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It’s about noon in the Naschtmarkt, and people are teeming in close-quarter crowds like Catholics waiting for the Pope’s blessing in Vatican Square. The Naschtmarkt — an open-air market that stretches nearly half a mile in the 3rd or 4th district of the city — is a bussling sea of life and commerce. One end is almost entirely made up of Café’s and restaurants, where diners sit mere inches from the throbbing masses, bumping and pulling each other around. Past the eaters are the markets themselves: endless aisles of shops with awnings to guard their trinkets, treasures and otherwise from the hard sun.

At first it is food — butcher storefronts with massive slabs of raw meat on display, waiting for some fat, hungry carnivore.

“I’ll take that side of beef, and make it snappy, I’ve got a small dragon to feed.”

Everywhere there are fruits and spices and booths for schnitzel or falafel. Pears, apples, dates, strawberries and peaches, a multi-color heaven of freshly grown produce is just part of the experience. Watermelons, oranges, grapefruits are everywhere. Fish markets with massive whole fish laying dead-eyed on cubed ice stink the air and people jam like crazy into narrower and narrower alleys of goods. The stores become so close that awnings from adjacent stores collide covering the entire thing in a faux shade and funneling people, hungry and wallets bursting, into packed crowds so harsh that turning in place is no longer an option.

After a few minutes of this crowd I’m about ready for alcohol or dangerous chemicals. Everything of value I have in this country is zipped in my backpack, which is being yanked and bumped with every step. This is the place one worries about pickpockets. Nobody wants to be robbed in a foreign country and a crowd like this must be ripe with half-wit crooks with light fingers.

I’m tempted to do something radical and give myself some breathing room — do something drastic at the next tug on my bag — just to show the crowd I’m not messing around. I’ll wait for some poor sap to push on my bag or jostle me from behind. Then, I’ll spin hard at the waist 90 degrees sending my elbow flying back behind me, high, aiming for the temple.

Crack some poor fellow right in the skull and send him crumpling to the ground with a whimper. Then, turn and become sincerely distraught by his injury.

So sorry, chap. Thought you were some no-good thieving little punk trying to lift my pocketbook. Boy, the sun and the crowd here must really have my nerves on edge. You know, a man can’t be too safe in a foreign country, with all the beggars about. Don’t worry my poor fellow, we can get that swelling down with a fine slab of meat.”

Yep. Send a violent, sudden message and get myself a nice wide berth for the rest of the afternoon. The two other  girls from St. Louis — Emma and Kim — who have accompanied me to the market for advice and consent purposes, are ahead of me. Having already helped me select a gift for my girlfriend, they’ve decided to move deeper into the market, on the western edge where the food stands end and low tents sell goodies, antiques and handmade knickknacks like Tijuana.

I spend a few minutes haggling with a South American woman over the price of a plain, ancient silver ring I have a powerful desire for. After a few moments of broken-English debate, we settle on the price and I slide the old thing onto my finger, enjoying the weight of it. Soon, we push on to another tent a few yards away were a stern-looking Arab sells sunglasses and jewelry. I examine a few pieces before moving on, only to be issued a sharp rebuke from the owner.

He looks down at his felt case and sees a ring missing. He sees the ring on my finger, which I am still toying with, and a look starts across his face that says he’s about to call me a thief, and maybe crack me in the skull with some wicked looking weapon he has stashed behind his table.

In a dark, ominous tone he points to my ring and says “You pay.”

“I already pay.” I respond, falling into that tragic habit of speaking incomplete English to someone who first address you that way, as if it will help his understanding. I point vigorously to the tent with the South American woman and explain that I already bought this damn thing and that maybe he should keep a closer eye on his merchandise.

He doesn’t seem to believe me and I’m becoming genuinely overcome with fear. Another Arab man — who I imagine is some kind of enforcer for greedy American punks trying to lift merchandise from the hardworking people of the market — appears and I suddenly imagine myself locked up by the local Polizei as I try in vain to explain that I didn’t steal, and that I detest such allegations. Emma and Kim materialize next to me and help ease the tension, insisting to the stern man that I didn’t take it.

He seems to believe them, or maybe he simply has a policy against disagreeing with young, pretty women who are potential customers. He waves distractedly, allowing me to sulk away to the next booth.

Deeper into the market the goods become less impressive. We’ve reached the outer edge, having long-since passed the point of no return. There are no tents now, just cheap plastic tables with bizarre collections of goods, some of which surely must be stolen.

A man with one leg and a face like the side of the Grand Canyon shows off his wide array of electronics. Cell phones of every kind, car batteries, clock radios and music boxes are just a few. I see fine speakers, a car stereo and what I am certain is some kind of toaster oven. I consider briefly accusing this man of thievery. I could really freak him out, wander over and demand he return my property.

