Texas Troubadour Abroad: En Route to Berlin
My name is Keegan McInroe, and I am a singer-songwriter from Lubbock who’s been living in Fort Worth off and on since 2001, when I began my four years of study at Texas Christian University. Over the course of my 10 years writing, performing, and recording original music, I’ve played hundreds of shows and traveled thousands of miles throughout the United States and Europe. My latest tour is taking me to New York City, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Budapest, Prague, Barcelona, and dozens of stops in between. Whether you’re an independent musician like me, a fellow budget traveler, or simply a reader who loves a good tale from the road, Texas Troubadour Abroad –– my (mostly) weekly travelogue published here on the Weekly’s website –– will have something for you.
“Living on the road my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron / And your breath’s as hard as kerosene.” –– Townes Van Zandt
It’s 6 a.m. in Krakow, and I’ve just boarded a train bound for the Polish capital of Warsaw. In three hours, this train will terminate in said city, and I’ll have an hour layover before hopping a fresh horse to Berlin. Assuming the navigation of that change goes smoothly, this movement from late evening to early morning has the makings of a successful all-nighter.
The gruff voice of the railway ticket officer has now woken me and requested documentation proving my rightful presence on this locomotive. So much for the technical purity of the “all-nighter.” I did not foresee crashing in the upright position, computer in lap, after managing only a Townes lyric and an opening paragraph.
I was fast asleep before the train left the station. The road is full of surprises.
An unexpected and hard hour-and-a-half of sleep after yesterday’s walk about Krakow and last night’s activities have me a bit discombobulated. I fumble dumbly and glassy-eyed with my Eurail One Country Pass before presenting it to the railway man. He looks it over, hands it back, and requests I write today’s date in the appropriate space.
Poland is not one of the 24 countries included in the Global Pass that I am doing the bulk of my traveling on, so I bought an extension to ride the rails in this country. It is an any-five-days-out-of-one-month ticket, so there are five slots on the pass to write in the date of each day you travel.
On a day you use the ticket, you are supposed to write the date in the provided box before you board the train.
The idea is to keep people honest, ensuring only the paid-for five days are traveled on.
At this early hour, it is uncertain whether this neglect on my part is due to dishonesty or a pickled brain, but the gentleman gives me no guff, and I dutifully write in today’s date on my pass.
It is also uncertain whether or not this One Country Pass is worth the 100 euros it cost me. Probably not. This is my first time in Poland, and it is a relatively cheap country to do business in, or so it seems to me these last three days here.
Also, many of the domestic trains move at a snail’s pace.
The near-300 kilometer journey from Wroclaw to Krakow I made two days ago would have taken three hours by bus but took more than six hours by train. For most of that trip, I could have run alongside my carriage without trouble –– over a brief distance –– but then suddenly, like many a horse is prone to do if not checked, when the train crossed over into Krakow city-limits and caught the distant sight of the home gate, it gathered a head full of steam, let out a high-pitched whinny, and raced into the main station corral at a speed I hadn’t seen from the nag all day.
It seems likely I would have saved a little time and money had I opted to handle all of my travel plans in Poland individually, weighing bus versus train on a case-by-case basis, but the difference is somewhat negligible, and I won’t lose any sleep over it –– I’ll lose sleep, but it won’t be because of this particular, potential error in tour management.
And now, after a few more exercises in inefficiency, I’m aboard the train to Berlin, “Jammin’ the Blues” with Lester Young, a special treat I can thank Michele Bombatomica’s music library for.
I’ve taken my breakfast of eggs with sausages and bacon in the dining car and can now, over these five-plus hours of rail-time, begin catching the good reader up with some highlights of my last week in earnest.
Since Trieste, I’ve had quite a run. Nine days ago I journeyed for the first time into the picturesque country of Slovenia via bus for a show at Branibor in Celje.
I had been scheduled to play the night before in Ljubljana, the capital city just southwest of Celje, at a bar called Brooklyn, but that gig was canceled due to budget problems, I was told.
The bus from Trieste –– there is no train service into Slovenia from that part of Italy, I discovered –– got me as far as Ljubljana, and my Couch Surfing host for that evening made the generous offer, which I accepted, to have his girlfriend pick me up in Ljubljana where she works and drive me to Celje, where they live in a beautiful, self-refurbished old flat in the city center.
Branibor, the oldest pub in Celje, is made up of several different rooms of varying size, with a large, covered terrace –– where I played on a small makeshift stage –– separating the venue into two parts on either side: one a pub, the other a nightclub. There has been a pub on the site since the 18th century, and the nightclub is housed in what once served as horse stables, with an old, red brick ceiling and several large, aged stone pillars continuing the support work they’ve been burdened with since America was in her infancy.
