My favorite restaurant in the world, Ee Beng Vegetarian

eebeng entrance

     The entrance to Ee Beng! Excitement!


     My favorite restaurant in Penang, and therefore the known world, is Ee Beng Vegetarian Food Restaurant. (The first restaurant that comes to mind when I think of a runner up is Al-Hashem in Amman, Jordan. I also have rained praise on Sri Ananda Bahvan in Penang.) It is a humble mixed rice restaurant that doesn’t put on airs. Three years ago I wrote a blog post about Ee Beng so I don’t need to declare my love ad nauseum, and I still feel the same uneasiness knowing that I have no idea what I am eating—is it soy? Wheat? Reconstituted cat flesh?—but I don’t need to know as taste conquers all.
     Also, I need to be reminded that “vegetarian” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy” as there are some pretty heavy sauces on some of these things. It gives me pause for thought that I eat meat at all. I would be content eating this mockmeat stuff all the time. The texture is a quick giveaway that it isn’t meat, but I’m not bothered by that. Trues carnivores might disagree, but I say it is the sauce, not the substance.
     The next three photos are a few of the meals I had. They all cost between six and eight ringgit. (US$2.75-$3.50)
eebengdish1
eebengdish2
eebengdish3
eebeng queue

     Civilized dining—and no overlapping!


eebeng layout

     The layout


eebeng1
eebeng2
eebeng3
eebeng4
eebeng stortage

     Ee Beng seeks your mercy even though they are the ones suffering through the stortage!


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Penang: greatest city in the history of mankind?

fern building
     Instead of building up to something, let’s start out with it: Penang is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I’m a world city aficionado. It would be cool to visit every country in the world, but I’d like to visit every big city in the world, too. I’m probably Karachi, Chongqing, and Lagos away from the top 25, depending on how you measure.
     Technically speaking, there is no city called Penang; it is an island off the west coast of Malaysia with Georgetown as its major city. Georgetown is what I love, though I will go with the more-commonly used “Penang” which comes from “pinang”, which means betel nut tree. I can barely bring myself to explore other parts of the island, I am so enthralled with it, and just watch: I can express my love without mentioning food once. That will come in the next post as I share my favorite restaurant in the known world.
     The challenge is that it’s hard to express my enthusiasm for Penang in a way that would pique anyone’s interest other than for the food. I hesitate to recommend it to friends, as they might not interpret their experience as positively as I do. Many travelers are here just to renew their Thai visas and they saunter around in the oppressive heat woozily, unimpressed by the run down, weather-beaten buildings. The beaches aren’t particularly clean, the water less so, and the sleepy city center’s buildings make it feel like a provincial New Zealand town circa 1988. While most locals are warm and welcoming, some can be by turns taciturn or tetchy, traits that don’t go over well with travelers.

light quote

     In the late 18th century it was decided that Penang Island was going to be a place to develop, so to make space to settle, silver coins were fired from cannons on the ship into the jungle, knowing that everyone who came for a better life would want them. The land was cleared in no time.


     I’m doing a great job selling it, aren’t I? HA! But come on, get up early in the morning and go for a walk before the heat wilts your constitution. Come late afternoon for the same walk as streets can undergo a metamorphosis with a market in the morning and food stalls in the evening, like the area around the Chowrasta Market (short-listed for the greatest market name ever even if the market itself is known for selling the worst food ever: pickled fruit. I just threw up in my mouth.) Few places positively drip with atmosphere like Penang.
     I’d usually rate myself as an average history buff, but here I feel like an avid museum curator sent to chronicle what there is and was before it all completely disappears. Penang feels so palpable and accessible; I don’t need a vivid imagination to conjure up the past. The old town is still well-preserved in both its extremes, the stylish renovated buildings and the ones gone to seed, and there’s a sign on every street detailing its history beyond what you can imagine with names like Lebuh Armenian, Love Lane, Jalan Burmah, Lebuh Acheh (now a province in Indonesia, then a powerful sultanate), etc.
     The historic center is small and compact and in short order you can stumble across busy places of worship for all the different religions, visit Chinese clan houses and clan jetties, smell the flower sellers in Little India before you see them, and, my personal fetish, watch the Malay policewomen in full uniform eating fish curries with their hands across the street from the police station. (Wait, was that my out-loud voice?)
odeon cinema

     The Odeon Cinema at the end of Lebuh Chulia was a Tamil institution that closed this year.


go down houses
islam banner

     I saw this banner on several mosques. Not a big fan of its message dissing other religions, or am I reading it wrong?


     I remember a time when locals commonly wore sarongs and it was less of a stop on the banana pancake trail than a place of great historical interest that warranted a visit on its own merits, but I won’t go into full whine mode because Penang is still a rare bird, just not a bird big enough to handle the biggest rats I’ve ever seen and which are at ease darting around alleys in broad daylight.
     Socially, there has always been issues. Homelessness is omnipresent and I am hard-pressed to think of a place with more transvestite prostitutes. At dark they take over the main drag, Lebuh Chulia, which is also the main backpacker street. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence (cough!)
     I’m still not doing a good job of selling Penang, am I?
dog rickshaw

     The rickshaws are going to disappear someday, so might as well give the dogs a spin around the block.


     I once volunteered here for a couple of weeks at the Penang Heritage Trust, an organization that tried to preserve the historic center of town from the modern-is-good, old-is-bad federal government at the time. Success came a few years later when Penang and Melaka were given UNESCO World Heritage protected status, but one can only hope that Penang doesn’t go the way of Melaka. Penang is lived in. Penang is for Penangites despite the fact that tourists abound. Melaka is like a showcase of what it once was, Disney-fied in garish colors, a tarted up spectacle for tourists. It’s as if the Chinese government were advising Malaysia how to develop it because visiting Melaka feels like you have paid admission to see something.
     Part of the excitement of being here is that it feels like a place on the verge of a transformation because you wonder how it can last. Forces are pulling it in different directions, but is there a tipping point where it will become Melakacized: upmarket, upscale, and a playground for the rich? In the meantime I will enjoy its surprises, like hearing bagpipes coming out of the local high school across from my guest house.
motorcycle mural

     If you haven’t been to Penang in a while, there are new murals and metal wire frame sculptures dotted all around the city. It’s pretty well done with maps to show you where they are, and I love the concept. See the murals quickly as the weather is taking a toll on them.


step by step mural
bruce lee mural
jasmine

     To counterbalance the rich meals I have been devouring, I went on two hikes, one up Penang Hill (5km and 700+ meters in elevation) and the other was to Monkey Beach in the national park on the northwest coast of the island. On the trail I met this funny local girl who gave me a ride back to Georgetown despite the embarrassment of my super-sweaty body fouling up her car. She introduced me to fried noodle tom yam which I will forever be grateful for.
     I asked her, “What’s your first language?” and she had to think about it, which seemed very Malaysian since there is such a strong mix of cultural pushes and pulls.


     I need someone with a sewing machine to elongate the pockets on some shorts I bought, but in Penang they want to charge me an arm and a leg to do it. The funny thing is that anyone in the world who has a sewing machine, the person will grab the garment from my hand and start working on it before they tell me a price. Must be some sort of secret code among tailors. I tried to get the transvestites interested in fixing my shorts, but I think they thought I was speaking euphemistically.
lewd behavior sign

     I thought we told you foreigners last time to keep your lewd behavior at home!


     Practical information
     I stayed in three different places. Prices for accommodation are going up, but more guest houses are opening than closing. I was told prices are rising because Penang has World Heritage status now, which doesn’t completely make sense, but it is true that you should be careful what you wish for when you want the world to acknowledge something you privately know as special.
     The best cheap place is Red Inn Cabanas (there are several different Red Inns) near the west end of Jalan Muntri. It is well-hidden, but it is in the same building as the Chocolate and Coffee Museum (pure hokum; it’s like calling McDonald’s a hamburger museum) and across the street from where local boy Jimmy Choo learned about shoes. 26 ringgit (US$8) for a bed in a four-bed dorm with real walls, not the paper-thin ones found in subdivided houses where noise reigns supreme. (Someday I expect to read that a consortium of Malaysian guest house owners have contracted with NASA to come up with new, microscopically-thin materials because paper-thin walls simply aren’t thin and flimsy enough.)
jimmy choo
     I also stayed in Old Penang Guest House on Love Lane, which was fine, even though a girl told me two disturbing things right after I checked in: she woke up with itchy bite marks all over her legs and the only other guy in the dorm was awoken at midnight by the police because it was suspected that he stole a laptop.
     Both walks to the beaches in the free national park are excellent and worth doing. Don’t take the boats, slacker! There is a lighthouse viewpoint at Muka Head another twenty minutes or so beyond Monkey Beach. A sign says it closes at 3pm, but I went after hours anyway since this is Malaysia (“Britain ruled the waves, but we waive the rules!”) The compound was open, but the trees are high enough that you can’t see anything, and the actual lighthouse with the great views, is, well, closed after 3pm.
     I went to the flea market in Penang on Lorong Kulit behind the stadium. It was so-so; less than half of the sellers have used stuff. Just as so-so and in town is the daily, late afternoon flea market where Armenian and Acheh Streets meet.
     I hitchhiked from Kuala Lumpur to Penang pretty easily. The place to start is just south of the Rawang KTM commuter train station. Hitchhike the four or five km to the highway entrance, and you will be fine. A big highway gas station rest area is just a few km to the north.
     I prefer to get dropped off in Butterworth and take the ferry over to Penang, but my last driver happened to be going over the (new, second) bridge and straight to Georgetown. He also knew of a guest house that had beds for 33 ringgit on Kimberly Road called On Journey Inn that was empty because it can’t seem to decide if it wants to be open or not, so you will have the place to yourself.
flag in sea

