Do Not Piss Off The Dungeon Master. That’s the mantra. I saw it on a t-shirt as I was scrolling through Amazon looking at Dungeons & Dragons-themed gifts. The message of the shirt is clear: if you push too hard in a roleplaying game, something bad will happen to your character. It’s a form of punishment; a threat if you don’t abide by the DM’s (Dungeon Master’s) wishes. If you derail the story. If you kill an important NPC (non-player character).

There’s more than a hint of the adversarial in the statement, as though the DM and the players are somehow diametrically opposed. Brave heroes attempt to succeed against a world designed to destroy them. I stumbled across other t-shirts bearing similar slogans, and a theme arose: the storyteller working against the players is hard-baked into roleplaying culture.

This offends me for several reasons. You have pissed off the Dungeon Master.

First and foremost, roleplaying is a game of collaboration. If you want to play in a vacuum, where events happen that your players have no control over, you might as well download RPG Maker, create your story, and play it yourself. Alone.

You might as well masturbate in the dark for hours if that’s the value you see in your players.

An inexperienced Dungeon Master may build a story based on predestination: I had this really cool scene play out in my head and I want to describe it to my friends. This will often involve an overpowered, favoured NPC, because the DM knows that they can fully control what happens and the choices that character makes.

The problem is one of agency. When events unfold without the players’ involvement or intervention, it’s back to the masturbation thing. You had an idea in your head and you wanted it to happen this way. The story has to unfold this way. I want spectators to the glory of the story and world I’ve made.

But a player is the opposite of a spectator. They’re not on the stands; they’re in the ring. They are and should always be (with exceptions for things like exposition) the focus.

This seems patently obvious, right? Yes, we all know that D&D is about the players. Then why the popular t-shirts warning you not to piss off your DM? Every roleplayer laughs; we all get the joke. So what perpetuates this perception of the controlling, spiteful DM?

Here’s a classic example of what I’m talking about. In this real-life scenario, the DM seems more concerned with the story in their head than they are with the story that the players are trying to build for themselves by experiencing it. Any attempt to influence events is met with smackdown-levels of control.

But James, you may ask: how can I tell a great story if my characters are derailing things all the time with their wacky schemes and petty interests?

Roleplaying games are a compact between the players and their storyteller. It’s give and take; it’s a transaction of sorts. When we pay money to see a film, we expect to be entertained. If we weren’t, we perhaps lose faith in the director. Or producer. Eventually, if we see enough terrible movies, we may lose faith in filmmakers in general.

If your players aren’t following your plot, there are a few questions you need to ask:

  1. Am I telling a story the players care about? This should lead you back to the initial discussion you had with your players when they were creating their characters. If you didn’t have such a conversation, to assess each character’s motivations, desires, and general personality, it’s never too late to start. Not only does this allow the player to understand your world ahead of time by building their place in it, they will offer cues as to what they’re after (Sidenote – the new D&D 5th Edition DM’s Guide has a great section about the different types of roleplayers and how to cater to their interests). You should still get excited about the world you’re building, but you’re building it for the players, too. You know all the ins and outs. Your players get to live it out. In other words, their backstories and motivations should be a part of your metaplot.
  2. What are the players interested in? Your players will make unexpected choices, and you never know what will catch their attention. I’ve had players steal museum artifacts, shoot key NPCs, and generally force me to create whole groups of characters who eventually became important to the story. And I’m grateful for it – the players know their actions matter. You may have to learn to think on the fly (this is the challenging part for hardcore planners) and you may have to take ten minutes in the middle of a gaming session to re-think how something will play out. Here’s the best part, though – your game is a story, and one of the most satisfying aspects is a player’s thrill and surprise at an outcome. When you allow a story to go to unexpected places, those unexplored parts of your world you didn’t have time to colour in or sketch out fully, you get to be surprised and delighted too.
  3. Am I giving the players agency? This is perhaps the most important part of player satisfaction in an RPG. A player should always feel like their actions matter. Don’t feel like you need to “police” the group, to protect them from mistakes, or to protect a ‘plot point’ that you feel is important to the overall story. If a villain dies before they were ‘supposed to’, let it happen. If a player screws up, let them. Consequences to disastrous actions may follow, and your player will learn (or not). The world itself is punishing. That is why there are rules and challenges. Let the dice (I.E. fate) decide the outcome. You can be a ‘true neutral’ GM like Abed, or somewhere on the helpful/merciful scale when it comes to character death, but whether or not you are protecting your players, their actions should have consequences that you can use to advance a story.

Matt Mercer of Critical Role sums it up pretty succinctly.

Cut back to sassy t-shirts and coffee mugs. Your DM should not be “out to get” or “punish” you for choices that your character makes. If you feel that they are, you should probably show them the plethora of reddit and stackexchange posts from frustrated players detailing how their DM has failed them (and yes, I know that players can also fail spectacularly at being decent people, contributing to a collective story, or showing basic human decency – but their side of the compact is a topic for another time).

Everyone gets the joke: “Do Not Piss Off The Dungeon Master”. The subtext? The Dungeon Master is an adversary who is out to get the players. Let’s change the narrative. “Respect your Dungeon Master”. When they respect you, too, and the choices you make in the game, that’s where the real magic happens.

“Many years before any of you were born, the world was filled with humans.”

The bonfire crackles, and in its glow I survey the faces of the bright-eyed Kawitzen children, listening intently to Amelia’s story. Although the winter is mild on the west coast of North America’s 49th parallel, it still gets damp and chilly at night.

“They spread out from their home in Africa and covered the planet, until there was no place you could not find them, not even the frozen lands of the north and south poles.”

The ratio of kids to adults is off-kilter in the Kawitzen tribe, just like most places we visit. Echoes of The Doom are still felt here. Survivors looking to be fruitful and multiply still have to come to grips with the horrors of their offspring not always inheriting their immunity.

“But these children of the Goddess did not simply spread and multiply. For in their wake they brought with them what they called civilization. And what is civilization?”

As a bunch of chubby little hands shoot into the air I roll my eyes and look at Father. If I wanted something this heavy-handed I’d read Ayn Rand, my eyes say to him. He’s busy reading something by firelight and doesn’t notice me, but I’m sure he’d have a few choice things to say about The Doom if he wasn’t so intent on being polite to his new girlfriend.

“Civilization is when you think that some people should get more than other people,” a girl says. We’ve found the pedant in the group, folks. “Civilization uses the gifts of the Goddess without giving back to the planet. Civilization made the Goddess send the Doom so that the planet would stop dying.”

Why did I sit here to get an agenda-driven history lesson instead of going off with the other teenagers? I ask myself. You wanted to meet new people, Regan. Congrats. Eight brainwashed thumb-suckers and the Queen of the Hippies.

I remind myself that I’m trying to avoid Mason. I’m still shocked they let him back in the tribe despite his constant need to betray everything – up to and including his own dignity – but then again, the Kawitzen seem to have forgiveness down to Jesus-like proportions. Most post-Doom village cults are a danger to others; this one seems to be more of a danger to itself.

“That’s right Harmony,” Amelia says, bringing my focus back to the present. What’s going on? I ask myself. Oh, yeah. Back-patting for taking the blue pill. I accidentally laugh out loud at my secret Matrix joke that nobody would get.

“Is something funny, Regan?” Amelia asks. It’s creepy because she doesn’t sound offended.

“It’s nothing,” I mutter. “Please carry on.”

“No, please,” she insists. “You and your father are well-travelled. Do you have further insight into the fall of civilization?”

I sigh, looking to Father pleadingly for support but he’s still reading his book. A lifetime of knowing his habits tells me that he’s actually listening, but he’s not going to back me up on this one.

I sigh. “You were born well before The Doom, right Amelia?”

She smiles. “Guilty; I’m no spring chicken.”

“So you remember that The Doom was a human-made virus, right? Not some book of revelations or Gaia hypothesis plague?”

Amelia regards me calmly but there is something new in her eyes. That’s right, I think. This road scholar knows better than your spoon-fed, homespun religion, and you have to respect that, don’t you?

“According to the mainstream media at the time, yes. Sources proven to be less than credible.”

The kids’ faces turn from left to right and back again like they’re watching tennis.

“Um, and according to him,” I say, pointing at Father. “Your saviour-guy. And more than a few well-documented sources. And…”

Father slams his book shut so loudly that it is heard over the crackle of flames, over our argument. He stands and gives me the you-know-what-you-did stare, except I have no idea what I did.

“Can I talk to you for a moment, daughter of mine?”

I stare at him from across the flames. “Sure.” I grit my teeth. “Dad. Of mine.”

As we leave the area around the bonfire I catch Amelia’s eye. She’s got this look like: ‘how would you know about The Doom, Regan? You weren’t born yet’. I just want to punch her, but I don’t generally throw fists around when I’m a guest.

I have punched one of Father’s girlfriends before, though.

Father stops walking when we’re hidden deep in one of the rows of the Kawitzen’s winter garden.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he asks.

“Right now? Being admonished for inscrutable reasons, apparently.”

“You’re not going to change their minds, Regan.”

I fold my arms, staring up at the cloudy night sky so I don’t have to look at his stupid accusatory face.

“I cannot believe you’re not backing me up on this, Dad. I mean…goddess plagues? Civilization pared down to a concept that a five-year-old thinks it can understand? Hey, we’ve seen our fair share of cults, but…”

“But nothing,” he counters. “They’re peaceful. You wanted to trade with them and meet new people. Well, here we are. Everyone gets to decide how they rebuild the world. This is how the Kawitzen are doing it, and I’d say they’re not doing too bad of a job.”

“Doesn’t the truth matter?” I raise my voice with the hope that someone will eavesdrop and learn something. “Or are you too busy trying to impress your new girlfriend?”

“She’s not,” he says, laughing, “my girlfriend. Civilization was a monster, Regan. You might think you understand what it was, and perhaps you do better than most who remember it, but really it was a juggernaut of destruction. It was the selfish soul of humanity, the manifestation of our biological instincts dressed up in the trappings of fairness and progress. It was leading us toward ecological disaster. It was an arbitrary system of numbers that gave incredible power to a select few and essentially enslaved the rest. It was the pursuit of knowledge above all else which brought us to The Doom.”


“Don’t interrupt. Their goddess is a metaphor, yes, but these people are trying to teach their children not to make the same mistakes we did, so I’d say it’s a step in the right direction. Because the hard truth of the matter, Regan, is that if The Doom hadn’t come to the world, we would have destroyed it anyway, with nuclear warheads or the greenhouse effect or oceans full of garbage.”

“Okay,” I say. “Thanks for not being an asshole about it, Dad. So you’re saying The Doom was a good thing, now?”

He gets that quiet, contemplative face like he does sometimes when The Doom gets brought up. Like he’s remembering horrific things that, to this day, he won’t tell me about. Bodies piled in the streets and burning cities and wanton violence kind of stuff.

Then we hear the sound of a fire hall siren.

“It’s the League!” someone shouts in the distance. “Get to the towers!”

“Really starting to hate this League,” I mutter to Father as we race back to the RV for some firepower.

“Tell me about it,” he says.

The man in the woollen cap raises his rifle. Knowing Father, he’s got the pistol in his duster pocket pointed at the guy. Mason is on the floor, still pleading silently with his stupid, snotty face. I’ve got my shotgun in my hands, hidden just out of sight. It’s not so much a Mexican standoff as a two-on-one with an extra army outside for the outnumbered guy.