The manager informed me Branibor must be very careful not to molest the brick or the stone due to their historical importance to Celje, and it sounds like it was no small feat getting the green light to convert the club to its current function.
I had an enjoyable show there and was invited to return, something I am quite keen on doing, as I had only one day in Slovenia, and it is a country of great natural beauty from what I saw out of bus, car, and, eventually, train windows, with heavily forested, rolling hills and mountains and the lovely valleys and creeks that accompany such topography.
The next morning I was up bright and early to catch a very indirect train to Budapest. My Couch Surfing host recommended I get to Budapest via one of the many ride-share programs available online. Carpool World is the one I am most familiar with, and it is possible to use in the States, as well, though I have yet to use it in Europe or America.
Hopping in with strangers and traveling by car would have shortened my trip from about nine hours by train to about three-and-a-half hours, but it would have cost me around 20 euros, whereas the train was free with my Global Pass.
I opted to stick with the ambling, meandering, and even back-tracking series of trains from Celje to Budapest.
Europe, generally, has been receiving an inordinate amount of rain and a lack of sunshine this late spring and early summer, bringing about substantial flooding in parts of Hungary and the Czech Republic, as well as in several other countries. So far, though the floods have definitely wreaked some havoc in the countries affected, I have not personally been inconvenienced in my travel plans or otherwise. The trains and roads I’ve needed have been operating as usual.
When I arrived in Budapest, I contacted a musician friend, Jerome Li Thiao Te, whom I met there back in October through Couch Surfing and made my way to the open-air beer festival he was enjoying.
That night we both stayed at the house of one of the finest blues guitarists in Hungary, an American transplant by the name of Robert Jackson, whom I also met and had the pleasure of playing with during my October 2012 visit to Budapest. An impromptu jam broke out in Bob’s kitchen, of course, and there were at least four versions of “You Are My Sunshine” played, with Bob’s sweet and talented little daughter taking lead vocals on one of the passes.
It was after a night at Szimpla during my last visit that Jerome, some other new friends, and I stumbled down into the small basement bar of El Rapido, wherein the owner and I began talking about Stevie Ray Vaughn. Upon finding out I was a touring musician, I was invited to play a show there the following night. That gig turned into a jam session with several musicians from around town coming out and throwing down thanks to Jerome’s multitude of musical connections.
This time, as I was getting ready to begin my set, a stag (bachelor) party of about 15 drunken British lads came in, complete with a black strap-on firmly secured to the head of the groom-to-be, I presume, and it wasn’t long before their shirts were off, as one tequila shot chased another and then another and another down the back of their various, babbling throats.
A modest disturbance was brought about when their second or third playing of AC/DC’s “TNT” was interrupted by the beginning of my soundcheck, and it was clear that in such a small space, the best thing to do, short of running off these reveling stags, was to let England’s bare-chested finest run their course. Shirts were eventually put back on, then removed again, then put on again, and they finally stumbled out into the night and whatever adventures awaited them there ––probably the utterance of a few properly slurred prayers to the porcelain gods and a musky, sweating, short-hair-on-short-hair game of Twister.
When it came time to resume soundcheck, a new problem presented itself: The headset microphone –– yes, the kind sported by Garth Brooks and most every infomercial host on television –– was projecting no sound. Disappointing, as I’ve never had the pleasure of performing my music while simultaneously being able to feel like a helicopter pilot and a drive-thru fast-food operator.
Given the close quarters down in El Rapido’s bar, the decision was made to just play acoustic, and the night, from top to bottom, was most enjoyable. A friend even captured my performance of The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” on my iPhone using Nexio’s 8mm app.
The music stopped around 2:30 a.m., and my friends, new and old, began clearing out over the next half-hour. I enjoyed more of El Rapido’s liquid pleasures with the owner for another hour or two, before he eventually called me a taxi, and I beat it on down the line to the train station for an early departure to Prague.
My gig in Prague was down in the cozy and inviting basement bar of Sir Toby’s Hostel. For my performance, Sir Toby’s provided two nights’ accommodation in a two-bed room, which I had to myself, and food and drinks. I played acoustic, sitting on a funky, antique couch amid the other young globetrotters, and made some very nice friends there. After my show, a salsa dance party broke out, led by three young women from Mexico.
I observed grinning from my barstool for a while, eventually crawling up to my room for a few winks before the next day’s travel to Poland, the second of four previously un-traversed countries I’ll be visiting on this tour.
It was another relatively long day of travel from Prague to my gig in Wroclaw, but I eventually arrived with a few hours to unwind at Klub Alive, where I was to perform that evening.
Seeing as this was my first visit in Poland, I sat at the bar talking with the pretty barmaid a while, picking her brain for some essential Polish words and phrases, which she was kind enough to tolerate, humoring my request to record her speaking into my iPhone.
