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5O Mad Scientist Movies #6: Torture Ship (1939)

October 22, 2021

Director Victor Halperin is responsible for White Zombie, a 1932 classic, the first full length zombie film, which I heartily recommend. In a mere 7 years, however, it appears that he forgot everything he knew about making movies.

Glands, extracts, injections… this idea that there are weird fluids which, if transferred from one person or animal to another, cause strange changes… it wasn’t just in the movies. There were quite a few quacks in the real world doing the same thing.

But this is a movie, so the mad scientist is able to charter a yacht and populate it with criminals that he is going to turn into ordinary people with consciences. Of course the process is a bit fraught; after they get their injections, they wander around in a stupor for a while. One of them expires in his hospital bed. He just sort of goes to sleep and doesn’t wake up. That’s the torture mentioned in the title of the movie. It was a more innocent time, when torture could be alluded to by an anguished facial expression, rather than bloody special effects.

“If someone doesn’t explain the script to me, I’m going to start breaking props!”

I don’t know if the version of the film I saw was edited down, maybe for TV or something, but there were gaping holes in the story that I did not understand until I read the synopsis on wikipedia.

There are zero monsters in this. No special effects of any kind, not even a gorilla suit. It’s basically a melodrama about a bunch of criminals trying to stage a mutiny. If they can just get hold of those two revolvers!

How they are even held prisoner isn’t clear. Nobody is chained to anything or locked in. Well one guy is strapped to the bed, but he busts the straps with a bit of awkward straining. Before and after the experiments, they all seem to be free to wander about the ship like ordinary passengers, until the doctor’s two tough orderlies come and fetch them.

There is some typically unconvincing fist fighting, with that old-movie convention where somebody gets socked across the jaw and then immediately crumples into unconsciousness. You really have to wonder if the people who made all these movies had ever actually seen a fist fight.

The overall impression I get from this incoherent mess is that no one seems to have thought things through very much. No one asked any basic questions like, Is this plausible? Why would he do that? The acting is not bad, I guess, but they are all just sort of standard character sketches. The mad doctor has a blandly reassuring bedside manner, which never becomes sinister, just annoying.

So yeah, another winner… not. Have to pan through a lot of dust to find some gold, apparently.

5O Mad Scientist Movies #5: The Ape Man, with Bela Lugosi (1943)

October 19, 2021

Not the pinnacle of Bela Lugosi’s career. This was about as scary as a box of animal crackers.

Just as in The Ape, with Boris Karloff, there is a need for spinal fluid, for a special Mad Scientist injection, which involves killing the “donor,” only this time, instead of curing polio, the injection is supposed to alleviate Bela’s half man/half ape condition, which was caused by some earlier experiment gone horribly awry. Bela really doesn’t like being kind of hunched over and excessively hirsute and is willing to rack up quite a body count to get his posture back.

C’mon, little buddy, let’s go harvest some spinal fluid from hapless extras.

Boris’ sister is a kind of low-rent Madame Blavatsky and there’s a thinly sketched subplot about her being a ghost hunter. The experiments occur in a secret laboratory in the basement, where a gorilla rattles the bars of his cage a lot. Eventually the gorilla helps commit some murders. The police are baffled because the half man/half ape and his gorilla sidekick are apparently able to roam the city streets at night, killing people and then dragging their bodies back to the laboratory to drain their spinal fluid… without ever being noticed. The wise-cracking reporter and the pretty female photographer are the only ones who think to poke around the evil doctor’s house.

Have you ever listened to those really early wax cylinder recordings of people talking, where it’s kind of hard to tell what they’re saying underneath all that static? That’s what the sound of this movie is like, at least in the print Mill Creek Entertainment used to create this disc.

So yeah, this one is strictly for the Bela Lugosi completist. I assume there are such people, who wish to be able to say they have seen every one of his movies. Other than that, or perhaps due to an obstinate determination to watch an entire 50-movie Mill Creek Entertainment Mad Scientist Movie Collection, I can’t really imagine why one would sit all the way through this.

50 mad Scientist Movies! Dave’s Reviews!

September 14, 2021

I generally get my movies from the dollar store. And they’re usually creature features or low budget sci-fi from the 1950s or earlier, because I know what I like, and Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are not in it. And I have noticed that the chief purveyor of this exquisite cinematic fromage is Mill Creek Entertainment, whose sole stock in trade seems to be putting out cheap & terrible prints of anything they can find in the public domain. Sometimes you can find a boxed set with 3 or 4 discs in it, holding a dozen movies. I think I may have all of those, or at least all the ones that have passed through the dollar stores here in this midwestern hamlet where I eke out a living doing music jobs over the internet.

ANYWAY, so I got a brainwave and thought to check ebay to see if there were any choice Mill Creek Entertainment ccollections I might have missed. And what did I find? 50, count ’em, 50! mad scientist movies in a 10 DVD boxed set for $14.98. DUDE. That is um, let me fire up the atomic calculation engine… under 30¢ a movie. Even by my standards, that is quite reasonable. And I consider Chef Boyardee the good stuff, what you splurge on when you get some extra dough.

Okay, first off we can see that we’ve got the girlfriend’s head in a tray from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die on the cover. Not that I need another copy of that, I have several, but it speaks well to the aesthetics of whoever curated this collection. Probably some guy in a seersucker suit calling people from a rotary phone in the back of some warehouse on a wharf somewhere. That’s how I like to picture the acquisitions wing of the operation. “Hey, baby, it’s me, Saul. Yeah, you know, Saul, we did that job for Max together, you remember, with the truckload of shovels? Yeah yeah, that Saul, always gets pastrami, right, that’s me. Listen, I cleaned up my act, I’m in the movie biz these days. Whaddaya got for me? I need something quick, on the cheap, like. I don’t give a shit what it is. Long as there’s no royalties and a monster threatening some dame on the poster.”

