31 March 2010

The blog is dead, long live the blog!

To be honest, this blog has been pretty dead for a long time; that's not news to anyone. I'm just putting this out there so that, if anyone is still subscribed to this RSS feed, they will know where to find my new and improved blog ... nay ... my full Web site. Andrushka.net is the domain, and though it's still under construction, if you were actually interested in this blog, you'll probably be interested in that. Also of note, the new RSS feed is located at feed://www.andrushka.net/rss.xml.

21 September 2009

There will be no photos from Barcelona

Earlier this afternoon I was thinking about all the wonderful things about Barcelona I would blog about. Unfortunately for you and me, that blog post has been preempted. I’m just not in the mood anymore.

Today as I was walking from the Monastery of St. Paul of Camp to the Maritime Museum, a young man in his early twenties tapped me on the shoulder and, through a series of charades, informed me I had something on my back. I wiped my hand across my back and sure enough, something orange had splattered on me. It had gotten on my light-colored pants as well. It was kind of disgusting.

He searched through his backpack and offered me some Kleenexes, even helping wipe my back. It was on my camera bag as well, so I took it and my camera off and started wiping the strap. He mentioned something about water to help clean and as I looked up to see him off, he was already gone. When I turned around, so was my camera.

My very expensive Nikon D90 and also rather expensive Tamron 24-300mm lens was stolen.

I looked around for him and couldn’t find him, of course. I then looked for a police officer, and when I finally found one, he told me to report it at a station. When I got to the station, they directed me to another station. Finally at the right station, they had me take a number and wait for two and half hours before I could fill out a report. I’m not sure why I bothered, since I’m sure they’ll never find it and I don’t I have any insurance that will help in this situation. Anyway, in the very unlikely event that they find my missing camera, they know how to contact me.

The officer at the front desk told me I was the second person to report a “let me help you clean off your back” theft today.

I keep thinking of all the things I should have done differently. I should have just come back to the hotel to clean up. I should have never taken off my camera. I should have taken a different route … ad infinitum. As the British lady sitting next to me said, “at least we weren’t hurt. We can be thankful for the big things.” She came to Barcelona for a Leonard Cohen concert and had her purse stolen by two men on a a motorcycle. That’s a new sort of drive by to me.

I don’t know if I’m more upset about how expensive the camera is, or about the photos. I hadn’t downloaded the pictures from Versailles or the Eiffel Tower yet. There’s some on the card of Vianui and Tehani looking incredibly cute. If you're a camera thief and not a complete douchebag, at least leave the memory card. But I guess it kind of goes without saying that he was, indeed, a complete douchebag. I have the orange crud still on my shirt and pants to prove it.

Also, as I’ve been traveling alone, my camera has kind of been my raison d’etre. It’s my artistic expression, dialogue with friends, even my way of keeping time (since I didn’t bring a watch). Today I’d walked all over the place trying to find a USB cable to replace the one I'd left in Paris, and I finally bought one for way more than I would ever have paid for it at home, just because I wanted to share those pictures so badly. Fat lot of good it will do me now.

Waiting at the police station this evening, a muted TV played Gilmore Girls, and as I watched Rory and Paris at Yale, I couldn’t help but wish I could feel more carefree, as I did earlier when I contemplated how to describe my lunch to you all.

I just keep telling myself Most people are nice most of the time and hoping that in the morning I’ll have a new perspective on things.

P.S. If anyone with piles of cash laying around was wondering what to get me for Christmas, a Nikon D5000 or Canon T1i would do the trick.

Au revoir, Paris

On Sabbath, I went to church with Jenny, Yann and the girls. They belong to a church plant that tries to tailor itself to bring in people unfamiliar with Adventism, much like New Creation in Lincoln. And like New Creation, they have a talented praise team who sometimes write their own music. Also, like many early Christian churches, it meets underground, literally in a sub-basement, albeit a somewhat futuristic sub-basement.

They share the facility with a more traditional Adventist congregation, which lets them afford a pretty plum spot in Paris, right on Place de la République. Now I’m sure you’re saying, “Wow, that sounds like it would be difficult to find a parking space.” Yes, indeed it would be ... unless you’re Yann. There’s a Gendarme station right next to the church building, and since Yann is a Gendarme, he can park there without any problems. I’m guessing most everyone else takes the metro.

