.  That summer my bums and my tums get shredded.

On June 7, 2005, two months into my job at the gym and during a break from classes, a bomb goes off in Tavistock Square, just meters away from my receptionist desk.  I feel the air split, compress and then whoosh through me.  This is the feeling of a bomb.  When it detonates I run outside and see a scene out of a disaster movie.  People near Tavistock Square flood South, some with camera phones documenting the scene and others running full speed away from the bus.  From where I stand in front of the gym’s entrance I see the broken bus just 100 yards to the North of me.  The red bus looks like a cooked lobster, its frame split down the middle, smoldering with steam.  The blessing is that the bus explodes out the windows of the British Medical Society building across from Tavistock Square, spilling out doctors.  The other irony is that the bus explodes right in front of a statue of Gandhi.  Mahatma Gandhi, sitting in the lotus pose, forever staring at traffic on Woburn Road between Tavistock Square and the British Medical Society building, literally sees the Number 3 bus explode on 7/7.

The police evacuate us from the gym hours after the explosion.  Tony Blair, the prime minister of the UK leaves the G8 summit in Glasgow and flies directly to London where he addresses the people of the world.  Besides the bus bomb another suicide bomber has detonated himself in a train full of people on the Piccadilly Line headed West from Kings Cross station.  This spooks me out because if the Academy were in session I would be taking that very same line at a similar hour as when the bomb goes off.  Simultaneous with the bombings in Kings Cross and Tavistock Square another bomb goes off across the city at Edgware Road.  London is in chaos.  Once released from the gym, I walk with the Kiwis across town to where they live in Pimlico, many miles away from Russell Square.  I spend the night on the floor of a Kiwi’s apartment.  After the bombs, London becomes a police state.  Sirens flare every hour for months.  Even I get arrested later that fall.

That summer of ’05 I would often go to the Camden Library, a gray, industrial building across from the British Library to check out CD’s and burn them.  The library has a small but comprehensive collection, with albums as far ranging as the greatest hits of Jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery to ambient technician Brian Eno’s seminal album Another Green World.   I learn at the Academy that Wes Montgomery used only his right thumb to pluck the guitar and that Brian Eno is a verified sex addict.  Clearly I was doing official research at the Camden Library.

When school begins in July, I enroll in a variety of classes, from Jazz to Funk to Country to Metal.  Metal is impossible.  Metal musicians take the instrument to orchestral heights, playing etudes at insane beats per minute.  Not fun work, but nevertheless the instructors at the Academy swear that with patience, perseverance and training that anyone coordinated can build up rocket speed.  For two weeks I practice legato finger exercises with a metronome but after missing a few days my speed drops and my accuracy falters so I give up.  Ben, who is an infinitely more talented guitarist than I am, never even tries to do the exercises.  Ben hates Metal.  But I am enamored with these Metal workhorses, tacticians slowly ratcheting up the metronome by fractions each week.  They are extremely disciplined and cocksure that they are walking a straight, logical and efficient path.  The long-haired Metal instructor was fantastic, a real ball-buster too, but he lost me and the rest of the class when he insisted on talking about the Illuminnati and the New World Order during lessons.  Despite his worldview I liked the guy.

Country music was fun but also impossible to pull off.  It is easy to get confused playing only G’s and C’s and D’s and the occasional dominant 7th over and over and over again.  And, oh the verses, so many to remember.  Good country singers are worth every penny.  They have so many words to commit to and enunciate.  Each country ballad tells a sad, uplifting or humorous narrative.  It is as if country music is the modern equivalent of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Funk was the best.  Just imagine the joy we had taking a class in Funk!  I finally gained confidence in my rhythm playing.  We checked out the sounds of Earth, Wind, and Fire, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the music of James Brown.  James Brown always had the tightest bands because if a player screwed up he would point at them onstage and fine them after the show.

When it came to Jazz there was no hope.  Our class became, at best, enthusiasts.  Trying to play Jazz was like trying to play a chess game in hell.  I understood the theory well enough but I felt like my hand was made of block-ice when I began to play.  Once you fell behind in the song it was impossible to catch up.  Playing Jazz was like continually missing the ball in a game of tether ball.

One night at Satan’s Asshole, piss drunk, I meet a couple of Irish guys.  They tell me they are visiting London.  I tell them I live in the neighborhood.  We leave the bar, pick up a few two liters of White Lightning and head to my fancy apartment in Ice Wharf.  At some point I pass out.