“Ok, what’s going on here?” Wool-cap demands.

“Just calm down, my friend,” Father says in his best negotiation voice. It’s the voice that always gets the best bartering price on goods. It’s the voice that talked Reverend Jones down from burning me at the stake. It’s the voice that…admittedly, didn’t work so well against the angry bikers in Sin City, but that’s a different story. I still can’t believe Father brought me along that time.

“I’m calm, I’m calm,” Woolly says. “Just wondering why you have a guy tied…oh, it’s Mason.” He lowers his rifle. “Thought some off-islanders’d be an easy mark, eh, kid?”

“Cale, they’re crazy, ya gotta help me,” Mason bleats. I watch with satisfaction as Cale rolls his eyes.

“Don’t listen to a word he says,” Cale advises. “He’s slippery as soap, can’t be trusted. Does dirty work for the League, besides.”

“Yeah, about that,” Father says, scratching the back of his neck as he lets go of the gun in his pocket, “I’d like to know more about the League. And your tribe.”

Cale nods, smiling broadly as he takes a gander about the RV. “Well I’d say you’ve got extra stuff to trade. Tell you what: why don’t you follow us back to the village? I can introduce you to our priestess, er, leader, and we can trade goods and information.”

“It’s a trap!” Mason shouts.

“Dad, can we gag him?” I ask. Guy changes tunes more than I do when I’m checking out a scavenged mix-CD.


We turn around, heading north, following Cale and his crew up the highway. A part of me hopes we’ll run into Mason’s ‘friends’ along the way, but the journey proves to be violence-free, with the exception of Mason straining his wrists to bleeding against his bonds and then whining about it.

Father still doesn’t let me gag him, even after I crank Nightwish to drown out his blubbering. No, make that boogering. I’m sure Father wants to see what else Jar-of-snot will reveal about the League, but I just can’t take it anymore. Epic Norwegian Metal is the only possible reprieve.

The caravan leads us into a literal village. It’s not one of those sad ragged-tents-and-goats outfits, either. It’s a cleaned-up pre-Doom suburbia with a great big farm in the middle which I’m betting was once a soccer field. Mason starts freaking out again, screaming that they’re going to ‘tie him to the maypole and leave him for the crows’ and that if we get out of the RV we’re probably dead, too, but I just ignore him. I know an ambush when I see one.

The roadblock was a possible ambush. This place is kids running around with wooden swords and aluminum foil armour, playing some make-believe game about the good ol’ days when the scariest disease out there was the bubonic plague. This village is farmers in hand-sewn work-clothes tending to vegetable crops, standing up to wave at their returning scouts, or army or whatever they happen to be.

This place is, I’m betting Father will mutter any minute, ‘Hippie-ville’.

“Oh, it’s a hippie commune,” Father exclaims from the passenger seat, leaving out the ‘ville’. “They’d be more likely to try and put you on a vegan diet to suppress that aggression, Mason, rather than kill you.”

“Uh-huh,” he sniffles, “and their guns are just for show.”

I’m betting the guns are for protection, but I decide to wait and see what the locals say about Mason and the League. Appearances can be deceiving, especially when it comes to local leadership.

Cale and company park outside of what looks like an English-style pub. Minus our truck, we only take up five parking spots. Everybody clambers out and Father hands Mason over to the Kawitzen, despite his screaming protestations.

“Mason’s back!” one of the tin-foil knights exclaims, and suddenly they’ve surrounded him, chanting and taunting him with their weapons. Surprisingly, the children seem to calm him down. I hang back and watch as Father chats with Cale.

“We captured you again,” the tallest boy exclaims, prodding Mason with his sword-stick.

“The only thing you’ve ever caught was the permanent stink of farts,” Mason retorts. The children giggle. “Those strangers captured me,” he says, gesturing his head in my direction, “and you’d better keep away from them. They’re from the mainland and don’t believe in the Goddess. They’d probably sell you all into slavery if they got the chance.”

I raise an eyebrow as the children scream and scatter. The tall boy with the sword glares at me like he’s about to have a moment of bravery, until I wink at him. He and his courage flee the parking lot.

“Well you got one thing right,” I tell Liar-Pants Mason. “I don’t believe in your stupid goddess who definitely doesn’t exist and is just a figment of a small-village post-Doom imagination, probably meant to help explain…”

“Regan,” Father says. “Let’s go.” He gestures for me to follow him and Cale. Mason is led away by another member of the scouts, to some unknown fate. Based on the fact that he’s no longer stuck on ‘I’m gonna die’ like a warped vinyl record, I assume that he’s pretty well-known to the Kawitzen, and that they don’t generally execute people.

He seems like one of them, I think. I want to ask Cale about it, but he and Father are talking in hushed voices. We head into the vegetable field.

“Where are we going?” I ask them. “Or is that information as secret as the rest of your conversation?”

“We’re just talking shop, Regan,” Father explains. “Not everyone around here appears interested in the finer aspects of gun collection and maintenance.”

“No, they appear interested in vegetable collection and maintenance,” I reply. “Hey, hat-guy. Did you know that you’re named after a vegetable?”

“My name is with a ‘c’,” he says, deadpan. “And it’s called a toque.”

I blink. “You just made that word up.”

We reach what I can only describe as a palatial yurt in the middle of the field. I’d been hoping to see Wizard of Oz-style guards chanting Oh-ee-oh or maybe two sun-bronzed dudes fanning some lady on a lounge chair out front, but no such luck. Clearly the Kawitzen are comfortable breaking all the rules of post-apocalyptic tribal hierarchies.

“Amelia?” Cale calls into the dark recesses of the tent. “Are you in?”

The woman who emerges can only be described as ‘granola-chic’. Her wavy silver hair is almost a mantle. She’s wearing a wrap-style skirt and hemp tunic, very down-to-earth, but her fingers are covered in more gold and silver than I’ve seen outside of a cracked safe. She’s got this big banged-copper medallion around her neck with an ensconced amethyst, in the shape of a crescent moon. She glances at Cale for just a second before fixing her eyes on Father.

“By the Goddess,” she says, stepping forward and cupping Father’s face with both hands. “Our saviour has come.”

“I think she likes you Dad,” I point out.

My urge to punch Mason fades, along with my urge to do anything else to him: kiss, admonish for breaking my CDs, teach to be less shitty. Instead I just feel a mild mixture of pity, revulsion and curiosity. How could someone so initially attractive be such a wussy jerk? I decide that there is only one way to find out.

“So what made you decide to be such a wussy jerk?” I ask as I turn another corner on the cracked and debris-filled road. Mason shifts away from me, trying to hide his look of shame.

“Keep your eyes on the treeline,” Father tells me. “For more of those League bastards.”

“Roger,” I reply as Father clambers into the back with Mason’s rifle. He looks like he’s going to tweak it some more. “Hey. Masonjar. I’m talking to you.”

“I told you I was going to die and you don’t even care.”

“Wow, I asked you a question and you didn’t even answer. You are currently alive. So, following normal logic, you don’t know for certain how and when you are going to die. And why should I care? You tried to trick, ambush and kill both of us. It doesn’t exactly create a feeling of loyalty.”

Past the abandoned rural houses, the road returns to the highway. I take it south, back to the big city at the bottom end of the island. We pass dilapidated gas stations and rusted-out cars as we go.

“I wasn’t going to kill you,” Mason insists.

“Oh, so you were bluffing? You were going to let your friends do the dirty work? Wow, you’re just making yourself sound better and better, Jar-head.”

“You think I had a choice?” Mason’s face explodes into a fresh display of mucous, spittle and tears. Oh, very sexy, I think. “I try to leave, they’ll kill me. I try to warn anyone, they’ll kill me. I was going to try and tell you, but then you…”

“Let me stop you right there,” I interrupt him. “First of all: if you want somebody’s help, pointing a gun at them? Probably the worst way to ask for it. Sounds like your employers, uh…sounds like you need to change your…hmm…” I stumble over my words. “Hey, Dad? Help me out here. I’m not good with job-related idioms.”

“Sounds like you should take out employment insurance,” Father quips from the back.

“Ha!” I say. Mason isn’t laughing, however. He’s just leaking out every hole in his face some more. “…Dad, what do you mean by insurance?” Sometimes his pre-Doom terms go over my head. “Never mind,” I say, turning my attention back to Mason. “You always have a choice. Unless you want to talk determinism.” Mason looks at me like I’m speaking an alien language. “Determinism. Cause and effect. The belief that…” I suddenly remember that not everybody stockpiles books and data, and the literacy rate has dropped pretty sharply in some areas, post-Doom.

As I glance back at the road, the rest of the sentence dies in my throat.

“Dad?” I call out. “Code thirty-three. Point two.”

“Roadblock? Are they armed?”

Even at a hundred metres, I can clearly see the firearms they carry. A dozen women and men span the highway ahead, carrying automatic rifles. One of them appears to be brandishing grenades. Behind them is a row of vehicles, blocking the way south.

“Oh yeah.”

“Shit,” Father says. “Turn around.”

“Fuck, I’m gonna die,” Mason exclaims as I slam on the breaks and start spinning the wheel. I haven’t tipped Charlotte over yet, but it feels like I’m going to, every time I pull this manoeuvre.

“There’s no way your so called ‘buddies’ know you’ve semi-not-really-betrayed them already,” I say through gritted teeth as the brakes screech. “Are you telling me your League made a roadblock?”

“No,” Mason wails. “It’s the Kawitzen.” He can’t see through the window from where he’s tied up, but he sounds pretty certain.

“Oh,” I mutter. Charlotte careens on two tires, just for a moment, before plopping back down. Anything not lashed down clatters around on the floor of the RV. “They won’t shoot at us, will they?” I ask Mason.

“They will if they think you’re League,” Mason insists.

“Dad, we’re going to negotiate,” I call out.

“What? No we’re not. ”

“Yes we are.” I start turning Charlotte around again.

“No we’re not!” Mason shouts.

“Too late,” I say, flipping the loudspeaker switch before Father can stop me.

“PEOPLE OF THE KAWITZEN TRIBE,” I say, loving the way my voice booms. “WE COME TO YOU IN PEACE. WE ARE NOT FROM THE LEAGUE.” I hit the brakes and come to a stop some thirty metres away from the road block, hoping that the tribe won’t open fire.

Their shocked expressions are so great that I find myself wishing I’d brought my camera up to the cockpit. Dad is beside me suddenly, staring out the window at the assembled row of armed people in their piecemeal clothing.

“I said no,” he mutters. I can tell by his expression that the admonishment is mostly an afterthought; Father is already calculating new plans in his head based on possible outcomes of my rash decision. Admittedly, it’s not the first time something like this has happened. I think he’s getting used to it.

A man with a woollen cap and salt-and-pepper beard approaches Charlotte while the other tribals keep their weapons at the ready. The guy with the grenades looks anxiously from the explosive in his hand to our vehicle, perhaps realizing that he’s a bit too close for his weapon to be a good idea. Dejected, he lowers his arm and his expression goes from zealous to impatiently wary.

The man reaches Charlotte and – I can hardly believe it – actually knocks on the door. I can’t help but laugh. Father doesn’t think it’s so funny. He signals for me to remain at the wheel and he goes to meet the man at the side door.

“Alright, buddy, no funny business!” I hear the man say through the door. I look at Mason.

“What does ‘buddy’ mean?”

“Like a friend.”

“But they don’t even know each other!”

I’ve missed a part of the conversation, but I hear the door of the RV open and the man step inside.