“My car stereo!” I would screech like a banshee. “You hop-along little twerp, you didn’t think I’d come looking for you because of your sorry state, eh? Well I know that’s my damn radio, and I’ll have it back before you shill it to some passing tourist for 10 Euro. Hand it over before I have the Polizei come down here and break your fingers!”

But no. Such pranks are irresponsible in a foreign country no matter how certain I am that this bizarre, obviously pilfered collection is less than admirably gained I must admit with some reluctance the balls that it takes to sell it in the open street.

I see knives, too. One, a big, silver, gleaming thing with a CCCP engraving makes me want to gut one of those massive fish in the booths far behind us, just to test the quality of the blade. It is a brilliantly clean piece of metal in a high-quality, tan, leather holster.

“Russian” the woman who owns the knife says to me. “Russian. You like?”

“No, I no like Russians,” I say, forgetting that she probably doesn’t really get sarcasm coming from an English speaker.

I find an Iron Cross, dated 1939 and I nearly buy it, but I can’t quiet reconcile the strange look she gives me when I handle the thing as I consider it. I inspect it in the sunlight, admiring the age and history of the trinket, but I can feel eyes on me and suddenly I imagine airport security rifling through may bags upon seeing the little guy winking at them on the XRay Machine.

“Search this Nazi fuckers bag,” they say, in stern, foreign voices. “Filthy racist swine, coming into our country just to bring memories of Adolf and his little war back to the U.S. to sully our fine name. Cavity search the owner of this bag, make him suffer.”

I don’t buy it. I set it back down on the table, next to some chipped tea pots and an ancient looking China set. I try to ignore the other little trinkets daring me to whip out my money. Among them: a blade engraved to an “M.H. Peloe. In Service to the Royal Navy, 1902.” There’s a long, steel cane with a handle made from animal bone and another with a broken compass on the grip.

I spot a typewriter and nearly demolish several people making a beeline for it. A fine piece of essential equipment, I think to myself. It looks like it could handle being dropped out of an airplane — hulking out of a massive black box. I touch the keys gently, mentally calculating the weight of it, and wandering if I have the moxy to buy it can carry the brute all the way home. Then I notice that it is a German typewriter, and I light a cigarette and curse at no one in particular.

The girls are rifling through piles of clothes in a thick crowd of women like shoppers on Black Friday. Two Arab women pile four or five tables with random clothes like an outdoor Goodwill. They are cheap rags but relatively clean. Passers dig through the pile of cloth, occasionally holding something up to the light or pressing it against their figures to determine proper size.

I stand and watch them for several minutes as one of them refuses to pay more than 4 Euro for a black tank top with frills. Money is exchanged and they meet my eyes, jerking their heads to the side indicating I should step to the side of the street with them and out of this mad crowd and the hot sun.

We cross the street, leaving the crowded market behind and work our way into an antique bookstore where I contemplate for several minutes inquiring about an old copy of Mien Kampf.

Then, I remember that the man who owns this bookstore probably won’t enjoy my fascination with that part of his history, and the image of airport security explodes into my head again.

No historical paraphernalia. Not today.

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There is a strange, eclectic feel to the Viennese population and this is reflected hauntingly well in the student body at Webster Univeristy. Our new student orientation was comprised mostly of foreign nationals; two Iranians, an Englishmen and a host of Eastern-Europeans from nations that were once part of the Soviet Union. Everything is either a “slav” or a “stan” and almost nobody is accent-free.

The only thing we have in common in our confusion, or rather, our lack of information about how Webster overseas really works. There were some, like the two Korean girls who kept repeating registration questions, who had never attended Webster before, and needed extra preparation. For the few of us already enrolled either at St. Louis or another campus, the day was a slow drag of mostly repeat information.

There seemed a deliberate plan to only focus on that which I did not need, and blow right through that which is most important. I’m still unclear on the public transit system here. Going from student housing in Donafeld to the campus involves a tram, an underground train and a bus. One wrong stop, you might end up in Salzburg.

Others, though, seemed eager to be finished with the day. Difficult to pronounce names and painfully thick Russian accents made some of the lunch-time small talk less than easy. But some of European students, particularly those that were American-educated, spoke easy, carefree German.