For Sabbath School, I attended Jenny’s kindergarten class, and even that was stretching my French comprehension. The lesson was about the gift of the Holy Spirit and the apostles preaching in tongues, so Jenny worked my presence and English speaking into the lesson. Also, I hadn’t brought a pen or paper for doodling, so I was rather glad to have coloring time.

The sermon went through five chapters of Acts to make a point that could have been established with one text in five minutes or less, but I often feel that way about sermons. He had a very thorough PowerPoint presentation, which normally I would complain about on principle, but it really does help when you aren’t good with the language.

After church, several of the single 20 and 30-somethings from church came over to Jenny and Yann’s apartment, and we had a picnic outside. I really couldn’t follow most of the conversation, but occasionally someone would fill me in or attempt to converse in English.

I don’t remember everyone’s names or what they do, but one in particular stood out for two reasons. First, he’s a professional graphic designer who said, “I not use the Mac.” Graphic designers using PCs are few and far between in America, but I’m guessing the additional cost of Macs in Europe may make it more tempting to be a Microsoftie. Secondly, I swear he looks like Napoleon I. Yann says he doesn’t see it, but when I first saw him I thought of a portrait of Napoleon we’d seen at Versailles.

After eating, we played petanque. Horseshoes is the closest game to which I can relate it, though curling might also be helpful. Basically, you throw a small wooden ball some distance from you, preferably in a sand pit. Then you throw steel balls at the wooden ball, trying to get your ball closest to it. Whoever has the closest ball wins and gets to re-throw the wooden ball. You get one point for each ball you have closer than the nearest opponent’s ball. We were playing in teams of two and each person had two balls, so the most points you could get in a round was four. We played to 13, but I got the impression any predetermined number will do.

At first I just sat on the sidelines and watched this strange and, quite literally, foreign game. But when I did eventually join in, I did pretty well. Years of bean bags with Daniel really came in handy. There was some discussion of a cheer for me being “biscuit” as a pun of “be Scott,” which took me a while to understand, but at least Napoleon I was entertained.

Before we’d even started playing, Jenny had left us for another appointment. She went to a neighbor’s apartment to improve her skill as a sushi chef. So after the church friends left, we joined Jenny to eat the results of her lesson.

It was good. I particularly enjoyed the avacado-based sushi.

The man of the house is a captain in the Gendarmes, and Yann’s direct supervisor. All evening he kept saying, “MaXImum” (with that emphasis), which apparently is an inside joke referring to someone he and Yann work with. The wives didn’t find it nearly as entertaining as their husbands.

His wife is a Kosovar and currently pregnant with her second and his fourth child. It seems like no matter where I go, there’s talk about pregnancy and newborns. I’m sure it has something to do with being an integral part of the human life cycle (and most everyone I talk to is human), but those subjects do seem to keep coming up more than they used to.

I was tired and still not completely used to the time zone, so I left early and went to bed. That brings me to today.

After a leisurely morning (well, leisurely for me, since I wasn’t the one feeding and bathing small children), we went out to eat in the Latin Quarter at a restaurant advertising traditional French cuisine.

I had raclette, which it turns out is a baked potato served on a hot plate with a rack to melt cheese under it. A potato in France is still just a potato, but combined with the right melty cheese, heating contraption, and a name like “raclette,” it can be a meal to remember.

Afterwards we went to the Eiffel Tower and walked up the stairs to the second platform, at which point I continued to the top in the elevator while everyone else waited below.

I don’t know if I should try to describe the Eiffel Tower. Before I visited it the first time (10 years ago), I always thought it was ugly, referring to it as the “Awful Tower.” I was firmly on the side of the Parisians who protested the project when it was being built who thought it would ruin the Paris skyline and secured a promise that it would be temporary. It wasn’t until I stood under it that I understood its appeal. It seems to be so effortlessly enormous, almost weightless and yet towering. To me, it’s now more awe-inspiring than awful.