     The Malaysian flag mysteriously poking out of the sea. My lens has a spot on it and doesn’t take good photos any more. I’m suffering with my camera. When I go home I pledge to shop, spend and consume electronics enough to make my countrymen proud of me.


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

A quick introduction to the great state of Malaysia

economy rice plate

     Malaysian food is simply the best. This is called economy rice where you choose from a couple dozen trays of food to add to your rice. You bring it to the cashier and they look at it like they have never seen such a combination before and mentally compute it. This cost eight ringgit, or US$2.50 for such a plate of goodness. The meat on the top right is pork, I was told.


caged cats

     I’m almost sure he said pork.


cats in cage

     Umm…why are there cats in cages again?


     I’m back in Asia after a four-month spell in Europe. I must have overstayed my Europe/Schengen visa, but like the requirement for travelers to have onward tickets, I don’t believe this is aimed at the western traveler and the immigration officer in Budapest stamped me out right next to the entry stamp that showed I stayed too long.
     It’s taking a bit of time to acclimate to the heat and humidity of Malaysia, but I will take it over the cold any day. I am not of the persuasion that thinks you appreciate hot weather only after you go through an interminable fall, winter, and spring. Give me the heat. I will take 90F (32C) over 40F (5C) any day of the week. What can you do in the cold? Your options are limited.
panda bass

     Groovy bassist in a street band on Jalan Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur.


licking booth

     The licking booth. Yuck! This was at a Japanese festival outside of Kuala Lumpur. I couldn’t believe how huge the crowd was, but the licking booth? Not so popular.


indecent behavior

     Curb your immoral desires, infidels! Yes we’re talking to you, decadent, depraved Westerners!


roti canai dua

     I intended to have my ugly varicose veins operated on here, but it’s 8000 ringgit, whereas I could also have 8000 of these roti canai.
     You read my mind.


     Malaysia has long been one of my favorite countries in the world and I am constantly in bloody fistfights defending it over Thailand. I love Thailand, too, but I’m partial to Malaysia, and especially Penang, one of the world’s great cities and the subject of the next blog post.
     I do have one beef with Malaysia: the way they treat their foreign workers. Few countries have a proud record, but there has been a spate of Nepali slaves—I mean, guest workers—who have died on the job here. The Malaysian government claims these deaths are from “natural causes” so they don’t have to pay any compensation to the families. It’s absurd that so many young Nepali men in their 20s and 30s are dying of anything, much less from natural causes. But don’t get me started on how badly the Thais treat the Burmese either!
     Practical information
     To go from the airport to the main train station and vice versa there is always a 10 ringgit (US$3.15) bus about to leave. It isn’t necessary to pre-book anything, though you might save one or two ringgit doing so. There is a more convenient direct train that costs three or four times the bus that I’ve never experienced.
     In Kuala Lumpur I stayed with friends, in an Airbnb room, and in a Chinatown flophouse. I guess I can’t literally say a flophouse, but sad enough that my mother might cry if she saw it. There are lots of depressing places to stay with paper-thin walls. I would only suggest keeping your nose to the ground for new places, and it isn’t necessary to stay in the middle of town with such a good, cheap, extensive metro system. Couchsurfing must be pretty easy, I would guess.
     Buried at the bottom here: does anyone want a postcard from Malaysia? The first person to reply below will get it, but my three qualifications are that I have never met you in person, I have never sent you a postcard before, and you will read my blog for eternity.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

A sad Hungarian goodbye to four months in Europe

danke ungarn

     A German poster thanking Hungary for the events of twenty-five years ago. Everyone forgets this now, but the reason the Berlin Wall came down when it did is because Hungary opened the border to allow East Germans into Austria. Traditionally, every summer tons of East Germans came to vacation around Lake Balaton in western Hungary, and in 1989 the Hungarian government allowed them to pass into Austria. They all spontaneously drove to the border crossings and abandoned their cars to get out. Word got back to East Germany, starting an exodus to Austria, and in the drama and madness that followed, it has been lost in history that Hungary provided the first push of the domino.


     In Budapest I met up with a Brazilian couple I know who are traveling around eastern Europe. They wanted to know why Hungarians kept asking them why they wanted to come to Hungary. I had a similar experience when I met a German girl on the bus. We were raving about what a great place Hungary is and then when she asked where I was from, she couldn’t understand why a Californian would come here.
     What Hungarians don’t get about their own country is that travelers want to experience something different. Brazilians don’t need to party 24/365—Well, OK, Brazilians are a bad example—everyone else doesn’t need to party 24/365. We foreigners want to feel something profound and with more depth than we are accustomed to even if you are slow like me and not able to digest what you are seeing and hearing immediately.
     Therefore everything is interesting, even the prosaic. We want to hear about the typically Hungarian, intellectual, complicated drinking games when we come from lands that have only beer pong.
     We are impressed when we discover how well they know their country’s history and the feeling that if history wasn’t taught in school, Hungarians would read about it in their free time to become so well-versed.
     We like visiting the homes and realizing that any Hungarian worth their salt and with space will have a huge personal library. One friend lamented that she had “only” 800 books, but pointed out that she’d read them all. (Garbagemen and skinhead bookworm photos are here.)
     (You have to visit the homes. This is a strong reason why the concept of Couchsurfing is so important and why if you meet someone in Budapest and they invite you to their hometown for the weekend, you don’t hesitate to accept. You also don’t hesitate to accept when a Scandinavian girl asks if you want to see her summer beach holiday photos, but that’s another story. Let’s not get distracted.)
     I suspect Russia is very similar to Hungary in a lot of these respects. I’ve only been once, but a meandering summer through Russia has always been on my list. It wouldn’t be fun, necessarily, but it would be worthwhile.
bread sticker

     Do other countries paste stickers on their bread to show their use-by date?


     Coming to Europe is always eye-opening in how cosmopolitan and progressive-minded everyone seems. All Americans who travel, including me, think we become so enlightened that we must proselytize to get other Americans to travel and experience what we experience. I doubt Europeans think like this. Few Europeans need prodding to travel. (I did meet a young professional Swiss man who was afraid to travel because he didn’t speak any foreign language—other than German, English and French!)
     It helps that Europeans don’t have hangups about traveling. They don’t worry about not speaking the local language or where they’ll sleep or what they will experience in the unknown. It’s all an adventure. For most Americans, the outside world is one big scary place, which is nothing if not ironic. Americans should be the last ones worried about personal safety as most American cities have more serious crime than anywhere in Europe. Statistics might not bear me out, but I can’t think of anywhere I’ve been in Europe—or most of the world, really—where I haven’t felt safe.
selfness

     Selfness toilet paper. Pure genius


     Completely out of context thing about hitchhiking that I will shoehorn in here:
     When I was hitchhiking out of Switzerland a couple of weeks ago one of my drivers was about to say something and then stopped himself, asking, “Don’t you get tired of answering the same questions all the time?”
     I’ve read on hitchhiking forums that some travelers make up stories about their lives just to get through the boredom of answering the same ten questions from every driver. I never tire of this just as I never take for granted that by merely holding my arm at a ninety degree angle from my body, someone will drive me a distance for free. Answering questions and gabbing are very, very small prices to pay. Besides, I don’t have the memory to run with fake stories about being an astronaut or zookeeper.
     In the case of the Swiss driver, I said, “The distance you are driving me right now would have cost me $100 on the train. Talking is the least I can do. What do you want to know?”
     End of completely out of context thing about hitchhiking that I shoehorned in here.
     A thank you again to Peter Nagy who let me stay exactly 10 days in his apartment with him. That’s a lot of days, especially if you know the old Italian saying, “Fish and guests begin to smell after three days.” Peter probably knows me better than I know myself, so I don’t need to apologize for being an occasional lump.
     I worry about being a lump because I visited a lot of friends this summer and I’m not sure I always leave a good impression. Here’s my excuse: I am generally a high energy, go-go traveler. I’m rarely napping or lounging around cafes sipping fruity drinks, so when I visit friends, it is sometimes nice to exhale, decompress and do nothing. I can imagine friends looking at me as my body begins to melt into the form of the couch and think, “So this is The Great Traveler! Over 100 countries, you say?”
career ad

     An ad for careers for college students. Call me crazy, but I don’t predict big things from the guy looking at the pamphlet upside down.


