Friday, August 31, 2007

Um, Moscow?

I was offered a freelance writing assignment in Moscow, Russia. I'm on the fence and don't know whether I should take it or not.

Here's the downside... I'd have to miss Turkey Day with Derek and my family.

Here's the upside... a free trip to Moscow.

Here's another downside... don't they kill journalists in Mother Russia?

Your thoughts are appreciated.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Morning Breeze

Barcelona... For some unknown reason, the A/C in the apartment went out around 8am. I had been asleep for about two hours when I noticed it. Around 10am Nicky woke up and mentioned something to me, which meant, "I'm sleeping and hot. Go fix it."

Two warning lights blinked on and off. I tried hitting a few buttons to no avail. I couldn't unplug the thing because I couldn't find the plug. That's when I opened up the window to the bedroom and a breeze rushed inside. I didn't realize how hot the apartment had been. I walked into the living room/kitchen area and opened up the balcony doors to get more circulation. We live in a railroad type of apartment. It's a rectangle and goes the length of the tiny block. The street by the balcony has more pedestrian traffic as it spills over into the plaza of El Born. Across the way is a store that is renovating and construction workers were ripping something apart. I had to close the balcony for a bit until they finished.

When the noise stopped, I sat outside on the balcony in just my boxers and read email. Amazing to have wifi.

I paid my cellphone bill and did a quick run down of my budget in Europe. I'm about half way complete in my six week trip to Europe and I'm under budget by about 600 Euros, maybe more.

I was running over budget by about 5-10 Euros per day during the first week in Amsterdam. Thanks to my hosts in Sweden, I barely spent any money and I was able to make up my overage. I didn't spend too much money in the days before Nicky arrived and when she arrived in Amsterdam, we spent less than anticipated.

Barcelona is a lot cheaper than Amsterdam, especially the food and booze. We took two cabs from the casino to the apartment and they were less than 4 Euros each ride. I'm spending less than 30 Euros a day on food and drinks here, which is the reason why I'm under budget. I'll try to maintain this pace.

I usually do my best to go under budget as a traveler. Whatever I saved last year went to fund my gambling binge at Red Rock Casino in Las Vegas during March Madness, where I used the extra money that I didn't spend at Vegoose (Oct 06), Amsterdam (Nov 06), Las Vegas (Dec 06), San Francisco (Dec 06), Australia (Jan 07), and Langerado (Mar 06). In essence, that was a free trip and I lived high off the hog eating amazing expensive meals and recklessly betting two or three dimes on a single March Madness game.

I spent less money than anticipated during the summer in Las Vegas for the 2007 WSOP, which pretty much paid for the Amsterdam leg of this trip. Whatever I can save for the remainder of this trip will pay for next year's March Madness (if I don't have to work).

I set aside a portion of my income for savings and travel and started saving money for various trips next year. There are places I want to see, but I'll wait to find out what my work schedule is like before I can plot an adventure. I wouldn't mind moving back to Amsterdam for a month at sometime next year.


I worked the last two days at the Barcelona Casino and I was rusty the first day. I had not covered a poker tournament five plus weeks and it took me a half a day to get my shit together. Luckily things are more laid back in Europe instead of the intense madness and pressure I feel when I'm in Las Vegas.

Yesterday went a little bit better even though I had to deal with internet issues. The entire international media shares the same connection and the majority of them are uploading video which takes up a shitload of bandwidth so there are times when pages load at the same speed as dial up or worse... they don't load at all.

I was going to write about poker this morning, but I didn't feel it. I'm forced to deal with poker for 14 hours a day and when I come home, I find myself watching the Yankees/Red Sox games online instead of writing. And when I wake up... all I want to do is write about other things before it's time for me to go to work.

I have three very long days of work ahead of me followed up by four days off before I have to work for ten straight days in London. At least we get two days in Barcelona before we fly to London and have a day and a half in London to chill out before the next assignment begins.

On the food front, I ate paella one night and we found a cheap Italian joint around the corner that served an amazing gnocchi in a four cheese sauce. Yesterday, Nicky and I set up our stuff in the media room at 3pm and grabbed lunch at one of the restaurants in the casino. I opted for a burger. I tried them two years ago and they weren't bad. That was the first red meat I had since I almost shit my pants after eating steak in Amsterdam. Wait, does ham count as red meat? Because I ate a shitload of ham and cheese in Amsterdam and when I ordered a pizza the other day during a lunch meeting, it was topped with grilled mushrooms and prosciutto.