Anyway, that brings me most of the way up to the present. I’m currently typing this laying on my miniature bed on the way to Barcelona. My cabin is pretty quiet. There’s a college-aged guy from Korea already asleep across from me on the top bunk, a German under him who has done little but read the newspaper since leaving Paris, and a Spaniard in the bunk under me who hasn’t done or said anything of note, just makes an annoying sound every once in a while that I think is his way of trying to suck out something stuck in his teeth. I’ve considered offering him floss, but 1) I’m not sure that would be considered polite and 2) it’s packed. (Update: the sucking sound was denture related.)

In contrast to my sedate cabin, next door a Spanish family sounds like they’re having a grand time, and it’s kind of getting on my nerves.


18 September 2009

Towards a Taxonomy of Tourists

Walking around, I often try to classify my fellow tourists. I group them then label those groups and try to establish a taxonomy. I started writing this on the train from Florence and just took the time to type it up this afternoon.

The Enlightened Youth

Success Condition: finding themselves, or at least telling their friends back home that they did.

Easily identified by their clothing, female Enlightend Youth may commonly be seen wearing brightly colored summer dresses with a little hippy flair on warm days and pea coats on cold days while the males often affect fedoras, scarves or a ratty sports coat in any weather. They may also be seen carrying a notebook in which they plan to write a novel or collection of poetry. Determined to experience the “real” (insert destination), specimens of this genus make a point of walking at least three blocks away from any major attraction before purchasing food. They abhor lines as a sign of the commercialization of art and culture and as a result, they are more likely to have seen the building in which treasures of human achievement are stored rather than the artifacts themselves. When they return home from their “mind blowing” three weeks of “backpacking,” they will be able to definitively state that Michelangelo is overrated, but Coravaggio was a true master.

The Photographer

Success Condition: kick-butt slideshows.

Not to be confused with contortionists, this genus can often be identified by the strange positions they assume in search of the perfect angle and perfect framing of their subject. Their initial success with the auto setting on their point-and-shoot will encourage them to upgrade to a professional-level camera with a much more advanced auto setting. Even when traveling with a group, they are often seen alone because of the time it takes to “get the shot.” They consider museums which ban photography a waste of time. Upon arriving home, they will find it difficult to create photographs of mundane subjects that match the beauty of the images they captured of the great art and architecture of history, and will eventually stop researching MFA programs in photography.

The Academic

Success Condition: confirming what they already know.

Armed only with a guidebook and advanced coursework in a usually unrelated field, this genus is best known for the phrase, “Well actually …” They feel confident correcting tour guides, and may offer to lead tours for companions or anyone else who asks a question within earshot. Some researchers suggest that, rather than a distinct genus, the Academics are the mature stage of the life cycle of the Enlightened Youth. They exhibit many of the same tendencies as the Enlightened Youth, albeit with more money and luggage. In addition, the females often wear large, chunky necklaces and earrings handmade by a fashionable ethnic minority, while the males still dress much like the Enlightened Youth, but with less hair.

The Midwesterner*

Success Condition: surviving.

Often choosing to visit a destination because they heard such good things about it from Lou and Barb, they will not understand what their friends saw in the place until they arrive home and can in turn tell all their friends how much they enjoyed their vacation, that it was worth every penny, but you can’t trust the locals. Generally not in prime physical condition, the Midwesterners gravitate toward seated activities such as bus rides, waiting, and holding bags for others while they “go enjoy yourself” at the top of anything that doesn’t have an elevator. They are guided by two conflicting traits: overwhelming friendliness and suspicion. They form instant friendships with any travelers they meet from their region or country and share an incredible esprit de corps with these new-found allies. They can’t understand why the locals can’t just learn (insert language) or a little customer service, and usually double check any information given to them by a local with other tourists, just in case. They are often in the company of an apologetic-looking Enlightened Youth or a Party Animal who looks bored.

* The name comes from the fact they tend to be middle aged or older and from a Western country, not the region of America of the same name.

The Party Animal

Success Condition: exotic hookups, memory loss and/or Amsterdam.