“Welcome to my home,” Father says. “We’ve got a…”

“Help!” Mason cries, leaning over from his tied-up spot by the chair. He gives the man with the cap his best pleading expression. “These people are going to kill me!”

“…guy?” I venture. The door has been left wide open, but our guest is nowhere to be seen. Thankfully, he didn’t steal any of my CDs. “What a jerk,” I mutter. “I told you we’d scare him off, dad.”

“Did he steal something?” Dad asks anxiously as he rapidly takes a visual stock of the RV’s contents.

“I don’t…” I am interrupted by gunshots. The telltale ping of ricochets and perforations of the RV’s stainless steel hull reaches my ears.

“Shit,” Father and I both say. Like a spooked spider he’s up the ladder, scanning the area with the periscope. I resume my position against the wall with my shotgun. Father flashes me a series of signals: Two men. Armed. 50 metres east.

Mister Disappearing Act returns, vaulting himself into the RV and slamming the door. “It’s the League!” he wails.

“What are you doing?” I scream. “You’re screwing up the contingency plan!”

“The what? Quick, give me my rifle back, they’re coming!”

Auugh,” I moan.

“Regan!” Father shouts. “Drive.

“Toward them, or…?” I ask as I rush up to the cockpit.

“Nobody puts holes in Charlotte,” he says. I chuckle as I start up the vehicle. Dad is back up the ladder, getting ready to unleash precision justice on the League jerks or whoever they are.

I see them down the road, two men with assault rifles. They make for the ditches when Charlotte begins picking up speed, and I thank pre-Doom engineering for bullet-proof glass.

“Sorry boys,” I say. “When you shoot first without asking questions…we shoot back.”

I feel a tug at my belt holster and I tense up. In my right ear I can hear the telltale click of the safety and the mechanical grind of the hammer pulling back.

“You sly asshole,” I say. My knuckles are white on the wheel.

“Those are my friends your dad is about to shoot at,” he says.

“They shot first,” I say, cursing myself for having more wit than sense. Charlotte continues rolling toward the shooters, who have begun firing at us from their entrenched position. “Plus it looks like they’re trying to hit you, too.”

“They know what they’re doing. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll drive exactly where I tell you to drive.”

I can hear my heart thumping in my chest. If Father is aware that something is amiss, he has made no sign. However I haven’t heard any shots from the hatch yet.

“You might put a hole in my head,” I say. “It’s a chance you could take. But seeing as how my hands are on the wheel, when I go, this RV is going to careen out of control and you’ll fly around like a pinball.”

“What’s a…?”

“Plus there’s still this scattergun in my lap. I hear people’s nerves twitch quite a bit when they get their brains blown out.”

“Plus,” I hear Father say behind me, “If you do anything other than put that gun down, you’re dead anyway.”

My sigh of relief and the hum of the engine are the only sounds for a moment. I don’t know how it’s possible to feel shaky when my hands are so tight on the steering wheel. I can see him lower the gun out of the corner of my eye, and I’m expecting to hear Father’s rifle next.

The guy gets the butt of the rifle in the back of the head instead. His face strikes the glass and he falls backward, howling. There is a bloody spot where his nose smashed against the windshield. Then Father lays into him, fists swinging.

“You fucking bastard!” he shouts, his voice at a fever-pitch.

“Dad!” I shout. The road ends in a cul-de-sac, and the other two assailants are still behind us.

“What?” He looks up, fists bloody. Our prisoner is still alive, sobbing again, blood and tears and snot all mixed up on his face.

“We still have two guys with guns out there,” I remind him.

“Right.” The utility cable is out of his pocket in a flash. He ties knots around our prisoner’s wrists, then loops the wire through the passenger seat’s frame, pulling it tight. Meanwhile, I start turning Charlotte around, scanning the road we’d just come down for signs of the other two men. All I can see is the cloud of dust and debris we’ve stirred up.

“What’s the plan, Dad?”

“We go.”

Umm…the truck?

“I’m not sticking around for a pointless gunfight, kiddo. We can get a new one in the city.”

“What about Mr. Backstabber over here?”

Father spares a glance at him. He’s breathing through his mouth because his nose is smashed in, staring at us like we’re horrific monsters of some kind.

Lay off it, I think. It’s not like we’d leave you for the wild dogs.

“He stays with us until I get all the information I want out of him.”

I hit the gas. The men are lying in wait in the ditches up ahead. They take another few pot-shots at the RV, to little effect. One of them heroically attempts to run alongside us and make a leaping grab for the door handle, but his attempt fails. I don’t hear the crunch and scream when his leg goes under the back tire, but I imagine it in my head and grin.

“Nice people, the Kawitzen Tribe,” Father remarks as we reach the intersection and turn the corner.

“I’m not with them,” the guy manages to mumble between the bloody froth and spittle in his mouth.

“Who are you with, then?” Father asks. “The League?”

Our young captive stares at the floor, as though he thinks we’re going to torture him or something.

“Hey what’s your name, guy?” I ask.

“Mason,” he says. I’m surprised he actually told me.

“You’re named after the jars? Or like…someone who builds walls?”

Mason doesn’t answer. He’s too busy blubbering again. For a moment, I almost forget that he’s a back-stabbing, CD-crushing gun-thieving liar.

“Cheer up, you’re not going to die,” I tell him.

“Yes I am,” he insists.

Father and I have thirty-seven rehearsed contingency plans, everything ranging from wild dog attacks to flash floods to the (extremely) unlikely event that some psycho somewhere found out how to launch and detonate a nuclear missile. Noise outside the RV is something we’ve had to deal with before; nine times out of ten it’s animals sniffing around, but once in a while it’s a human, and they’re unpredictable at the best of times.

Our movements are fluid and practiced as we get into position. Father glides silently up the top-hatch ladder, holding his rifle by the stock. I get the shotgun from under the bed and press myself flat against the wall next to the door.

Father’s custom ‘periscope’ allows him to monitor the outside from just below the hatch. His cameras feed into a screen he has jury-rigged to the ladder.

One man, he signals. Armed. Wait.

Father opens the hatch painstakingly slowly. He greases it regularly but it still groans once in a while. Thankfully, it does not this time. He lifts himself out of the hatch, preparing to get the jump on the man and force him to throw down his weapon.

Except the latch in front of me turns and suddenly the door is swinging outward. I make a clicking sound, slightly masked by the creaking door, but Father doesn’t seem to hear it. I freeze in place, gripping my gun tightly and holding my breath.

A boot enters first: black, worn, work-boot style, caked with mud and dirt. The man that follows is younger than I expect, probably no older than twenty. His muss of sandy-blonde hair is mostly hidden under a dark toque and his cheeks and chin have a dusting of pale stubble. He’s startlingly good-looking, in fact, and as I try to remain invisible against the wall I find myself hoping we don’t have to kill him. I’m betting his Winchester is loaded.

“The fuck is all this?” he whispers as he gazes around at our abode. His accent is funny and I have to stifle a giggle.

Focus, Regan¸ I think. Check his gear.

He’s surprisingly bundled up, given the mild weather. I see no signs of Kevlar or other armour, but he does have a backpack and a large hunting knife at his belt.

He walks right by me, straight for the CDs I left on my bed.

“Hey!” I blurt out. Shit. As he wheels around I panic, dropping to the floor and kicking his legs out from under him. He falls softly upon the mattress, but I cringe as I hear an unwelcomed crunch of plastic from beneath him. He’s startled, either by the sound or from me tripping him, and his gun goes off.

Whoops, I think. I check my vitals. No holes. It looks like he poked a hole in the ceiling.

Dad?” I shout as I kick the rifle out of the man’s hands. “Don’t fucking move!” I bark, aiming my shotgun barrel at his midsection. “And get off my CDs!”

“Which one?” he asks urgently. “Don’t move or get off your CDs?”

“Ugh, just get on the floor and put your hands behind your head.”

“Oh fuck, don’t kill me,” he pleads as he follows my instructions. He begins to sob and I suddenly find him less attractive.

“Regan?” Father comes down the ladder to discover that I already have the situation in hand. “Are you ok?”

“I’ve got this, dad.”

“Where’s his gun?”

“Over there,” the guy points to the shelves.

“Don’t you move a muscle,” Father tells him as he picks up the Winchester. “That hole you put in my roof was inches away from being a hole in my dick.” He inspects the weapon. “Except that you need to take better care of your weapons, kid. What kind of amateur scavenger bullshit is this?”

“I’m not a scavenger,” he insists. I lower my shotgun and he relaxes a little, bringing an arm down to wipe tears from his eyes. “I’m a hunter.”

“You’re not likely to find a lot of deer in an RV,” Father quips.

“Sorry. I heard strange sounds. Thought I should investigate.”

“Say ‘sorry’ again,” I tell him.

“I really am sorry, I didn’t know that…”

I giggle. Father shoots me a warning glare.

“What?” the guy asks.

“You say ‘sorry’ weird…I thought it was funny.”

“Any more of you around here?” Father asks. He’s lowered his guard but I can tell he’s still got an eye trained on our captive. He walks over to the crates and grabs his cleaning supplies.

The guy fixes Father with a wary stare. “Where are you from?”

“Nowhere close to here.” Father checks the rifle chamber to ensure it is empty, then begins cleaning the weapon.

“So you’re…not with the League?”

“What’s the League?” Father doesn’t look up from his work.

The man glances at me, looking for a reaction, perhaps, but I shrug.

“You really don’t know about the League?” he decides to sit up. I have my gun pointed to the floor but I refuse to let my guard down completely. He still has the knife.

“Is it a group I should be worried about?”

“Yes. We’ve been fighting them for years.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” I ask.

“The Kawitzen Tribe.”

Father and I glance at each other. This time we both shrug.

“Does your tribe…trade?” I venture.

“Of course we do.”

“Regan,” Father says, a tone of warning present in his voice.


“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

Father glances at the man on the floor. “This is not the time to discuss such things.”

“Fine,” I say. I look at our guest. “Would you excuse us for a minute, please? Oh, and don’t touch anything if you want to live. Especially my CDs. And you probably shouldn’t sneak off if you want your rifle back.” I glare at Father and signal the words cockpit, talk, please.

Father is the master of the long-suffering sigh. He follows me to the cab of the RV.

“Tell me, dad, what’s the point of scavenging if we don’t trade with anyone?”

“Knowledge and survival. Besides, we do trade.”

“But never anywhere new.” I throw up my hands. “Never with anyone who could possibly benefit from our knowledge about survival.”

“I’m not getting involved in local warfare, Regan.”

“Nobody’s asking you to!”

He slumps into the driver’s seat and presses a finger and thumb to his temple. “There’s no need to yell.”

“Who cares? That guy probably already thinks we’re crazy.”

“Good. Then we can return to the mainland before we run into trouble here.”

“Ugh.” I stare out the window at the fallen-over power lines snaking across the road. “Have you ever considered the fact that I like meeting new people?”

Father is silent for a moment. “I know,” he says. “And I’m sorry you’re stuck on the road with me. When we get back to Novamerica you can…”

“Don’t be stupid,” I interrupt. “I don’t want to stay anywhere. I just…want you to put your trust in strangers once in a while.”

“You can’t trust anybody, Regan. Not even yourself.”

Very philosophical, dad. Maybe that’s true, but once in a while, maybe it’s enough to trust that someone else isn’t out to kill you.”

“Fine, Regan. We’ll go trade with his tribe.”