I usually eat dinner around Midnight. The bar near the poker room serves a light menu. On Tuesday, I ordered a bikini (grilled ham and cheese) and a beer on my break. Last night, my friend Jen (a British writer from London who is fascinated with my latest blog Tao of Bacon) told me that they serve omelets on baguettes. I had been dying for an egg sandwich and finally found one. It was yummy, except the only problem is that the locals put a tomato spread on all their sandwiches... and I'm not that big of a fan of the spread. In Australia, they put a beet relish on burgers and sandwiches and it didn't bother me as much. I actually started liking it by the end of my time down under. But in this instance, I'm not digging the spread.

My boss Schecky didn't have a positive experience ordering food at the bar the other night.

"I made a bad decision," he said. "I ordered the local sausage."

All this talk of food is making me hungry. Time to go downstairs to the market to buy some bread and cheese.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Inspiration Daydream

Two years ago, I showed up in Barcelona with a camera (that Flipchip gave me), my laptop and my backpack with a couple of days of clothes. I was alone, in a foreign country, working on spec. I paid my own way to Spain and lined up a couple of publications to buy a couple of articles that I'd write once the final table of EPT Barcelona was complete. I knew that I'd be losing money on the trip and didn't care. After a long summer in Las Vegas living at the Redneck Riviera, I needed to get out of Nevada and out of the country. I heard about the European Poker Tour from Otis and said, "Fuck it. I'm going."

Luckily, Mad Harper helped me out. She was an British ex-pat living in Spain and had worked with Otis at Poker Stars. She offered to put me up for a few days in Sitges (a beach town just outside of Barcelona) and showed me around Barcelona. She secured me a fantastic deal on a hotel room and allowed me to tag along with her. That's how I met a slew of people at Poker Stars.

Shortly after Joe Hachem won the 2005 WSOP in Benny's Bullpen at the Horseshoe, I emailed the creator of the EPT, former British TV-producer John Duthie, and asked him about press badge for the Barcelona event. He was thrilled that an American writer would be interested in covering his little tournament. At the time, there were no press procedures for season two of the EPT. He told me to show up at the casino and that I'd be allowed to take photos and live blog the event on Tao of Poker. At the time, there were about five or six of us there including Rolf Slotbloom (Dutch writer for Poker Pages), Tom Murphy and Mike Lacey (The Irish guys from Antes Up), David Lloyd (British writer Gutshot), Howard Swains (British writer from Poker Stars Blog), and myself. We were huddled around a table underneath the stairs. At the EPT Barcelona this year, there were over 100 media reps from all over the world. The EPT and poker has come a long way in just 24 months.

Two years ago, I met Brandon Schaefer at the bar next to the poker room of all places and said that he loved reading my blog. We'd hang out a lot during that trip and became good friends. Not only did I have a blast covering my first event outside the States, but I also got asked to announce the feature TV table and then the final table.

Announcing the final table in 2005...

I might have been the first American poker writer to come across a good looking skinny kid from Finland named Patrik Antonius. He made the final table along with Gus Hansen. I couldn't believe what had happened to me, as I was overcome by one of those existentialist moments like... how the fuck did I get here? Just six months earlier I was unemployed, broke, and homeless. Then all of a sudden, I had a microphone in my hand and was doing my best Johnny Grooms imitation for the crowd.

The Barcelona Casino has a special place in my heart and was a monumental place on my journey through poker. I was given a rare opportunity to visit a new place, make new friends, and have an original mind-blowing experience. After the final table was over (and after a long night of drinking), it was 6am and I managed to get a taxi to drive me to La Sagrada Familia. It was closed, but I sat in amazement on a bench in a park across from Gaudi's infamous church that has been under construction since 1882.

I had a religious experience that morning as I gazed up at the church, something that I had not spoken about to anyone. Until now. Ever get that feeling that you're supposed to be where you are at that specific moment? That's what happened. I was overcome with emotion and wept for a few moments. Not too many people are given second chances in life, and I was awarded a golden ticket. I vowed not to screw up anymore in life and pushed myself harder than I had ever. Even though I made some mistakes along the way over the last two years, I look back at Barcelona in 2005 as a major turning point in my life and the development as a writer.

When Poker News offered me an assignment to cover Season 4 of the EPT Barcelona, I immediately said yes. I would get to travel to Spain for free with my girlfriend and be reunited with a lot of friends I made along the way. And during my time in Barcelona over the past couple of days, I reflected about the last two years of my life. The words humble and lucky come to mind. On Monday morning, I returned to La Sagrada Familia. I didn't cry (although Nicky admitted that the building was so powerful and full of energy that she was on the verge of tears) this time, but I felt overjoyed that I was able to return to the sacred place that inspired me and kept me going over the last 700 days of my life. I also made another promise to myself. Maybe someday I'll tell you what that was.

