Jake Allen's personal travel journal
entry 1: around the world in 60 days
How this round the world trip began…
I’ve been touring the United States as a solo artist for over a decade. As I’ve explored the highways of my home country, there have been glorious nights in the spotlight, amazing people, busking for gas money, a few close calls, and the stuff romance novels are made of. Performing music has given me the opportunity to be lucky enough to see most of this beautiful chunk of land we Americans inhabit. Throughout my travels, the thought of going overseas to perform music has always been like a shiny object hanging just out of reach. It wasn’t until this year that the circumstances clicked and the right people came into my life to lift me high enough to grab it.
Museum of Illusions, Prague, CZ
Take me to the River (TMTTR) is a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C. and is comprised of around fifteen painters, digital artists, and mixed media savants from around the planet. Almost every year, they take a trip to a seemingly random city in the world, cultivating collaborations, community outreach projects, and always an art exhibition inspired by water.
One of the group’s founding members, Judy Jashinsky, became a fan of mine at a northern Michigan music festival a few years ago. Despite a hefty age gap, we became great friends. As a longtime lover of art, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Judy was a full-time painter. We quickly found ourselves as fellow artists from different times coming together to laugh at the present-day zeitgeists to the sound of a Wilco record and usually the taste of a damn good dirty martini.
Somewhere amidst a sea of conversations, Judy invited me to join Take me to the River. I said yes and shortly after I found myself in New Orleans among an eclectic group of forward-thinking, heavy drinking artists. As the only musical artist, I was dubbed the outcast of the group. It took a while to for me to carve out my spot in the group, but I eventually found my purpose in this special, sometimes a dysfunctional, family.
When 2017 rolled around, TMTTR started talking about a possible exhibition in Lithuania in the fall of 2018. Being of eastern European descent, my ears perked up. Once the trip was confirmed, I started my typical thought process of how to capitalize on being in such a place. Perhaps after a visit to the Baltic country, playing a run of shows in Europe would be possible.
Members of Take me to the River in New Orleans, 2015
Judy and I
“The T in Takamine”
In 2012, I was living in Arizona. That year, my dear friend and Fender sales rep, Phil Short, took me to the winter NAMM show in Anaheim, CA. This is where anybody who makes anything that makes music goes to sell their stuff to retailers. Guitar companies, drums, sheet music, you name it… over 200,000 people attend. It’s the most well attended music expo in the world. One of the byproducts of this is that hungry musicians flood company booths looking for endorsement deals. Ending up there by happenstance, I didn’t really plan to solicit myself to any companies. I just wanted to explore and feed my inner music nerd. However, my gears started to turn when I first walked past the Takamine booth.
Takamine was the one guitar that was able to give me what I needed on stage. Ever since I started playing a hand me down EF341 at 16 yeas old, I was blown away by how well the guitar’s electronics could pick up the percussive sounds in my playing style. No other guitar could touch it as far as I was concerned, and still none have.
On the last day of the conference, I mustered up enough courage to go down to the Takamine booth in hopes of having a shot to play for one of the employees. I approached the first person I saw wearing the company shirt and introduced myself half pretending to have infinite confidence. I said, “I see you have a stage set up.”
“Yea,” said the representative.
I asked if I could play a song for the booth on the stage.
“That stage is for our clinician,” he said quickly.
“I want to be your new clinician,” I said with a half cocky, half scared smirk.
He chuckled and much to my surprise, led me up to the stage. He threw a guitar over my shoulder. I was pretty nervous. I knew I had to deliver, so I pulled out the flashiest thing I could think of, a percussive tapping piece called “Slappy Thang.”
“That was good,” he calmly said with a relaxed smile. “Here’s my card. Call me.”
I left the booth smiling and quickly looked at the business card in my hand. I realized I had just played for the head of artist relations!
Shortly after returning to Arizona, I sent out a hopeful email to my new friend at Takamine. The first thing he said on his reply back to me was, “Let’s start by offering you a guitar. What would you like?”
Several years have gone by since that first NAMM experience. Since then, I’ve done a ton of clinics, convention performances, and videos for Takamine guitars. It wasn’t until last year that I got a big invitation from the head of creative operations at Takamine, Makoto. This guy has built guitars for all the greats. They call him “the T in Takamine.” I was elated to learn that he was inviting me to come to Asia to play two trade shows and visit the Takamine Headquarters in Japan, coincidentally, in the fall of 2018. The pieces started to fall into place and my dream started to look like a reality.