Jergun, a Dutch-born German-speaking International Relations major, probably had a better vocabulary than I do. Jergun was an easy fellow, and we shared a U.S. Foreign Policy class together. Jergun had an odd look about him. He wore thick, perfectly round horn-rimmed glasses of orange and black, like something out of the 1940’s. His hair, plentiful, was heavily parted over one side, as though he were really an old man covering a bald spot. The drastic comb over look made him look somewhat dashing in an old-fashioned, dignified way you’d expect from a learned professor or a weathered airline pilot: hair falling in his eyes, permanent 5’oclock shadow.

But it also gave him an hysterical look. He was like a mad-scientist from an old silent film. Cool, collected and frighteningly calculating, until one day some tragedy befalls, and the formerly well-groomed German now lets the wild mane of a comb over blow recklessly in the wind, revealing its true chaos, and the chaos within. One could almost imagine him switching gears effortlessly from soft English to terrifying, Hitler-esque style German, all consonants and hard syllables.

After orientation, a few of us ventured into Vienna’s 1st district, and its oldest. It houses the Cathedral of St. Stephen, who’s memory is etched in a mighty, complex steeple jutting out of the church on the East side like a beautiful tumor. The district is electric with people, cramming and moving in tight-knit crowds like Time Square, babbling in languages I’m certain aren’t even real. The buildings are old, high and uncomfortably close; a relic of a time when a fine steed was the only vehicle to be had by a man on the move. They’re so close, I wander if I could leap from one to the other, Batman style, if so inclined. The streets they form lack the comfortable symmetry of American cities, with their fine right-angles and perfect corners.

The buildings, while ancient, lack the quaint antiquity of an ancient city. In the first, where Mozart ran wild and society hubub focused some few hundred years ago, the buildings have been converted by the bastard pigs of wanton capitalism. Each first level has been converted into a bright, terrifying high-end retail shop. Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Tiffany & Co., to name only a few, wink at travelers with florescent lights that will make the night-goers squint as they walk, wallets bursting, into the store.

This is clearly a place for the rich and happy and bored, mostly. Locals with wealth or foreigners too bored to see real people and too rich to know how to behave normally in a crowd love this center of town. They mingle in hand-made coats and fashionable scarves, carrying bags more expensive than the useless rags inside them.

The occasional spattering of cheap-tourist gift shops is the only justification for the spotty crowds of young, rambunctious locals and obviously un-wealthy outsiders. The high buildings, with their granite broadsides and breezy windows, draw the artistic and introverted to ponder the meaning of ancient art and old men of greatness long since perished from the Earth.
Those with the stomach to brave through the sea of sorry consumers might stumble upon something with a little more greatness. Hofburg Palace, a mighty concave structure clearly designed by an Emperor with someone to impress, walls the West side of the district and directs foot traffic toward Museum Quarter. The Hofburg itself is a grand, intimidating thing. Hundreds of broad columns where none are needed, endless engravings of vines and angels and saints of all kinds line the fine crevasses. Roman gods, carved in pure marble, slink and sulk, arms draped around one another, like the metrosexual Abercrombie and Fitch models of antiquity, pouting faces and all.

The current home of the Austrian president, Hofburg housed some of the finest the Austrian Empire had to offer, and reminds the tourist that, in this place, powerful men once ruled the world. Across from the palace, 50 feet tall, is a statue of a fine Austrian emperor on horseback, flag grasped tightly in one hand. It faces the palace in a ready stance, the battle cry of old just beyond the riders open lips.

Its painted in an ugly green, the telltale sign of bronze-gone-bad, like Lady Liberty herself. At night, when the lights from below illuminate the rider, the green gives him a frightening glow, a figure twisted and morphed from its original shape — no longer comforting and mighty, but dark, mysterious and looming, a madhouse version of history. It is what a writer expects from an old dead empire, greatness lost to time.

Finally, I have arrived in Vienna, city of….well whatever I determine it to be, I guess. Traveling has come to an end for me on this day, and it only involved 4 cities on 2 continents. The STL flight to Chicago-O’Hare was mercifully short. The child in the aisle across from me, screaming from ears popping and general fear of massive, loud machines, couldn’t be silenced without a Pixar movie on his iPad. When that happened, I was a few minutes away from brutalizing the poor boy and being escorted from the plane.

After landing in O’Hare, there was a crucial choice to make. I abhor the non-smoking policy at O’Hare, but was forced to feed my cravings. So after two fast smokes and 30 minutes working back through security, I was at my gate in the K section, the International concourse. Out of K19, a massive Airbus 340-600 would take us across the Atlantic. When the beast of a machine pulled up, the size of the thing astounded me. Seating more than 350 with 4 turbine engines big enough to swallow whole cows without blinking, this thing is a sight for the ages.