Rarely seen at tourist attractions before noon unless accompanied by an Academic or Midwesterner who has funded their trip, the Party Animal has ventured from their homeland primarily in search of exotic brews and members of their same genus of the opposite sex. They are often under the misapprehension that “what happens in (destination), stays in (destination).” They tend to run in packs with others of this same genus who they may or may not have met 48 hours before. Much like fish who change gender in an otherwise same-sex habitat, in the absence of other types of tourists, one Party Animal per group will become “the responsible one” whose job is to arrange for accommodations, transportation, and nag his or her pack into visiting sites of interest.

The Coachmen

Success Condition: checking off sites on their to-do list.

Easily identified by the umbrella, flag or other distinctive object held aloft by the herd leader, this genus believes tourism is best when it is a precise and synchronized game. They have the advantage of being able to form long-term attachements while on vacation, because most everyone they speak with is from their own country and speaks their language. Their basic fear is that they will be left behind either literally or figuratively by not learning as much or enjoying as much as the other herd members. To assuage this fear, they tend to buy the same souvenirs and take the same photos as everyone else.

I think it’s safe to say that on this trip so far, I’ve exhibited traits of pretty much all these groupings.

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Let them eat cake.

Yesterday, after a lazy morning of reading e-mail, tech news, and sorting through thousands of photos, I went to Place de la Bastille and the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaisme.

I remember my first time visiting Place de la Bastille 10 years ago and being rather disappointed. I was expecting to see the Bastille and not just some big pillar. But, as Deny explained to me at the time, that's kind of the point. The prison was torn down by the revolutionaries as a symbol of oppression, so of course there's only a monument there now. So anyway, this time I knew what to expect and could appreciate the monument for its monumentalness.

The Jewish museum, like most Jewish museums, was for the most part depressing. However, it was also fascinating to see medieval menorahs, read propaganda relating to the Dreyfuss affair, and learn about the debate over the status of Jews caused by the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The part of each room I looked forward to the most was quotes from modern Jewish French men and women about what being Jewish means to them.

Today, Yann didn't have to work, so we drove to Versailles, a living testament to the axiom, "the bigger they are, the harder they fall." You can't help but notice none of the monarchies that survived to the present day ever undertook any project as grand as Versailles, and wonder if France would be a constitutional monarchy now if it hadn't been for such excesses.

As for the interior of the palace, it seems like once you've seen one 18th century palace, you've seen them all. As I walked through the royal chambers, I kept recalling Schönbrunn in Austria and Herrenchiemsee in Bavaria. Of course, there's a reason for that. Everyone was trying to imitate the French court at Versailles. So even though I've seen plenty of similar palaces, there's something to be said for seeing the original that inspired them all.

Tomorrow I'll be going to church with Jenny, Yann and the girls and they've invited some people home for lunch afterwards. Jenny says they only invited single people, "but don't worry, it's not a set up."

16 September 2009

Je suis ici, en Paris

Between Jenny’s excellent directions and the extraordinarily helpful elderly gentleman I shared a compartment with on the train, by 11:00 a.m. I’d found my way to Jenny’s office, luggage and all, without a hitch. I’m not sure if the gentleman was Italian or French, he spoke both, but he did not speak any English. Nevertheless, he insisted on helping me find the metro, purchase tickets, and get on the right train. It completely makes up for the incredibly bad breath that had been annoying me from the other side of the compartment all night.

After dropping off my bags with Jenny and promising to meet her again at 5:00, I started to wander. I went to Notre Dame de Paris and spent a lot of time there. It’s much nicer with the windows in tact. The last time I was there, several had been broken by a windstorm. After that, I just walked, took a bus now and again, and walked some more without really going inside of things.

Walking through Montmartre was kind of uncomfortable since it’s stayed true to the tradition of the Moulin Rouge and is mostly sex shops and topless theatres. However, one of my goals was to see the real Moulin Rouge, and now I have. The outside, anyway.

Paris feels so different from Florence and Rome, and not just because it’s much colder here. This is a working city, with a non-tourism based economy and all the hustle and bustle that entails. In Florence and Rome, everything in the city centers was based on tourism. Here, the tourism is superimposed on the actual business of being a city. Except in a few small areas, when I pass a person on the street, they actually speak the local language.