     Practical Information
     I did a little dental tourism and visited Dr. Andras Barsi in Budapest. He confirmed that my German dentist in the Philippines did a great job except for one little high point on the crown that he shaved off. He also scraped off some plaque on my teeth, all of which cost the consultation price of 5500 forints (US$23). I had no appointment.
     I have a friend who is a dentist in Romania, too, that lets me sleep in her office. (Photos here.) That’s an experience.
     I bought a one-way ticket from Budapest to Kuala Lumpur on Qatar Airways for US$472. Leaving tomorrow. A cheaper option was norwegian.com from Copenhagen to Bangkok if I was in the mood to hitchhike up there. I kept my eye on Malaysia Airlines from Amsterdam to KL, but for some reason it isn’t cheap.
airport train sign

     Don’t be fooled by this. There is no train to the airport. This goes to the old airport where you have to take another bus. I don’t know if it is faster to take the metro to Kobanya-Kispest and then bus from there, but it is probably cheaper at 530 forint for a transfer ticket.


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Going home again to Pecs, Hungary

pecs hitchhiking sign

     My hitchhiking sign, riddled with mistakes, I was told later. (Hungarian is hard! Give me a break!) The sign is working. Even people who don’t pick me up are amused by it. The first driver to take me was flying to Boston the next day.


     I once lived in Pecs (pronounced “paytch”), a provincial capital 200km from Budapest in southern Hungary. I was legal with a contract and work visa, not overstaying a tourist visa like I might be doing now. It was the only time in my adult life that I have lived in one place for eight months straight. (A few years later I worked six months at an internet startup in Silicon Valley and those are the longest full-time jobs I’ve ever had.) I taught English at a private language school despite having no experience, but back then being a native speaker was enough, and when the day came, I literally had a hand on my back, was guided into the classroom, and the door was shut behind me.
     Even though it was a legal job, every pay day I was called into the director’s office where an enormous dusty ledger was lugged out for me to sign. I was paid in cash, then the ledger was put away and I was handed an envelope with more cash that made up the rest of my salary. Whenever I asked why this was so, I was given a vague answer akin to, “Don’t worry your pretty little head.” By the time I left Hungary I learned to not ask too many questions.
zaszlo

     I don’t know what this billboard means or what is it is for, but that’s the quintessential Hungarian word. I can speak Hungarian, enough for simple conversations—hitchhiking Hungarian, let’s call it—which is a feat.


     I first came to Pecs years earlier when I met a girl in Szeged—another great, under-visited college town in the southeast—and she brought me home to meet her family. Her parents were deeply unsure of me. I had long hair and my deep tan spoke of a life of excess leisure and irresponsibility, but they were welcoming nonetheless and her mother offered to wash my clothes. Like many washing machines in Hungary, it was placed next to the bathtub so the machine would empty into the bathtub instead of down its own drain. A while later we were all standing next to the bathroom when the machine grunted and spewed an opaque, deep black effluent into the bathtub for all of us to see. I was mortified, but the mother handled it with aplomb, first staring at the sewage, then, without looking at me, she quietly said we could wash the clothes a second time.
csiga

     Homemade chocolate and cinnamon csiga, literally “snail”, from the mother. (I’ve known the family forever now; I’m on good terms.) I forget what these are called in English. Did I mention I have been away for eight months?


     I lived in three different places when I taught in Pecs: once in Uranvaros (literally “Uranium Town”. Yes, I drank the tap water in Uranium Town and yes, I had gall stones removed a year later), once with Robin MacAlpine, and once I accepted an offer I couldn’t refuse. A woman would rent me her apartment in the center of town for something like $75 a month (I earned what a Hungarian teacher earned in those days: $230 a month) but there was a catch: it had no shower and every other weekend she wanted the apartment for herself, meaning I had to sleep somewhere else. There was another issue: she had a baby recently, the father of whom abandoned her during the pregnancy because he was convinced she would never get her body back to how it was. When she did, he wanted to be a couple again and she refused. He was furious and she told me she was afraid he was going to come by the apartment to confront her.
     I agreed to the deal—Young Kent Foster didn’t even think twice about it; blissful ignorance is the best—and then late on the first Friday night there was a knock. My heart pounded. With much trepidation I opened the door. It was the woman with a new boyfriend. There was miscommunication about which weekends she wanted the apartment and it was too late for me to go anywhere else, so she, the new boyfriend, and I ended up sleeping in the same bed, terrified that the hothead ex-boyfriend was coming to slash our throats.
pecs by night

     Pecs’ main square by night with an eight-meter-tall horse in silhouette. Teaching in Pecs was one of the best years of my life, the previous story notwithstanding. It was all very last minute, like most things in my life: I was offered the job and flew over less than two weeks before school started. Knowing myself, if I had more time to think it over, I might not have jumped at the opportunity.


     It was heartening to visit old friends and students. I like to say that I was such a bad teacher that I have to speak Hungarian with my former students these days, but it’s not true, or we can say they learned their excellent English from other teachers.
     I wish I was as optimistic about Pecs’ future as my students’. I am hearing that young people are leaving in the thousands. There is no work. The outlook is grim. Better-off friends in Budapest with good jobs tell me that leaving the country is always in the back of their minds because the present is a house of cards. It’s all anecdotal, but I would say few people are bullish on Hungary right now.

     Practical Information
     The Sunday flea market at the Vasarpiac, especially the first Sunday of the month, is a lot of fun. You’ve never seen so many people drinking brandy and eating heavy food at 10am. Don’t wait until the afternoon to go or people will already be packing up. I almost bought an old Munich, Germany license plate for 500 forint (US$2) but I can’t think of a country where I will be soon where I can mail it home reasonably, and I let it go. So sad. Bus 130 from the station goes there, among others, but Hungary has a system where they punish you for buying tickets on the bus: you pay more and they accept exact change only. You are supposed to plan ahead and buy tickets at kiosks, because good luck finding one open early on a Sunday.
     I stayed at Ananas Hostel on a scruffy street on the east side of downtown run by a very nice couple. It is very literally a family home that has had a couple of rooms converted into a hostel. Nine euros a bed.

ananas hostel bed

     The hostel bed on Hungarian Railways pallets. I found it hard to sleep, but I find it hard to sleep anywhere. It’s a problem.


     I was sent a link to the University of Pecs if someone is interested in studying there. It already has a very substantial foreign student population.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

The perpetual return to good old New Hungary

     I left home eight months ago today. Thank you.
     Greetings from Hungary! Hungary is the kind of place where a girl with understated, smoldering beauty—which is hard to consciously pull off—will passionately and with great depth discuss her place in the world, and then crush you in ping pong all long, long before her fifth gin and tonic. Hungary is so great I am going to leave soon. I plan to buy a ticket to head back to Asia. I’m going home. The long way.

kent budapest sign

     My “California to (Buda)pest” sign worked like a dream. Apparently my irresistible face from the previous stretch of hitchhiking is pretty resistible because when I tried hitchhiking without a sign, I languished. Lesson learned.


rasmus supertramp

     Everywhere I hitchhike I like to check the messages other travelers write on the poles and guard rails where we stand. “Rasmus Supertramp” is an Into the Wild reference, the book of the present traveler’s generation. (If I were a serious blogger/businessman, I would have a link to an Amazon store and I would get 50 cents or something if you bought the book, but I can’t bring myself to do it yet.) The notes hitchhikers scrawl as they wait can seem as desperate as dying in a bus in the Alaskan forest if it’s a bad place to hitch from, such as “Stuck here for 22 f*#@$%! hours!”


french dreams

     Pierre’s dream was to stand in the rain at a Swiss highway gas station. Dreams do come true! Follow your dreams! Next to this another traveler wrote: “Why do only foreigners pick me up in Switzerland?”