I beam at him, but the smile is short-lived. When I glance back to the rear of the RV, the stranger is nowhere to be found.


I think it was a garden once. The wooden frame, like everything in this yard, is overgrown with weeds and brambles. I only found it by stumbling over the lumber with my boot, very nearly falling face-first into a patch of briar thorns. My machete will cut through a lot of things, but I don’t have time to chop up old rose bushes when there’s a whole street of houses to go through. The house is my primary concern, along with the possibility of fruits and vegetables in the back yard.

I hack a path through the weeds and beechwood saplings to trace the border of what I hope is a small box garden. The house is to my right, two stories tall. There is a small glass enclosure attached; I think it might be a kind of greenhouse. It could be promising, but there’s also a good chance that it’s barren. The garden is more likely to yield hidden food.

The frame ends underneath a crabapple tree. Ordinarily such a find would be worth an hour of fruit picking, even if the fruit is tiny and tart, but although the Pacific winter is mild and damp, it’s winter all the same. Any fruit the tree has borne this year has already been picked or is rotten upon the ground, just like the odd pear-shaped fruit at the other end of the yard, brown and soft upon the branch. I don’t think it’s a pear tree though – the ones that I’ve seen, down south, are much bigger when they bear fruit of the same size.

I kneel down and begin sifting through damp weeds and lush grass, thankful for the thick gloves that protect me from rose thorns. Beneath the hardy forest plants, I am rewarded. There are deep green leaves of various shapes, and the soil is still soft despite years of neglect. This rocky island ground, I have discovered, is usually unyielding.

I shrug out of my backpack and grab my trowel from its place in a side compartment. Then I set to work digging, looking for edible roots and stalks. After a few minutes, I have achieved a bit of success. There are small potatoes and a healthy amount of kale. My mouth waters but I restrain myself. The kale will taste better cooked, perhaps with dried berries.

There is a sound in the brush behind me and I realize that I’ve kept my guard down. I wheel around on my haunches and un-sling my rifle in a practiced motion. As I pop the safety off, I stare down the barrel into the placid black eyes of a doe. She munches on leaves, unafraid, though her ears are perked and alert. I am metres away.

I lower the gun. Meat has been plentiful; it’s greens that I need. I don’t have the time to deal with an entire deer carcass, anyway. I let her eat and turn my attention back to the garden. I hear her wander off after a few minutes, and I am again alone in the overgrown yard.

I gather as much as the garden will offer. Not enough to fill my backpack, but enough for at

least a meal or two. The interior of the house promises more unless it has already been thoroughly scavenged, and though I will likely find no foodstuffs, there could be other interesting treasures within.

I check the sky. Grey, dull, threatening to rain as always. It’s impossible to tell the position of the sun, and I haven’t found the right parts to fix my watch yet. There are two more houses on the street to check. Still, there’s enough light for me to decide that I don’t need to hurry just yet.

The back entrance is a sliding door, glass long shattered. The old pieces of glass crunch and pop underfoot, squishing deeper into the moss that has crept well into the carpet of the abode. The glass was probably broken by the earthquake that rocked this area a few years back rather than by looters; many properties had been reduced to little more than ruins, and although some structures survived mainly intact, none were completely undamaged.

I keep my rifle at the ready and step through the threshold.

I quickly survey the walk-out basement and listen for movement. There haven’t been any squatters in the area yet, but I’m not about to let my guard down. There is a kitchen off to my left, cabinets left ajar and empty. Ahead is a living area, complete with computer desks, couch, television and bookshelves.

All useless, except for the bookshelves. I approach with discretion, my eyes and gun barrel fixed on the dark hallway. Nothing stirs. The house is still and silent as a crypt. It could very well be a tomb of sorts, though I have seen no remains yet.

The bookshelves have not been ransacked. It is rare for me to find a place where anything other than food, weapons and basic tools have been looted. I scan the shelves with a tenuous smirk, looking for anything that could pique my interest. It is mostly fiction. I’ve been collecting enough stories to last me quite a while, and I don’t have room on my own bookshelf. The only space I have available is for practical knowledge.

Astrophysics – interesting, but not useful. Computer programming – boring and worthless to me right now. History – well, I’ve had my fill of history for a while. I find no medical texts, no gardening books, nothing about radios or chemistry or guns. I turn away from the bookshelf and head down the hallway. There are three doors – one on each side of me, and one straight ahead. All three are ajar.

The first door is the one on my right. Sure enough, it’s a bedroom, and as expected, it’s occupied. Bedrooms are usually where I find bodies.

To call them corpses, however, is being generous. Usually there’s little remaining but bones. It’s impossible to tell how this one died, but most of the skeletons that I find look as though they were curled up at the end. It suggests either fear or comfort in those final moments. I suspect the former – The Doom was not kind to humanity. I was told that it was terrible in every way conceivable.

The room has little to offer me. The corpse left behind a closet full of clothing for an adult male. The size looks like a good fit, but there is little of practical use that I don’t already own. I check the dresser, delighted to find cargo pants in my waist size in the bottom drawer. I stuff them in my backpack.

The rest of the house has nothing that I need. When I emerge from the front door, the clouds are drizzling. I zip up my hunting jacket and shiver. There are two more houses on the street, but I’m cold and tired and hungry, and it’s wet. I decide to head back home.

It’s a long street, long and lonely in this forgotten part of the world that is slowly returning to the wild. Human habitation is being overtaken. Weeds are sprouting through the many cracks in the asphalt. The blackberry brambles to my right have become a fortress around a standing abode, and I am reminded of the old fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty. With a sense of gloom, I tell myself sternly that the only things sleeping in that house are bugs and bones.

Fields that horses once paced are filled with shoulder-high grasses, where cougars hide and hunt the wild chickens and deer and dogs. Many of the poles once holding power lines have long fallen over, and the wires stretch across the road, innocuous.

I lower my rifle for a moment and shake out some of the damp from my hair. It’s growing past my eyebrows again. I don’t like shaving my head in the winter, but I don’t like how it gets in the way when it’s long. I remind myself that it doesn’t really matter what it looks like, so scissors will work fine.

Home is at the end of the street, hidden behind overgrown hedges in a gravel driveway. As I approach, I make a low whistle, punctuated by a trill at the end.

I wait.

I hear a quork in reply – it sounds like a raven. I round the corner of the hedge. Home is right where I left it. The truck and RV appear to be just another part of the scenery. Abandoned vehicles are just as common as abandoned houses.

Atop the RV, a gaunt figure in a long brown duster sits and smokes a cigarette. His face is shrouded by long silver hair and a tangled mass of salt-and-pepper beard. Across his lap is a scoped rifle. He grins widely at me.

“Hello, daughter,” he says in his rough timbre. “Did you find anything interesting?”

Father perches like a sniper-scarecrow, scanning the street for signs of life or danger as I clamber into the RV, our mobile home and fortress. We’d been using a tank for a while, but that’s another story. Mainly it wasn’t very comfortable, nor did it have a lot of amenities. We sure didn’t get bothered by scavengers when we were rolling, though.

To an untrained eye, our home would seem a mess: shelves overflowing with books and manuals, sketchbooks, journals. These are our lifeblood, our connection to knowledge long forgotten and lost to most. First aid. Hydroponic farming. Engine repair. Chemistry, metallurgy, mycology, electronics. A hunter’s field guide. Farmer’s almanacs. Nautical maps. Digital data is kept separate (if at all): diskettes, CDs, USB data sticks. Most of the ones Father kept were taken from military or government buildings.

Milk crates, each labelled, are lashed to their cubbyholes with bungee cords like security cordons. These are overflowing but meticulously catalogued by Father: wires, nails, screws, tape, string, gauze, cloth, oil, ammo, batteries, paper, pencils. Guns are kept in the safe, tools next to it, in what Father refers to as the ‘cockpit’. Food is kept in the kitchenette, but most of the space is dominated by heat lamps and potted vegetables.

Our survival gear for long forays in the deep wilderness is kept in the truck bed, along with our supply of gasoline. My siphoning skills are such that I have finally forgotten the taste of gas on my tongue.

Next to our beds is the ‘media centre’, which is predominantly a stacked AV system with an amp, tape deck, CD player, record player, speakers and computer. Sometimes I use an auxiliary jack or dock for an old cell phone or MP3 player we find, but once I download what I want onto the hard drive I usually leave these behind. If we took everything we scavenged with us we’d have to have a whole caravan of campers.

Father claims that by pre-Doom standards we ‘bring everything but the kitchen sink’, an adage that I still don’t quite understand because we have a kitchen sink. Given how much there is to claim, how much is lying around, we travel bare bones.

Father climbs in from the roof hatch and sets his rifle down on his bed, the only unclaimed, uncluttered space other than the floor.

“You didn’t answer my question,” he accuses. His tone is lighthearted; this is our first winter spent in a mild climate since I was a little girl, and it has kept him in high spirits.

“If I found anything good?” I lay my backpack down on my own bed and upend its contents, each wrapped in plastic (Forever-Cloth, Father calls it): wild vegetables, cargo pants, a local trail guide.

“That’s it? No rare Rachmaninoff recordings, no floor safes? No sports cars we can take for a spin?

I shrug. “There was an empty gun case in one house. No signs of recent human tracks or habitation but based on what we’ve seen around here so far I bet there’s a local community somewhere. Supposedly this was good farmland at one point even though it’s a rocky island. Maybe

we should see if we can find them and do some trading.”

Father makes a sour face and gathers the vegetables, placing them in the fridge. “I don’t know…” he trails off. “You never know how the locals are going to react to strangers. Or what they believe…or behave like.”

This again, I think.

“Remember Freetown?” he asks.

“Of course I do.”

“Not so free, was it?”

“Ugh, dad.” I go to the bathroom to try on the cargo pants.

“I’m just saying that sometimes people can be more trouble than they’re worth.” I can hear him clearly through the door. Every scuff and squeak is audible inside the RV; nothing is secret. Don’t even get me started on Father’s snoring.

The pants are a little big around the waist, but that’s what belts are for. What matters is that the pants are durable, with lots of pockets.

“I really don’t relish the idea of running for my life firing a gun over my shoulder again,” he continues.

“That happened once. You can’t assume the worst of every group of people we might chance to encounter just because one town was under the thumb of a psychopath.”

“It’s kept me alive so far.”

I open the bathroom door and glare at him. He’s thumbing through the trail guide in a disinterested fashion.

“If you were so worried about your own safety you would have stayed in Novamerica.” I cross over to my bed and start skimming through my music albums.

“Nice bunch of people,” he muses, “great to trade with, but their ideas about the future of the world…”

I grab a CD and smirk, popping it into the player.

“Have you ever considered the notion that I like meeting new people, dad?”

“Well you’ll just have to deal with some loneliness,” he counters. “If we went around saying hello to every post-Doom settlement we found, we’d be dead seven times over already.”

“Sure.” I press play and Dragonforce starts blaring through the speakers. Father shoots me a baleful look; this is my latest tactic in shutting down conversations and it drives him completely crazy. If he gets to control where we go, I can at least be in charge of how many bullshit reasons I have to listen to.

“Would you shut that off, please?” he shouts. “I wasn’t done.”

“What?” I say, even though can hear him clearly. I accentuate my feigned deafness with some over-the-top air guitar. Father used to join in when I was younger, but around the time I discovered heavy metal he seemed to have unveiled a strong distaste for anything except classical music.

“I said: shut it off. Someone could hear.”