When I wake up I have no recollection of the Irish guys until I walk into the bathroom.  There I see fresh stubble in the sink and written on the bathroom mirror in shaving cream the word “Fuckhole.”  When I walk into the living room everything looks normal which relieves me.  All told, the Irish guys had taken a Hungarian porn magazine, a fifth of Jack Daniels and my CD player with the new Franz Ferdinand CD in it.  I learned a lot that day.  I learned that when hanging out with Irish guys be sure to be the last one to go to sleep and the first to wake up.  They are less likely to steal from you if drink with them all night and surprise them with bacon in the morning.

Though I had lost weight doing Legs, Bums and Tums, there was no end to my drinking that summer.  A few times, like Snake and Dusty the kids who had left the program, I would sneak in a beer or two between lessons.  I felt guilty but did it anyways.  When classes ended I would circle back to The King’s Den and have a few more with my best friends Ben and John.  Then I would say goodbye to Acton, strap my guitar on my back and walk the two miles to Turnham Green station where I would take a series of Tube lines to Tottenham Court Road and walk North or connect with the Northern Line to Camden Road and walk South.  I know every street between Tottenham Court Road and Camden.  With my black Stratocaster in my gig back on my back I entered gastropubs and nice restaurants where I feasted on fine food, ales and wine, wasting away my savings.  I loved the places I frequented that summer (The National Museum, Charlotte Street, Angel).  I was happier than ever, yet I was drinking like an irreverent monkfish.

II.  Tier 1 Visa

I do not know what to do with my nagging love of London except tell people that I miss the city and would move back there immediately.  I would move into a flat next to the shit refinery near the Academy in South Acton if it meant I could eat at Wagamama and catch a Friday night art-rock band’s show at the Carling Academy in Angel.  I miss London that much.

In March 2009 I am unemployed and living in Manhattan.  I stay busy applying to every London job I see posted on, Monster,.com,,,, individual blogs, and, of course, company websites.  Because of my lack of success in the online job search I have developed a couple of theories.  First, I believe that there are no jobs.  Instead, companies are scanning the environment to see who is paying attention to them.  Advertising “open” jobs is cheap and effective marketing.  Second, I believe that the man designated as the main contact for job applications is so worried about losing his own job that he throws away the resumes of candidates more qualified than him.  “Where are the fucking jobs, man?,” I ask daily.

I harbor grandiose dreams of living and working in London.  I even pretend that I still live there.  I imagine climbing the stairs of Bank station in a perfectly fitted suit from a renowned Hong Kong tailor.  I have a well-paying job in reinsurance.  My office is across from Lloyds of London.  I am a serious businessman having given up the dream of playing music.  Nevertheless, after work I change clothes and take the Tube to play an open-mic set in Camden in front of no one, burping up dirty kebab vapors into the microphone.  On a wine-soaked Sunday I sit in front of a Titian canvas in the National Gallery and fall asleep on a viewing bench.  I imagine inspecting Islamic urns on the ground floor of the British Museum.

Sometimes I am married.  I imagine that my wife is a smoking hot English woman born and raised in London.  She works in finance and holds a law degree and is a dual citizen of the U.S. and the U.K.  Meanwhile, I make my wage as a columnist for The Independent and am a moderately successful transatlantic author.  Though my wife earns more than I earn and has a greater claim to stay in London, I demand that we raise our kids in America because I want to give them the same upbringing that I enjoyed.  She insists that we stay in London and I yield.  We have three kids and while they are still young she has an affair with an Arabian web 2.0 entrepreneur who often meets with her in a dimly lit French restaurant in Sloane Square, in front of everyone.  We have a horrible divorce, she gets the kids.  This is how detailed I muse.

In New York I purchase both The Times and The Wall Street Journal every morning.  As a devotee of the English language I find reading an English newspaper an uplifting experience, an exploration into the capabilities of highly literate people.  Though I would never incorporate their many feminine words like “mod” or “bits” into my speech or insert letters like “u” in harbour, I do love England’s English.   What I do not love now in 2009 is how difficult it is for a competent American to get a job in London.  I have applied to Charles and Wentworth, a boutique financial services firm, Wentworth and Charles a stalwart insurance brokerage, Cutlip and Brown an privately owned public relations firm and Brown and Cutlip a premiere literary agency in Bloomsbury.  If a firm has two last names connected together and an office in the City of London, I have applied to the sonofabitch.  “Please check our website for future openings,” is a euphemism for the economy sucks, fuck us all, you’re first, kind regards.  Humans are more connected than ever yet no one can ask a human being for a job.