Well Saul, ya done good this time. This is the shit.

The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) 57 Min.
The Ape (1940) 62 Min.
The Ape Man (1943) 64 Min.
Atom Age Vampire (1960) 87 Min.
The Atomic Brain (1963) 65 Min.
The Bloodsuckers (1967) 88 Min.
The Boys From Brooklyn (1952) 74 Min.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962) 82 Min.
The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920) 67 Min.
The Corpse Vanishes (1942) 64 Min.

Counterblast (1948) 90 Min.
Crimson (1973) 93 Min.
Dead Men Walk (1943) 64 Min.
Death Warmed Up (1984) 85 Min.
The Devil Bat (1940) 64 Min.
Don’t Look In The Basement (1973) 89 Min.
Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1920) 67 Min.
The Drums Of Jeopardy (1931) 75 Min.
Embryo (1976) 104 Min.
Frankenstein ’80 (1972) 85 Min.
Frozen Alive (1964) 75 Min.
The Head (1959) 97 Min.
Horror Express (1972) 90 Min.
House Of The Living Dead (1974) 87 Min.

I Eat Your Skin (1971) 84 Min.
Invasion Of The Bee Girls (1973) 86 Min.
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) 88 Min.
The Killer Shrews (1959) 69 Min.
King Of The Zombies (1941) 67 Min.

Kong Island (1968) 85 Min.
Lady Frankenstein (1971) 84 Min.
The Lucifer Complex (1978) 91 Min.
The Mad Monster (1942) 76 Min.
Man In The Attic (1953) 82 Min.
Maniac (1934) 51 Min.
The Manster (1959) 72 Min.
Mesa Of Lost Women (1953) 69 Min.
Metamorphosis (1990) 90 Min.
Metropolis (1927) 119 Min.
The Monster Maker (1944) 64 Min.
Nightmare Castle (1965) 96 Min.

Panic (1982) 90 Min.
The Phantom Creeps (1939) 78 Min.
The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues (1955) 81 Min.
The Revenge Of Doctor X (1970) 94 Min.
Shadow Of Chinatown (1936) 65 Min.
Son Of Ingagi (1940) 61 Min.
Teenage Zombies (1960) 73 Min.
Torture Ship (1939) 57 Min.
The Wasp Woman (1959) 73 Min.

The ones I know I’ve seen are in bold; there are 18. I’ve probably seen several more and just don’t connect them with the titles. Doesn’t matter; I am going to watch them all. In order. And I am going to review each and every one. You’re welcome.

In fact, I have already begun. I have seen the first 4! (They are not in alphabetical order, as in the list above.) Let us begin.

#1 – Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920)

The only thing that got me through this, aside from my determination not to fail right out of the starting gate, was the fact that it’s 100 years old. I mean, that in itself makes it kind of interesting. Kind of. It’s pretty dreary. Ludicrous make-up, lukewarm melodrama, preposterous overacting, glacial pacing… it has everything that makes most silent films really hard to pay attention to. It feels like 99% of the movie is people standing around in a parlor, moving their mouths, except you can’t hear what they’re saying. And believe me, you have never seen less convincing evil behavior. Mr. Hyde’s riotous offenses consist almost entirely of waving his claws like he’s waiting for his nails to dry, and nuzzling prostitute’s necks.

This murder was the best part of the movie by a mile.

The scenes with Millicent, Dr. Jekyll’s long-suffering, fair, maiden-in-waiting, are more boring than any church service you have ever sat through. The only scene that packs any punch is when Hyde kills Jekyll’s friend Carew, the libertine (who looks like a banker) who led Jekyll astray by taking him to see a dancer. He really lays into him with that cane. Carew is off-screen during the beating, of course. I think cinema at this time was so new that directors (Americans, at least) were afraid to portray any convincing violence or “immorality.” The whole thing feels like someone went back in time and filmed some (justly) forgotten 19th-century stage melodrama. I say this as someone who actually loves the novel.

I did come across one curious fact, though. Edgard Varèse, the great avant garde composer (who was a major influence on Frank Zappa) had an uncredited cameo as a policeman. Very odd.

#2 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (German, 1920)

Another silent film, but this one I had no trouble sitting through; it held my attention. I had seen it long ago but forgotten the plot. All I remembered was the expressionist set design, the strange tilt of everything.

It’s symbolic or allegorical… dreamlike. Madness is its theme, but who exactly is mad? Let’s just say Shutter Island was not an original script idea. (Not to knock Shutter Island, which I found surprisingly good.) Unlike in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, things actually happen. Scenes are short & to the point. And the theme of delusion resonates with me. I often have nightmares in which I come to realize that I have been living in a world of extreme mental distortion. There’s some interesting speculation online about what this film says about Germany after World War I. Probably valid, but it also functions as something more universal, some strange mirror of unconscious processes we all have.

#3 Metropolis (German. 1927, directed by Fritz Lang.)