     It’s one thing to act out being a hippie while hitchhiking and say to myself that when I get there, I get there, because that’s life on the road, dude/baby, but it’s another to have a welcoming friend who forgives me for arriving at crazy hours, offers to pick me up outside of town in the middle of night, and always let’s me overstay, and that is my friend Peter Nagy (as it has been Robin MacAlpine in the past as well as numerous others over the years that I feel indebted to.) A big, embarrassing, public thank you. I broke his blinds, too. He had to call the landlord over and everything.
     The New Hungary
     I’ve been coming to Hungary since 1986 and I doubt two years have ever passed between visits since. (I wrote something on my last visit 18 months ago.) I’ve been in Hungary more than any other foreign country even if I don’t include the year I taught English or the three operations I’ve had here, but it’s hard to keep knowing a place that’s always in flux. When I arrive I’m always unsettled by the changes, but by the time I leave it feels that the essence of Hungary has remained the same, while wondering how much is irretrievably lost with each passing year.
     On a practical level I have noticed more and more people are speaking better-than-average English. I can ask questions in Hungarian and get answers in English. This never used to happen, but now I get it from the most unlikely source: metro ticket inspectors, who are traditionally far from being multilingual.
     It must be a simple generational change. The Wall Street Journal once called Hungarians “the supreme masters of glumness.” It’s famously pessimistic, always with a high suicide rate (presently #6 in the world.) “Magyarorszag”, the name of the country in Hungarian, is an ancient word emanating from nomadic tribes coming over the Ural Mountains that means “glass half empty.”
     But that joke doesn’t fly any more! Not in the New Hungary! Everything’s changing. I even once thought I detected a slight twinge in a driver’s face as he considered for the briefest of moments to stop for me at a crosswalk, but I could have been mistaken. There are new bike lanes sprouting up in town, cyclists actually using the bike lanes, and I witnessed cyclists stopping at intersections as if this is Amsterdam. It’s all pretty heady stuff. I’m only beginning to process and digest it.
     I might be mislead by my first impressions; I just got here. I’ll be visiting old friends, making a pilgrimage back to the town I used to teach, Pecs (pronounced “paytch”), and trying to get a feel for what’s going on. Then I will keep all the insight to myself and just post photos of envelopes instead. Give the people what they want.
     Not everything changes in New Hungary. It’s still a world leader in public displays of affection. In a city park I think I witnessed a woman conceive.
brutal burger

     Truth in advertising from Burger King.


langos scone

     I feel compelled to apologize to the United Kingdom for this defamation. Langos (deep fried dough) is far from a scone and you have to think twice before eating food that you can hang on a hook all day, as you can see on the sides of the sign.


kolbaszok

     Exotic Hungarian sausages, an exception to the no-hanging-food rule. Big fan of all these, especially the horse which has a nice tang. No visit to Hungary is complete without a little spicy horse salami indigestion.


gyasz

     I like to buy these envelopes used for mourning and funerals. Don’t judge.


     My favorite thing to do in Budapest is helping tourists with directions. If I see someone squinting at a map, I pounce, asking if I can help them find something. Only about two out of ten people look me up and down as if they’ll need to describe me to the police later. I do this all the time, all over the world, even if I hardly know the place. I get a charge out of it.

Practical information
     Though I’ve been on an all-hitchhiking bender lately, I have used Oszkar for rideshare in the past. It’s possible to go from Budapest to Vienna or Pecs for around ten euros, much cheaper than the train.
     I always advise travelers on their first trip to Europe to see a few of the places that resonated with them as a teenager, your Parises, Venices, Londons, etc., leave some space for the Budapests and Krakows, and then stretch yourself with an Albania or an Armenia. I think it’s wise to build up to the less-easy countries, but some travelers just dive head first into a Moldova.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

A hitchhiking day for the ages in Germany and Switzerland

kent in the alps

     The fruits of the labor: hiking in the Swiss Alps in Derborence above Sion in the Valais.


     The day started poorly. I hadn’t shaved, my eyes were bugged out from a lack of sleep, and my new haircut makes me look like a psycho ward escapee; I wouldn’t stop for me either. Plus, there is nothing worse than waiting in the rain for a ride and then seeing two other guys show up to hitchhike.
     Other hitchhikers! I always think hitchhiking is a dying art, but today I saw hitchhikers every step of the way, almost all of them with bad form or praying for a miracle, like Scraggly Mohawk Dude sitting in a dirty corner of the gas station with his dog. Usually when other hitchers appear we make very small talk and wish each other well, giving space. These two came over just to gawk at the freak with the American flag on his backpack. One stared at my “KALIFORNIEN NACH BASEL” sign for uncomfortably long before saying, “Is that a joke?”
basel sign
     I said, no, I am from California, and seeing that he was still flummoxed, I allowed, “No, I didn’t hitchhike all the way here from California.” The expressionless Neanderthal shrugged and wandered off, but the other stayed right next to me while he texted. A precious car approached. It appeared that we were together. I told him so, but he didn’t budge. The car passed, and I was steamed. It was 11am. Dinner in Switzerland was at 6:30pm. I was 550km (340 miles) away. I gave him the stink eye, raised my voice with an “Entschuldigung!” and the inbred finally sauntered off.
     Sascha picked me up, wanting to practice his English. He said he once had 93 points against his driving record, the highest in the state of Hessen. I must have had an uneasy look on my face, because he assured me this was in his reckless youth, but when we came upon a car going 160kmh (100mph) in the fast lane, he flashed his high beams and yelled at the driver to “start moving.” Germany’s the best.
     Then a kind Italian man and his teenage daughter took me into Switzerland. I could have gone another four hours to Milan with them, but I got out on the other side of Basel.
     From Basel, an amazing thing happened. A man with three little kids in the car pulled over and shouted, in German, “Can you drive?”
     “What?”
     “Can you drive?” He had a neck pain and could barely move his head, and in thirty seconds, after shunting the kids to the back seat and stiffly moving to the passenger seat, a perfect stranger was driving the family off into Switzerland. (This happened once in Australia. I was in Warrnambool, Victoria and a drowsy guy asked if I could drive to Adelaide, 500+ km away. Very fun. I don’t think either guy asked if I had a drivers license or whether it was valid abroad.)
     The kids in the back seat seemed amenable to the situation, and by the time we got to the gas station rest stop before Bern, the man’s ibuprofen was working and he could drive again. However, as I took the keys out of the ignition, one of the girls in the back seat reached over to put her hand on the fob to make sure I wasn’t leaving with them, not fully convinced that daddy’s trust was worth giving.
leysin sign

     My signs are working! Who doesn’t love California? What’s not to love, and for rich Europeans—sorry, that was redundant—for Europeans, the dollar is so weak it is like a free vacation in paradise.


     An Algerian-Swiss couple who enjoyed California on their recent vacation as everyone in this cruel and harsh world does picked me up. I could only see half of the woman’s face from the back seat, but her beauty singlehandedly made me reevaluate all things Algerian. It almost made me forget the creepy Algerian-French guy from last week who drove me to Germany. When he asked where I was from, he did some quick word association in his head, saying, “California…sex!”
     Then I had another remarkable ride. I was standing in the rain south of Fribourg when an old man stopped. He couldn’t figure out how to make the car windows go down so I could talk to him. He kept pressing buttons and shouting, “Merde!” (shit!)
     Then he couldn’t unlock the door. “Merde!”
     Then he couldn’t open the trunk. “Merde!”
     I thought he might be just another dotty old man, but he looked dashing and had well-coiffed longish hair. Any old man with long hair has to be famous or up to something nefarious; I knew this would be interesting.
     He said his name was Sylvain Saudan. My blank expression gave away my unfamiliarity, so he said with great portent that he could be found in the Guinness Book of World Records.
     I couldn’t grasp everything, my French is swiftly wilting, but it was something about skiing down the steepest mountains all over the world and others dying while trying to match him. I later discovered that he is the father of extreme skiing, le skieur de l’impossible, un bon vivant avec la joie de vivre.
     You know that beer commercial about the most interesting man in the world? Sylvain is that guy. Watch this funny interview that shows video of him skiing down mountains. In summer. On rocks. Sylvain is the man, the myth, the legend, and he lets you know it.
     Unfortunately, he is 78 now and might not be long for this world because he drives like he skis. The two highway lanes were like a slalom run for him and cars honked at us several times because of near-misses. Merde!
sylvain saudan

     Handsome devil Sylvain Saudan in the flesh


     The only other relatively famous person that has ever picked me up hitchhiking—less than 50km away from where I had been standing, too—was Fernando von Arb, guitarist for Krokus, a Swiss heavy metal band from way back when.
     Sylvain left me at a dangerous place on the highway since he didn’t want to exit, so I quickly scrambled off before the police found me, and then the last ride up to Leysin was with a woman and her baby daughter. Women often give me lifts. I’m telling you, the Kent Foster face is irresistible even in its present, need-to-buy-a-razor, post-chicken pox, molten form. I got to Graydon and Terri’s BBQ fest an hour late, starving. Grilled sausages with sharp mustard never tasted better.
alps with graydon and terri

     In Deborence with Graydon and Terri.