Performing at NAMM for Takamine 2013
Bridging the Gap
Sitting in my home in northern Michigan, I began to plan for my big trip. With the excursion to Lithuania happening in early September, and the invite to Asia in mid-October, the three weeks in between were primetime for doing a European excursion. Since my booking agent is US only, I had to pull out the rolodex and start connecting the dots myself. I reached out to countless agencies, venues, and promoters in Europe. For the few emails did get replies, the response was typically the same… “Jake, nobody knows who you are in these countries.”
The tours I have done in the United States have been varied experiences- some have been very successful and others were so futile I almost had to sell a kidney to get to the next town. However, I have learned nothing is in vain. It was those difficult and unsuccessful tours that garnered the right contacts and opened the doors for success on the next pass. Having this in mind, I became totally content with letting Europe be a “get contacts and open doors” trip. I geared up to leave America with no shows on the books, a measly amount of cash, and my trademark brand of impeccable faith that things would pan out. Truly impeccable faith doesn’t like to be proven wrong. I packed up my guitar and flew out to meet up with the other TMTTR artists.
United in Vilnius
After a six-hour flight, we land in Vilnius, Lithuania and make our way to the front of the airport to be greeted by several other TMTTR members and our primary Lithuanian liaison for the week, Christine. Christine is famous in the art world in Vilnius. Her late husband, Zoromskis, was one of the most legendary artists in the last hundred years in Lithuania. She now works with the Lithuanian Artist’s Association. Her soft voice, warm demeanor, and best attempts with the English language welcome us to Lithuania.
Additional TMTTR artists join my friend, Judy, and I. The group includes Eglon, a wise and quiet, small, dark-skinned man from Jamaica with long dreadlocks; Mansoora, an eclectically dressed, seemingly royal woman Pakistan; Betsy, an American from DC with vibrant blue eyes and a vivid streak of blue in her blonde hair to match; the formerly clean cut gone long grey haired Richard, a former spy also for DC, and Mary Ann, a sweet French woman who radiates positivity.
The first phase of our trip is going to be an artist retreat in the coastal town of Palanga, a four-hour drive from the capital. This is where we will create our works for next week’s exhibition back here in Vilnius. Our driver, Dalnius, throws our luggage into the Sprinter and we all pile in.
TMTTR and more, L to R: Richard Dana-USA, Joan Belmar-Chile,
Giedrė Riškutė- LT, Eglon Daley- Jamaica, Juozas Tubinas- LT,
Agnija Ģermane- Latvia, Betsy Stewart- USA, Jake Allen- USA,
Mansoora Hassan- Pakistan, Judy Jashinsky- USA, Mary-Ann Beall- France
Once we are out of the city, the first thing I start to notice is how much the countryside looks and feels like northern Michigan. The pine forests, farms, and the rolling hills make me feel like I’m on a drive in my home state. Despite the landscape, the roadside stops filled with eastern European foods, culture and people tell me that I’m far from home.
After watching Richard try to speak English with Dalnius for hours, we start to approach Palanga. The forest thickens and the drive gets more picturesque. We arrive in what looks like a typical northern Michigan beach town, filled with mazes of sand dunes (where I’ll find myself writing during our stay), tourists and ice cream shops. Where I would normally expect to see Lake Michigan, however, I take my first look at the Baltic Sea. It’s beautiful. The salt water is calm and seemingly tide-less, just like our great lakes.
Pulling up to the hotel, we’re greeted by more artists, several from the Baltic countries and two more of our own - Ruza, an affluent, feisty German woman from Berlin, and our colorful Chilean prince, Jouan. We were greeted with a traditional Lithuanian dinner made by the Russian chefs at the hotel who speak zero English. On top of the scenery making me feel like I’m home, the Russians bring out a giant bowl of beet soup. The bright pink concoction is all too familiar. My grandmother used to make this traditional polish soup for our family often during our childhood and into my late teenage years. My eastern European genes and my nostalgia are both satiated upon the first bite. This really feels like home.
Richard makes a toast to the table filled with a rich variety of artists both local and foreign, and we enjoy some much-needed wine after our long travels to Palanga.
Downtown Palanga streets
TMTTR members on the beach in Palanga, LT
TMTTR members on the beach in Palanga, LT
TMTTR members on the beach in Palanga, LT
Foreign Rock Star
During our stay in Palanga, I decide to go out and do some busking one night. I’ve always conjured up interesting situations when I’ve played guitar on the streets, so I figure I’d see what awaits on the main drag of Palanga. I grab one the hotel bikes, put my guitar on my back and head for the center of town.
The strip is lively with tourists, but actually quite quiet. You can tell this is primarily a town where people come to relax. I pass a few bars walking towards the pier at the end of the street. As far as nightlife, there are a few karaoke shows going on and a couple DJs playing perhaps the cheesiest music I’ve heard. These clubs are few and far in between and Palanga seems to be primarily a family friendly place. I arrive at the end of the strip and set up shop right near the pier. I always get a little nervous when busking. I don’t want to seem like a solicitor, which can often be the perception. Some people, however, respond to it so positively and enjoy so much that it makes the risk worth it. I’m hoping to encounter mostly folks like this.