As I demonstrate on my impeccably formatted resume, I live at 12 Avenue A, Apartment 3 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York, New York 10009 (references available).  I have exhausted my rolodex of personal contacts.  I have no leads.  Unemployed, I find myself watching copious amounts of daytime cable television news.  I am an addict.  After watching many hours of the news I begin to form new, generalized opinions on life.

From daytime cable news I gather that there is enormous duplicity in America.  I develop my own remedies to this.  I say that a politician with some balls needs to assert that she is centrist, brilliant and correct.  That would be a more noble straddling of opinions than her saying that she is Republican yet socially moderate or a fiscally conservative “Blue-Dog” Democrat.  Our current President is eloquent but so what, I have no fucking job anymore.  Give us something, man.  I have better ideas and skills than these guys in office.  I yell at the television while drinking Miller Light.  I watch daytime cable news until the slate of daily shows repeat themselves in the middle of the night.  By then I am drunk and writing my campaign speeches.

I need a job.  I am swimming in credit card debt and my savings from my old job at Colson/Franklin, a healthcare consulting firm, are running out.  I have exhausted my New York contacts and am beginning to accept that I must move to Bumfuck, America in order to find work.  I would prefer to stay in New York City, my home for three years, hiding amongst the dervishes in the Lower East Side.  But let me be clear, I tell employers in my cover letters, I am open to any work opportunity that will bring me out of my student debt.  Though I ardently seek a Tier 1 Visa back to the U.K. I am now compelled by necessity to apply to jobs outside of New York City and to schools throughout the country for more education.  But I already have enough education.  What the hell would I study anyways?

Back at The College I made the mistake of studying English.  When out with friends in New York City I laugh and tell people that I am fluent.  But, unemployed for three months now, I no longer find my joke funny.  Were I 18 and in college again I would study Romance Languages because at least I would graduate with an arsenal of languages and make for a more versatile job candidate.  I would better fit the profile of a diplomat or an international marketing executive, both sexy sounding jobs.  Instead I am fluent in English, stink at math, and now face limited choices.  In 2009, unemployment nationwide is a searing 9 percent.  At least I am in a cohort of millions.  Nevertheless I am filled with an unhealthy amount of jealousy as it seems that none of my close friends in the City have lost their jobs.

III.  The Technician

In June 2009 the weather and my mood both lift.  I get work as a copy editor for a local news magazine called NYCBlast!.  The magazine appeals to a 20 to 25 year-old crowd so I zip my lips, adapt to fads, follow pop stars, modify sex tips and edit stories about NYC’s best bartenders and restauranteurs written by people nearly 10 years my junior.  I am happy, though, because my salary is enough to keep my decent apartment in Alphabet City on the northern threshold of NYC’s Lower East Side.

My goal is to write features for NYCBlast! but this will take months they tell me.  First I have to prove that I am a competent technician.  In the first weeks I mess up editing some short blurbs and they threaten to let me go.  I thought I would be good at this type of work, given my background in English, but they find me too short and too bland.  They want more fluff, more purple colored prose.

I decide to go along with the game.  I begin to use banned words that my public school 6th grade grammar teacher warned me about (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, can, could, shall, should, will, would).  My 6th grade teacher, Ms. Harp burned these words into our minds in this exact order.   She also taught us to avoid extensive use of the words “these,” “those,” “that,” “this,” “things,” “it,” “really,” and other words and phrases shunned by the master technicians Strunk and White in their seminal book The Art of Writing.  At NYCBlast! I begin to incorporate these dead words and phrases into my editing.  I have permission to add as many adverbs, cliches and ribald analogies as I wish, as long as they are grammatically correct.  And I get to cuss and use contractions, thus I can be relevant to the audience of other popular young writers.  For once I am writing to a market.  Like a musician evolving to stay relevant, I am learning new chops.

Over time I begin to enjoy the writing of the younger feature writers at NYCBlast!.  They are cocky, blunt, and irreverent, their worldviews shallow and askance.  After months of reading them I cannot wait until I can put my own name to critical and crude stories for the 20 to 25 year-old market.  I can write like this, I tell myself.   The name to be added to the end of these feature stories will be Andy.  Andy Candor.  That is my name.