As I’ve mentioned, my phone does not operate as a proper phone, but its use as a vocal recorder has provided me hours of foreign language lessons, as well as many amusing exchanges, which I hope to eventually edit down into a travel diary of sorts that I can share with the masses for edification and entertainment.
One particular excitement I held for entering Poland was in regards to a delicious Polish vodka which has been offered to me multiple times over the course of this tour: Żubrówka Bison Grass.
True to it’s name, the vodka has a long, solitary blade of bison grass in it and a buffalo on the label. Interestingly, a Polish barman in Krakow told me that certain Native American tribes used to use the grass to communicate with ghosts, though I can’t confirm this online anywhere.
Anyhow, I spotted a bottle of Żubrówka behind my bartendress after my Polish language lessons, and eyeing the bottle lustily, I asked her if she enjoyed it, as well. She replied that it makes her “vomit like a cat,” a direct translation of an apparently popular phrase in Poland.
Vomiting like a cat after drinking the delicious nectar of Native American ghost-callers is a phenomenon I am unfamiliar with and a curious visual. I’ve taken in a good amount and experienced no such effects to date. Still, I got my phone back out and had her recite the charming expression in her native tongue for posterity.
Klub Alive is one of many businesses that line the underbelly of a stretch of overground railroad track that runs through part of the city. The spaces now occupied by restaurants, bars, sex shops, and other such establishments are built into the dark red brick ground-bridge that supports the track and makes up the arches through which various roads run.
Of course, this means the deep, low rumble of trains passing overhead is a frequent sonic accompaniment to one’s evening at Alive, which I rather enjoyed. The club has a spacious patio in front, a long, wooden bar to greet the patron upon entering, and a separate room for live music, with a solid sound system and a capable engineer behind the boards. Before and after my set, videos of MTV’s Unplugged sessions played on various TVs about the bar and were pumped through the house speakers in both rooms.
Some locals, mostly a group of soon-to-be dental school graduates, had read somewhere about my performance, and they enthusiastically received me and my two sets of music, along with a handful of other folks who just happened to be at the club when my songs went wafting down the short, brick hallway connecting the music room and the front bar and out onto the patio.
After I finished, the concertgoers who’d come specifically to hear me requested I join them at their table, where I was asked to do an unplugged cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” I obliged, under the condition that they provide the “woo-woos.” They embraced their role admirably.
After our singalong, they asked me to join them for late-night, traditional Polish bar food. I had not eaten since breakfast that morning at the hostel in Prague, so I happily accepted, said goodbye to the comely barkeep, and walked on down the road with my new friends.
As we made our way to the next bar, they filled me in on some of the history of Wroclaw.
Before World War II, Wroclaw was a German city. For most of the war, Wroclaw was left alone, but in the early months of 1945, about half of the city was destroyed when the Soviets laid siege to the town. Days before the war ended, the Germans surrendered Wroclaw to the Russians. After the war, in the carving up of the map at the Potsdam Conference of 1945, Wroclaw went to Poland.
We arrived at the bar, and my friends requested I wait upstairs while they ordered for me down below. At Klub Alive, I had been told about a “rough” meat I would be trying, which I was game for, I said, as long as “rough” didn’t mean “horse.” They assured me it was beef.
Apparently, in Polish, the letter “w” is pronounced somewhat like “ph,” and so the “rough” meat sat down in front of me turned out to be raw meat. Further, this raw meat, which looked to me to be hamburger meat, had been formed into a bowl to house a raw egg or three. I am not sure how many aborted embryos there were, but my meat bowl was filled to the brim. Chopped onions, relish, and some other seasoning adorned the plate, along with a couple of pieces of bread.
If someone had put a gun to my head and said I must choose between horse meat and a dish consisting of a raw meat bowl with raw eggs inside, I probably would have chosen horse meat.
But I am a good sport, and I did not wish to insult my new friends, so I mixed everything together, buttered the bread, and cleared my plate. They obviously had survived their previous encounters with this late-night staple, so I reasoned I would survive mine.
And I’m still kicking. I didn’t even have to fight the urge to vomit like a cat. The taste was not so bad, actually, though I don’t mind if I never have the pleasure of this particular Polish cuisine again.
After my adventure in foreign food, I was invited to stay at the flat of one of the couples in our group, so we walked home for a few more late night drinks and good conversation in slow and measured English.
I left my young friends with their hangovers early the next morning and made my way east for my gig that evening at Klub Kornet in Krakow.
Unlike Wroclaw, Krakow was largely left unharmed during World War II, and so the Old Town is particularly special. To see the beauty and preserved old architectural magnificence of cities like Krakow and Prague –– which also suffered relatively little damage during WWII –– really drives home the tragedy of the destruction so many other cities in Europe were not so fortunate to have been spared.