“There’s nobody around for miles, dad,” I insist as the music blares on.


When he calls me by my first name, I know he’s serious, but I’m too pissed off to want to listen. I crank it up.

He doesn’t shout again or say anything, but dashes over to the amp and shuts the whole system off, pressing a finger to his lips with his other hand.

We have an intricate series of hand signals, he and I, and the gestures he makes with his free hand cause my pulse quicken.

Noise. Outside.

Finally, Florence

Although my tour of Italy technically finished with Milan, I didn’t really spend any time downtown or doing any sightseeing (it was more a day of relaxation, wine, and eating), so Florence “capped” the trip.

There is something for everyone in Florence. Foodies, wine aficionados, history-lovers, party people, shoppers, hikers, and explorers can all find what they are looking for in Florence (and its environs, the Tuscany region, as per my most recent blog entry).

Sunday, when I arrived, was the tail-end of the gelato festival, but I decided instead to do some general exploring and spend 5 euros on gelato instead of 30. My hostel was right outside the landmark Duomo which dominates Florence’s skyline, but the square around the church was quite crowded. I found myself a restaurant, parked myself for the evening, and settled in for people-watching, atmosphere, and fiction writing.

View of the Duomo from the nearby Campanile.

View of the Duomo from the nearby Campanile.

The following day was the Tuscany Tour.

On day 3, my goal was to get my fill of museums in since I’d missed out on several throughout my trip (both the Slovak National Museum in Bratislava and the National Gallery in Prague). I started with the Galleria dell’Accademia, right down the street from my hostel (in the opposite direction from the duomo).

The Accademia is famous for housing Michaelangelo’s David, and although I was initially skeptical, David really was a breathtaking and flawless sculpture. I got in line early (before they opened) and managed to be admitted before the crowds truly pressed in.


The remainder of the Accademia gallery was dominated by pre-masters religious art, a roped-off room of sculptures and busts, and an interesting exhibit about a Medici duke who maintained a court of musicians. The musical exhibit included a beautiful collection of musical instruments from the period, including harpsichords, early pianos, and a Stradivarius violin.

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From the Accademia, I climbed the Campanile to get my bird’s-eye views of Florence. There were quite a few steps — I was glad I didn’t have my backpack on.


My reservation at the Uffizi gallery wasn’t until 1:45, so I had quite a bit of time to kill. I wandered down across the Ponte Vecchio to the Piazza di Michaelangelo, then stopped for lunch at a local spot and enjoyed beer and a cheese platter.

Outdoor statue exhibit near the Uffizi

Outdoor statue exhibit near the Uffizi


Ponte Vecchio

View of an old fortification from the piazza

View of an old fortification from the piazza

Then it was on to the Uffizi. What can I say about one of the world’s most famous art museums? Paintings by renaissance masters mingle with Roman sculptures and Greek tombs, often in the same room. The rooms are not arranged by time period, but rather in an artistic manner to give a sense of theme. It’s definitely worth the visit, as well as the reservation to skip the long line. Rather than describe the Uffizi room by room, I’ll include the highlights here:

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I spent the evening enjoying Chianti, Florentine steak, and the writing more of the rough beginnings of Crystal Empire (6 Chapters done!). It was a perfect way to complete my introduction to Europe.

My top recommendations for an amazing European vacation: Prague, Central Slovakia, Tuscany.

This concludes the travel blog until my next adventure (Germany 2017 with Aimee and friends). I now return to work, editing, and numerous other writing projects. Stay tuned for more Doom’s Daughter in the upcoming weeks, as well as news on the publication of Crystal Secrets!

The Tuscany Tour

Since I stayed longer in Florence, I’ll talk about the Tuscan countryside first.

I joined a tour with my coworker, Alycia, since we were both going to be in Florence at the same time. She had already booked the tickets with her husband and another couple, but said I was welcome to come along, and I’m glad that I did. Tuscany was easily one of the highlights of the trip.

All in all, we spent twelve hours on the tour including travel time by bus, but it was time incredibly well-spent. The itinerary included four stops: the castle-village of Monteriggioni, the rival city of the Florentines known as Siena, the amazingly well-preserved medieval town of San Gimignano, and a wine tasting at the Palagetto vineyard.

Our first stop, Monteriggioni, was an adorable little village set within the walls of a well-preserved castle fortification. Here I discovered authentic artisan shops, not the kitschy tourist stuff you find in the big cities, and some amazing views of the countryside (though every stop had that, to be honest — all the cities are nestled nicely in the hills of Tuscany). I splurged on a nice bottle of wine for Aimee, purchased from an 800-year-old cellar. This signature vintage has a limited bottling of 6000 per year. Hopefully she lets me have a glass!


Siena included a historical walking tour. The city is well-known for its annual horse race in the main square to celebrate the Madonna saving them from the plague in the 15th century. More impressive, however, was the church, which took over five hundred years to construct and was intended to be the most impressive cathedral in the entire world. The craftsmanship was exquisite, and I can easily say that it was the most awe-inspiring place of worship that I have seen yet on my tour. From the stained-glass windows to the paintings by renaissance masters to the engraved floors, everything was breathtaking.

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We stopped in Siena for a large and cheap lunch before taking the bus to San Gimignano, another fortress-city in the Tuscan hills. This town was packed with people, but we were treated to more incredible views and a free gelato from a famous local spot. There are lots of handmade crafts and if you deviate from the main street you can find some quiet places to take great photos. San Gimignano had some cool museums which I didn’t have time for, so I’ve bookmarked the town as a place to return to and delve into some local history.

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Our final stop was the wine tasting, and although I was only planning on buying one bottle, a full tasting convinced me to buy two. The Palagetto vineyard is known for is Vernaccia di San Gimignano grape, as well as its excellent (and ridiculously affordable) Chiantis.


From my brief taste of the region, I think you could spend a month in Tuscany and still want more. More wine, more mind-blowing food, more unique artisan shops, more medieval flavour, more panoramic views, more gelato. Venice is magical, Rome is inspirational, and the Cinque Terre is beautiful, but Tuscany felt like the heart of Italy to me.

Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.

If I had known about the Cinque Terre sooner (instead of booking a day last-minute), I would have opted to spend a lot more time there. However, I saw it as an opportunity to “scout” for myself and Aimee, and others potentially thinking of going to Italy (Mum and Dad, Aunt Sue, hint, hint).

The Cinque Terre are a series of five brightly-painted cliffside medieval towns carved into Italy’s coast just north of Pisa and La Spezia. Many of them still have fortifications from the days when they had to protect themselves from coastal raids. Now they are resort towns, full of tourists, restaurants, artisan shops and beaches (most of them rocky but the water is blessedly cool in the summer heat).

Expect to walk a lot in the Cinque Terre, and not just back and forth — I mean up and down, too. They are villages built into the coastal rocks, so it’s ramps, stairs and slopes wherever you go. It’s easy to justify getting two gelatos a day there. You’ll work it off (and you need them in the summer heat).

I didn’t get a chance to do the hikes between the villages due to time restrictions, but as I understand it, the views are amazing (if you can brave the extreme hikes between some of them — the ‘easier’ walks between the first three villages are under repair due to flooding a few years back). If you don’t feel like hiking, the regional trains run regularly and the time between towns is only a few minutes.

My experience with this little slice of Italian paradise was thus: coming from Rome, I transferred trains in La Spezia and stopped in Riomaggiore, the southeastermost (not a word, I know) for the evening, watching for pickpockets around the train station (a few sketchy people around, but just be alert, not staring at your phone, and you should be fine…from what I’ve been told they target zombie tourists).

Riomaggiore is a cute little hilly number built into the cliffs, and getting to my hostel was quite a climb, both on the street and within the hostel itself (buildings are tall and super thin). I dined on an amazing regional dish of stuffed anchovies (picture included) and people-watched, then got adopted by a local group of young, rowdy Italians who had just come back from the El Camino trail. They taught me bad Italian words until I waved farewell and went to bed.

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Vernazza, the fourth town, is said to be the most picturesque, so I took the train there in the morning to snap some photos and grab a piece of foccacia for breakfast. This beach was a bit nicer, but I could see across the water to Monterosso al Mare, the final town, which has a sandy beach and is the most popular swimming spot.

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All in all, if I’d had more time I would have stayed an extra day or two to get some hikes, swimming and history in, but I’m glad I got a chance to look and see the Cinque Terre, if only for a brief time. Expect a lot of tourists if you go, but there’s a reason it’s popular. It set my imagination ablaze for the Crystal series.

Rome was, in a word, intense.

Getting through the train station, Roma Termini, was eye-opening. North America doesn’t match Europe for train networks. I counted between 25 and 30 rails (~15 platforms) in Roma Termini, and the massive clusters of people let me know right away that I was in a busy city. Roma Termini was probably the size of a small airport.

It was a very short walk to the hostel from the train station, but it took a while to check in and get settled since I was staying at a very busy, party-atmosphere hostel (bit of a mistake, in hindsight).

With the afternoon free, I walked about half an hour to a place that my cousin, Father Stan Galvon (who did his seminary in Rome) recommended: the Basilica di San Clemente.

The walk was enlightening. teaching me a lot about both the beauty and the chaos that is Rome. Traffic, to locals, must certainly follow a logical pattern of some kind, but I couldn’t puzzle it out. Tourists are everywhere, but so are locals…it’s a big, busy, beautiful place. It isn’t hard to fathom why Rome is referred to as the ‘Eternal City’. Where else can you see gargantuan Roman ruins next to medieval fortifications, in the same piazza as a stolen Egyptian obelisk (older than the Colosseum), Baroque palaces and modern shops? Maybe a few places, but this is where you’ll find it concentrated. Rome gives you a continual sense of time travel (if you ignore the Vespas rushing by), and the Basilica di San Clemente encapsulated this feeling perfectly.

The walk to the basilica took me right next to the Colosseum and the ruins of the Roman forum, so I took the opportunity to snap some photos:

Romulus and Remus (and mum)

Romulus and Remus (and mum)

Inspiration for Corti Street

Inspiration for Corti Street

The forum ruins

The forum ruins


The Colosseum at dusk

The basilica is a 14th-century church restored in the 18th century, as beautiful and soothing as most cathedrals I’ve visited. Like most, it is still a place of worship. No photography of any kind was allowed within the Basilica (I’ll post pictures from online instead) due to the sensitivity of the ancient frescoes contained within, which the church is in the process of restoring. The frescoes and other precious artifacts were discovered underneath the basilica. Like Prague, the foundations of modern Rome are built upon the bones of its former self, and the discovery of the older 4th-century basilica directly underneath the modern church led to the excavations.

Paying the fee, I took the steps down to the underground, where Byzantine-style frescoes in various states of restoration were featured upon the ancient brick walls. It is known to be the largest collection of early medieval wall paintings in the entire city. The basilica also contains the tomb of St. Cyril, an important figure to Slavic Christians, and one fresco features, in writing, an early example of the Roman shift from Latin to the more vernacular Italian.

The underground basilica

The underground basilica

Early Christian fresco

Early Christian fresco

Underneath this important example of early Christian worship, however, survives something even older: a Mithraic temple from the 1st century. Converted from a nobleman’s home, the artifacts contained within this site of pagan worship (Mithraism was considered an early rival cult with Christianity) were truly ancient, including a shrine to Mithras and a bust of the god Sol. Other areas of excavation include a natural spring, a Mithraic school, and an area which may have possibly been the Roman mint. Feeling the 2000-year-old bricks of the walls, I felt as though I was truly among the ancient Romans, even if just for a moment.