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Things Fall Apart

When my phone alarm rings I wake up and reach outside the bed frame to turn it off and when I do my arm flies its weight across my body sending me over the top bunk and onto the floor.  I might have broken my neck but instead settle for a chest contusion from falling on the desk.  I get up from the floor and hit snooze but the phone dies during the six minute break.  I sleep into the afternoon and lose a letter grade for missing my final classes.  I had done so well up until this point but in the end did not achieve perfect attendance.  Oh well, “B’s for degrees.”

It is a short bus ride to Harrods where I want to have a meal before leaving London.  I want to stare at goose livers and watch butchers cut meat in the food court.  I buy some white chocolate truffles but I’m not allowed to eat them inside unless I go to a restaurant in the store or go outside.  I choose Harrods’ modest Terrace Bar as a place for lunch.  My waitress is Lithuanian and the food runner, Spanish.  Next to me is a couple with an animated toddler boy with curly blonde hair and a two-toothed smile.  I order a ribeye sandwich and coffee and chat up the couple who are visiting from British Columbia.  I finish my meal before them and say goodbye.  I leave an excellent tip and wander down to the musical instrument section of Harrods.  There I meet a lady my age who helps plug me into a spruce-top Taylor T-5 acoustic/electric which I play in the soundproof room for nearly an hour until she comes in and says that’s enough, politely though, so I do not fault her.  What an axe!

I ride back to the dorms but when I get home I tremble and sink when I realize that I have lost my journal, my companion.  I have only lost one journal before this, a gem orange Ordning and Reda plain sheet notebook.  It is somewhere in the trash in Norway as I left it on a train coming back from Bergen to Oslo.  No doubt it contains my greatest writing.

I take the bus back to Harrods and return to the Terrace Bar where, owing to God and my habit for good tipping, the Lithuanian girl has saved my journal behind the host’s stand.  I thank her and leave for a William Hill gambling establishment where I bet on a race of digital ponies and win 20 pounds.  My luck is outstanding but it still hurts when I breathe owing to the chest contusion from falling off my top bunk that morning.  That night I lose my wallet in a black cab while riding home from a shite club where I danced with members of The Chorus.  I have to borrow cash from Remus and Billy Goat.  There’s nothing more septic then having to borrow real money from friends.  But as the song goes, we all get by with a little help.  To save money, I eat McDonalds for the next three days, stretching out my borrowed pounds.

I board the flight back to the states with only a passport and my Freitag laptop bag.  When I stuff the bag into the overhead I hear a terrible crunching noise come from inside of it.  When I open up the bag to inspect the computer I see a crack splitting my Mac’s screen vertically down the middle.  It looks like if a rock had been thrown at a windshield at full speed.  My trip is over.

Ordning and Reda Journals –

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A London for You

purchase a London A-Z,
shop at Tesco,
sit on the top level of the #11 bus
favor the Picadilly and Victoria lines
avoid the Circle (Yellow), Hammersmith and City (Pink) and Bakerloo (Brown) lines
neglect the two Circuses
buy a scarf and necklace for your mom at Covent Garden
socialize in Soho before the musical
turn off your cell phone in The French House
down a Dutch lager at De Hems
unhook a sugary duck in Chinatown
greet the Tudors at the National Portrait Gallery
laugh at myopic financiers in Mayfair
catch a Keane show in Hyde Park
order bespoke shoes on Jermyn Street
laugh at the elevators of Lloyds of London
take the District line to Richmond to forget the city
weekend in the Lake Country
return from the Grasmere fresh
grab a coffee at Café Nero
count the colored tiles in Tottenham Court Road station
tip a busker
plug in on Denmark Street
ascend Sloane Square station and walk King’s Road to World’s End
set your wristwatch on the big hill in Greenwich
play football in Regent’s Park
fall asleep on a bench in the National Gallery staring at a Titian canvas
stroll Angel High Street and sneak into Camden Passage
step to the summit of St. Paul’s cathedral
sit with Ghandi in Tavistock Square
buy a book in Bloomsbury
inspect Arabian urns at the British Museum
sip tea at a hotel on Charlotte Street
dig a DJ on Shoreditch High Street
pierce your body at Camden Locks
nibble on truffles in Harrods
suntan on a pond in Hampstead Heath
bring your own wines to Brick Lane
snatch sushi from an assembly line at Itsu
eat a Scotch Egg in one bite
depart for France from St. Pancras station

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We take the tube to Embankment to visit the London Eye.  After a full whirl on the Eye I conclude that I like the view from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral better.  There is something more rewarding about climbing all those spiral stairs.