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on Tao of Poker.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

La Sagrada Familia Pic Dump

Here are some photos that I took on Monday afternoon in Barcelona after a visit to Gaudi's majestic (and unfinished) La Sagrada Familia. My initial reaction? Dammit! I wish I took some acid.

You can click on the photos to see an enlarged view.

From two blocks away...

Construction started in 1882... and should be completed in about 10 years

Sample of the stained glass inside...

Just look up in amazement

Love this guy trying to get the highest parts on film

Monday, August 27, 2007

Barcelona Quickie

Where Papa used to get sloshed....

The move out of the canal apartment in Amsterdam took less than five minutes. Johnny Mushrooms (or the character formally known as RK) called us a cab and we headed to the airport together. His flight left an hour earlier than ours, which gave Nicky and I time to grab a bite to eat and play Chinese Poker at the airport lounge.

The flight to Barcelona was a quickie. I'm so used to flights longer than five hours than anything less than ninety minutes is a breeze. I read a few chapters of Atomised, the second book from Michel Houllenbecq that Benjo gave me as a gift.

We walked out to the cab stand at Barcelona airport and there was no line. We could have taken the train, but we opted for a quick cab ride, which is a business expense. It was cheaper than expected at 23 Euros. Our cabbie let us out a few blocks from where we needed to go. The area where we are living has pedestrian only streets.

We walked two short blocks to the rental agency. The woman there showed us to our place and pointed out all the things we might need were a couple a blocks away (like the pharmacy, market, bank, and laundry). The apartment has pink walls. I didn't get to choose. Nicky found the place online. It's in an amazing part of town a few blocks from Bari Gotic and just around the corner from Santa Maria del Mar church. The Picasso Museum is up the street and we're about a fifteen to twenty minute walk from the Barcelona Casino, where I have to work for the next week.

After settling into the apartment, we took a walk. We stumbled upon the gun store that was featured in Bittersweet Motel, the documentary about Phish. There's a hysterical scene when Trey haggles with the store owner over the purchase of a 357 Magnum. Trey's price was too low and he walked out of the store. As soon as he left, they agreed to sell him the gun at his price. Trey was fucking around and didn't want to buy the gun. He bought a whip instead. I will post a pic of the store later.

We walked up and down La Rambla, which was packed with tourists. We stopped off at a cafe and drank a large beer as we played Chinese Poker. We took a trip down a side street to London Bar, where Hemingway used to drink during his time in Spain.

We had dinner around the corner at a cheap Italian place with amazing gnocchi. The dinner was around 20 Euros and we had an appetizer, two main dishes, sparkling water, and wine.

After dinner, we hung out in El Born square and soaked up the Midnight scene. There were a dozen couple dancing a waltz nearby as music played. Tons of people walked past us on their way out to party. Sitting down next to us, a young woman was on her cellphone and she was in the middle of a break up. Tears were pouring out of her eyes and she sobbed.

We had an early night for Barcelona standards. I have one full day to explore the city before I report to work at 3pm on Tuesday. Stay tuned for a pic dump.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Last Days of the Dam and How I Almost Shit My Pants


After I returned from Sweden, I cranked out a solid amount of quality writing and caught up on work in the small window of time before Nicky arrived on Thursday morning. On Wednesday, I uploaded pictures to my Flickr gallery and completed one column for Poker Player Newspaper and wrote two-thirds of my column (due in two weeks). I edited 75% of the September issue of Truckin' and also penned the first draft of a "On the Road" type of magazine column for a new client which is due in the first week of September.

I lived my first week in Amsterdam in a murky haze. The weather was grey and hazy and my mind was foggy and groggy. It was nice to just let loose on an old-fashioned bender without worrying about responsibilities. I needed that. Once it got close to the Sweden excursion, I scaled back the partying a couple of notches, although I saved myself for one last wicked three-day bender when Nicky arrived.

She nearly missed both of her flights. LAX was backed up and she barely made her connecting flight to Minnesota, which also arrived just in time for her flight to Amsterdam. When she called me from LAX, I was walking to dinner with Benjo and RK. We craved steak all day and Amsterdam has an abundance of Argentine steak joints. We picked one near Rookies in the Leidseplein. I ordered a hefty 33 Euro steak. On our way home, RK noted that I walked at a super brisk pace.

"I have to go to the bathroom," I said.

"We can always top off at a pub on the way and we can also get a beer," he mentioned.

"Can't," I said as I picked up the pace. "I ain't taking a dump in a bar."

When we reached the church behind the Anne Frank house, I knew we were less than five minutes away. I also knew that I couldn't hold it any longer. I was ready to explode. Thank God that it was night time. I ducked behind two parked cars and dropped my pants with my ass facing the canal. What ensued was hideous. Think about the scene from American Pie when Finch had explosive diarrhea in the girls room. That was me, except, I was in the middle of Amsterdam, shitting my brains out in between two cars. Luckily no one walked by. Not one boat drifted down the canal. Not one person on a bicycle whizzed by.