A shrine to Mithras

A shrine to Mithras

I lunched at a cafe and met two girls from Lebanon, Sarah and Joelle. Sarah has been studying art in Rome for two years and speaks fluent Italian. Joelle was visiting and had the opportunity to see several events surrounding St. Rita of Cascia (important to Lebanese Christians) and the canonization of Mother Theresa (happening this Sunday — I saw nuns everywhere). The girls suggested I join them on their free walking tour (you still tip the tour guide, of course!) on the following day.

The walking tour gave me the opportunity to see innumerable Roman landmarks that I may have otherwise missed. In Rome, even the free tour guides are required to have a degree – ours was an archaeologist, I believe – so the information you’re getting is the good stuff. On the tour, I saw the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Egyptian obelisks, the Pantheon, and St. Peter’s Basilica (though I opted not to step inside the Vatican — dehydration and staying up too late were taking their toll).

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Don’t let the ‘free’ part fool you — the information was valuable.

Since she knew the best local places, Sarah took us to her favourite lunch spot, where I had some buffalo mozzarella that changed my life (or, at least, my opinion on what constitutes good and fresh as far as cheese is concerned).

Up next: Cinque Terre (for me it was only Duo Terre)

Ahh, Venice

Ahh, Venice

Ahh, Venice

My desire to see the legendary city of merchants and Marco Polo comes from my childhood. One of the ultimate expressions of humanity’s defiance of the natural world, the opulent lagoon city was brought to me by the romance and adventure of Indiana Jones and the music of Vivaldi (a regular occurrence in my household growing up).

There was a series produced a while back called Classical Kids, which depicted famous classical composers through the vignette of a story set to music. Usually the composer was not the narrator or central character of the story, but featured in some way. In Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery, the story centres around an orphaned girl who is sent to study at the Conservatorio dell’Ospedale della Pietà. The tale describes Venice beautifully but accessibly, and it spurred my young imagination. No wonder it was my first stop in Italy.


Apart from the style of watercraft, St. Mark’s Square still looks like this today

I tried to imagine Renaissance Venice as we approached in the Vaporetti (sea bus), picturing an open-air sailboat instead of a noisy vessel packed with tourists. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in my headphones enhanced the experience. The Vaporetti is not a direct approach; stops are made to the other local islands such as Murano and Lido.

Venice from the air

Venice from the air

The view from my hostel - a rare look at Venetian green space

The view from my hostel – a rare look at Venetian green space

Venice has a confusing network of canals navigated by overpriced Gondolieri and private speedboats, but it also has firm streets. These winding, often narrow corridors are a combination of tourist traps, small church squares, restaurants, and, off the beaten path, places that cater to locals. Cicchetti (Italian tapas), fish/fruit markets and specialty stores abound if you wander away from the main thoroughfares. One such cicchetti spot was my first stop after dropping off my backpack in the hostel, and I dined on some incredible local cuisine: tuna crocchetta, fresh octopus, zucchini parmiggiano, and sardines on polenta cakes.

Gondolieri with tourists in a smaller canal

Gondolieri with tourists in a smaller canal


A wider canal in the evening

A wider canal in the evening

Later, I discovered a local craft beer pub called Il Santo Bevitore, again mostly populated by locals. Venice doesn’t have a big craft beer scene; most of the brews came from Central Europe and Ireland, but it was an excellent spot to meet people. I talked the night away with Alessandro, a 52-year-old waterworks administrator, and learned quite a bit about future engineering plans for saving Venice from potential (inevitable) rising sea levels.

The following day I decided to take in some of the sights, despite the sea of tourists plodding mere feet above the actual sea. St. Mark’s square, the Grand Canal and Bridge of Sighs were breathtaking, but I was struck more by the beauty of working Venice: clothes drying on ancient railings above the narrow street, locals chit-chatting outside shops, and Venetian children playing tag, squealing with laughter.

St. Mark's, with the sun hiding behind the lion pillar

St. Mark’s, with the sun hiding behind the lion pillar


My journey for the day took me to the cemetery, which has its own island. Under French occupation, it was decreed that cemeteries within the city were unsanitary, and so the Isola di San Michele to the north became designated as the new one. Sadly, I forgot to look for Stravinsky’s grave.

A mausoleum mosaic in the cemetery

A mausoleum mosaic in the cemetery

A few hundred metres north of the cemetery is the island of Murano, which is known for its glass blowing. The masterpiece displays are a feast for the eyes, and it’s arguably the best (and cheapest) place in the world to get beautiful, hand-blown glass jewellery.

Murano, city of glass

Murano, city of glass

Pro tip: let your credit card company know before you leave on vacation that you’ll be abroad. I rectified the rookie mistake with a phone call, but you’d think a credit union employee would know better.

I treated myself to a nice dinner at a spot the hostel owner recommended (steps away from the hostel itself), and wasn’t disappointed: hand-made local gnocchi and a very affordable bottle of verdicchio. I was so inspired by the unique beauty of Venice that I began to write some content for the third book in my Shattered Crystal series.

Vivaldi’s Venice still lives in the singing gondolieri and opulent architecture, but it’s truly alive in the back streets, where famiglia and laughter reign.

Up next: Rome

Party Prague

When you travel with a loose itinerary, you learn to expect the unexpected. Prague was a wonderful example of this.

Spišské Podhradie to Prague’s Vaclav Havel airport was around seven hours by car. I dropped off the rental and took the metro system to downtown Prague: bus to subway to hostel.

Downtown Prague is a feast for the senses. For every historic building you can find in a smaller Czech town, Prague will have ten. Beautiful bridges criss-cross the river at five-minute walking intervals. Four historic medieval towns have melded into one gorgeous, historic-but-youthful city of relaxed tourism, vibrant night life, and east-meets-west (Europe) culture.

The view of the castle from the bridge

The view of the castle from the bridge


My hostel occupied most of a baroque-style downtown building. The largest yet that I’ve stayed at, Hostel Downtown is a perfect microcosm of Prague itself. Street-style art is painted on the walls, freedom of expression is encouraged on certain ‘graffiti’ areas, and the staff and hostel guests gather for breakfasts and dinners — sometimes thirty or more people at a time.

The river Vltava was an easy five-minute walk from my hostel, and I spent my first evening in the company of new friends, enjoying beer, conversation, and people-watching.

Prague is old enough to be a city-upon-a-city. As is the case with some medieval towns, buildings were “filled in” in order to raise the city’s level above the usual flood line of the river. The river walk, however, is at the old medieval town level, providing a sense of romance and seclusion.

The following morning, I opted to take the free walking tour offered by Mirek, one of the hostel staff. Mirek is also a local, so we were treated to more of a ‘secret people’s history’ of Prague. This included a visit to an underground restaurant (while the original town was buried to raise the flood line, many of the original buildings still exist) and details about the history of protestantism in the Czech Republic. Illuminati symbols are embedded within the architecture and statues of Prague, and Mirek pointed out masonic signatures on the stones of medieval buildings.

Illuminati symbol atop a monument

Illuminati symbol atop a monument

Masonic signature

Masonic signature

There is a heavy ‘punk’ contingent in Prague; young Praguers are often irreverent and outspoken, and many seem to have found their voice in the artistic statements of David Černý: his works include babies with barcodes for faces and a fountain featuring statues of two men peeing into a map of the Czech Republic.

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We also visited the Lennon Wall, made famous when a Czech artist painted John Lennon’s tombstone after his murder in 1980. Now, anyone is welcome to paint art or messages upon the wall. There are layers upon layers, and Mirek told us that the wall changes daily. Most written messages are about love and peace.

Myself, Mirek, and his doggies

Myself, Mirek, and his doggies

At the castle gates, a man and a woman from an independent newspaper were handing out leaflets apologizing for their president’s decision to heighten security around the presidential offices. According to Mirek, President Miloš Zeman is not well-liked amongst young people and is seen as a panderer to Russia and China. In what I have come to understand as a typical Czech response to an unpopular decision, a group of Praguers climbed the castle one night and replaced the Czech flag with a giant pair of Chinese flag underwear.

We did not enter the castle itself (you can spend an entire day there, from what I understand), but I did get some excellent shots of the cathedral’s exterior, including the artful gargoyle-drainspouts vomiting water when we were caught in an unexpected torrential downpour.

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My one regret with regards to Prague is that I didn’t correctly plan my trip around viewing Alfons Mucha’s Slav Epic. The cycle of paintings, his magnum opus, are a series of 20 mural-sized depictions of Slavic history. The national gallery, which houses the paintings, is closed on Mondays. I have seen it as a sign that I must return someday to the city of Prague.

Instead, I visited the small museum dedicated to Mucha. Within, I watched a short biography (in English) about him, and snapped a few pictures of the Art Nouveau visionary’s works (until I was told that photography was not allowed). Mucha was so important to Czech culture that they asked him to design everything: movie posters, advertisements, art galleries, furniture, the national bank notes, and even stained glass windows (the stained glass window picture is not mine but I wanted to include it, because it encapsulates the scope and beauty of his work — I also included a pic of part of the Slav epic, so you can empathize with my regret at not having gone to the National Gallery).

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Slovane_v_pravlasti_81x61m Mucha stained glass

The evening’s events led to my final unexpected delight in Prague. The music bar just down the street from the hostel is an open-mic style venue. One of the bands that evening, Sunrise Kingdom, had a romantic tale worthy of an indie film: three guys working on a cruise ship decide to start a band and play a whirlwind tour of Europe. Bluesy and full of heart, playing a blend of their own songs and contemporary hits such as Crazy, they brought the house down.

Party on, Prague. Party on.

Up next: Venice

From Terchová I travelled further east, toward the birthplaces of my grandparents: the villages of Zábiedovo and Vitanová. While I had been hoping to bump into a long-lost relative, I was rewarded with a different kind of existential experience: a glimpse into the beauty of rural Slovakian life.

A map of the region, in Vitanova

A map of the region, in Vitanová


A shrine outside Zábiedovo

A travel shrine outside Zábiedovo

Row houses in Zábiedovo

Row houses in Zábiedovo

This was not a tourist area in the least, and I received more than a few suspicious looks from locals as I snapped pictures. An attempt at conversation in Zábiedovo’s grocery store was challenging.

Life in these farming villages is idyllic: rows of brightly painted houses amongst the foothills of the Tatras Mountains. While the GDP of Slovakia is about $15k lower than Canada, I saw very little evidence of poverty in the smaller towns; a different story than when my great-grandparents left Slovakia in the 1930s. This can be partly explained by the fact that the cost of living is lower here than where I live — beer is cheaper than bottled water, for example.

My hotel for the night was booked fairly last-minute, but I was not disappointed in the least. For $60 CDN, I stayed at the beautiful spa hotel of Oravský Háj. While I did not partake in any of the spa services, it was a blessed retreat, complete with local folk musicians playing during dinner (which only cost me 20 euros, including dessert and brandy).

The following day I drove east to one of my big-ticket destinations of my journey: the medieval castle of Spišský hrad.

The castle


The hike up to the castle in the heat was intense (doubly so because I had forgotten my headphones in the car for the audio tour and had to go back down and up the hill) but it was well worth the hike and the 6 euro entry fee. Spišský hrad is an immense fortress at over 4 hectares in size, and was an important defensive position in the region since Roman times, when the local Celts occupied the area.