Three silent films in a row. I’m not a cineaste; I like shlock. But this one is also quite watchable. It is visually stunning. As far as I can tell, it features the first mad scientist’s laboratory in all of film, and also one of the best. The visuals in this movie are legendary, and for good reason. They are so far beyond anything film had produced up to that point, they must have changed how people saw the medium of film. Here was something new, a whole new visual language with tremendous impact. It’s still striking, almost 100 years later. How can we hope to imagine what it must have been like for audiences at that time? It must have been completely mind-blowing. Whereas Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde feels like a 19th century play, like the movie camera was used to record something old and stiff and lifeless, this feels like the unconscious mind of the audience was thrown up on the screen, where people were shocked to see the dark dreams they had been trying not to face within themselves. The anxiety over modernity & mechanization, particularly the mechanization of war… the divide between the ultra-rich and the beaten-down, worn-out factory workers…

There’s nothing I can say about this that hasn’t already been said. It’s an important event in 20th century cultural history. But it’s not stuffy or boring.

#4 The Ape (1940)

Now we’re getting into familiar mad scientist B-movie territory; I’m pretty sure this one did not set the intelligentsia chattering. Boris Karloff is a (slightly?) mad scientist trying to pass himself off as a simple country doctor, not too convincingly. The townsfolk are suspicious. He’s trying to cure a young woman’s paralysis of the legs, but he needs to draw spinal fluid from people to produce his serum, which unfortunately kills the “donor.” Meanwhile there’s a fire at the circus and a killer ape gets loose… Can’t say more than that without spoiling it for you, but I will say it’s considerably less lurid than it sounds. The funny thing is, Boris Karloff was a real actor. Even this rather thin character, he breathes a lot of life into him. There are some pretty good supporting performances among the townies, but really, it’s Boris’ show all the way. He’s just really good. You actually believe it.

Nikolai & the Vampire

February 19, 2018

Well, it’s been a couple-three years now since I forswore the life of an English teacher abroad, living out of a suitcase. I now dwell in a hundred year-old house in Missouri, where I work in a pharmacy and record music. Enough time has passed and, more importantly, my colleagues from Kazakhstan have all moved on to other postings, leaving me free to relate some tales I hesitated to share while they were still in country.

To refresh a bit: towards the end of my year in Kazakhstan, I shared a once-grand flat with high ceilings and peeling wallpaper in the center of town with Jonathan, who just happened to be from Iowa, where I also lived for a few years before venturing abroad. We became (and remain) fast friends. (The whiplash-inducing culture shock of phase-shifting between the American Midwest and Central Asia is something one probably has to experience to understand. It makes a grand start to a friendship with someone one likes anyway.) Jon’s marriage unravelled over there and I got the shit kicked out of me in the street (another story for later) so we were both a bit shell-shocked. We drank a lot of vodka, played cards, and counted the days until we could hopefully escape with our lives.

apt window

The view from our livingroom window.

Our last night in Karaganda, J-Moines & I were rather nervous. Why? because the school paid us in cash—no records of any kind, rather sketchy—which we had converted into American dollars. Although we hadn’t squirreled away fortunes in first world terms, still, we were holding what most locals would consider an obscene windfall for standing around pointing at dry erase boards for 9 months.  I had around $4000 in twenties. It was technically possible to get money transferred out of the country electronically, but it’s also technically possible to terraform Mars. My trips to the bank had convinced me that it wasn’t worth it; endless sitting, waiting, being glowered at, being told it couldn’t be done without this or that official stamp which had to be got across town, being informed of arbitrary limits and opaque procedures… just carrying the cash to the bank on public transit was enough to give me the fantods. I gave up and hid the money around the flat.

And of course, the night before we left, I couldn’t recollect exactly where I’d hid it, because I’d moved it several times. There were a couple of hours of frantic searching. It was almost as bad as that time I put my David Bowie concert tickets inside a book and forgot which book. I’d take a slug of vodka, wrack my brain, tear up the closet, then slump into the sagging couch with my head in my hands and Try. To. Think.


Jonathan, looking just like we felt.

We stayed up most of the night, talking, too nervous to sleep. You see, the Vampire had fired Nikolai… who knew what he was capable of?

Let me back up. The Vampire was our nickname for our lead teacher, an irredeemably evil Slovenian woman with an alabaster complexion, who hated and feared the native English speaking teachers. She schemed furiously to get us fired, or at least sidelined, sidling up to the owner of the school and whispering slander into her ear at every opportunity. It was a black day when she became our supervisor. Fortunately, the woman who owned the school had the good business sense to realize that having native speakers on staff was essential to the viability of the concern, even if one didn’t want to have more than were absolutely needed, on account of the expense. As Jonathan observed, we were kind of display window candy. Our role was to attract customers; our actual knowledge of the language and teaching skills were irrelevant.

Nikolai was the school’s “driver.” And by driver, I mean local fixer, i.e., payer of bribes, etc. He spoke perhaps 5 words of English and was loathe to do any actual driving. His gold-toothed grin evoked an underworld charm. We knew that he procured our lodgings. You’d meet him in a hallway somewhere and he’d hand you a key, grin at you and then amble lazily away. Whatever else he did I have no idea, but he was apparently necessary, as he was on salary.

Now the Vampire, in the process of consolidating her power, felt threatened by Nikolai for some reason. She wanted her own cadre of hand-picked helpers and was keen to winnow away those whose tenure preceded her reign of terror. It took some months, but she finally got him axed on some pretext, which gave us shivers, because it seemed to indicate that her hand was strengthening.

What worried us on that last night was that we had to assume that Nikolai still had keys to our flats. He also knew how much we made, knew when we were leaving, and knew we got paid in cash.