At the end of the K terminal, the dead-end portion of the international concourse, there is more peace than the general population of O’Hare. I sat with my back to the typical floor-to-cieling windows displaying the runway. I could see everyone approaching our seating area for a flight. As a professional people-watcher, I found this quiet pleasant.

A whole collection of travelers accumulates. Some speak rapid-fire Spanish while rifling through papers and luggage. Others, like the family across from me, are speaking some kind of garbled easter dialect I can’t place. Arabic, Russian or something else entirely. I pick up a few heavy German accents and spot plenty of trendy European men heading home — they wear styling gel and pressed shirts, name brand luggage and fashionable shoes. I am not these men.

There were improbably old women tending to children much to young to be directly produced by them, I thought. American tourists, mostly parents, stuffing food or electronics in front of their faces to keep them sane, makes me wonder how any of these people walk and talk at the same time.

But we board the plane and load in, carefully arranging ourselves as lukewarm in-flight meals and even more lukewarm in-flight entertainment (this time is what the comedic genius of “Tower Heist”) put me to sleep easily, along with the Xanax in my system. Nearly 9 hours and a little turbulence later, I’m arriving at Madrid airport, with little time to spare.

I’ve landed at the auxiliary wing, a concourse connected to the main terminal via underground train. In less than 30 minutes, I must locate and board this train, arrive at the main terminal, pass through security and find my gate. 10 minutes off the plane, and my fellow Webster traveler that I located on the flight are sprinting through Madrid airport, jamming like crazy down escalators and shoving locals aside as we storm towards security.

One of the guards, unaware of our need for haste, tried to stop me. At this point, my limited Spanish came into play. I leapt over the ropeline for security, cutting right to the front with my fellow student in tow. The security guard stepped forward, probably frightened that this young, sweaty and apparently very disturbed American was about to attack people.

“Senor, Debe esperar” (You must wait)
“Wait? Are you fucking kidding me? Mi vuelo es ahora!” (My flight is right now) “No, no esperar. Ahora vuelo.”

I held my boarding pass up, tapping it repeatedly with my finger and gesturing like someone who’d arrived in a foreign nation drunk. He pulled it out and examined it, but moved me to the front of the line anyway.

“La Nina,” I said, pointing at the Webster girl flying to Vienna as well. He seemed to understand, yanking her through security and rushing our equipment through the Xray. The guard seemed even more worried than me, and I didn’t understand why, until we got past him. Our gate was four floors up, elevators loaded. We’d have to sprint up the stairs.

It wasn’t until I was at the top, nearly to my gate, that I’d realized the security guard, the foul punk, still had my boarding pass that I’d waved like a gun in his face. A brief 5 seconds of horrific cursing and I let go, moving fast toward the gate and breathlessly explaining what’d happened in broken spanish, before the attendant interrupted me in English, providing me with a new boarding pass and a newfound belief that good luck does exist.

There, of course, are more details. Like Serjan (pronounced, Seer John) our driver, who brought us to the dorms from the airport like he was being paid to do it dangerously. He was astonishingly calm, making normal small talk as he whipped through traffic twice as fast as the others.

But I’m exhausted, half-starved and mad from jet lag. My window is open and I can hear the ravens (apparently, popular in these parts) outside squawking nevermore. To bed. And then, tomorrow.

In one week, I’ll be leaving for Vienna, Austria. The Sudentenland, as it were, the ethnic home of the Germans (along with Germany, I’m told, but we’re waiting for confirmation on that) and some mad fever of warmth and Seattle-like weather.

This blog is hardly a decent read on its best day, and it warrants few views. But for the purposes of my travels, I am re-adopting it, not to bloviate on the weakness of some political thingamajig, but to chronicle my travels for my 8-week journey into a new place.

So this’ll be the start, the first reference and opening chapter. I’ll update on  layovers and downtime and hopefully have a photo or two to bring into the mix. I’m not going to seek out the finest party, the perfect molly-infested dance-trap hellhole, so don’t look to me for tips on clubs with particularly compelling beats. I’m not a foodie or a wino and if culture were a pigment, I’d be an albino. But, I do have some skill with words when I’m particularly jacked in, and because of my inflated sense of self-worth thanks to the internet, nobody can tell me otherwise.

I know people and I specialize in words and arguments. I have a taste for government, though my understanding of Austrian parliamentary code is infantile. But I know vibes, I can sense Fear and Sex and Joy in the air, and I know what drives us. So I’ll do my best to present a snapshot of the city that brought Mozart to the masses and made Freud into a dangerous coke-monster. But if two mad, mutated minds converge in the same city, you have to wonder if something is in the water.

So I’ll drink the water and let you know how it tastes. One week and I’ll let Europe dazzle my fickle American tastes.