Some girls from The Chorus and I get vanilla and chocolate swirled ice cream cones.  We join a crowd encircling a street performer who is ending his routine by eating an apple high up on a tall unicycle while juggling swords.  He keeps his balance by pedaling back and forth around the chainwheel.

The Chorus cries, “How will he get down from there?”

He bites into the apple and keeps it in his mouth, then collects the falling swords into his hands.  He stops his feet which pivots the wheel below and the unicycle’s tall frame stills, then becomes the swinging radius of a descending arc, listing him forward and grounding him.  He takes a long bow and asks a young boy to take his hat and collect money from the crowd.  I give the boy a pound.  Few follow me.  The crowd thins, the circle breaks.

I feel a girl circle around me to my left.  She has the most beautiful features of any girl I have seen on this trip.  I fall into her round, blue eyes, spinning into them like water down an open drain.  She directs one of her friends to give the boy a pound.  It is then that I notice her urine percolating into a plastic cubical container on her wheelchair armrest.

I climb the spiral stairs of St. Paul.

She needs the Eye to see London.

“I can’t find a girl who can keep up with me.”

I melt in pity for the street performer.

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From The Rubble to The Ritz

“Hang the DJ.”  – The Smiths “Panic”

The studios of The Guitar Academy London used to be located in a brick building next to a shit factory in Acton.  On warm days the staff would open the windows and the smell would waft into the studios.  Those taking vocal lessons would inhale and exhale deep breaths of earthen fumes while belting out modern rock songs.  In 2009, the school re-located to Kilburn in north central London.  I am eager on this trip to see the new Academy so today I am catching the Jubilee line from Green Park to Kilburn station.

The Jubilee line flies.  It is the fastest of the tube lines though I have no way of verifying this.  It covers an enormous swath of London from as far north as Wembley all the way east to Greenwich.  So fast is the train that I hardly finish a chapter of my book Watching the English before the train arrives at Kilburn station.  Note: if you want to get some strange looks while in England, go to a pub and crack open Kate Fox’s Watching the English.  It’s hilarious.  Imagine someone in a Dave and Busters eating alone and reading Andy Candor’s Watching the Americans.  People would freak.

The Academy’s new facility is only three blocks from the Underground.  Kilburn high street is open and relatively clean.  Wet, fresh produce sits in front of a newsstand that sells the papers of the world.  I pass a karate dojo where I prop my head against the tinted window and watch two guys go at each other.  When they notice me watching them, they laugh and then resume their grappling.  A street sweeper methodically picks up cigarette butts.  I see no bums.

I arrive at the school building and am immediately impressed.  The facility is large, three stories high, and the brick looks power washed.  The sign out front is in polished chrome and conveys a new authority.  I want to enter but the facility is locked to outsiders.  I hang by the front door until a student, electric guitar strapped to his back, approaches.  I sneak in behind him and climb the stairs.

I introduce myself as a former student to the receptionists who are immediately caught off guard.  How did he get in here?  They seem not too receptive to surprise visitors.  I manage to convince them that I’m not a music equipment thief but a former student interested in seeing some of my old teachers and the improvements to the school.  The head receptionist picks up the phone and calls the head of The Academy.  No answer.  The receptionist offers no hope for a formal appointment later in the day.  They want me out of here.  As I consider my options I notice a familiar face in the copy room behind the reception desk.  It is Barton Lee, the co-head of The Academy.

“Mr. Lee, I’m Andy the American from the 2005 enrollment year, I took your funk fusion class.”

“I recognized you,” says Barton Lee.  “What brings you back?”

“I’m so sorry. I snuck in, but I thought that if I dropped by I’d run into some people and I wanted to see the new facility.”

“I’ll tell you what, we have exams going on right now but I’ll show you around in a second.  Just let me tell my students that I’ll be out for a little while.”

Barton Lee is going out of his way to show me the school.  The receptionists are dumfounded.  I have infiltrated their fortress.

Now a relevant, two paragraph aside.

Perhaps the saddest development in the pub scene is the replacement of the house band with the house DJ.  Big city pubs and cabarets used to have house bands that cut their teeth by playing the hits every night.  The lads had to be spot on and be able to play just about every song in existence.  Only when the bands had played cover after cover, ingratiating themselves to their live audience, could they dare perform their own original material.  In the case of The Beatles in Hamburg, the originals became the hits.  This stairway to success and proficiency as a musician was difficult but genuine.