Now, who knew if Nikolai was a criminal? Maybe he was a decent, honest fellow, cobbling together a living with his local contacts and street smarts. Or perhaps he was a wife-beating, alcoholic, compulsive gambler, with mobsters breathing down his neck. There was no way to know. We were like infants who couldn’t possibly understand what the adults were talking about in the other room. But it certainly seemed possible that he or some friends of his might well show up and pistol-whip us out of our clammy wads of cash.

This would have been particularly picaresque if it had happened before I could find my cash. I rather doubted they would believe me when I told them I didn’t know where it was. Lacking the English to say, “Do you take me for a fool?” I expect our gangster would have just hit me harder, leaned in closer (me being tied to a chair), breathed cigarette smoke and vodka fumes into my face and venomously hissed the single word, moooooneeeey.

Lest you think my addled brain was overheated, let me add in defense of my paranoia that our esteemed colleague Stokes had been robbed… and then found the investigating policeman wearing his watch. (He being a foreigner, it was returned with a grin.) And a young woman in our circle was slammed into by a drunk driver, who turned out to be a member of the moneyed elite. This charming son of privilege laughingly threw wads of money at the policeman… at the scene of the crime, in full view of a gathering crowd. The policeman then protected the drunk driver from the angry witnesses. Later, all the security cam video from area businesses was found to have mysteriously evaporated. The cab driver, in the hospital, asked our friend not to visit him anymore because he thought it wasn’t safe for her. She was not a foreigner and so was less insulated from the casual brutality of the place. The milieu did not exactly reek of the rule of law.

But the unthinkable (which I couldn’t stop thinking about) never came to pass. I finally found my money, I disremember where… under some boards or something.

We slept a few hours at last and then, aching, hollow-eyed, still drunk, climbed into rattling cabs. Jonathan took a different flight, laden as he was with two cats, and heading for a different destination in the US. (Each cat had their own little cat passport, which cost a fortune in questionable “surcharges.”) When I got to the airport, long beofre dawn,  it was silent, dark, and freezing. I boarded without having to declare my cash and I was even able to carry on my guitar. (I was prepared to give it away to someone in the terminal if necessary.)

Except for a snarling customs official in the Moscow airport, my encounters with authority in that part of the world were over with. I landed without incident in Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, where, tired but happy, standing in line, eager to see my friends and family again, chatting with other garrulous Americans, my passport was stolen.

Igor and Olga

Igor & Olga, getting ready to emigrate to America.

They let me in, anyway.


Explaining The Silence

September 27, 2014

Good heavens, I haven’t written in this journal for almost 10 months? Well, it’s not for lack of things to write about… it’s more that the things I would like to write are not necessarily appropriate to toss out into the public sphere. Let me explain.

Being an English-only speaking expat in a fairly remote Central Asian city, I lived in a very small and rather intense bubble, where the main action was in the relationships between a tight-knit group of eccentric people, thrown together by chance and the consequences of a common tendency toward adventurousness… one might even say recklessness. These little dramas absorbed most of my attention. Because I never really picked up any Russian and because I did not feel safe on the streets—in fact, I got mugged, which definitely colored my view of the place—my interactions with locals and the country in which I was living were much more limited than in Poland.


We played a lot of cards in Kazakhstan.

I need to go through my personal journals (which are quite copious) and see what I can drag into the light. Perhaps there is some way to give an idea of the texture of events without being a jerk. After all, I don’t know how I’d feel about one of my friends writing about my peccadilloes on the internet where everyone can see. Not that I would write anything intentionally unkind about my friends, it’s just that the things I find interesting are not usually what people share with strangers.

In the meantime, here’s a general update on what I’ve been doing since returning. I white-knuckled it, finished my contract, and flew back to the states in the beginning of June. I had gained 30 pounds from unrestrained alcohol consumption and comfort eating. I did manage to save a little money, enough to stay afloat a while while I planned my next move, if I was quite frugal. (What seems like a lot of money in Kazakhstan is chump change in the US.)

I first spent a month in Houston with my dear friends Jeromy & Vicki, people who are like family to me and make me feel safe and loved. I was very glad to be back in the states, much more than I ever expected I would be. I was a bit shell-shocked and needed some time to decompress. I worked a little on music, took care of their cats while they went to LA for two weeks, bought a cheap bicycle and rode around Houston… just generally recalibrated. I loved going to the HEB and seeing all the food I recognized.

After that, I took a road trip with my mom, from Texas all the way up to Rockland, Maine, to go sailing on the Victory Chimes, a three-masted sailing ship. We camped all the way there and back and had a great time. My mom is a great traveler. Here she is in her 70s and she’s still camping, sailing, cruising, just getting out there and covering all the territory she can. I come by my rambling honest.

Camping with mom.

Camping with mom.

Mom dropped me off in Fulton, Missouri, which is now home base. I’m inheriting (via mom) the little house my grandmother used to live in. I spent a month cleaning house, fixing the toilet & water heater, pulling weeds, unpacking my own scanty belongings, sending a few of Grandma’s things off to family who might like them, and finally, having a yard sale to dispose of the rest. It was a pretty epic task… if Grandma liked something, she didn’t have one, she had 5 or 10 of the same thing. Egg beaters, yardsticks, copies of The Bridges of Madison County, toilet scrubbers, sticks for stirring paint… you name it. Multiples of everything were randomly distributed all over the house, buried under heaps of dish rags, doilies, woven baskets, and crumbling wreaths. The whole process left me more determined than ever to minimize my own debris field. If I don’t need it and use it… it goes, baby.

The living room, the night before the Great Grandma Yard Sale.

The living room, the night before the Great Grandma Yard Sale.