I start playing “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles. My arrangement of the song is spicy. The mix of familiarity and fretboard acrobatics usually draws some ears in situations like this. Perhaps the most exciting aspect in this moment is the anticipation of how Lithuanians will respond. This is my first time busking in a foreign country and I’m happy to quickly be reminded that music is truly the universal language. People are loving it, stopping as they are walking by and throwing coins into my open guitar case. About three songs in I notice a couple with their dog standing across the street. There is something about them… I don’t know what it is yet, but I know we are going to connect in some way. I can often sense these things in performance situations. I know the people who are going to somehow going to take on a more significant role in the story. After I finish another tune, the couple approaches.
“Hey, you sound great,” says the man.
I’m happy to hear him speak some English.
“I’m T. I own a bar just down the street and I’d love if you’d walk over and play. There are probably thirty people there right now.”
This is the opportunity I have been waiting for, so I jump at the chance to play for more people in this small town. We start our walk to the bar down an unlit street. I must say, I’m a little nervous. I had been mugged once in Anchorage, Alaska under similar circumstances, so now I’m always a little more cautious. With my cautious, paranoid thoughts, I decide to jump on my bike and meet them at the bar.
We meet at the Old Man Bar. There’s about thirty folks sitting out on the patio and I’m pleasantly surprised by T bringing out an amplifier to make my performance a bit pumped up. I do about a twenty-minute set, sell a few CDs, and make some friends. One of the larger tables on the patio is hosting a group of choral singers from Vilnius who are in Palanga and had just finished performing as part of a rock opera in town. I start talking with these folks and learning a bit about the music scene in Lithuania. One of the singers, Andrius, and I really hit it off. My new biggest fan, T, is giving us free drinks and cheese platters while playing my music over the bar’s sound system.
“I’ll come back and play here again one day,” I confidently tell T.
After some great conversations with my new friend Andrius, we decide we should stay connected. After a festive and spontaneous night, I ride back to the hotel feeling divinely guided.
I get up the next morning and try searching for Andrius on Facebook. I click on the guy who first pops up in my search but it’s not him. It’s a different Andruis- Andruis Mamantovas, a fifty something Lithuanian who appears to also be a musician of sorts. After looking at his page it seems he’s a rather well-known cat. By sheer coincidence, this guy is playing that night at a music venue in Palanga. I take it as a prompt and head there with my guitar, looking to connect with a veteran of the Baltic scene.
I walk into the posh, empty venue and sat down awaiting sound check. When an older aged man walks out onto the stage I approach him.
“Hi, are you Andruis?” I ask him
“Um, yea…” he says looking a little confused.
I explain to him who I am and that I’m trying to learn about the Lithuanian music scene and connect with musicians here. I play a couple songs for him. We start chatting about music and he humbly tells me about his history… humbly.
Andrius offers us a couple of free tickets to that night’s show which I end up coming back to with Joan. It’s sold out and the show is fantastic. I can’t understand what Andrius is singing about, since all of his lyrics are in Lithuanian, but I get it… the universal language.
After my encounter with Andrius, I start to learn just how famous he really is from some of the locals I speak with over the next couple of days. People are loosing their minds about this guy. It turns out he is a political hero in Lithuania. Years ago, he had a band called Foje, whose lyrics spoke against censorship and Soviet oppression. He was the first artist of his time to do this in the country. The band won every European music award seemingly possible and Foje’s farewell concert in Vilnius in 1997 garnered a record-breaking crowd of 60,000 people. I would have never thought that I was talking to such a legend. Based on the how serendipitous our meeting was, I have a feeling I may see him again.
After the encounter with Andrius, I’m invited to play an impromptu show at a nearby hotel thanks to a previously made relationship between Joan and the hotel owner Jozuas. We have a fun, casual night with mainly members of TMTTR making up the audience, and I tell them of my interesting encounter with Mamantovas.
Back to the Capital
Day five in Palanga, I wake up to Judy knocking on my hotel room door.
“Jake, we’re all leaving to Vilnius on a bus right now and there is not any room left. Dalnius is coming here to pick up the art at two so you can ride with him back to the city,” she says.
None of us have international SIM cards for our phones, so we don’t have any way to contact each other, which makes me a little wary about splitting off from the group entirely. I trust Judy’s judgement, though, so I stay behind in Palanga.