Today an MP3J buys a bunch of expensive gear, hits play and gets paid bookoo.  He who can hoard the most recorded material, much of which is downloaded for free, gets the gigs.  The man with the biggest record collection wins.  I croak when I hear DJ’s say, “Yeah, but there’s an art to getting the beat right from one song to the next in a smooth transition.”  That’s nice, but what else is there to this art form?  My inquiry falls on ears covered by headphones.  It is made of the same noise that people make when they say that doctors should make more money than top athletes because a doctor’s work is more important.  And besides, setting up a band in your pub every night is a pain you do not need when a DJ can show up with a laptop and accomplish the same thing.  Because the house band and all of its gear cannot fit in your pocket you have no need for it anymore.

On Barton’s improvised tour I run into some old teachers, each of whom vaguely remember me, most likely because I was the only American during my time there.  When I greet my music theory teacher, a soft spoken Dutch man, I almost get emotional.  I spring up when Barton shows me the computer lab.  The Academy has invested heavily in computing and now offers a curriculum in electronic music.  A room next to the lab is packed with students learning songwriting.  And the largest of three performance studios, where students play live in front of instructors and peers is packed with young, striving, musical minds and interesting haircuts.  Though I have not read enough fantasy books to make a comparison, to me The Academy is like a school for wizards.

When I return home I write Barton Lee the following letter:

Dear Barton Lee:

This is “Andy the American” here.  I want to thank you for showing me your new school facility last month.  Though my appearance was unannounced and impromptu, you were very gracious to take time out during exams to indulge my curiosity on the new school.

You and your staff have clearly outdone yourself.  I know that it must have been a goal to build a school comparable to one in the States and you have unequivocally achieved this.  You should all be very proud.

Keep spreading the gospel of music and know that you and your team provide an important outlet for budding musicians and curious minds.  More importantly, I think, you have created a milieu of creativity and professionalism that develops skills that will generalize well for a lot of people no matter what they choose to pursue in life.  The world needs more places like The Academy.


Andy Candor

Man, I’m a good guy.

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Vhat is Headbutt?

Early morning in a nice hotel in central Krakow.

I awake from a short, fitful sleep having forgotten the night before until I turn on the shower and see my Uncle, fully clothed standing in the shower with me.  He turns the shower dial to red, scalding my chest and nuts, and vanishes.

While steaming out a deuce, I hear Remus from his bed, beginning hysterics.

“Shut the hell up,” I yell.

He cannot stop laughing.

I yell from the bathroom, “Take a shower and let’s get a coffee.  I need to see some historical shit that will make me feel small and insignificant.”

Remus, who has read a tour guide’s chapter on Krakow, suggests either a day trip to Auschwitz or a visit to Wawel Castle.  I have seen a concentration camp before, Remus has not, so I vote for Wawel Castle.  Though I want my actions to feel small and insignificant I do not want to feel like the last time I visited a concentration camp.

The walk to the castle along the flooded Vistula River is pleasant, the day warm and soft.  The Vistula has been flooding lately but today healthy Poles run and bike along its glossy, brown, muddy banks.  Unlike some Eastern Europeans, the Poles smile, and when Remus and I pass a young couple rolling their set of newborn twins, they return our grins.  I can render this walk to the castle as a peaceful one now, but at the time I was seething from the night before and the benevolent sunshine was little consolation.

The ticket attendant informs us that the wait to see the full tour of Wawel Castle is about two hours.  Available now are one-off excursions to see exhibits like the cathedral, the garden or the private royal apartments.  Remus and I choose to see the castle armory, an exhibit that we can enter immediately.  I can only hope that there is a functioning guillotine inside so that Remus can end m.

The armory tells a history of royal weaponry, beginning with shaft weapons, progressing through swords and wooden crossbows  on through to early rifles and enormous cannons.  The choicest pieces on display are the swords of Polish kings.  I lose myself and my problems in the intricacy of scenes depicted in the wood, metal, and ivory inlays of the weapons.  The detail and artistry overwhelms me such that I accomplish my mission of feeling small.

I leave the armory refreshed, thankful that I live in times where one can die in a hospital from illness versus a gnarly head wound from a misshapen bullet fired from a weak Polish musket.  We leave the castle but not before taking a photo of the new statue of Pope John Paul II.  Poland is largely Catholic Remus tells me.  I tell him that I need a Zywiec or a nap.