After that, I drove down to Texas, where I’m currently house-sitting for mom while she travels with a friend. I’m just outside of Austin, where I lived for 20 years. I go into town and see friends or my sister once or twice a week, but mostly I’m taking it easy and enjoying all the nothing I have to do every day. I’m very focused on losing the weight I gained in Kazakhstan; I’ve lost 16 lbs. or so already. I count calories and exercise every day. I have about two more weeks until I head home to Missouri.

Below is an example of how spend my time… a little thing I did today, number two million in my series of recordings of the weird little riffs that pop up in my brain, usually in the morning, like algae covering the surface of a pond. I have to get one of those things they use to clean swimming pools and scrape the music/algae off the top of my consciousness or I won’t be able to think anything else that day.

I got a job. (My buddy Abdullah in Poland helped me out with the contact.) I’m teaching English over the phone and/or computer to people in France. It’s not the most lucrative gig I’ve ever had, but it’s very flexible; I can make my own hours and work as much or as little as I like. I can also do it anywhere I have an internet connection, which definitely suits my fidgety ways. I could even go to Poland for 180 days on a Schengen visa and teach from there if I wanted to. Or Budapest!

But that’s in the future. Right now I’m looking to settle down for a little while, save a little money, collect some musical instruments, reconstruct my recording studio… just generally engage in nesting behavior.

My little house

My little house.

And I will write about the second half of my time in Kazakhstan. A soon as I figure out how.

Karaganda Scrapbook

December 28, 2013



Well, I still find myself incapable of writing an orderly account of my time here. I will take the lazy way out and just annotate some photos.

DSC08185When I arrived in Kazakhstan, after two months of loafing away my money in Poland, I had about $10. Fortunately, my job gave me a care package of sorts. I had a bit to eat until I could get an advance. This is what I lived on that first weekend.

DSC08203My neighborhood. My building is on the left and my corner shop is on the right.

DSC08205I can read these signs on my street now. You would pronounce those something along the lines of  “Yerubayev” and “Yermyekov.” Unfortunately, they off by 90 degrees.

DSC08207You have to go into that blue and white building and go into some tunnels to cross the street here. 

DSC08427DSC08429I actually like the tunnels. There are little shops down there where you can buy your needfuls real cheap. 

DSC08227I didn’t understand this at first and couldn’t get back into my building except by hanging around until someone went in, then shadowing them. Eventually I learned I had a little electronic thing on my key fob.

DSC08231If you like weird old vehicles, Kazakhstan is an interesting place. This poor guy was crank starting this old bus.

DSC08236Hoisting a hefty tankard with me mate Stokey Pete.

DSC08243Most streets are coal black at night, but you could sit down and read a book outside ome of these government buildings. Not that I would recommend it… you don’t want anything to do with the security guys.

DSC08297I was very excited to get my packages from Poland, the ones I shipped myself from the post office in the rynek in Żory.

DSC08299My stuff! Clothes to wear!

DSC08308This is the can opener I found in my flat.

DSC08310My proud handiwork.

DSC08313Once again, Cowboy Beans to the rescue.

DSC08314Here’s something I know how to open.

DSC08337Bread here is cheap and tasty. This cost about 50 cents.

DSC08344The street where I live.

DSC08380One of my students took me and my friends out for an evening of drink and song. We had a great time. I heard lounge music sung phonetically by non-English speakers. I couldn’t believe how well they did it.

DSC08425A note on my door, telling me, as it turned out, that the gas would be off that day.

DSC08440There is some Soviet style architecture… statues of workers, imposing columns, etc.

DSC08442 DSC08451Now there’s a guy who knows where he’s going.

DSC08480The rynok (market) is a mile or two from my house. I love open air markets.

DSC08526 DSC08564Went with some friends to the museum of the Karlag, the old Soviet prison camp on which this place was founded. This is an effigy of an intake officer.

DSC08587My friends and fellow teachers, outside a pub near where we took Russian lessons.

DSC08594Music in the air… quarter notes, to be precise.

DSC08611View of the street from inside a marshrutka. You can rarely actually see anything outside… you generally have to know where you’re going and count stops.

DSC08613These old Ladas are everywhere. I love that they keep them running. I have ridden in one or two as taxis.

DSC08624One night this gloriously goth coffin appeared in the stairwell outside my flat. It was gone the next morning.

DSC08634The beginning of winter was not good for safe mobility. Until the snow cover got thick, what you had was ice, and lots of it. Some mornings, with the wind gusting, I could actually wind sail across patches of it.

DSC08638After my second paycheck, I bought a guitar at the local music shop. It’s made in China, but it’s not bad. Cost about $180.

DSC08675Outside a restaurant with friends.

So those are a few snapshots. The truth is most of my life here is just work. On weekends, I putter about my flat, cleaning up, decompressing, planning lessons.

Over the winter break, a fellow teacher and I are going to make the 18-hour train journey to Almaty. I will try to keep a real journal of that one. We should see some different stuff.

A UFO In Kazakhstan

December 7, 2013

Well, I have been worse than terrible about updating this blog. I’ve been in Kazakhstan over three months now and have written precisely nothing.

Where to start? One reason I haven’t written is that I’ve been very busy with work. This school uses a different set of teaching materials than my last school, an entirely different approach, and, though I think it’s very good for my development as a teacher, there is a great deal of preparation and planning required.

Kazakhstan is very different from Poland, of course. For one thing, people speak Russian here. Despite the similarity to Russian, my Polish is pretty much useless. I haven’t put much energy into learning Russian, just the things I need to direct a taxi driver or ask for something in a shop. I can sound out written words now and that often helps, as there are lots of words similar to English, Polish, and other languages I am more familiar with. But still, I can barely function. I have to point and mime a lot.