View of the middle and lower baileys from the tower


I could write about the castle’s history all day, but I’ll just give some highlights. The castle is very popular with both Slovakian tourists and others (I met people from Holland and Japan there) and even during busy times, the castle grounds are so large that it never feels crowded. You can see every part of the castle, except for a few areas which are under restoration (the castle’s gunpowder storage exploded in the 18th century and the entire fortress was consumed by fire, which is why the structure is now gutted).

Although the re-enactment shows were in Slovak, they were still quite entertaining, and the sword fights were well-choreographed.

The tower

The tower

The Romanesque palace

The Romanesque palace

A re-enactment in the upper fortress

A re-enactment in the upper fortress

I learned a great deal about the history of the castle and the region, especially from the stories included in the audio tour. My favourite was a tale about a 13th-century Tatar princess who was captured by the lord of Spiš and fell in love with him.

The view from the tower was the best I’ve had yet on my trip — you could see all the way to the High Tatras in the distance (though smaller than the Rocky Mountains, they are striking because they shoot up like a row of teeth — I wasn’t able to snap a good photo of them from the car, for driving reasons).

The view from the tower

The view from the tower

The museum within the upper castle was small but well-designed and informative, with exhibits about the history of the castle and region, local artifacts, and everyday medieval life. The highlight for me was learning about the system of natural caves beneath the castle, where the body of a third-century merchant was discovered. He was carrying bags of silver coins minted with the profiles of Roman emperors such as Hadrian.

A model of the castle (before the fire)

A model of the castle (before the fire)

Hostels are hard to come by in the smaller villages, but Penzion-style accommodations are common. I had a newly renovated private room with a shared kitchen, but the highlight of this hotel was the perfect, unobstructed view of the castle at night:

To the stars, Bowen...

To the stars, Bowen…

The final photo is blurry because I befriended locals who were staying at the hotel: Dominik and Lilly. Slovakian hospitality is a bottle of vodka passed around.

Tomorrow: Party Prague

Getaways and Legends

In spite of my original plan to visit downtown Bratislava, I was feeling rather run-down from getting a mere four hours of sleep in a hostel. I opted instead to get out of dodge, book a private room last-minute and head out early on my journey northward.

My first stop was Čachtický hrad, a ruined castle about an hour north of Bratislava.

The castle overlooking the town

The castle overlooking the town

Although the castle is just a shell now, it still attracts many locals and nearby tourists, and includes an informative exhibit about the history of the castle and its occupants. The guided tours were only offered in Slovak, however, so I made do with the Spanish translation on a sheet of paper.

Archer's window

Archer’s window

The Castle What's left

The most famous occupant of the castle was the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory, who, along with her husband Ferenc Nádasdy, owned a great deal of property in 16th-17th century Hungary. The castle was a wedding gift to Elizabeth from Ferenc. Elizabeth Báthory is perhaps best known as the most prolific female serial killer, having been accused of murdering hundreds of girls. Tales of her bathing in their blood became a part of local legend, and she is often now compared to Vlad the Impaler.

Although she was found guilty, due to the political implications of executing a powerful and influential noble, Elizabeth was placed under house arrest in Čachtický hrad, in sealed rooms with only slots through which food could be passed. It was not readily apparent from the ruin which rooms had been hers, but it wasn’t hard to imagine that, at night, her ghost could appear and wander amongst the stones.

After the castle, I ventured north to find my hotel. An originally unplanned turn of events led to an amazing discovery: the resort town of Terchová and the legend of Juraj Jánošík.

Downtown Terchová

Downtown Terchová

I booked my hotel room last-minute so I had no idea what to expect. After driving through a series of beautiful Slovakian towns, I came to this gem of a resort town. My hotel is a ski resort in winter, within walking distance of the slopes. For the first time on my trip, I felt absolutely elated.

Juraj Jánošík overlooking his birthplace of Terchová

Juraj Jánošík overlooking his birthplace of Terchová

I wandered down from my hotel for dinner to find a restaurant and ordered the special: deer ghoulash. It was as amazing as it sounds. Then I settled in for a long, much-overdue sleep.

The next day I explored the town and discovered the legend of the folk hero Juraj Jánošík at the local museum. The museum included a historic description of Juraj’s life (in English) and an artistic short film about his legend (in Slovak).


Juraj was born in Terchová and joined the anti-Habsburg rebels at the age of fifteen, in the late seventeenth century. After the insurgents lost, he joined the Habsburg army. However, during his posting as a prison guard, he met a prisoner named Tomáš Uhorčík and helped him escape. Together they formed a band of highwaymen.

Juraj and his highwaymen robbing a merchant

Juraj and his highwaymen robbing a merchant

When Tomáš retired to marry, Juraj became the captain of the band. He became something of a Slovakian Robin Hood, reportedly robbing from the rich to give to the poor. His band never killed their targets, either — they simply robbed them and let them leave.

Juraj was eventually captured and executed, reportedly jumping on a hook after performing a traditional dance in a William Wallace-esque expression of freedom. His tale passed into local legend, though this legend has a basis in verifiable history, since there are records of Juraj’s birth and death. He has been immortalized in poetry, song and film innumerable times, and my life is richer for having encountered his story.

Slovak folk instruments

Slovak folk instruments

The museum also included an exhibit detailing traditional life in the region. I would have paid several times the entry fee (2 euros!) for the enriching experience.

Tomorrow: my visit to the (paternal) ancestral homeland.

Although Brno’s downtown is picturesque and historic, it’s also bustling with ordinary (non-touristy) activity. I ordered an espresso from a café and people-watched urban professionals, young families, and university students going about their business. Not a lot of tourists.

My first destination was: you guessed it, another ossuary. One may accuse me of being morbid, but there are a couple of reasons for my visit. First and foremost, it was mere steps away from my hostel. While the Sv. Jakuba (St. James) ossuary was still semi-decorative, it was set up as something of a small museum, providing me with historical context so that I didn’t have to rely on Wikipedia. The ossuary is also located in the very heart of town. Since the entire burial site had been forgotten about until 2001, the history of its restoration (without disturbing the surrounding streets and buildings) was fascinating.

The steps on the other side of this monument lead down to the ossuary

The steps on the other side of this monument lead down to the ossuary

Within, I learned about not only the history of the church and graveyard, but also about Catholic burial traditions, in general. Fun fact: deaths from suicide or the unbaptised still had to be buried within the cemetery, but it was sacrosanct to pass those bodies through the gate, so they were thrown unceremoniously over the wall.

The ossuary exhibit was deliberately creepy. Dark catacombs summoned to mind a scene from an Indiana Jones film, accompanied by spooky but beautiful music by a Czech composer. It was cool and dank, and in more than one place groundwater was seeping through the mortar.

Mausoleum inscriptions line the hallway

Mausoleum inscriptions line the hallway

A child's coffin

A child’s coffin

Stacked bones

Artful sculptures provide focal points for the space

Artful sculptures provide focal points for the space

Having had not quite enough of bones, I made plans to see the bones of a castle on my way up to Trstená. My next stop in Brno, however, was the monastery where Gregor Mendel carried out his groundbreaking work on genetics.

It was about a half-hour walk to the abbey from the historic core, and the entrance was so tiny that I passed right by it (also confused by the restoration work going on) and walked around the entire grounds before finding my way in.

The abbey where Gregor Mendel lived and worked

The abbey where Gregor Mendel lived and worked

Most of the abbey is now filled with medical and professional offices, though there are still a few exterior plaques that talk about Mendel’s work. The entrance to the museum was through the ‘Mendel Cafe’ so I almost missed it.

A statue commemorating Mendel

A statue commemorating Mendel

What the museum lacked in size, it more than made up for in use of space. Glass exhibits containing Mendel’s tools, notes, and other relics filled the rooms, as well as some really high-tech screens displaying visually stunning videos about genetics. The couches were also made in super cute little X and Y shapes.

Mendel's telescope

Mendel’s telescope

I made friends with Lenča, one of the employees at the museum, who is studying genetics and gave me some great insight into Mendel. We also chatted about travelling and I promised to get her some recommendations for what to do in Washington, D.C. from my friend Charlotte. Knocked two goals off my list: made a Czech friend, and got the warm fuzzies from feeling like a part of a global community.

My next stop was Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. In order to cross the border, I not only had to pay a surcharge to the rental company, I also had to buy a 10-day pass at the border. It’s all done electronically by licence plate, however. No border guards, no searches, just a fee and the magic of the Eurozone.

Bratislava was only a two-hour drive from Brno. I arrived at the Hostel Possonium (you have to go up on the curb to park) and was greeted by a friendly and engaging receptionist who gave me some excellent recommendations for both Bratislava and the rest of Slovakia.

Then I was greeted by fellow travellers, kittens (sorry, no pictures! I was overwhelmed and tired by that point) and a shot of Borovička (made from juniper, like gin).

This was my first real hostel experience (the other two were nearly vacant), and I’d have to say that it isn’t for everyone. For the extrovert who wants to make connections, the seasoned traveller who doesn’t mind sharing a room with seven to nine other people, or the person who will sacrifice privacy to save 2/3 of their money, hostels are a great choice.

I met people from all over: Sao Paulo, Sheffield, Lyons, Barcelona, Canberra, New Zealand, Finland, and even a honeymooning couple from Edmonton. The highlight, however, was that there was a bar within the hostel. I stayed up until three with Ingmar, the bartender, discussing music, literature, and travel. Wish I had asked for his contact info. If you read this, Ingmar, leave a comment!

Tomorrow: Getaways and Legends

I began my day with a stroll back to my car through Plzen’s historic downtown, stopping at a bakery for an espresso and an open-faced sandwich. I asked one of the girls how to say ‘thank you’ in Czech. “Děkuji” (sounds like yah-koy-oh to my untrained ear).

The Czech countryside is beautiful, and my trip took me on a winding tour through two-lane (one each way) roads and tiny villages. I am so thankful for the experience — the long wait times through construction zones didn’t bother me in the slightest (I also have my girlfriend Aimee’s playlists to thank for that). Many towns are within walking distance from each other, and each one features a beautiful church, often along with another historical site such as a monastery or fortress.

My destination was the Sedlec Ossuary, but I wound up discovering quite a bit more of interest in the tiny (20k pop.) city of Kutná Hora than I expected, which brought me to Brno later than my original plan. I was happy to experience the diversion.

As the history goes, an abbot from the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec (walking distance to Kutná Hora) brought back soil from Golgotha to the abbey’s cemetery, and it rapidly became a desirable burial spot. The number of bones at the site became quite remarkable after the plagues of the 14th century, followed by the 15th century Hussite Wars (a Bohemian rebellion against the Catholic church). It is estimated that between 40 and 70 thousand people’s bones are contained within the ossuary. A half-blind monk was tasked with exhuming and stacking the bones. Legend claims he regained his sight once he had completed the work.

H.R. Giger would have loved this place

H.R. Giger would have loved this place

While it could be considered morbid, the inspiration for stacking the bones is actually theological: “all are equal in the sight of God”. Worship and faith, I am reminded, are often about the idea of transcending death. While the ossuary for me was more of a history lesson, I was still compelled to use the font and light a candle. My Catholic habits live on, it seems.

Whole lotta bones

Whole lotta bones


The House of Schwarzenburg coat of arms, made from the dead

The House of Schwarzenburg coat of arms, made from the dead

From the ossuary, I happened upon a Philip Morris factory, complete with an interesting (and free) museum exhibit.