I feel an anti-war rant coming on, but after last week’s post here about politics and the Great and Bloody American Penis, I’ll go ahead and spare the reader the diatribe bubbling within and change direction.
My show in Krakow was booked through a post I made on Couch Surfing. There is a Couch Surfing group called “Krakow musicians/music lovers,” and I posted on their page, seeking advice or help booking a gig while I was in town. There were several kind replies, but of note, I received a response from a Georgian (the country not the state) country singer-songwriter by the name of Shota Adamashvili, and a response from the owner of Klub Kornet, an extremely generous and kind man who hosts many surfers when he is able, offering to book me at his venue.
Shota contacted me because he is a man completely taken with American country music and with Texas, generally. The chance to meet an actual Texas songwriter was something he was very interested in. He offered help in finding a gig, and once I booked my show at Klub Kornet, it was arranged to have his duo, The Dirty Shoes Band, open for me.
Klub Kornet is a small shotgun bar with a low-rise stage at the back of the room, and the venue is located in the basement of an old, brick apartment building several stories high.
A nice crowd began gathering as The Dirty Shoes Band took the stage. The duo performed a couple of original songs and a couple of covers, with both Shota and his Italian fiddle player, Paolo Cavalaglio, sharing vocal duties. Shota’s guitar playing, coupled with Paolo’s fiddling, make for an authentic-sounding country music experience. Of course, when they sing, their respective accents reveal they ain’t quite from Texas, but it still sounds great, and I enjoyed them thoroughly.
I had Paolo join me on fiddle for four songs during my second set, and Shota came up and played harmonica and swapped verses with me at the end of the night during “Wild Horses” and The Band’s “The Weight.”
I had the following day off, so I chose to stick around Krakow, see some of the sights, and, of course, hang out with my new brothers in Texas music.
Aside from what I’ve already mentioned, I would like to make note of two striking discoveries from yesterday’s walk about Krakow.
Most everything is quite cheap in Poland, excepting stamps. I am bad about remembering to send postcards, but I decided yesterday would be a good day to get a few off to some friends and family back home, so I bought five cards, filled them out over a beer and an accidentally ordered fried-pork burger, and went to the post office.
To mail five postcards cost 25 zlotys, zloty being the Polish currency. Twenty-five zlotys is roughly six euros at the moment. To give an idea of what else 25 zlotys can buy you, most meals about the most tourist-heavy and, therefore, expensive section of the Old Town are 25 zlotys or fewer, and 500 mL of my beloved Żubrówka vodka costs between 20 and 25 zlotys, depending on which store you pop your head into.
The other striking thing I feel compelled to make mention of are the women there. I had been told multiple times about the beauty of Polish women, and I’d experienced this reported fact several times during my travels, but to have them all swarming around at once, in their native land, in the summer time, is a bit overwhelming. I was reminded of what my old linebacker coach used to say during my glory days on the Lubbock gridiron: “You must keep your head on a swivel, gentlemen.”
I was rolling my coach’s words around in my head when I met up with Paolo early last evening. Immediately the subject of the high percentage of stunning beauties came to the fore, and Paolo told me, as a lovely young woman glided past us, “Ah, ah, just for a second, Keegan, only for a second. Then you must look away.”
I thought I was being scolded for staring, but then he added, straight-faced, “Only a second, or you’ll miss the next one.” Indeed.
Krakow is chock-full, and if I ever again have the misfortune of dealing with a broken heart again, I know exactly where I’ll be moving.
And as I near Berlin and the end of this lengthy report, I can’t help but think of my Georgian cowboy friend, Shota.
It is a dream of Shota’s to come and play his music in Texas, to stay in a rundown motel, and dine at a proper truck-stop. Sadly, being from the country of Georgia makes it quite difficult to work or live abroad –– even to Europe –– for any amount of time.
The consideration of the idiocy and absurdity of the world’s various countries and their bureaucracies making it so difficult for the citizens of Earth to move about this beautiful, fascinating, diverse globe –– America being one of the worst in these matters and one of the most difficult to gain access to or employment in, despite the fact that we are a nation of immigrants who either murdered or rounded up into quaintly named “reservations” the actual natives of the land –– has me swallowing another tirade.
I hope Shota can one day live his dream and perform his songs in the Stockyards in his cowboy boots and Stetson hat and eat cheap eggs and crispy bacon on a hard-wooden booth as the sounds of 18-wheelers rumble by and sleep in the dried-fluids and stale-cigarette-smoke of a pay-by-the-hour motel while a neon light softly hums and flickers through the crusted, nylon curtains, as the songs come flooding through to him one after another after another in his Promise Land, the mythic and romanticized backdrop of the American country song.
June 14, 2013
En route to Berlin