RK and Benjo were a block or two behind me. When they caught up to my spot, they looked over in amazement. They couldn't figure out what I was doing. Luckily, I had tissues and a few napkins on me and able to clean up without any problems. Disaster averted. Although I busted ass on some dude's back wheel... I wonder what his expression was like when he left for work the next day?

You never know how you will handle a crisis until you are faced with said situation. It was a complicated matter... and a worst nightmare for some... the fear of shitting yourself in public. Luckily, I had developed the necessary survival skills and knew my body so well that I held out for the last possible moment before the inevitable occurred. When you have to go... you have to go.

It was embarrassing to say the least. Slightly humiliated, I was in near tears as I walked back to the apartment. But I couldn't stop laughing either. It could have been a disastrous moment and even worse. Luckily, I managed not to shit myself.

* * * * *

I woke up early on Thursday and wrote for a little bit before I walked to the train station. I got caught up in a wave of people exiting Central Station on their way to work. I bought a croissant and then boarded a train to the airport. I listened to my iPod and read a Dutch newspaper. I looked at the photos. When I got the airport, Nicky's flight info was updated. She arrived fifteen minutes earlier that scheduled. I told her to meet me at the red and white checkered cube near the ticket window, but ended up bumping into her as soon as she cleared customs.

You can never gauge how much you miss somebody until you finally see them. I had one of those moments.

We took the train back to Amsterdam and made the fifteen minute walk back to the apartment. I taught her how to climb the stairs of the canal house and gave her a quick run-down of the apartment. It was still before noon, and although it was like 3am for her via Left Coast time, she was still wide awake. We went for brunch at Haarlem Cafe and soaked in street scenes. We hit up Pink Floyd, which was one of our favorite places to hang out and play Chinese Poker during the trip in November.

After a nap, we woke up and headed out to dinner, followed up by a coffeeshop and a bar/cafe a couple of blocks from the apartment called De Vergalde Gaper. The main menu there was in Dutch, which meant it was a total local's place. They had outdoor seating with slanty tables and chairs. We played Chinese Poker and the cards kept falling to the ground. At one point I bent over to pick one card up and leaned the wrong way. I started to fall and was forced to make a quick decision. I could have balanced myself by grabbing the table, but that also meant I would have spilled our pints of beer. I decided to take the fall and tumbled sideways onto the cobblestone street. Someone on a bicycle swerved out of my way. I popped back up as the waitress rushed over to ask me if I was OK. The owner and her stood near the entrance and saw everything happen. He said something to her in Dutch that maybe I was too wasted. Far from it. I was relatively sober and the waitress told him that she had just brought over my second pint.

That could have been embarrassing... falling down in front of a restaurant full of people. But since the "almost shit my pants" incident, falling down was minor.

In my notes, I scribbled down...
11:20pm... fell out of chair playing Chinese Poker.
After that bar, we headed to another place that we drank at a week earlier. RK wanted to do more Absinthe shots. Even for fake Absinthe, those get me super wasted. Nicky had never tried it and we gobbled down two rounds.

Fake Absinthe

We watched TV and EuroSport broadcasted Sumo matches from Nagoya, Japan. RK and I wagered on a dozen or so. Since we had no idea who was who and the majority of sumos looked alike, we'd shout out, "Guy on right!" or "Left!" to indicate who we picked. After a while, I had all the guys on the left of the screen, while RK had the guys on the right. After several exciting matches, I had pulled ahead by four units. Yeah, my sumo guys won four more matches than RK's.

* * * * *

On Friday, I woke up early and read for twenty minutes. I wrote for a bit before I headed to the market to buy croissants and juice for everyone. When Nicky woke up we headed out to a few coffeeshops. I took notes on the various music playing as I walked into each place.
Cofeeshop Sountracks:
1. Grey Area (Public Enemy)
2. Rookies (The Dandy Warhols)
3. Pink Floyd (Led Zeppelin)
4. Siberie (Chemical Brothers)
5. 420 Cafe (Bob Dylan)
For most of the afternoon, we played more Chinese Poker as I rolled more blunts that I have ever done in my life. I'm a novice, but like most things in life, you can only get better if you practice.

We met up with RK and headed out for dinner. He had been reading a book called Dice Man, where the main character becomes obsessed with dice so much so that he carries around dice and rolls it to make decisions. When we couldn't figure out what to eat for dinner, RK assigned each number a different type of food. 1 was shoarma. 2 was Chinese. 3 was Indian. 4 was Italian. 5 was fast food and 6 was "roll again." We stopped on a canal bridge as he bent over and rolled the dice. it spun on a cobblestone and then stopped at 1. Shoarma for dinner!