We accomplish the Zywiec but not the nap.  It is late evening and we stumble back from the Jewish quarter towards the city center.  We duck into another dark basement bar for a final cheer.  I order us Jagermeister, chilled.  Next to us is a group of young men having a good time so I quickly engage.  They are extremely friendly or at least that is what I can tell by the photographs that Remus sends me weeks after the trip.  Once comfortable with the guys I then propose we raise the level of fun.

Headbutting is a new habit of mine.  I have a theory that it is strongly correlated with sexual frustration.  Horned animals do it to earn the right to mate and drunken men do it to release unwanted stress.  To my new friends, I propose a friendly headbutting session.

“Vhat is headbutt,?” my new Polish best friends ask.

I explain by quickly turning to Remus and headbutting him off guard.

“That is headbutt” I laugh.  Remus is scared we are going to get kicked out or beaten up.

“Are you ready?”

“Shure” says my new Polish best friend.

We line up face-to-face, holding each other’s arms and agree to headbutt on a count of three.  I count off, our heads square and collide with a gentlemanly vigor.  We laugh, he loves it!  We do it several more times, ratcheting up the force until we both agree that the next one would be too much.  His friends enter the game to experience the joyful nuance of the friendly headbutt.  Soon all of us, Remus included are trading headbutts with each other and laughing.  An old couple in the back of the bar are even laughing at us.

There is much diplomacy in a fair headbutt.

The Armory at Wawel Castle –

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Simple Math

Remus is a 28 year old North Dakota boy working for a French investment bank in London’s Canary Wharf.  Slightly anachronistic, I know, but all the flavors work together in his recipe for success.  Remus lives in South Kensington so it is a short walk to his garden flat from my dormitory on the King’s Road.  I am pulling my Tumi bag to his place to do my laundry.  For two days I have worn my boxers inside out.

English washing machines strive to be ineffective.  The dryers are even less ambitious.  My microwave at home is larger than Remus’ all in one washer/dryer unit, perhaps the lamest idea in home appliances.  I end up having to line dry the entire load on his shower curtain bar.  As such my clothes come out crunchy.

Remus and I are headed to Poland tomorrow for the weekend.  We were going to do something in the city together like go see Jamie Cullum or catch a show in Camden but instead we decided to go to Poland because the tickets were cheap.  I had spent a few hours looking into flights to Mallorca, Biarritz, Berlin, Bologna, Bordeaux, Aarhus, Milan, Hamburg, Palma (all stops for Ryan Air and Easy Jet) but it was Krakow, Poland that presented the best value.

We arrive in Krakow at 8:00 p.m. and when we de-plane it takes twenty minutes for people to load themselves and their bags onto a transport shuttle.  The shuttle takes one, deliberate ninety degree turn and drops us off at the gate which was only 50 yards away from the plane.  Remus and I chuckle at the efficiency.  We have an easy check-in at customs, no questions asked.  Like anywhere, Poland needs us, it needs the business.

Our bald cab driver who speaks no English takes us through the countryside to our hotel in the city center.  I unload the crispy clothes stuffed in my Freitag bag and choose the bed closest to the window.  Remus charges his iPhone while I shower up and put on a proper evening shirt.

Walking around the city center, Remus and I quickly determine that the average girl in Krakow is a stunning 8 out of 10.  We surmise that like New York City, the choicest girls assemble from all over the country for big city opportunities.  We both get tender in the loins as a group of three, molten hot 9’s pass us.

We want some traditional Polish food.  We find a restaurant with a promising menu and descend narrow, stone stairs to its underground dining room.  The room is candlelit.  Dusty, brown wicker baskets hang from wooden beam inlays.  We sit on a bench and eat.  Steaming Borscht comes out in coffee mugs.  We devour pork cutlets in sharp mustard gravy.  With swimming bellies we ascend to Krakow’s spotless, spotlit city center, restored and heavy.

By one o’clock in the morning we are tired so we trace our steps back to the hotel.  Krakow is an easy city to navigate.  It has shades of Prague and large, open squares like what I picture of Italian cities.  I would describe the buildings but I have no vocabulary for architecture.  The well lit green domes of a tall cathedral are our marker and we find the hotel.

Remus is ready for bed but I feel restless.  While walking the city center, we had been accosted by teenage girls to go to the clubs but had only laughed and smiled at them when they solicited us.  Now I felt the urge.

“I’m going to Club Voodoo,” I say.  “I’ll be back in 30.”