There’s no way I’m going to write a coherent entry about the last three months at the moment, so I think I’ll just post a few pictures. And soon I will try to organize my thoughts a bit.


Winter is here. That wind is ferocious. I’m okay so far… I’ve got my GRIZZLY FORCE coat and some good ski gloves. It was around 15-20 F when I left my flat this morning at 10:00.

A shopping mall. Shopping malls are the hub of public life in Karaganda, as far as I can tell. I guess there are also sporting events but I would hesitate before attending one. I’d be nervous in the crowd.

Looking out my kitchen window. I have no idea if the people across the way can see in my windows at night, because of these cheap sheer curtains I’ve got. I just assume they can.

A Typical Work-Week Morning…

Breakfast. Notice that it is utterly black outside my window.

I’ve come to like Turkish coffee. I actually like the grit.

I get to the bus stop around 8:15 and it begins to get light.

A marshrutka… that’s Russian for ‘death trap sardine can.’

Congo? Sure, yeah, I can hear the howler monkeys and feel the sweat dripping off me.

Today (Saturday)…

I got out before noon this morning, which is rare for me on a Saturday. Went to Ankara, the fast food joint, where a couple of my fellow teachers were cramming for the Russian lessons I no longer bother with. I chatted with them, read a bit, then went over to a couple of malls to look at music gear.

Somehow I have missed up until now that there is an abandoned amusement park, right by places I shop all the time.

I saw a UFO today.

Everywhere I go, (from Illinois to China), I find eerie graveyards of merriment.

They used to put the kids they didn’t like in CAR X.

“Eep! I’ve been shot!”

That is one sinister looking caterpillar. He looks like he’d sell you a railroad car full of Kalashnikovs, collect the money, then rat you out to the security services and take back the guns.

Something terrible happened here.

More soon.

This Year’s Paper Chase + Random Warsaw Photos

July 20, 2013

I heard some good news from my job; I’ve got my official papers of invitation to work in Kazakhstan.  I need to find a print shop where I can print them out.  I rode a rental bike out to the embassy yesterday, so I know where it is now.  Once I have my visa and my flight is booked, I will be at liberty to roam for the rest of the summer.

For now, I’m just walking and bicycling all over Warszawa.  I got on google maps just now and figured that yesterday I walked 8.6 km/5.3 miles and bicycled 15 km/9.3 miles.

In the meantime, here are some pictures of how I have been passing the time.

One of the many cool places I have discovered is the aptly named Bibliomania, a musty shop so crammed with books you can barely squeeze through the unsteady, disordered stacks. 

Best ever pulp fiction title? One whole zloty.

Another one zloty gem.  It’s a 1945 Armed Services Edition.  It’s about a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, drifting in a lifeboat with a nurse and a dangerous man after his Merchant Marine ship was sunk by a U-Boat. He has nothing to do but think back on his life and how everything went wrong.  Really solid hard-boiled writing.  I read 50 pages of it over a beer right after buying it..

Whoever’s bicycle this is, I have a crush on her.


One of dozens of lovely little parks all over Warsaw.


Green space in Warsaw.





The underside of the bridge feels like a cathedral. A cathedral with graffiti, but still.


Weirdly, underneath one of the bridges, there are shops and pubs. Like this one selling telescopes, microscopes, and other scopes.




I was quite excited to see the sign “torby” and to surmise correctly that it was a purse shop. I can’t remember the word for shopping bag, but I can remember “torba,” which is a lady’s bag.

Free Polish lesson: NA WYNOS = take out. NA MIESCJU = for here.

Miasto Gadajacych Głów, or City of Talking Heads, across from the main train station, is a very cool joint.  I wandered into it before I read about it online.  Last night I met some Polish guys there with fantastic English.  We drank and talked all night and then went someplace else.  I got a walking tour of downtown Warszawa from a local who told me about how it had changed, what kind of businesses used to be in the old buildings, stuff like that.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me.

A big, fat book on Polish history and big, fat, spicy falafel… what else could a guy ask for?

Sometimes a line in a book is so great you have to take a picture of it.  This is from An Incident at Krechetovka Station by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.


Poster art is alive and well in Warsaw. Lots of first rate graphics on the street.

I bet The Crucible kicks ass in Polish.



Amusing warning label on a rental bike.

My current neighborhood falafel hutch, around the corner from my hostel. 7 zl. and super delicious and filling.

So I’m thoroughly enjoying passing a leisurely summer in this fascinating city. I could easily live here.

Tree Eats Kite: Details Below

July 18, 2013

I’m passing the time in Warsaw, waiting to get my visa.  People say Warsaw isn’t pretty, but I disagree. I think that’s only true if you stay in your car. It’s great for walking or bicycling. There’s more green space here than in any other city of this size I have ever seen. I’ve been walking miles and miles every day.

I’ve also done a lot of bicycle riding.  They have a bicycle rental scheme here that is cheap and convenient.  You go to one of dozens of stations, punch your code into the terminal, and take a bike,  If you return it to any of the other stations in under an hour it only costs a zloty… 30 cents! I’ve ridden all over the city.

The other day I went down to the river to fly my kite.

On the way there. I saw a dead bee trapped in a spider web.

I got my kite up in the air… waaay up in the air.  I had tied together 6 or 7 lengths of kite string from various kites I have had over the years.
And then… SNAP… the string broke.  It wasn’t the knots I tied, it was that I had used really light string from cheap kites to fly a fairly sturdy, heavy kite.  It actually held while I flew it and only broke when I began reeling it in.