Tobacco as it was used in the 1920s

Tobacco as it was used in the 1920s

After exiting the museum, a young down-on-his luck Czech man asked to use my phone. For the price of a beer, he offered to walk me to the historic downtown centre. I took him up on his offer and wound up discovering the wealth of visual and historical wonders that Kutná Hora had to offer. Two woundrous cathedrals and a Jesuit university later, my camera’s battery finally called it a day.

Downtown Kutná Hora had a different feel to it than Plzeň, mainly due to the fact that the original site of Plzeň is about 10km away from today’s Baroque-style “downtown Plzeň”. Kutná Hora featured winding, narrow, sloping cobblestone streets and a ridiculously skewed tourist-to-local ratio.

The view from the Church of St. Barbara

The view from the Church of St. Barbara

Downtown Kutna Hora

Downtown Kutna Hora

The cathedrals were breathtaking (I’m sure I will stop saying that after the 5th one I visit). The first one I entered was Kostel sv. Jakuba (Cathedral of St. Jacob), a by-donation lookie-lew which, while it was less outwardly impressive as the stately Gothic wonder that is the Chrám Sv. Barbory (Church of St. Barbara), still had a lot to offer:

Jesus and apostles carved in wood

Jesus and apostles carved in wood

2016_0823_02404100 2016_0823_02400200 2016_0822_00401700

The Church of St. Barbara, however, was even more of a sight to behold. Built on money that came from Kutná Hora’s lucrative silver mine, it was definitely worth the price of entry and my guide Matěj’s beer.

The church from afar, with the Jesuit college on the right

The church from afar, with the Jesuit college on the right


Czech lands in winter

Czech lands in winter


A middle-eastern themed mural

A middle-eastern themed mural

Meals today were both “traditional” fare – a Bohemian medley of beef, sausage, pickled cabbage and dumplings, and a Moravian dish of braised beef in a cranberry gravy with soft bread on the side. Pilsner on the side.

Tomorrow: Brno and the groundbreaking work of Gregor Mendel.



I landed in Prague at about 7:00 A.M local time and got my things together for the drive to Plzen. My rental is a Skoda; they’re manufactured locally. It’s a zippy little compact. Fun fact: European models have an auto-shutoff feature if you idle for too long. That was a bit of a shock the first time it happened to me while waiting at a stoplight.

My companion for the week

My companion for the week

While I was told that driving in Italy would be a harrowing experience best avoided, I can see how driving in the Czech Republic could be viewed the same way. Although the posted limit is 100 kph on the highway, the generally accepted standard is around 130. Many will push this to around 150, tailgating ever so slightly if you’re going too slow in the fast lane (it’s illegal to pass on the right). Still, drivers here are generally very safe, using their signal lights and for the most part reminding me how bad drivers in Vancouver can be.

The Czech countryside is downright picturesque (no copilot = no photos of this, sorry). Rolling hills, forests and farmland are punctuated by red-roofed towns that border the local rivers. In towns, clusters of Soviet-era concrete housing surround the original Baroque-style villages. Gothic and medieval styles survive in many of the cathedrals and castles.

I would describe Plzen’s old town as ‘cute’. It’s little, with Baroque row-style buildings and cobblestone streets. Its crown jewel is St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral, which dominates the space at the centre of a massive town square.


St. Bartholomew Exterior

The interior of St. Bartholomew’s is predictably Gothic: sombre, with beautiful altarpieces and stained-glass windows. Most of the interior was not open to the public but I witnessed many worshippers coming in to make the sign of the cross at the fonts, and pray to Mary at one of the lobby’s side-altars (not sure what the technical term is there — the internet suggests narthex but that sounds too technical).

Bart interior1

Bart Interior2

The best part about visiting St. Bartholomew’s, however, is paying the 50 KR. (approx. $2.5 CDN) to ascend the (very steep) tower steps all the way to the top. The view of the city and surrounding countryside was excellent:


The Jewish Synagogue, third-largest in the world

The Jewish Synagogue, third-largest in the world

From St. Bartholomew’s I crossed the river to find the Pilsner-Urquell brewery. The gate to the brewery, constructed for its 50th anniversary, greets you to the spacious brewery grounds:

Brewery Gate

The brewery tour was excellent and I would highly recommend it. The cost was 200 kr. (about $10 CDN), which included a lengthy tour of all facilities (except administration) and a free tasting of an unfiltered, unpasteurized “12” (hoppier than their standard pilsner) straight from the barrel. The highlight of the tour for me was getting to see a glimpse of the extensive network of tunnels (9 km. in total) excavated underneath the brewery grounds for the sole purpose of barrel storage – it almost had the look and feel of a military bunker.

Brewery Tanks

Our guide shows us a map of the tunnels.

Our guide shows us a map of the tunnels.

The tunnels

The tunnels

Legends say that, if you throw a coin into the original brewing vat and it lands in the hole, your girlfriend or wife will become pregnant within the year. I decided not to tempt fate...

Legends say that, if you throw a coin into the original brewing vat and it lands in the hole, your girlfriend or wife will become pregnant within the year. I decided not to tempt fate…

Tomorrow: Monasteries and Ossuaries

My journey began with a twelve-hour layover in Toronto.


Well, technically it began with toasting Gord Downie at the Flying Beaver. Details.


In order to combat jetlag, my plan was to stay awake during the red-eye and sleep on the flight to Prague in order to awaken bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for Europe time (nine hours ahead of my norm). This works in theory. We’ll get to that.


This was my first visit to Toronto, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to take in many sights. However, I didn’t relish the idea of killing twelve hours in the airport, so I hopped the express to downtown. It’s a bit pricy at $12 each way, but it gets you there in less than half an hour and drops you right on Yonge Street.


I don’t often go in for the usual “blockbuster” attractions, so the CN Tower wasn’t high on my list. However, I figured that, along with catching the CBC broadcast of The Tragically Hip’s farewell show in Kingston, the most quintessentially Canadian thing I could possibly do before leaving Canada would be to check out the Hockey Hall of Fame.



A hitch appeared in the form of massive foot pain from my arches dropping, so I ditched by sandals for a good pair of runners. With all the walking I’ll be doing on this trip, my feet will thank me. Luckily The Running Room was open!

I bet you could walk all day in shoes like that and not feel a thing.

I bet you could walk all day in shoes like that and not feel a thing.

The Hockey Hall of Fame is exactly what you’d expect, plus some neat bonuses in the form of interactive games. Jerseys and equipment displays range from the NHL to Olympic teams to minor leagues, going all the way back to the game’s inception. There is a gritty feel to the older jerseys — you can see the soaked-in sweat and blood stains. Upstairs houses the trophies themselves, including The Stanley Cup. Yes, I got to touch it. I’m not a crazy hockey fan, per se, but it was thrilling to touch something that so many hockey greats see as their holy grail.


A ramen place, Ajisen, was recommended to me for lunch, about a half hour walk from the Hockey Hall of Fame. I was delighted to find that on Sundays they close the roads around the Kensington Market. Street food and free shows were everywhere. I was lucky enough to see an old Chinese man playing the erhu and telling a tale (in Mandarin) about a dragon.

Love me some erhu

Love me some erhu

The ramen was delicious, spicy, and reasonably priced. Well worth the walk.


On my flight, I was lucky enough to be seated beside a Czech woman returning home. She gave me some good recommendations which might alter tomorrow’s itinerary.


The flight was only moderately bumpy, but it was turbulent enough that I didn’t manage to get a lot of uninterrupted sleep. So much for the jetlag plan.


Coming up next: Plzen



As you may recall, I like to write stories now and again. However, many of my fiction projects have been put on the back burner due to an increased focus on a job I love, a diploma I’m pursuing, and a novel I’m publishing.

Happily, my predilection for writing extends to travel blogging, so there is an outlet available, as well as an efficient way to share my experiences with my friends, family, fans, and random strangers. So I present to you…

“Backpacking Through Europe: A 20-Something’s Dream Come True.”

Too bad I’m 32. Still, better late than never. I’ve no intention of becoming the next Rick Steeves, but you can still look forward to an anecdote, amateurish photograph or awe-inspiring snippet of history here on this blog as I travel.


~*~*~*The Itinerary*~*~*~

Disclaimer – Subject to change due to:


  • Time constraints
  • Budget constraints
  • Whim
  1. Vancouver to Toronto. A bargain red-eye from one Greater Metro to another. Full day’s wait for flight #2 means stops at the Royal Ontario Museum and possibly the Hockey Hall of Fame (because Canada). Recommended lunch spot: Ramen joint.
  2. Tee-dot (do the kids still say that?) to Prague. This will be the longest flight I’ve ever experienced; I don’t expect to have fingernails by the time we land but I do hope to get some writing done! Barriers include: horrible tiredness, me being too chatty.
  3. Prague to Plzen. August is busy season for Prague, so I’m renting a car and getting the hell out of dodge. Stops include the world-famous Pilsner Urquell brewery and lots of bedrest to mitigate jetlag.
  4. Plzen to Brno. My plan is to enjoy the beautiful Bohemian / Moravian countryside, take some roadside photos, check out some castle ruins and maybe a creepy ossuary (I want to call it an ossoleum). In the environs of Brno is the Augustinian monastery where Gregor Mendel did his work on genetics.
  5. Brno to Bratislava. While I will be in-between several interesting festivals (notably the Coronation Ceremony), there is a Museum of Weapons and Fortifications where I can geek out.
  6. Bratislava to Martin. On the way I might visit the (ruined) castle where Elizabeth Bathory was imprisoned following her trial. Martin was the seat of Slovakian culture in the 19th century, and still contains the Slovak National Museum.
  7. Martin to Trstena and area. This is the region of Slovakia from which my patrilineage hails. Highlights include the Tatras Mountains, possible meet-ups with extended-extended family, and hikes to overrun graveyards.
  8. Trstena to Spisske Podhradie. I’m here to see the castle.
  9. Back to Prague. Returning to the Big City after the end of peak season to enjoy Art Nouveau, astronomical clocks, and really big bridges.
  10. Prague to Venice. Cheap European flight to Marco Polo airport, seabus to Venice, and Vivaldi in my head for two days straight. My hostel will likely be a converted grain warehouse. Highlights include sipping on a $12 coffee, enjoying a chamber orchestra in St. Mark’s Square while ankle-deep in water. I’ve been told the Doge’s Palace is quite the tour.
  11. Venice to Rome by train.
  12. Rome. Churches upon churches upon churches upon temples to Mithras. Evasive manoeuvres in the Colosseum / Pantheon area. Gazing upon the Vatican from afar.
  13. Rome to Florence. Galileo and Da Vinci worship. Wine tour. The countryside.
  14. Florence to Cinque Terre. Chillaxing and breathing in the Mediterranean (sorry Aunt Sue — no time for the Amalfi Coast, but the colourful seaside houses look great!)
  15. Cinque Terre to Milan. Relaxing and (if I haven’t done so already) some fine dining.
  16. Milan to Frankfurt (in Germany for two hours, wooo!) to home.

I fully expect to be derailed at some point, but I tend to look forward to the unexpected delights that flexibility can offer. In the end, I consider my travel goals to be fourfold (yes, it’s a word!):

  • Experience the adventure
  • Get in touch with my Slavic roots
  • Research and inspiration for the Crystal series
  • Learn me some history

Wish me luck, and please follow this blog if you’d like to experience my travels vicariously. Apologies for all the bullet points. When you work in an office long enough it’s a subconscious process.

–James Funfer

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