Since we also ate near the Leidseplein, we wandered over to Rookies to continue our Chinese Poker match. We alternated between coffeeshops and bars and eventually found ourselves in the Red Light District around Midnight. Prime time. Hordes of horny wasted guys wandered up and down the streets looking for action, while curious tourists sauntered by, and there was even a tour group going on at that hour. The women look more like animals in the zoo and have become part of the freak show. They should get a cut of the tour group fees. But then again, I'm the last guy who should be standing up for hooker's rights. They have unions for those sorts of things.

* * * * *

I woke up on Sunday with that somber feeling I get whenever I have to leave a place I really wanted to stay. Amsterdam has taken over the second place in my favorite cities rankings (behind NYC). At one point New Orleans, then Las Vegas were my second favorite cities. I'm not jaded by Amsterdam yet. I wish I could stay here longer and live here indefinitely. Alas, my holiday is over. I have about two assignments ahead of me and a couple of days before and after each gig to explore Barcelona and London. I am excited about both of those cities, but I'm also going to miss Amsterdam.

I will not miss the mosquitoes that dive bomb my body during the few moments of slumber. My right arm looks like I've been shooting junk with all the little red dots. I also got bit on my ear and it's itchy. Bastards.

In November, Nicky and I hit up 12 coffeeshops in 12 hours on our last day. We vowed to break that record. We got off to an early start and showed up at Amnesia (1) around the corner at 12:20. I bought Sweet Tooth. At 1:30, we walked up the street to Siberie (2), followed by Picasso (3), and then a smoke-and-run at a crowded Barney's (4). We were seated at the Pink Floyd (5) by 2:50pm. By 3:45pm, we hit up our sixth place... Grey Area which is home to my favorite strain in Amsterdam... the Grey Haze.

We took a forty-five minute meal break around 4:15pm for pizza and beers at an Italian restaurant nearby. After our break, we headed to Rokerij (7) a few blocks away from the apartment where they played weird Euro trance music. We were still super wasted by that point and hopped on one a tourist canal cruise boats to kill an hour as they took us around the city. I snapped a few photos and we passed our building at some point oon the cruise as we floated down the Singel.

It was 6:40pm when we wandered into the 420 Cafe (8) after the cruise. We stayed there the longest. It's one of my favorite places with cheap drinks and a decent selection of product. We played Chinese Poker for almost ninety minutes before we wet to Any Day (9), which is about three blocks from the apartment. I picked up Stella Blue Sour in memory of Jerry Garcia and sat down at a table outside to roll up a doobie. As much as I wanted to avoid big chains, we ended up at Grasshopper (10). As soon as I walked in, I got a flashback to almost 11 summer ago when I arrived in Amsterdam for the first time with Senor. That Grasshopper was the first ever coffeeshop I got shitfaced in. Fun times.

Benjo mentioned to me that Quentin Tarratino hung out at Betty Boop (11) when he wrote the first draft of the screenplay for Pulp Fiction, while he lived in Amsterdam in the 1990s. Nicky and I checked out that place. Nothing special. We tied our record at Abraxas (12) and sat upstairs near a window overlooking the alley. Since Kandinsky was our 12th place in November, we went back there for coffeeshop #13. It was 11:30pm when we walked inside to break our record. Just 11 hours earlier we began our adventure. I now have a new goal of 14 coffeeshops inside of 12 hours the next time I'm in town.

On our way back to the apartment, I snapped two pictures in the red light district, right around the corner from the apartment.

A brothel around the corner from our apartment

A couple of johns cruise an alley around 1am in the Red Light District

By the way, I jotted down the music that played as I walked into various coffeeshops on Saturday. Here they are:
Coffeeshop Soundtracks:
1. Amnesia (Miles Davis)
2. Siberie (Buena Vista Social Club)
3. Picasso (James Brown)
4. Pink Floyd (Rush)
5. 420 Cafe (Van Morrison)
6. Abraxas (Gypsy Kings)
7. Kandinsky (Karl Denson's Tiny Universe)
I packed about 90% of my gear before I crashed for the night, which means that I'll have a couple of hours to write and go for one final walk on Sunday morning before we head to the airport.

Next stop... Barcelona

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Flickr Galleries & Tao of Bacon

I updated an old project and created two new photo sets via Flickr. The Sweden and Amsterdam pics were all taken in the last two weeks. I also updated my food gallery with tasty food images that I snapped so far in Europe. Check them out...
Sweden (23 pics)
Amsterdam III (62 pics)
Pauly's Food Pics (144 pics)
You can click here to view all 19 of my photo sets which include pics from all of my travels over the past two years.