Two o’clock rolls around and no Dalnius. Then three, then four- nothing. I’m starting to get a little concerned that I might be stranded, so I start talking to the hotel receptionist using Google translator. A few entertaining minutes in, Dalnius pulls up. He’s a smiley, long-haired fella who speaks a little bit of English. You can tell he’s a good guy just by the vibe he’s giving off. Unlike the ambitious Richard, I decide to not make Dalnius try to decipher my English too much during our four-hour ride. I use what I would consider easy English words and keep my sentences short. I think Dalnius is happy about it.
During our ride I pull out my MacBook and start working on the demos I recorded in Palanga. The purpose driven song I wrote during our stay is shaping up nicely and I’m looking forward to finding a studio in Vilnius to record the final tracks in. Dalnius notices I’m working on music and starts asking me about it. He wants to hear what I'm cooking up but I tell him it’s not ready. Instead, I give him a copy of Deviant Motions, my latest album, and he puts it in… He likes it!
When we arrive in Vilnius, I learn that we are staying in a hotel in the Old Town district. Once we get into the area, my eyes light up with excitement. Hundreds of historic buildings line the cobblestone streets, all matching each other in perfectly planned architectural harmony. The red rooftops make the sky’s blue pop in a way you don’t see back home. The detail and charm of the city is so immersive. Now, I’m really starting to feel like I’m in the old world.
Driving very slowly through hordes of interesting-looking people, we get closer to the hotel. I spot several TMTTR riverites strolling up the street toward our home for the week.
“Hey, aren’t you those famous artists from the states?!” I yell out to a few of them while hanging out the van window.
They look over with big surprised eyes and all smile as I jump out and reunite with them. Dalnius hands me my suitcase and guitar and I give him a big hug. I've had a good time bonding with this guy. I accompany my fellow artists up to our new hotel, Domus Maria, a giant historic church that’s been partitioned into a multitude of spaces. The old rectory has been converted into a cozy hotel where we’ll stay for the week.
Old Town Square in Vilnius, LT
The stage going up for the Pope
TMTTR Gathering in the square
Nida Art Colony
Arturas and I
Laying the foundation
Falling in love with the city
The days in Vilnius are sweet. The weather is perfect and the sightseeing is rich. Judy and I spend a couple of days exploring the many ancient churches, the winding cobblestone corridors and historic landmarks in the city. Everything worth seeing is close walking distance to our hotel, so we get hefty dose of Vilnius during our stay.
Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the city is the people. They are all seemingly the most sophisticated folks to walk the earth. The men are dressed debonair in suits and interesting euro jackets that speak volumes to the eye. The women are the seemingly the most beautiful to walk the earth. They traditional in a social sense which is a rich contrast to their style, most of them sporting black leather jackets, dark tights and usually a European cigarette. These people take pride in their style and it shows.
There is a lot of ruckus in town right now due to the Pope’s planned visit happening next week, right after we intend to leave. The stage they are setting up for him next to the main church in town is massive.
The nightlife in the city is more than plentiful. Many of my nights are spent exploring the streets, endless bars and nightclubs in the neighborhood, making friends with the locals and the occasional Baltic dame on the dancefloor. I don’t typically dance, but I'm five thousand miles from home so why not? Throughout these lively nights, I start to uncover a rare, rowdy version of myself that my wanderlust is exposing. Throughout the days, out gracious artist hosts treat us to outings to nearby landmarks including the famous Trakai castle and nearby artist incubation centers
Recording in Vilnius
During a lot of our stay in the capital most of the group is getting up early, walking over to our exhibition venues, Pacai Palace and the Contemporary Arts Museum, and preparing the opening, which is happening in a few days.
My contribution to the show isn’t fully finished. I still have to find a studio in Vilnius where I can professionally record my song for the exhibition. After sifting through several places, I come across a nice-looking facility called Folk Science. I check out the specs and decide that this is the perfect place. The rates are good and the gear looks great. I spend a full day recording and bro-ing out with the studio’s head engineer Arturas. He’s a young aspiring engineer who speaks great English, and our workflow during the sessions is smooth. This is saying something, given how many different instruments and tracks we pile into our limited time. Arturas is patient. Despite our passionate pursuit, we reel ourselves in a bit and make sure we're being efficient.
By the time we exit the studio, we’ve recorded and compiled all of the tracks for the song “Color in the Grey,” my contribution to Manuscript. Now I just have to sequester away in my hotel room for several hours and mix it. The track will be synced up to a video that was created back in Michigan. The video started as a joint effort between Judy, myself, and Traverse City videographer Jake Burgess. Since Judy and I took off, Jake’s put a boatload more of his time, ideas and creative prowess into the film. I still haven’t watched the final product at this point. I decide I’m not going to watch it until it is synced with the final mix of the song.