I end up staying out two hours.

A large, bald, presumably Polish guy mans the door at Club Voodoo.  I pay him a small cover (Poland is relatively cheap) and take the two flights upstairs.

At the bar I look over the drinks menu and while I do so a blonde girl, attractive, late twenties, approaches me.  She asks:

“Vould you like to have a talk?”

“How about a drink first?”

“OK, champagne?”

I follow my travel rules.  “Sure, help me pick one out.”

The menu has at least a dozen bottles of champagne listed with the cheapest offerings at the top of the list and the high-roller bottles at the bottom.  I know nothing about champagne and since the girl is standing next to me watching me order I do not want to look lame and buy the cheap bottle on the top of the list so I pick the third one down.

“Are you sure you want this one?,” asks the bartender.  I’m sure.  He swipes my card through a remote point of sale machine and I sign.

She leads me to a red velvet couch with dark blue pillows.  A different man than the bartender, presumably a manger, surprises me by bringing out gold poles with red velvet barrier ropes.  Our couch is under a bright spotlight and the creation of this VIP station for two strikes me as overkill.  I am then stunned when the manager comes back with a magnum of champagne on ice with a fully sparkling, multicolored firework attached to the top of the bottle.  The people in the club turn away from the entertainment to look at us.  The manager is grinning.  I stare at the firework on the bottle, bursting with fizz and flame feeling like a shy birthday boy in a Chuck-E-Cheese.  The flame snuffs out, the manager pops the cork and I hear an envious “ooh” from a lady near me.  I’ve never treated girlfriends this well, much less a stranger.

The flyer for Club Voodoo that the girl handed me outside read: “Club Voodoo:  Full Bar, Private Dances, Music, Conversations.”  No shit, you can just have a conversation?  It was as advertised.  I sit in an improvised VIP station, under a spotlight at Club Voodoo and simply have a conversation with a fully clothed girl.  She is dim and disinterested but I find just talking at one of these Polish 8’s to be fun.  An hour into the conversation, I notice she has barely touched the champagne.  One of her friends comes to our station and, combined, they offer me a final sale but I relent.  I leave Club Voodoo reeking.

When I get back to the hotel room Remus is sound asleep and I do my best not to wake him but I do have to turn on a light to see where I am going.  I turn the black knob of the desk lamp and look at Remus, hoping the light doesn’t startle him awake.  He lies motionless, he’s a deep sleeper.  I unload my pockets which are filled with Zloty notes and coins, my hotel swipe key, lip balm, and two receipts, one from McDonalds and the other from Club Voodoo.  Curious about how much I have spent in one night out I quickly look over the receipts.

Occasionally, The Economist will publish a global “Big Mac Index” to show comparative prices across international markets.  Since Remus has not stirred, I want to quickly compare prices between Poland to the US using this methodology.  My receipt from 12:00 AM indicates that I ordered a Big Mac sandwich and paid 5.38 Zloty.  Let’s call it five even, it’s the fucking Big Mac Index.  I seem to recall from a quick glance at the currency exchange in Gatwick that the Zloty was floating to the Dollar at around 9 Zloty to the Dollar, I think.  One-ninth is close to one-tenth which makes the math easier so one tenth of a 5 Zloty sandwich will give me an estimation of the dollar cost of my Big Mac.  What I get is 50 cents for a Big Mac.

50 Cents?  No way.  I do the computation again and get the same answer.  Is it really that cheap here?  This place is a hidden gem!  Then I look at my receipt from Club Voodoo.

My receipt from Club Voodoo reveals that at 1:27 AM I purchased a bottle of champagne for 2000 Zloty.  Applying my Big Mac calculator to this price gives a price of 200 dollars for that bottle of fucking champagne!  I am furious but then I realize that that is the price using my dubious 50 cent Big Mac ratio.  Commence panicking.

I turn on the main lights and start yelling at Remus, “What’s the Zloty conversion?  What’s the Zloty conversion?” I am steaming.

It takes Remus a while to wake up from his dreams and into my nightmare.  I keep screaming the same thing over and over, “What’s the fucking Zloty conversion?”

Coming to, he mumbles, “3 to 1 dude.  Chill out.”

“What’s the conversion rate?”

“It’s fucking 3 to 1”

I have underestimated the Zloty by an order of 3.

It takes me all night to admit to myself that I bought a $700 bottle of champagne.  No shit it comes with a firework.

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