And for all of you bacon junkies out there, check out my new blog... Tao of Bacon.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Sweet Sweet Sweden

"Do you want to go to Sweden?" Benjo asked me a couple of weeks ago.

Sweden. The land of Ikea, Abba, and the Swedish Bikini team, not to mention the homeland of NY Rangers goalie Henrik Lundquist. I dreamed of going to Sweden and finally had an opportunity.

Benjo is friends with several guys from a bigtime online gaming company in Stockholm. He did some freelance work for them in the past. They happen to be avid readers of Tao of Poker. When they heard that I was in Europe, they not only invited me to a conference, but they flew me in and put me up at a swanky hotel a few blocks from their offices. Benjo and our roommate RK was also invited to attend.

We left Amsterdam on a sluggish rainy Monday morning. I traveled super light and only brought my laptop and two days of clothes with me. I flew non-stop to Stockholm on SAS (Scandinavian Airlines). They did not serve free food or drinks, but you could buy stuff priced in either Euros or Swedish Kronors (SEK). $1 US = less than 7 SEKs.

The flight to Sweden from Amsterdam is less than 100 minutes. Stockholm is in the same time zone, but to the North. I passed out on the flight for about fifteen minutes and when I woke up, we were on the descent into Arlanda airport. I looked out the window and saw dense forests and lots of blue sky with white fluffy clouds.

Two stoic people in blue uniforms greeted you before you could step off the jetway. A middle-aged woman said something to me in Swedish. I handed her my passport. She glanced at it and said "Thank you," in English.

I changed $300 US for about 2000 Kronor. The airport is about a twenty minute drive from Stockholm and linked up by an express busses and a train. The line for train tickets into the city was too long, so we opted for a cab. They have a flat rate posted on the outside of the cabs. 440 SEKs. That was over $60 but I had been dealing in Euros so I thought 44 Euros wasn't so bad. It didn't matter anyway since it was a business expense.

The first ten minutes of the drive featured plenty of trees and reminded me of Seattle or Portland in the summer. The land was lush and as we slowly approached the city, more of the landscape took on an urban vibe.

We had about an hour to kill before the conference. I showered quickly and watched five minutes of Swedish TV before Benjo and I headed downstairs to a fast food burger joint called Max. It is the equivalent of In & Out Burger for Sweden. I stopped and stared at the window advertisement of a Frisco Burgermal (with those funny dots over some of the letters). It made my mouth water... bacon, cheese, special sauce on a sourdough bun.

I walked up to the counter and the workers wore all white. Two of the most adorable girls worked the registers. One was a blonde and the other had dyed bright red hair. The freaky one took my order. 61 kronors for the Frisco Burger, Orange Fanta, and fries. We ate outdoors and soaked up downtown Stockholm.

Ah, the bacon cheeseburger... good stuff. Better than BK and definitely better than McDs.

We walked a few blocks to a gigantic glass building across from the Central Station and the World Trade Center. The company we visited had offices the top five floors. As I stood on the 11th floor in front of the receptionist, I could see an amazing view of the city courtesy of the glass walls.

We met up with our contact Kim and was given a tour. Everyone was dressed casually. I met almost everyone in the office and did my best to memorize names. They all spoke English and of course, I spoke no Swedish aside from a few curse words.One room housed just pinball machines. Another room had a sweet poker table with classic hardwood chairs. They also had a room with a ping pong table where two guys were playing. They asked if I played, and I said, "Only for money."

That got a hearty laugh. The Swedes have a reputation for not showing too much emotion. That's why they make excellent poker players... since the are difficult to read.

Their various conference rooms and bigger offices were named after Las Vegas Casinos. Our conference was held inside the Bellagio Room.

"Almost like home?" Kim joked.

For three hours, I took part in a panel where the execs picked our brains about different things in the poker industry. Benjo and myself represented the media and RK was there to give the perspective of a poker pro (especially someone who plays a ton online). I was nervous for the first few minutes. I don't normally speak in front of people, especially for individuals where English is their second language. I started out slow and by the end of the conference, I spoke fluidly and cracked more jokes.

After the conference, we were treated to an amazing dinner down on a boat. Since the sun sets a lot later in Sweden during the summer, we were also treated to an amazing sunset. The weather was splendid... warm with an occasional breeze off the water.

We drank at the bar while our table was prepared. I asked Nils what is a good Swedish beer to drink. He said that he usually drinks Carlsberg (which is Danish). That's one of my favorite beers and I saw it on tap. I was afraid to order it without a proper recommendation. When Senor and I visited Iceland in 2001, I had been drinking a pint of Carlsberg when the bartender scolded me. He dumped it out and then poured me a fresh Icelandic beer called Viking. I didn't want to offend the locals so I decided to ask my hosts. Since they were drinking something I liked, there were no problems.