I sit in my hotel room at Domus Maria for about six hours mixing on headphones. I get what I feel is a pretty solid final mix and I sync it to the video. I finally watch the final video with the final music and I am in awe. Jake added so many new things that make for an engaging experience and fit Take Me To The River's water theme impeccably. The next few hours are spent facilitating this thing to play on loop at the exhibition, which proves to be challenge, but eventually we’re good to go.
Upon seeing the video on display and getting a spectator-like perspective, I'm surprised by goosebumps that emanate the joys of creativity mixed with gratitude for what feels like a special moment in my life's story.
The mixed media piece "Color in the Grey" that displayed in the Manuscript exhibition
Nida Art Colony
After several action-packed days in the city, we finally make it to opening day. The show is hung, the spirits are high, and a large crowd makes its way into the courtyard at the beautiful Pacai Place Hotel. Amidst the opening ceremony, the audience is treated to a performance by a Vilnius choir, speeches by both the U.S. ambassador and the city mayor, and heartfelt monologues from group members I’ve grown to love over the last two weeks. At the end of the ceremony, all of the Take Me To The River artists are summoned to the stage, where we are officially and warmly welcomed by the public “who’s whos” of the Lithuanian arts scene. Standing amongst my artist colleagues, I feel a strong sense of honor to be part of this.
People flow through the exhibition like a slow-moving river. I keep having to replenish the stock of promo CDs I put out in front of the video display of Color in the Grey. I’m stoked that people are taking them, but man they are going quick! Meanwhile, artists and attendees gather across the courtyard in the hotel restaurant for drinks and hors d'oeuvres. I’m scheduled to perform shortly at the second location of the show, the Contemporary Arts Museum, so I let the group know that I’m heading over.
Due to a language barrier discrepancy, I'm late to learn there is not a PA system set up at my place of performance! After scrambling around throughout my colleagues in search of a solution, I find myself among a heated debate over the issue between the Lithuanian Arts Association and our liaison Christine. I’m crossing my fingers that there is a positive outcome to end the debacle happening in front of me all in the Lithuanian language. Finally, the president of the Lithuanian Arts Association saves the day and she offers to pay for the rental and delivery of the PA used at the opening ceremony. I continuously say to her the only word I know in Lithuanian, “Ačiū, Ačiū”… thank you. The sound company gets everything moved over and set up in what seems like record speed and before I know it I’m playing a show.
The crowd of art goers and sophisticated city folk are eating up the music excitedly. Aside from the impromptu nights in Palanga, this is technically my first official show in Europe. I’m feeling accomplished and it comes through in my playing. The response is impressive and I can sense that these people are deep, attentive listeners. I is exactly what I hoped for and I’m already wanting to come back.
An Ironic Departure
In the morning, my fellow riverites are packing up their suitcases and dispersing to the airport. Some are heading home. Others are going to other European destinations while they are across the pond already. The plan on my agenda is to team up with Judy, Richard and Betsy, fly to Berlin, and spend a few days at Ruza’s place. After several heartfelt goodbyes, the four of us head to the airport and prepare to depart.
Standing in the line to board our plane, I see a familiar face speaking to the gate attendant right in front of us. I really process who it is before it clicks and I’m blown away when I realize it’s Andrius Momantovas boarding the same plane!
“Woah!” I excitedly let out. “Andrius!?”
He looks at me a bit dumbfounded at first, and says hello. I don’t think he recognizes me from our meeting in Palanga, and is probably thinking it’s just another crazed fan. He says hello briefly but quickly ducks into the jet bridge with a woman who appears to be his wife. I can tell now he didn’t recognize me, so I keep my distance from him as to not creep him out.
On the plane, I slowly walk by the already seated rock star and he looks at me with a slow growing smile realizing who I am.
“What are you doing here?” he says with a grin, indicating he has put the pieces together.
“Just going to Berlin for a few days,” I reply while chuckling about the serendipity.
“Me too! Going to attend an ELO concert.” Andrius says.
I take my seat and the plane leaves the now seemingly smaller land of Lithuania. Judy and I talk about our trip, and I can’t help but keep thinking about the coincidence of Andrius being on our flight out. I ask myself what it means. Usually when things like this happen, I feel a need to acknowledge that something of a higher power is pulling me towards the other person. Sometimes, however, I just chalk it up to the conclusion that I’m on the right path. I roll with that outcome in mind and enjoy our short flight to Berlin, thinking back on my Baltic adventures, the music I wrote throughout, and the Lithuanian people I connected with on both casual and deeper levels.