Practical information
     Germany is far and away the best country in Europe for hitchhiking, but Switzerland can be pretty good, too. The secret is to not get stuck in places of questionable safety to stand, because Swiss police will be all over you since they have nothing else to do.
     If hitchhiking isn’t your thing, rideshare is the best alternative. These days blablacar.com is quickly taking over Europe from mitfahrgelegenheit.de since it is a free service for both drivers and passengers. I need to update my website about that and 500 other things.
     A quick shout out to the godfather of hitchhiking, Jacob Holdt, who wrote a book about his experiences hitchhiking in USA that has inspired me to no end.
     Speaking of great travelers, as I always say, I am a fraud of a traveler compared to my friend, Graydon Hazenberg, who pledges to blog more this year. He’s also pulling ahead of me steadily in the country count. He’s at 117, I’m somewhere around 105.
     One last thing: lately I’ve seen that some email sent to me through the contact form has gone straight to my spam folder, so I might have missed it if you wrote me. It might make a difference if you include my name in the message. My name is Kent. Say my name! SAY MY NAME!!
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Last one to the party in France

le snacking

     Le snacking, les chewing gums, les chips—France, you are powerless against almighty English! All your base are belong to us!


Let’s get the hitchhiking stories out of the way first:
     Amsterdam to Paris was remarkably easy, the last ride with an Armenian-French guy who wanted to talk politics. He asked what Americans thought about France and my opinion on the brewing Gaza/Israel war. I said that the average American doesn’t think about France and that I thought America is more in the pocket of Israel than the other way around.
     He wasn’t satisfied with either answer, so he prodded and we talked and talked. He was upset at how heavy handed the Israelis have been and said there was a need for humans to be respected everywhere. For a mental and physical rest after this long discussion we pulled off the road at a highway gas station. I pointed to the clumps of people picnicking under trees with garbage strewn around them and asked, “What do you think of gypsies?”
     Reflexively, he blurted, “I hate them!” Realizing this wasn’t in the spirit of what he had been saying, he was quiet for a moment but then, uncontrollably, went on: “They take and take from the state and contribute nothing. Nothing!”
     He left me almost under the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe where he lived and where I coincidentally had an appointment to meet a friend. (It sounds crazy to make appointments that are dependent on hitchhiking hundreds of miles, doesn’t it?) She was with a friend who lives in Japan and, coincidentally, we knew two people in common. This happens more than you’d think; I get around! We had the Tour de France’s last day happening right behind us, but we watched on the TV screen in the cafe, which felt very decadent, very Parisian.
congo hitch
     I hitchhiked from the south back to Paris with a “CALIFORNIE A PARIS” sign to great effect. (It’s all about the font.) I made 675km (420 miles) in eight hours in two rides, both from men with their sons in the back seat. The driver above was Congolese-French. My first question to him was if he knew Bisso Na Bisso, a group with the second best African song I know: “L’Union“. (The best is “Amadamara” by Freddie Gwala. The best French song of all time is Belgian: “Ca Plane Pour Moi” by Plastic Bertrand.)
     It’s not always rosy, but there are strong possibilities for hitchhiking in France. To contrast this with more traditional forms of travel, a friend bought a Paris-Grenoble round trip train ticket for 155 euros, which is about what a Brussels-Zanzibar one-way ticket is going for at the moment.
st lazare piano

     In the St. Lazare train station in the middle of Paris they have a piano for anyone to come along and play. Is it not the most fantastic idea? Then I went to Forum Des Halles shopping center where they had the same thing, but a homeless guy banging on the keys bummed everyone out.


     I feel like the last one to discover France. I’ve been here several times before, but really only in and around Paris. I am hesitant to describe what I see because it is old hat for everyone. Does anyone really want to hear, “Wow, the Eiffel Tower is even better in person!” or “OMG! So many cheeses!”? What about “Every time I tell myself I am going into the supermarket for one thing, I find myself staring at stuff for half an hour?” or “Look at all the town names that are French products/events: Limoges, Le Mans, Cognac, Bordeaux, Dijon, Roquefort, Evian!” No? OK, I’ll move on.
     I’ve been in France long enough this time that my high school French is taking off, slowly but surely, and it’s fun to overemphasize vowels and then be corrected by locals raising their chins and contorting their lips. What other language has trickier diphthongs? I already have a sore throat from all the guttural “r” sounds. Why is the “l” sound in “ville” but not “fille?” How am I supposed to pronounce “Houilles” and “Aout?” “Poubelle” sounds like a nickname I would call my girlfriend, but it means garbage can.
     I was excited to get invitations to go to the countryside. At first I didn’t feel the full impact of the blog of my friend Caleb about the meals his wife’s family was making for him in northeast France until I visited my friend’s foodie family in the south and subsequently, to Caleb himself.
brignon maison

     I went with a friend to her family’s home, just your average 11 bedroom, 11 bathroom little lean to, in the south of France near Nimes in the province of Languedoc-Roussillon, “Roussillon” being a fun word to say. On my first trip to Europe a billion years ago I made a quick tour of southern France, but I was running on fumes and had one eye towards home, so I hardly remember it.
     If you have a million euros or so laying around doing nothing, this place is for sale. A pool is just off-camera to the right.


steak hachee

     My friend prepared for her kids steak hachee cru, nearly-raw hamburger. I might be wrong, but this could more accurately be called “bleu” since “blue” is meat very lightly cooked. I wish I had taken video of how short the meat had been fried. I assured her that she’d be arrested in USA for this.


kids hachee cru

     Let’s say most of them liked it. For the next few days I pestered the kids, “How’s your stomach? How’s your stomach?” There are a lot of raw milk cheeses here, too. I guess the French know how to do it safely. It’s allowed only in a small number of states in America, so it’s the kind of thing that gets you thinking, not to mention the way French eat, what they eat, how much they eat, and in what order they eat it. The French are different from you and me.


quo vadis

     Cartoons? No. Discovery Channel? No. It’s the kids watching for the umpteenth time a DVD of the epic 1951 American film, Quo Vadis. Unbelievable.


     I’ve read about how economically stagnant Ramadan is in the Muslim world where productivity falls because many Muslims take a month off for their religion, but is France any different? August is not the time to be here if you have a choice. Countless small businesses are closed for the month and tourists quickly take over the center, primarily sullen Chinese tourists.
     I suspect a French person would shrug that off, unapologetic, and declare that they don’t live to work, but work to live, and it’s humane to take a month off—plus the many holidays throughout the year, the 35-hour work weeks, the strikes…maybe that’s why the Chinese look miserable: they’re envious.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION:
     We all know the Paris metro is convenient, reasonably priced (1.70 euros a ticket including transfers, cheaper than most big-name European capitals—Hey Budapest, explain yourself, please!) and drips with atmosphere, but it can also be hot, crowded, and stuffy. (I witnessed a woman pass out; I was about to take her wallet but then bystanders began murmuring their disapproval. Killjoys.) It’s underrated to go by bus in Paris. There are no boring stretches, it’s usually uncrowded enough to have a seat, and you see the city from a different perspective.
     For cinephiles, this is a dense, interactive map of Paris where movies were shot.
     Hitchhiking:
     I can’t resist giving hitchhiking tips despite no one caring. (One guy cares. I got an email last week from an American asking for my phone number so we can discuss the best way to hitch out of Tapachula, Mexico, where he had been stuck for days.)
     I’ve always hitched between Amsterdam and Paris via Brussels and Mons, but I found it better to go through Gent and Kortrijk. More through traffic.
     Twice in France the police stopped to tell me not to hitch on the highway, which I had no intention of doing. I half-expected them to come back and tell me to floss after brushing my teeth. This may come from the fact that I read a lot of people recommending to hitchhike at the “peages” (toll booths) which is difficult, dumb, and dangerous. You want to be left at the bigger highway “aires” with gas stations, otherwise you can be seriously stuck. The exit signs make clear what is there which unfortunately can contradict the highway’s official website. Yes, I do waste my time checking out highway websites. Information is king!
     You still with me? Last bit: to hitchhike eastward from Paris, since you have to pay a good chunk of change for the suburban train to go way out of town to the best starting point, instead I went to blablacar.com and found this well-decorated woman who was driving that direction and left me at a highway gas station for a few euros. This is her band. She plays the theremin.
     Flea markets
     In Paris there are marches aux puces (flea markets in a fixed place; Clignancourt is for pros, Montreuil is a waste of time, Vanves is the best) and brocantes (mobile flea markets), but both can be burdened with too many professionals. There are also vide greniers, literally “empty attics” where people want to get rid of stuff. I bought a couple of expired French passports for four euros each last time I was at the Vanves flea market, adding to my formidable passport collection. Everyone thinks I am a spy for the CIA anyway, so I may as well play the part.
     I’m a huge fan of Decathlon stores, a French sporting goods chain found in many countries. I now have my backpack, day pack, shoes, sandals, shorts, swimsuit, shirt and hat from there. In sum, France is a wonderful place to have everything stolen. #travelskills

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+ where we will follow each other for eternity, I promise.