I watched it float and bob on the air gracefully. It drifted clear across the Wisła. I filmed it with my little camera, but the resolution was not high enough to capture the tiny speck disappearing into the trees in the distance.  I could barely see it.

When I was pretty sure I had mentally landmarked where it landed, I headed off down the road to the Siekierkowski bridge, a good kilometer away..

See my kite? (Picture taken from the bridge.)

Thar she blows. (Same picture, close up.)

I crossed the bridge and went under.  It’s a park down there and there are paths, but my kite was in an area accessible only by pushing through the high reeds by the river.


There’s an important clue to the whereabouts of my kite here.  See it?

Same picture, close up.  The string!06

So I tugged on it, without much hope.  I know from experience that when a kite is snagged in a tree, the best string in the world will break before your kite gets free.

Tug, tug, tug…

And of course it did snap.


It’s easily 50 feet off the ground.  The tree that it belongs to now is unclimbable, except by insects, squirrels, and small monkeys.  Since there aren’t any small monkeys in Poland and I don’t know how to train insects or squirrels, I suppose it shall remain there.  So long, kite.  You were a good kite.  Sorry I didn’t give you the string you deserved.

It’s okay; it was just a dime store kite.  I’m in good spirits.  My friend Robert Pierson will be in Warsaw soon.  It’ll be great to see an old friend.

Winter Travel Report, Part II: The Weathered Splendor Of Budapest

July 12, 2013

Well, it has been six months since I visited Budapest, but I'm at last getting around to writing it up. I have a few notes in my journal and perhaps the photos will shake a few memories loose from the dusty library shelves of my mind.

Vienna was clean-scrubbed and high-toned, a city made safe for plastic-wielding mall shoppers. Budapest is very different. From the moment we stepped off the train and into the into the railway station, it was clear that this is the old eastern Europe.

The Budapest railway station.

First view of the city.

It was a hike of several kilometers to our hostel, through canyon-like streets of coal-caked old buildings.  It was cold.  We walked quickly.  I didn't shoot many pictures.

When we got to the hostel, a Bacchanalian raiding company was forming, with party-people from all over the world—Japan, Brazil, Australia—all gearing up for a night out.  We got swept up in it.

I have no idea who this woman is.

This, mind you, was at the BEGINNING of the evening.

I was fascinated by the entrances to the subway system.  They just seem like portals to a dream world or something.

Magyar is very unusual among European languages. It is most closely related to some central Asian tongues.

The woman on the left is Sally; she staying at our hostel.  The guy is a Hungarian who attached himself to our party.  I ended up talking to him for quite a while.  He was clearly a well-educated young man and spoke several languages.  He told me a lot about the language and history of Hungary. I got drunk and forgot most of what he said, but I do have a strong impression of a rich and literate culture that is somewhat oblique to the flow of history, as seen by those of us in the bosom of the Great Powers.

More subterranean otherworldliness.

The entrance to our hostel must be left unmarked, because it is in a historic building.

Lord knows how long the mob from our hostel kept partying, or where they ended up.  I detached and, after talking to the interesting Hungarian man for quite a while, wandered off to find some falafel and shoot random pictures.  I'm a bit long in the tooth for that all-night whooping-and-hollering business.  I'd rather sit on a park bench in the dark and think my thoughts.   But it was a great night.  When I sacked out, I was good and beat.

The next morning we headed down to Heroes' Square, a huge plaza peopled with giant statues of warriors, soldiers, statesmen, and other historical Hungarian bad-asses. It was created at the end of the 19th century to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Magyar conquest of Hungary in 895.  That's right, I said Eight. Ninety. FIVE.

Andrássy Avenue was impressive enough in itself.  I was pretty much stunned, just walking along, staring dumbfoundedly at the ancient buildings, the people, the old trees… The place has gravitas.  It's not what you would call a cheerful boulevard, but it has an intense feeling of history, of life having been lived there in different ages, of throngs who have come and gone…

Hungarian weiner dog plaque for the win.

As always, I gnashed my teeth at the social conventions that make it impossible to just sit and take pictures of everyone who walks by.  No, I wouldn't like someone doing that to me, either, but still, I found the people so fascinating.  I need a spycam.

I would love to live in this little room, with a window facing onto Andrassy Avenue. I would get myself an old manual typewriter and a victrola. You would never hear from me again.

Heroes' Square.

I was taken with this guard booth outside an impressive estate on Andrassy.  Perhaps it was once an embassy, or the residence of someone powerful. Imagine some guy spending his whole life in there, day after day, year after year. He goes home at night to his plate of sausage and his wife and his daughter. No-one asks, “What did you do today, daddy?” And it was probably a damn good job to have, back in the day.

In the evening, I headed out alone to find some "ruin bars."  These are old manufacturing facilities, warehouses, etc., that have been converted into low-budget watering holes for young people and timeless bohos like me.

Tell me you don't imagine a zombie arm reaching out of this window to claw at your ankle as you pass by.

Can you tell this is a public drinking house?  It is.

Jan from Slovakia.

I found one. There weren't many people there. I sat down with my notebook and a beer and wrote for an hour or so.  Then I felt like playing the beat-up old piano that was sitting there.  A guy named Jan came along and played a bit, too.  We struck up a conversation and then played the piano together.  Some people stood around and listened.  I sang J'ai Faim, Toujours and then we played Minnie the Moocher.  People sang along.