Lithuanian choir performs for the opening atendees
U.S. Ambassador Anne Hall speaking
Take Me To The River introduced at the opening
The doors to the exhibition open
Performing at the Vilnius Contemporary Arts Museum
Wrap party in Vilnius with TMTTR and new LT friends
A certificate of appreciation and the Manuscript catalog
Orangoutang at the Berlin Zoo
Judy, Richard and I land in Berlin and are quickly scooped up by a taxi to take us to the home Ruza and her lover Gerhart, a sophisticated and kind older man who aesthetically reminds me of my late grandfather. I have the window down to take in the sounds, sights and smells of Berlin on our way to the place. The language, the vibe, and the scenery are all a pretty heavy contrast to my last two weeks in Lithuainia. Children playing in park joyfully scream to each other in a language that I associate with sharp authority.
Upon arriving at the Spak residence, a dead pigeon welcomes us near the building door. Ruza, annoyed, grabs a nearby piece of cardboard and scoops it away from her doorstep. With our luggage, we enter the historic yet ritzy looking building and squeeze into a tiny elevator next to a big staircase that towers up to the seventh story. Ruza hits the button for the seventh floor. “Hmmm the penthouse?” floats through my head.
Sure enough upon getting off the lift and opening the giant adjacent door, we are welcomed into a large, posh, artsy apartment, a fitting extension of Ruza’s astute persona. The six of us are untied and jump right into some classy appetizers and wines. By this point, I’m starting to feel some of the effects of this week’s wild and crazy nights in Lithuainia, what initially was jet lagged has slowly turned into self-inflicted sleep deprivation. I’m getting sick.
A City Haunted by the Past
After taking a full day of rest in the apartment I muster up enough strength to go out with the group. They are gung-ho about heading to the zoo. Not being a huge fan of tourist traps or animals in captivity, I’m not too thrilled about the excursion, but I am thrilled to do just about activity with these fine folks I’ve grown to love over the last couple weeks.
To my surprise, the Berlin zoo is actually quite remarkable. The wide array of species we encounter all seem relatively happy and I am able to have a couple of up close and personal encounters with a few creatures. I pet a penguin, play acorn catch with some monkeys and possibly the most profound, have an existential moment with an orangutan. I put my face up to the glass of her enclosure, and in a seemingly orchestrated motion she climbs off of her stump and leaned into my face on the other side. Gazing into the eyes of this clearly self-aware being mocking me and my childlike wonder, it feels like I leave my body for a moment.
After a lovely day of conversing with animals, we follow it up with a trip to the Berlin Wall and a nearby Holocaust museum the next day. It’s a starkly different outing. Strolling through the museum, I find it impossible to believe that mankind is capable of what happened here. I’m trying not to associate the city with this gut wrenching event, but it’s tough. The city truly feels haunted by the past. Judy and I both agree, it’s palpable.
We get our spirits back up the next day with a lovely dinner at a nearby “country club” (no golf course) that Ruza and Gerhart belong to. They invite a young female musician friend of theirs and we chat about the German independent scene. “It’s a real grind,” she explains. Just like home.
And then there was one...
Waking up on the last morning of our Berlin visit, we are kindly greeted in the living room by our gracious host Gerhart, wearing strictly a white t-shirt and a pair of tight black underwear, pretty much a speedo. He confidently serves us tea with a smile. I know the art world is filled with exhibitions, but… damn. This dude has some serious old guy confidence and Judy and I can’t enough.
Today, the group dissolves entirely, Richard, Betsy and Judy are all heading back to the states and I will be going off into the unknown for the next couple of weeks. I have some time to kill between now and my journey to Asia. Time to milk that free spirit. “How about Prague?” I ponder.
It’s a city I’ve only ever heard tell about, a crown jewel of European architecture and a party destination for surrounding countries. I book my train ticket for a couple hours later.
The group thins out through the morning, each leaving the penthouse for the airport at different times. It’s bittersweet to say goodbye to my American counterparts who’ve been such integral partners in my Euro experience thus far, but I know I’ll see them down the road, somewhere in the world.
I’m the last to leave. Ruza, micro manages me out the door one final time and I head to the train station and into God knows what for the next couple weeks.
The German countryside
Boarding the train to Prague, I take a seat next to a group of middle aged German men clearly headed to the city for a weekend of drinking and debauchery. I work on my computer planning more of the trip most of the trip while they graciously offer me beers from their pre-game cooler. I thank them gratefully in their native tongue, “Danke.” Besides my expression of gratitude, our conversation is limited by the language barrier, which makes it hard for me to ask them to turn down the belligerent polka techno music blaring from their Bluetooth speaker. I laugh it off and I put on headphones.
The scenery is lovely. For most of the trip we run parallel with the winding river Elbe which cradles us through rolling hills, dusty forests, tiny German villages and the sprawling city of Dresden. Farther into the ride the land gets more mountainy and rugged. It reminds me of the Appalachians back in the states. As Prague approaches, the land flattens back out becomes more and more painted with hauntingly beautiful Czech architecture. We arrive at the Praha station near the city center where I quickly dissolve into the streets.