Wrestling with feelings of inadequacy in Netherlands

     I’m like a broken record when it comes to how I feel about the Netherlands: I’m always surprised by how progressive it is and therefore, how backward I must be because I have this surprise. There are so many issues where they have taken the lead: gay marriage, euthanasia, age of consent, legalization of drugs, prostitution, abortion, flopping soccer players—the Dutch are showing the way. In at least one instance, prostitution, I read that there has been a rethink about the effectiveness of the controlled red light districts, but the point is that the Dutch are at least trying something where most everyone else is burying their heads in the sand.
     I have a foreign friend living here who says learning to speak Dutch is a waste of time and he doesn’t even bother asking people if they know English; he just starts with it. I was thinking that might be a little rude, but I found over and over that when I asked, “Do you speak English?” I got a haughty, “Of course!”
     OK, relax, Ubermensch, I get it. You can do it all.

for weed

     Seen in Vondelpark, Amsterdam. I’m ready to go into rehab from all the second hand marijuana smoke I have inhaled.


dutch poster

     Take that, you prudes!


dutch cookies

     White chocolate and date cookies, plain evidence that my bachelorhood is the mystery of the century.


i am amsterdam

     Hanging out with friends by the iconic “I am amsterdam” sign.


playground king

     It took longer than I thought to fight off the kids for one of the big tricycles.


twerking deer

     I overheard one little girl say to another, “This is a deer twerking.”


nijntje

     I like Nijntje, what can I say? In Japan she is known as Miffy.


Semi-practical information
     Netherlands is so progressive that it can be bad for travelers passing through. Since two weeks ago all train stations sell single tickets with chips in them, and if you don’t have a prepaid OV chipkaart travel card, then you must pay a one euro fee every single time you want to buy a ticket to go anywhere. The OV chipkaart costs 7.50 euros empty(!) and if you want a refund you have to find the right place that will accept it and you lose 2.50 euros in admin fees. Not a big fan.
     BlaBlaCar is becoming more and more popular for rideshare in Europe, spreading out and away from it’s French-speaking roots. I’ve used it maybe five times in the last few years. Big fan. It’s moving to other continents, too.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+ where we will follow each other for eternity, I promise.

The official 2014 World Cup Preview

     Note: I get a lot of requests to write on my website, mainly from people who want to promote things like hotels in Barcelona or a new website about forming a travel community. They usually start, “Dear Dromomaniac Team…”. This is the first guest post on my website from a friend of mine, Peter Nagy, whom I reached out to since I appreciate his analysis when we are watching soccer games on his couch in Budapest at 2am on a work night. It’s long, and it might be a bit much for those not passionate about soccer, but give it a chance. I edited out the British English (shudder).

     Last night I watched the first half of Game 3 of the NBA finals again for the third time because there were all kinds of things you expect from a great sporting event. I am a fan of football, so why did I do that? What I saw there is the reason people sit down and watch way too many games of this year’s world cup. We will definitely bump into a few classics among the many garbage games that you can only sit through because you watch it with friends and a lot of beer.
     But the classics will be great.
     So this is a world cup preview from a Hungarian who likes football. Not a crazy person, just a fan. I am not pretending to be an expert, but I do know what I am watching for my own entertainment. I’m not a writer either. These thoughts and impressions are random, just throwing them out there, not to start conversations or to find things to agree or disagree with.
     So here are a bunch of games for a month, and we all have different viewing habits. I usually do not watch all the games there are, but if I find one while surfing channels, I always end up watching it.
(“Rarely…but always.” – Peter Esterhazy)

     The games begin today, and I don’t even know what time kick-off is. Sometime late, that’s for sure, but I don’t really need to know. The match will be there, it will find me. Some friends, for whom a game is just another reason to have a few drinks, will probably be calling before, so I will know where and when I have to be. (Can P’s terrace with the jacuzzi and the projector enhance viewer experience? We’ll have to test.)
     Who’s playing tonight? It’s always the host nation, this time against… oh, yeah, Croatia. This could be a great matchup in cold weather and a cool, sharp Croatian side doing what they can. Strong, tall, skinny Croatians with a good fighter’s mentality and good skills, built like the Germans but less disciplined. They have it in them to cause an upset against any team, but in Brazil the atmosphere might be very different and they might just be overwhelmed and blown out of the stadium. I wish for an upset, as always, but the first 30 minutes will tell who is worthy of my sympathies.
     So, will it be a great world cup of classic games, a few upsets, the best winning in an epic final? Who can provide the excitement? Who are the contenders? The dark horses? Will there be hysteria? Drama? Stars on the rise? Stars falling?
     No answers here. All I care about, personally, is good matches. What are the new tricks to fight possession defense? Who will impress me? For the fun of it we should run through the list.

Contenders: Brazil
     Even those who are not into football adore team Brazil’s energy, their carefree presence, the fluency of the movement. Yes, they are professionals, but judging by the expressions on their faces, they are having more fun then anyone. If they were a tattoo, they would be bright colors, organic, flowing lines. Like this:
tattoo brazil
     Their system is like the organization of the whole world cup. “We’ll be fine. Everything will be ready on time, don’t worry, we’ll pull it off.”
     They might, it is possible, but it requires superhuman effort from everybody on the team, and there is no room for mistakes. Can you imagine a Brazil team with no mistakes? I can’t.
     The good thing is, we can rely on their inability to not have fun, and that is a guarantee for fun games. Everybody is in attack mode on that team, and that raises your pulse if you are watching. Ruiz and Silva make the highest risk passes at the back and frequently take part in bringing the ball up midfield, which makes it more exciting to watch, especially if you are their coach. They are incredibly tough in one-on-one situations and are a threat at set pieces.
     The two wing defenders Alves/Maicon and Marcelo are a huge part of every attack, drawing defenders to the sides and creating space in the middle for some quick changes of pace, dribbling, getting past defenses. Too bad Alves has not had a decent cross all season at Barca. Not for 2 or 3 years, in fact, but his passing is impeccable in tight little triangles to keep possession and to have a flick of a pass to Fred or Hulk to explode into a tight lane.
     Scolari is working hard to make them play with discipline, he does not punish, might not even discourage the higher-risk moves, and they will enjoy themselves taking those risks. There is no way around it. It will be best in those small things they do: a flick of the ankle, a spin on the ball that you only see in tennis, an unexpected, off-rhythm turn that makes a whole defense shift the wrong way for one second, and that wrong shift will create a small opening on the defense for someone to step into and it will end in something that makes the Brazil players wink at each other, and the opposing players to lose some confidence and be more hesitant on the next possession. Be ready for those.
     That same thing could be the reason they will not win it all. Any of those moves are higher risk moves. If they work, they are fun, they will bring the house down. If there is a mistake in the execution, then the whole effort was not carefree but careless, may result in a bad turnover and a counter attack. And if they lose, their fall will be spectacular. The intensity with which they enjoy themselves is the same as the anger and frustration when they go down. Look out for that, too.
     Any team with a half decent defensive scheme should stifle this side. Neymar is a genius, but he is a coach’s nightmare. For a neat turn he will sacrifice the simple pass and that takes the momentum out of the attack, probably frustrate a few teammates and cause them to put in less effort at the next possession. If an opposing team has a strong identity with players who know their roles and know what to make of Brazil’s flashy clowning around, they can crush Brazil.
     Have I mentioned Scolari is overrated? He is a buffoon. If his players can pull this off, like in 2002, it will be a miracle, and he will claim all the credit. Pathetic.
     Back then he had a more solid, sober bunch of with Cafu, a real leader at the back, and Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho in front, plus only in the final did they play a stronger team, and they beat Germany on Oli Kahn’s errors. OK, just one error. But this year’s team in not as strong as 12 years ago, and the opposition is stronger than ever.