There were eight of us at dinner and I sat with Tobais, Lisa, and Nils. They translated the menu for me and ordered a variety of items from the tappas menu; such as lamb sausage, another were sauteed mushrooms in a red sauce, and then there was a traditional Swedish dish called Toast Skagen Med Lojrom... which was basically shrimp salad with lots of mayo on toast with a bit of fish eggs on top. Not only did I take a photo, I ate the entire thing.

We drank plenty of wine at dinner along with endless beers. The conversation drifted back and forth between poker and random things. Since it my first time in Sweden, they wanted to know my initial impressions. I told them that everyone was friendly and didn't hesitate to speak English. Stockholm is clean and beautiful, made of several islands (sort of like NYC) and there was plenty of water and bridges around. It's a pedestrian city. Amsterdam is ruled by bicycles, where Stockholm has waves of people walking around... and yes, many of them were drop dead gorgeous Swedish women.

For my main meal, I went with a Tuna burger served with a spicy Thai sauce. Scrumptious. After dinner, we continued to drink. Just before Midnight, Sam missed his last train home, so he partied with us until the next train... at 5:30am. We closed out a Belgium beer bar and then ended up at the Cosmopol Casino which was two blocks from our hotel. You paid 30 kroners to get in. Like most of the European Casinos I visited, they scanned your passport. These guys also took my photo. Great. So much for keeping myself off the European grid.

When we walked into the casino, Benjo bumped into another Swedish friend of his. Thomas had been drinking with friends and joined us. We headed up to the poker room, which was hidden away on the fourth floor. You walked down a long corridor and up a flight of stairs, past a gaming room before you took another side exit, then up three more flights of stairs which reminded me of being inside a fraternity house. The stairwell walls were covered with photos of various winners from previous tournaments. They also had playing cards framed according to their nickname... such as "Walking Sticks" for 7-7 and "Cowboys" for K-K.

The room had a dozen or so tables (and about five tables going) with a bar off to the side. There were a couple of fruit baskets at the end of the bar. The bananas cost 5 kroners. We drank more beer while the two Swedish guys in our group constantly made fun of the bad players that happen to frequently play at that poker room.

"They are horrible. These retards are giving their money away. Just watch for ten minutes then get in the game."

The tables in front of us spread 20/20 (kroners) NL. There was also a 50/50 NL game going. Swedish poker players also have a reputation of being competitive and playing crazy. They like to raise a lot pre-flop and play any two cards. They are tough to put a hand on.

I flipped through a copy of Bluff magazine (the European edition) while I drank more beers and listened to the Swedes tell us about the local poker scene or their hilarious Las Vegas stories. Benjo and RK eventually made their way to the blackjack tables and were playing 50 kroners a hand. I didn't gamble at all and watched. I eventually crashed while they stayed out until dawn.

I woke up early and wrote for an hour before I went for a walk. I got breakfast (OJ, a banana, and a muffin) and checked out the surrounding streets. I went back to the room and wrote a column for Poker Player Newspaper. I had a Thursday deadline and finished the first draft. I headed back out to meet up with Benjo and RK. Benjo had been to Sweden several times before and there were a few sections in Stockholm that he wanted to show us. He took us to the old part of town with cobblestone streets and stone buildings that were centuries old.

Here are some random pictures from Sweden. You can click on the photos to see an enlarged view.

The menu at Max

Sign near the subway

View from my hotel room

Outside the Royal Palace

Monday, August 20, 2007

Monk's Siberian Dream

Brain dead. Deep into the sixth day of a foggy bender, I had forgotten the day of the week. Frisatursunday? I successfully lost time. The demoralizing result was that my conversational skills had dwindled down to a few muttering sentences. I walked around the city like a zombie, one of those aimlessly wandering hasheads that the locals curse at after smashing into them in the bicycle lanes.

I left the milky blue curtains in my bedroom open before I passed out. The sunlight forced me to wake up an hour or so earlier. The sounds of church bells greeted me as I climbed the stairs to the attic and stepped through the sliding glass door onto the roof. I sat on a wooden chair and lost myself as I stared out at the other roofs. That's been the first thing I have done every morning. Rain or shine.

The local weather reminds me of Seattle... scattered clouds with the chance of precipitation at any moment. Sometimes it's sunny on one block and raining on the next one. There are times when you can feel the hotness of summer. Then when you least expect it, a bitter wind whips off of the canals which makes my nose itch. Some people are dressed for summer. Others are prepared for winter.