The city almost looks fake. “No place could have this much manmade beauty,” I’m thinking to myself. I can’t wait to explore it. I drop off my gear at my hotel and start wandering through the streets. It almost feels like walking through a meticulously thought out medieval movie set. The areas of the town are organized numerically. Each section of the city is simply named by a number, i.e. Prague 1, Prague 12 etc., rather than a unique title. For three days, I bask in the city’s glory, walking what seems like a million steps throughout the town, exploring Prague Castle, busking on Charles Bridge, spinning through Old Town Square and admiring the Museum of Illusions.
On top of being aesthetically unreal and historically epic, Prague is a party destination. The cobblestone streets are lined with nightclubs, casinos, and prostitution hangouts called sauna bars. Originally oblivious to the culture, I quickly learn that Prague is much like Amsterdam in terms of nightlife, lots of legal drugs and law-abiding hookers. The nightclubs are lively and I find myself exploring a few of them upon nightfall meeting interesting people, hearing their stories, drinking, dancing, losing myself in the shuffle.
One rainy day in Prague
During some point of the visit here, I get some bitter news regarding relationships back home that throw me into a lull. Funny how amongst the seemingly brightest moments, darkness can often come to greet you. But that’s the game to me, embracing the balance of these light and dark elements, sympathizing with the ying and the yang so to speak. As a musician, I thank the heavens that I’ve found my own personal way to alchemize these elements into things of beauty. So that’s what I do.
One rainy day in Prague is spent with my guitar in a random apartment building’s stairwell, coaxing a song out of my instrument to set my mind back into a place of peace. Although it’s not the Sistine chapel I’d hoped for, the reverberous space of the staircase is enough to feed my hunger for sonically inspiring spaces. I spend hours tool shedding away at a song that captures what I’m feeling, recording it on my MacBook. I’m safe from the wind and rain outside but the sound of the weather infiltrates its way onto my recording. “Perhaps I’ll use these organic sounds on the final mix… add some honesty” I think.
Four hours and several very confused apartment tenants later, the rain stops and I walk back into the streets with a fresh piece of music captured in my bag. A bit of the weight is lifted off my shoulders and I’m able to see the situation in a new light.
Sub par hot and sour
The train ride to Vienna is spent sending emails to European Takamine distributers and encouraging them to have me come to do in-store clinics in the coming weeks. My funds are getting tight so any work I can pick up out here would be stellar. I send off my emails with prayers of getting responses of interest.
The train arrives at the Wien Westbahnhof station and I enter the squeaky-clean streets of Vienna. My phone is dead which seems to be a common theme lately. I make my way to a Chinese restaurant, plug in my phone and start drooling over the thought of hot and sour soup. It’s one of my favorite things in life next to music. I hastily order a bowl and am quickly let down. I consider myself the Gordon Ramsey of hot and sour soup. This bowl is not delivering but I hold back my Gordon Ramsey style reaction for the sake of nearby children. I turn on my phone and order an Uber.
Speeding through the streets of Vienna, I realize they are similar to Prague but the buildings are more monotone. Compared to Prague, the city feels modern, which is really saying something because it’s old as dirt. I arrive at my AirBnb, a charming penthouse style apartment atop a building on the edge of the city center. I’ll be alone tonight until Jukka and his girlfriend arrive in the morning. What better way to celebrate arriving in Vienna then writing music. I pull out my guitar, hoping the air around here might have the lingering essence that inspired the greats. A sound that sounds bizarrely European starts coming out of my guitar. It’s got something special about it. It’s a keeper, but it needs to develop. I already know this will be a piece that I’ll be crafting for the rest of my trip and it will likely bond itself to the journey’s memory, as music likes to do.
I wake up to the sun filling the skylights and the song I spent the evening working on dancing around in my head. I look at my phone and see some messages from Jukka. He’s at the front door downstairs. I take the lift down to the main level and reunite with my good friend.
I first met Jukka in Nashville, TN during summer NAMM in June of 2017 where we lived in an Airbnb together for five days. The week was facilitated by my sponsors at ToneWoodAmp who put a group of us up in the U.S. music city to represent the company at the summer version of the world’s largest music gear trade show. In addition to me, there was guitar wizard Mike Dawes, health nut and musical shaman Shawn Hopper and Jukka who was brought in to document the week. We quickly bonded over lots of drinks and incredibly crude humor.