Who else is great? Germany
     The Germans are massive with a beautiful flow like this:
germany tattoo
     Germany has changed from being the Star Trek BORG of international football to being one of the entertaining teams. They used to have a fail-safe system: no risks, precise execution all performed by great athletes who are executing well-defined tasks to perfection. They destroyed everything that was good and lovable in football. They went creative and remained effective.
     Being German, they are having a ball just by being effective, but there is more to it now, the culture has changed. The German kids realized over the years, that it was not cool playing the German anti-style any more. Following some bitter tournament victories, they were left with ambivalent feelings, being internationally hated for destroying the game of football (something about which Jose Mourinho should have long conversations with his therapist).
     It started with winning the 1990 World Cup with the most boring performance in the history of football. Instead of a country exploding in joy, there was probably a modest hum. The bier-drinking part of the country cheered in oblivion, but the minority of real fans had to feel the shame.
     The 1994 rule that forbid goalkeepers to handle the ball if it was kicked back to them by their own team kind of started the changes, but my guess is they started to feel jealous of players with style and grace and all kinds of energy other than being content with systematic destruction. The internet must have helped young kids in learning about how to be appreciated by fans, how to become a star, and a product for sponsors, and they are the ones playing on the Nationalelf now.
     They stuck to selecting the tall, athletic players with solid fundamental skills to win 90% of all 50-50 situations, but they allowed the system to take some calculated risks, and designed a choreography that was intrinsically entertaining.
     They have become a team with exciting geometry. They designed neat triangles and squares where fast, skilled strikers end up making cuts and get witty through-balls from witty midfielders who twist and turn to slice a defense and move them in ways that create openings. These midfielders have awareness and vision that is reminiscent of Zidane, Laudrup and other greats.
     They are most dangerous with a play that every team tries but very few can execute properly. 3-4 well-timed passes with in a triangle at the right or an Özil/Schweinsteiger long ball from the middle after lazy spacing on defense puts Lahm through on the right one beat ahead of the guy covering.
     This is when he takes it to the baseline (a lot depends on his first touch), and the strikers’ first wave rushes at the goal to be in a position where only a slight touch – a shave of the ball – is needed to put the cross past the keeper. At the same time (if at the time of the through-pass the defense was pushed against their penalty area) 2 or 3 tall, pouncing midfielders as a second wave move into their spots around the collapsing defense, who are trying desperately to close down the lanes for the cross in the penalty area. This opens up at least 3-4 passing options and if all those lanes are covered somehow, then there are 1 or 2 more options for a lob and a header at the far side, because the keeper is watching the near corner of the goal.
     With their height advantage and ability to occupy positions in the area, this is very difficult to stop. They might easily score with this play against lesser opposition, but good defensive teams will stop such attacks at the side before the wingers get behind their men.
     This effort to contain the sides will stretch the D more, forces them to shift, and open up a little more space in the middle, of course, and such an advantage Brazil would more freely use, but Germany will be more conservative with that space and not try anything risky there. Kroos or Schweiny will sooner take a good shot then try to beat a defender one on one, or try the triangle with the striker moving up. Maybe… We’ll see.
     They have learned timing, but in preparation friendlies we have seen players like Özil, Schweinsteiger and Reus think faster than their strikers and decent defenders might be able to take up a good positions on the play.
     Breaking news: Reus is out with an ankle injury which is sad, sad news for Germany and people who like football over the world. One would think that the German midfield is strong enough without Reus, but he will be sadly missed.
     He is as strong and fast as anybody around, and has rhythm and vision, which would have given Germany a badly needed option from the side on offence, while he is moving smartly as a defender, as well. He looks slender, but he is a very tough defender for a skinny guy. Kroos and Schweinsteiger are both strong two-way players with Khedira a brick wall of a stopper and Özil doing magical stuff on offence, but he is streaky and gets discouraged easily.
     So we have to wait two more years for Reus to make his breakthrough at an international tournament, but we have to say a few things about Schweinsteiger. He is every bit a German: ginger hair, pale face, athletic build, great work ethic, schooled moves, disciplined play, great timing, great positioning. Everything about him says he is the most German of all players on that team, and still, the guy is so different. He has a soul. He is sensitive, fragile, but he is in control, remains tough and fights through it all. Do you look at faces? You should. Read his. He really is affected by a good or a bad play. If there is a person to feel for, that’s him. He might just be Hungarian.

     You know who else run a different version of the aforementioned play to perfection? Spain. The key agents are Alba, Iniesta and Pedro on the left side. They are surrounded by safety options behind them. Busquets has such great awareness of where everybody is that he can shift from defender to midfielder and back in an instant. Their ability to pass the ball around with their eyes closed is amazing.
     No other team can spend the amount of time practicing defensive schemes as what Barca-based Spain had put into perfecting the possession game. Remember: the best defense is not turning the ball over.
     You have to admire what they can do to keep possession and work the defense to create that one opening. This is always the juicy part. They do not usually make room around the outside like the Germans, but through the line of defense with one striker moving up into a gap. There should be a switch with the defenders at this point, but the striker (let’s say Villa) comes up from behind the defenders who would all have to see each other in order to be able to synch their movement and contain the play. Since the Spanish all see each other facing from the corners of a square, and the one defender facing Iniesta always has his back to his teammates, there is a weakness to exploit.
     The moment Villa gains two square meters of space, the machine is in motion. Villa takes his position, Pedro makes the cut inside, Alba makes the run down by the sideline behind Pedro, and Iniesta follows his pass up to Villa. With the pass Iniesta does a few quick changes in direction as the spacing of the defense dictates and that usually puts his man off balance.
     The defense has to switch on Pedro to take on Iniesta and follow Alba, but that requires a shift from the inside. If the spacing is a bit off, there is enough space for Pedro or Iniesta to move into, or Villa to make a turn with the ball. If any of them is a beat off, or defenders do a good job of containing the move, Villa will make a safe pass back to Busquets, who will work the ball around to Martinez or Pique, and the possession continues. The safe pass is always there (only Villa’s defender could go for the steal, and that means taking off early which leaves an empty space on the collapsing defense) and Villa, or the attackers facing the goal will see and punish that.
     If the Spanish timing is just right, and one defender with no sight of which way everyone is moving misses a beat, then Villa has four good options, all of which will cause an opening for the shot, the cross, the cross to the second wave of finishers, or to the far side attacker closing in from behind the collapsing defense.

Italy, the great hair and beard team
     They will never disappoint on that front.
     Always solid on D, physical and edgy on O, often just a big balloon of empty threats, an over-confident bunch of stars, and they are rarely graceful in losing. They do, however, have history to build on. That is important for their whole culture and for the players’ mentality as well. They have great role models and those behavior patterns and footballing know-how soak into them early.
     It starts with solid fundamental skills and strong will. Almost like passion, but they are not Argentina. They want to win badly, they want to have it all, but that is not passion yet, It is just selfishness with a lot of emotion. If they are content with the roles they are given, and trust each other, they can be lovable team, but the always sky-high expectations from the Italian public tend to bring out the worst in them.
     Somehow they always play classic, conservative football even in trying new stuff. They have not done anything revolutionary in their game for decades; there is no evolution, only different degrees of being Italian. There are good and bad sides to being Italian, and the collective proportions of the two will determine their performance at a tournament.
     They used to have the hardest working players in Gattuso, Totti, Cannavaro, and now Rossi and Chiellini are just as inexhaustible.
     They had the icons of football IQ in Baggio, Del Piero and Totti (they say football IQ was the only kind Totti had), and now they have Pirlo. The problem with him is, that he is not as fast and strong as the predecessors. He can be taken out of games, and than Italy is a rock solid defense with not much else to go on.
     Of course the richest history they have is with psychopaths starting back with Caligula and Nero, followed by Gentile and Gattuso and now the evolution has produced the ultimate in… Balotelli. Take away the psychopathic aspect, and this team is not nearly as strong as teams of the past, but the massive defense can take you a long way. Can it take you to the semis, though? Not likely.
     How about a tattoo picture to illustrate Italy?
tattoo italy
Uruguay are great, but Chile…
     Chile is like a bottle of Hungarian palinka (brandy): raw, clear, unsophisticated, but it hits you hard. Chile has a good-looking blitzing offense. They do not stop to think for one moment. If a teammate is running for possession, then he is getting the ball. No hesitation, no cute moves, just rushing through midfield and playing the first thing that comes to mind. Make the defenders chase you, and minimize their chances of putting you off balance, off tempo.
     They try to be just as edgy on defense, and forwards will play two ways. They all cram the area and hope to do the counter attack.
     They have to do that. They are skilled and short, with low center of gravity but have no chance against big forwards or defenders at either end. So they have to run them in the ground. They do need one midfielder other than Vidal to be the link after gaining possession and throwing the ball into attack. Someone like Zidane in ’98.
     It is tiring for both teams, but Chileans must think they have the legs. Still, this game is designed for one elimination game but not the group stages. And not for the Brazilian weather. The team with the highest chance to cramp up by game two is Chile. If they do get through, they are a threat to any team, though.