The crowd thinned. I bought Jan a beer and we sat down to talk.  He was down on his luck.    He's traveled around the world, but he is homeless now. He has been a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, and a musician on cruise ships.  He tried to explain to me why it was that he was stranded in Budapest, when he was supposed to be on a ship to Brazil, where he had some kind of business venture waiting, something to do with natural healing… or something… but I never did quite understand his predicament.  It's not often that I talk to someone who makes me feel like I lead a conventional, settled life, but Jan made me feel like I’ve been playing it safe. Not that I’d want to be in his shoes. He’s casting about for options with a look of desperation. His interest in me may have begun to wane when he realized how poor I am.  After a while, we parted company.  I went to see if I could find another place.

I didn't find another bar I felt like going into, but I enjoyed just wandering around, looking at the rain slicked streets in the city of night.

A street lamp outside one of the grand old hotels.

View from the balcony of our hostel the next morning.

The next morning, the skies were fairly clear and it was far less chilly than I would expected of a Hungarian winter.  I got to explore the city in the sunlight for a change.  I didn't take my camera.   I think it's good not to snap pictures sometimes.

Later, we headed back to the train station, to buy our tickets to L'viv.  Better to do it a bit in advance, so as not to worry about it while we enjoyed our last day in the city.

They don't make it real easy to buy tickets.  The dead hand of the old Soviet bureaucracy still casts a shadow over the Hungarian railway services. You can feel it in the great weariness of the most minor official.

"Do you know how much a ticket to L'viv  is?" Rachel asked at the customer service office.

"I have no idea," said the agent, with a heavy sigh. "This is not the ticketing office."

THIS is the ticketing office. Note the bulletproof glass.

The ticket office is across the station.  It is an awkward, cramped, L-shape. The clerks are safely ensconced behind what appears to be thick, protective glass. There is tape on the floor, marking off the line beyond which the citizen—excuse me, the customer—must not transgress until called upon. People are standing about, but not in lines.

There are numbers flashing in red on an LED display on the wall. I see people clutching little squares of paper. I find a computer screen with six buttons. Next to each button is somethg in Magyar. I press the last one and receive a ticket with the word closed printed on it. I try a different button and get the number 110. The numbers that have been coming up on the wall are in the upper 300s, but our number pops right up, so we proceed forthwith to window number 3, where we are informed once again that the only service dispensed at this location is information, and that we should go back to the video terminal and press the third button in order to receive a number which will entitle the bearer to approach a window from which a ticket can be bought. Following these instructions, I receive ticket number 405. The LED screen is currently flashing 393.

While waiting for our number to come up, there occurs a scene. A professorial-looking gent in tweeds raises his voice to an alarming level, to such a degree that he incurs a large bubble of space around him, even in this crowded room. He is yelling and making broad gestures at the clerks, who are safe behind the glass. The manager, quite a young fellow, is called. Despite the safety barrier, he seems fearful and keeps his distance. The well-groomed and respectable gentleman is in no way placated and yells even more loudly. There is something calculated in the way he is escalating the situation. It is as though experience has taught him that nothing else will have any effect on these implacable functionaries.

Security appears, a bunch of beefy dudes in black shirts. Cold eyes of those accustomed to sizing up opponents. The man moderates his tone, thank god, but I can see that his explanations will be for naught; security does not exist to resolve procedural misunderstandings. What they do is address disruptive behavior, and they do this with the threat of violence.  There are occasions when even I am not stupid enough to snap photographs.

For a while, their faces remain flat while he explains his grievance, but then, failing to receive any redress, he begins to become excitable again.  The alpha railway dog escalates alongside him, with an air of calculation that gives me the chills.  He first matches, then overmatches his tone, stepping up nose-to-nose,  and edging him out the door, in a classic show of schoolyard dominance. I see the old fellow stomping off, cursing. He is rational enough to know that all he is going to get out of these guys is a stomping, but not cool-headed enough to resist baiting them as he disappears from view.  He’s lucky these guys are at work.  I doubt he’d get away with his parting shots out on the street.

And so the scene ends. Everyone is relieved. The tension evaporates.

And yet, one security guard remains. The turbulence is over, but. like a fever, the spirit of disobedience may spread. An Official Presence will be there to still the waters.  That would be a slightly reformed soccer hooligan, standing by the wall, cracking his knuckles, looking bored at the lack of action.

Later, I took a tram ride to the non-tourist areas of the city.  I love to just ride the trams and see the ordinary people going about their lives.

Around the corner from our hostel, I discovered an art-house cinema.  It looked like they showed mostly old Hungarian films.  Heaven!  I love old black and white European movies.

I saw the 18.00 movie.

This guy was one of a total of five people who went to the movie I saw.

The movie was entirely in Magyar, but I still got the gist of it. It was a backstage intrigue story. The male lead became obsessed with the female lead because she was stealing his thunder and he started coming undone psychologically and dressing in drag. In the end they turned out to be in cahoots to screw the money guys… not to mention the AMAZING communist propaganda shorts that opened the showing.

More night wanderings.

Threatening Hungarian honey bears.

Walking to the train station.

I don’t recall what I did after the movie… probably got a sandwich. As I recall, we were set to leave rather early the next morning for L’viv, Ukraine.

I loved Budapest.  I could happily live there if conditions were a little different, but I don't think the market for English teaching is good, and I'm quite sure I would never master Magyar.  There are also some worrying larger political trends in the country as a whole.  It's a troubled place.  But I will be back, I'm sure.  It captured my imagination.  I want to see more of it.