It’s great to see a friendly face here in Vienna after several days of solo travel. Jukka is dating a girl from Austria named Denise, who is currently at the embassy struggling to get a work visa to come to America and work as an au pair in San Diego. Jukka opens up some crazy futuristic car rental app on his phone that unlocks the doors of a nearby Mini Cooper and we jump in to go pick up Denise.
Upon meeting Jukka’s beautiful young lady, she quickly requests that I start speaking in my best redneck voice, an impression that Jukka came to love so much in Nashville that he has been spreading the word about it across the world.
“Cody, get back in the f*&%ing trailer,” I unleash with a deep southern draw.
Apparently when you are not from America, an exaggerated southern USA accent is one of the funniest things you can possibly hear. Jukka and Denise are dying of laughter and I’m starting to feel like a professional comedian which is hilarious to me.
We spend the day cruising around Vienna, eating wiener schnitzel and seeing some of the sights. Night falls and we go out for drinks. We are met by what is seemingly a friend of Denise’s who is a totally cool guy at first. Jukka and I split off from them for a bit and they head back to the Airbnb where we plan to hang for out and have a few more drinks.
When Jukka and I get back to the Airbnb Denise and seemingly cool guy are sitting in the kitchen. Denise calmly pulls Jukka and I out to the balcony and informs us that Mr. nice guy just threw himself at her in the apartment elevator and started shoving his tongue down her throat. We all head back inside where I calmly and firmly escort homeboy to the door. He cowers. Clearly knowing the error of his actions, he leaves. It's a strange occurrence but is quickly handled and the rest of the night is filled with deep conversation and laughs.
Waking up a little groggy, we all agree that a nice Austrian breakfast is essential. We jump into another Mini Cooper and head to Jukka and Denise’s favorite little café/bookstore in town. The tiny euro coffee and the meal hit the spot. I pull some books off the shelf and skim through the titles I find interesting. One that pops out to me is a large visually rich book called “One Year on a Bike.” I’m intrigued by the story and photos from the author’s one year bike ride from The Netherlands to southern India. I start seeing some parallels between the epic book and my little adventure.
My European compadres have some work to do today so I’m off on my own for the afternoon. Speaking of bikes, since the top of my journey I’ve been fantasizing about renting a bike in one of these ancient cities and cruising around to take it in. Today seems like the right day. I download a bike rental app on my phone called Donkey Republic and promptly get my wheels for the day.
I spend the afternoon cruising around Vienna free as a bird. The history of the city is astounding. I speed by some of the most epically ornate buildings known to man and stop at a few. I sneak into the Vienna City Hall, a building reminiscent of a massive castle in the center of town. Walking the corridors, I’m blown away by the spaces inside. I swear I’ve seen these rooms in the movie “Amadeus,” specifically in the scene where Mozart’s adult character is first introduced.
I make it a point to visit the Vienna State Opera and I fall into my first official tourist trap, buying tickets to the group tour of the building. It’s totally worth it. Hearing about how the opera has operated through the ages is stimulating. Halfway through the tour I start chatting it up with one of the other tour goers, Ali, who happens to be a solo American traveler from Atlanta. It feels like it’s been forever since I’ve seen an American which I really don’t mind. We spend the rest of the tour as buddies trading photo taking tasks and chatting about our travels.
Upon nightfall, I drop off my well utilized bicycle and join back up with Jukka and Denise. This is our last night together and we plan on making it a fun one. A certain hole in the wall wine bar keeps coming up in our conversation. It’s a place where Jukka and Denise are regulars and apparently they are expecting us. We hoof it across town and make our grand entrance into the small smoke-filled lounge where we are enthusiastically welcomed by the owner, Rudolf, a major music buff and genuinely nice man who proceeds to pour us way too many drinks. There is a highly anticipated football (soccer in the states) game on and we spend the evening rooting on our chosen team and blaring our favorite tunes over the bar sound system. A fabulous time is had by all.
Off to the U.K.
The next morning comes and this time I feel assaulted by the sunlight blasting through my bedroom skylights. Last night was clearly too much fun. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was this hungover. I stumble into the living room to a rather frantic morning. Denise is off to catch a train that she is running late for and I am already pushing it to get to the airport to catch a plane to Manchester. Meanwhile, the even keel Jukka is helping us get into gear.
“How is he not deathly hungover?” I think in a puzzled state.
Denise quickly says goodbye and jets to a nearby train station. Outside of the Airbnb, I say goodbye to my Finnish amigo.
“Daddy’s gonna miss ya Cody,” I say to Jukka in my deepest backwoods satire.
Jukka speeds off in yet another Mini Cooper heading God knows where and I catch an Uber to airport. I get there and haggardly go through security trying to keep my composure. I picked the wrong day to have a hangover. After what feels like an eternity getting through the TSA line, I board my plane, pull my bandana over my eyes and depart for Manchester.