Who will underachieve?
     The Netherlands are always a good bet. Talented, physically and technically sound, tall, strong, and bitterly conceited players.
nl peter
     Somehow they always beat themselves. Not many teams can beat them, but they can lose to any. Cruyff pointed that out in the 2000 home European Cup against Italy, but it has been true ever since. Holland were so strong that Italy had zero chance, but they came through on penalties, because Holland were too Holland. They missed 2 penalties in the game and another few in the penalty shoot-out.
     They have everything but some of the most important stuff. Humility is one. “I am bigger than this game, this team, this world cup.” If they get lucky and find some rhythm together, they can do anything, but they won’t. That would be too “Belgian” for them, probably. The Dutch are too pragmatic, too logical, too selfish.
     Playing for each other just does not suit them either. Having unity, a team identity, being disciplined would be giving up too much of themselves. They each have their personal identities, but they do not gel, they are too cool to have that.
     Sometimes they have something close to, but not quite what you call passion. That strange language has words very similar to English, but they always mean something slightly different. “Brutaal” for example does not mean “brutal”. They use it to describe their national character as in straightforward, honest, outspoken, tough. They must have the Dutch equivalent for the word “passion”, but whatever the little difference is in the meaning, is the biggest thing missing.

     You know who else can beat themselves? Argentina. As a default they are a disciplined, sharp team with the Serbs’ mental frame (this means strong, very strong, with the aptitude to snap), Brazil’s capacity to entertain, plus some tango, plus Messi. This is the plus side, but there is a huge minus with about 60% of the players being capable of snapping mentally any time. Leading the way is Di Maria with an 80% chance of being sent off in a close game, Mascherano is a distant second with 40%, but if he has to take the role as the last defender standing at a fast break, and he is pissed at a mistake by a teammate, it jumps up to 99%.
     When they play as a team, and they are all happy in their roles, they are a joy to watch. They have so much more energy than any other team. They just sweep through the pitch with fast runs and precise passes of sometimes 20-30-40 meters to start with and shifting the weight of the attack never missing a beat. Messi and Aguero are killer finishers, I expect so much of these guys, that I can not really put it into words. They have passion. The real thing, but if they turn on each other, that is the end of it. It is amazing how easy it is for them to become a bunch of angry psychopaths.
     The problem is their roster is not as strong as four years ago. The defense is shakier without Zanetti, who was not only a solid defender with great contribution on the side to the offense, but also the real leader. The midfield is also weaker, but they have the best strikers to chose from. Too bad they can’t all play at the same time.
     Messi? This could be his big tournament. He is at his prime, but Barca is beaten. Nothing worked for them all year, Messi loses the Ballon D’Or to arch rival Ronaldo, a poster boy, a fashion model, a contender that believes himself to be just as good.
     He is stronger, faster, taller, but Messi owns him. Messi has better control, better vision, better awareness of the teammates, better rhythm, but Ronaldo is so strong and fast, that if he gets a little space, he gets his momentum and is deadly.
     Messi is convinced he is the best, and he is, but he wants the whole world to know.

A few footballing principles
     It is not enough to be the better team. Being better by at least a goal is more difficult than in other sports. Spain in 2010 beat almost every opposing team 1-0. They were several goals better, but their offense, which in actual fact is possession defense (focusing on minimal turnovers) depends on such delicate plays that they only go for it 2 or 3 times a match. If they tried it every five minutes, the opposition would learn to adjust. You have to be patient, wait for the mistake and then strike. It is a beautiful process to see just how finely tuned all the moves are, how they are waiting for a tiny mistake.
     Having the best player on the team does not help. You have to have the ten that work together best. Scoring a goal is probably the most difficult in football when you have evenly matched teams. This is why the best teams usually play low scoring games. It is not because they play badly. It is because they do not make mistakes.
     The beauty of these games is not in huge spectacular plays, but in the way the ten move together not making mistakes, keeping the spacing, shifting the defenses precisely so that it takes big risks from the other team to try to get close.
     You have to jeopardize a lot to be able to score. As in every team sport, it leaves you vulnerable to fast breaks. How do you score and not concede a goal? In a tournament you risk a lot less than usual, that is why football is boring to most who like the flashy kind of action and not the refined, skilled kind.
     Since football is all do or die games, every mistake can be fatal and teams will take fewer risks. Therefore, you have to watch for the little things that lead to the mistakes on the other side. Spain are the masters, but can they pull it off again? It would be more difficult now than ever before. Why? They have been doing their thing for too long, and teams have had time to learn to play against it. Will they come up with something new? There are only so many plays to work the depth of that 30-meter-zone into which they cram the opposition, and the world has come up with the spacing solutions to most of the depth plays so far. Is there room for more? That is the question.

Flopping
     First of all, if you have not played soccer, I mean real soccer, then you can not judge a person rolling around on the ground. Saying things like “basketball is a physical game and you don’t see them roll around on the floor…” does not make you clever.
     What if the soccer player gets up a minute later and continues to play? Was he just acting to get the ref’s sympathies, or get an opponent ejected? Well, yes, sometimes…but more often he just gets a kick in a bone, which will hurt for a minute before pain-killing hormones rush through his system, and let him play on. This happens, this is normal. Have you ever kicked a curb, or bumped your shin in the side of your bed? It hurts like crazy, you think something is broken, but two minutes later you walk on, don’t you? That simple. Later, of course, when you go home and take a shower, it will hurt like hell again, but nobody can see that.

One more important thing: defenders in soccer play dirty. Always.
     Their job is not to play the ball, but to ruin the attacking player’s chances of playing the ball. They will shove you, bump, pull, elbow and kick you just to get you off balance at all times so that they can take away your speed or skill advantage and stop you from doing what you are there to do.
Is it fair, physical play? Hell no. Is it illegal? Hell yeah. Do refs call those? No.
     The people who have made a career being dirty are all defenders on any Italian team, and each defender on any Real Madrid team. Even decent, football-loving Real Madrid fans blush and lower their heads when they think of their own defensive players, and would probably have an urge to slap Pepe if they came face to face. (I know I would.)
     Those players are also arrogant enough to get in the refs’ faces when they are called for a foul. They act like they deserve special privileges in kicking small team strikers.

So what can you do?
     One is to do the Zidane head-butt when you are fed up, and call it a career. I loved him for it. Yes, there had been some trash talk leading up to that moment, but believe me, that was just the last drop, and for a moment the football-loving part of the world felt joy. Then sorrow a moment after, because they knew what was coming, and what was coming to an end.
     So this is one way to deal with the frustration of not being able to play fair, and another is take every chance to show the refs what is happening, and exaggerate every contact so that the ref has no chance but to call it. I prefer the Zidane way, but don’t you dare criticize players until you have played against sneaky defenders.

So, who’s best?
     Can a feisty small team with a little luck beat great footballing nations? You have to adore them for trying. Just remember some of the small teams that surprised us in the past. They were always the best to root for. Denmark in ’86, Holland in ’74, who will it be in 2014? The climate is an important factor, and we have never had conditions like those expected, but even in Mexico you had three European teams in the final four. (Argentina did come out on top, though.)
     For casual fans, do not fall for ignorant rhetoric like: “why don’t they shoot more or score goals?” It is like saying why don’t they dunk more in basketball? Why don’t they hit more home runs in baseball? Why not set more world records in track and field? The answer: they are working on it in many great ways. That is what you watch and like. If you know what is happening, you witness great things from great players. This is the only reason to watch sports, anyway.

Predictions (I asked Peter to make a prediction for the finals and was rebuffed:)
     I don’t like predictions, I like teams to deserve what they get.
     Chile deserve to go far and cause upsets.
     Holland deserve to win it one day after being runners up three times. They deserved to win two of those. Can they hold it together till the end?
     Spain have to do the most to prove they deserve it. They have to reinvent themselves because what they had been doing to perfection is probably not enough any more.
     Brazil will get all the calls and all the support, so what they have to be to deserve it, is humble, and they should not try to play on those calls. It would be awful to see a controversial host nation win.
     Germany are right there, you can not hate them, they are not giving you reason to, but this is South America, who knows.
     I think Messi deserves it most, but will the team grow up to his standard and maintain it? Can he make teammates better? Can they play with passion and brains at the same time? It is possible. Those have to happen and then I will be happy for them.
     Whoever wins, it has to be in a fashion that makes me say “Yes, they deserved it, I am happy for them.” I hope at least a few teams will play in a way that makes me say that. Then it will be a great world cup.
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