I struggled through Dharma Bums during the morning roof reading sessions. After reading the majority of it in one sitting, I labored through about ten or so pages a day. I'd have to go back and read the previous three or four to figure out what the hell Kerouac was rambling about before I'd slowly make my way through his feast of words. With that book done, I moved onto the next one... Whatever.

Benjo gave me two English translations of books by Michel Houellebecq, a contemporary French writer. There's a copy of his third book on the bookshelf in the living room, left behind by a previous tenant. Maybe I can read some of that before I leave for Barcelona.

Whatever is a short and quick read and was originally titled "Extension of the Domain of the Struggle." Some of Houellebecq's chapters are a mere six paragraphs long. In the first chapter, his main character (an uninspired and angry thirty-something engineer who can't get laid) gets drunk at a party and pukes on someone's couch. He forgot where he parked and returned the next day and could still not find the car. Instead of searching some more, he told the police he got his car stolen.

I enjoyed the morning breeze and read before I climbed the spiral staircase down to the kitchen to write. The apartment is quiet before my roommates wake up, watch DVDs, and start playing online poker. I opened up the windows to let out all the stuffy air from Benjo's cigarettes and all the blunt leftovers from the night before. I wiped the table clean which was cluttered by empty water bottles, a jar of Nutella, dirty silverware, a thin layer of ashes, used baggies, a deck of Paris casino cards, a pile of Euro coins, bits of torn up rolling papers, and flakes of crust from croissants.

Outside on the street below, the procession of Sunday morning tourists slowly trickled past our building as the sound of a motor boat in the canal almost drowned out a British couple arguing about the proper way to get to the Anne Frank house. An American woman joked at the window hookers across the street as a group of six people on rented yellow bicycles whizzed by. One lonely guy with that sex-starved gleam in his eye quickly passed our building while looking for the next side street with more hookers.

I wrote for ninety minutes. Then I was wired... on a creative high.

My original plan for this August was to move to Amsterdam for three weeks and write. That never happened. I had to cut my holiday short by a week for a work assignment in Barcelona in addition to a ten-day assignment in London. The entire mentality of the trip shifted. Instead of delving into new writing projects, I spent the first week partying... all the time.

Every waking hour I alternated in a deviant cycle between drinking Belgium beers in bars and getting hammered in coffeeshops. During those late nights, I trolled the red light district at 2am with Benjo admiring the never ending freak show while drinking in seedy bars filled with groups of sweaty horny tourists. And when I wasn't doing running rampant through the streets, I retreated to the slanted room on the top floor of our canal apartment, where slept almost six hours a night in a comfortable bed.

The bender has been a week long, which meant that it was time to slow down. I implemented a more disciplined schedule to squeeze in couple hours of work every morning. The Sunday morning writing session in the kitchen was the most intense since I had been here. I also uploaded a slew of photos and made a list of things to do before I went to Sweden on Monday. I also had forgotten about a column that was due on Thursday. I'm glad I realized now before it was too late.

I wandered outside and found Siberia just up the street off the Signel canal. The doors to the coffeeshop were open upon my arrival. The empty coffeeshop blasted Thelonius Monk and I felt that was a fitting soundtrack for the day. I had been listening John Coltrane and Monk while I wrote in the kitchen only five minutes before.

I found a spot up front at a table looking out to the canal. I smoked and read Michel Houellebeacq. I added more things to do on my list and jotted down some thoughts. I'm usually an avid note taker but I abandoned my pad for a week. I had a pen and paper on me at all times, but that was used to keep a running tally of our three-way Chinese Poker match, which we played sporadically throughout the day over the past week or so. I made a promise to myself to take more notes.

More tourists walked past the coffeeshop and carried suitcases with wheels that rumbled behind them and made loud clapping sounds against the cobblestones of the streets. A Dutch family of four across the canal loaded up their car for a drive out to the country. I read a little more before a wave of inspiration hit me. I was hungry and had a list of items to buy at the market, but skipped that. Instead, I rushed home past the window hookers so I could write. My roommates were still sleeping and I went into to the kitchen to write. I fired up iTunes and listened to Jerry Garcia and David Grisman perform an acoustic cover version of Miles Davis' So What.

I opened up my note pad and looked at the initial two words that I scribbled down. Brain dead.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Random Pictures of Food: Amsterdam Edition

I took these over the past week...


Space cakes!

Benjo's cafe breakfast

Cheese tosti

Amnesia's cheesecake

Fried egg & bacon sandwich

Beers for breakfast

Euro Pub's French Onion soup

Bacon cheeseburger at the Euro Pub

Tortellini Bolognese

Bacon, mushroom & cheese omelete from Haarlem cafe

Spicy chicken

Beers at 2am

You can always check out Pauly's Food Gallery (via Flickr).