In some ways, the business like attitude of Paris is more relaxing to me than Italy was. They have their thing; I have my thing. We’ll all go about our own lives. In Italy, it felt like everywhere I went, we all had the same thing. Everyone was trying to get the perfect photo, to see the same sights, to find the perfect souvenir (or if not, to profit off of the herd that was).

I was at the Saint Madeleine church listening to a free concert by the Groot Nederlands Mannenkoor that I’d stumbled upon when I realized it was 4:20 and I’d promised to meet Jenny at 5:00. Her office is on Boulevard Saint-Germaine, on the other side of the river and passed Notre Dame de Paris from where I was. With the convenience of hindsight and Google maps, I know I should have just taken the metro the two miles, but instead I walked, got a little lost, walked some more, and eventually got to her office about 15 minutes late. When Jenny says I look thinner than my recent photos on Facebook, it’s probably just because I’ve had so many times in the last few days when I end up miles away from my destination and have to hurriedly walk back.

Anyway, Jenny and Yann have a nice and comfortably large apartment in Gendarme housing. Tehani looks and acts almost exactly like I remember Vainui, who has now grown into a little lady with just the right amount of tomboyish attitude. Tehani keeps calling me “John” because that’s the name of their Canadian teacher at school. Like most kids that age, she seems to find it unthinkable that anyone might not understand what she is saying, but I really have no clue as to what the rules she made up to play with marbles. I just know I kept losing last night.

Today was dedicated solely to the Louvre. I arrived around 10:00 and didn’t leave until 4:00. While my sore feet will attest to six hours being a long time, I could have easily spent six more without running out of wonders to see.

I can’t begin to describe all the treasures bought, stolen or pillaged from around the world housed in the former Parisian residence of French monarchs, so I won’t try.

I spent much of the day thinking about the role decontextualization plays in elevating works to the status of “art.” Seeing art all collected together and mounted on plain walls juxtaposed with seeing it in the churches, temples and palaces it was created for are such different acts. You can take a mass-produced urinal and hang it on the wall of a gallery and call it art, and it will be (as the Dada movement proved). Of course, the problem with showing things in their original context is you’d have to travel far and wide to see everything, and it would be harder to express the connection between different styles and artists. I wonder what Michelangelo or the ancient Egyptian artisans would think seeing their work in the modern contrivance of a museum.

Anyway, I’m fading fast, so I need to post this and get to sleep. I think tomorrow I will try sleeping in then find another museum. I think I can figure how to go downtown and get back without an escort.

A new favorite thing: cyclists riding effortlessly with umbrellas in hand.

My second day in Florence, I had a wonderful time at the municipal museums. I say, "municipal" because the national museums, such as the Uffizi and the Academy, were closed as they always are on Mondays. I really should have looked that up.

Another thing that would have been nice to know is that the streets would be clogged with festive teenagers. I’m not sure if it was the first day of school or not, but I had to practically swim to get through the crowds of them filling the streets outside of schools in the morning. I felt sorry for the drivers trying to get past the cliques of girls hugging and talking about their new outfits and the boys trying to mask their excitement with more manly sullenness.

Regardless of my negligence as a tourist, the tour I went on of Palazzo Vecchio was amazing. The tour guide is a professor of architecture who gives tours two days a week. You can imagine he had an interesting perspective on a structure that has been assembled in various styles over the course of the last 700 years. The only people on the tour were me and two British guys about my age. I'm not sure why they were in Florence because they didn't know who the Medici were and hadn't read any of the British authors who lived in Tuscany. But they were rather fun and very encouraging to the tour guide, and under those conditions, ignorance can be forgiven.

As we talked with the guide about the history of Florence, I found myself constantly drawn to "Tea with Mussolini" as my frame of reference for everything Tuscan. I took a whole class on the art and literature of Tuscany, and I don't know how many books I've read about it, but for some reason it keeps coming back to Judy Dench chaining herself to a medieval tower in San Gimignano.

It rained on and off most of the day, which is both a curse for tourists and a blessing, since the urine smell I have referred to so many times now vanished. During one of the breaks, I went to the Boboli Gardens at Palazzo Pitti. These were the private gardens of the Medici family, and quite beautiful. One of the highlights of the gardens was that there were a few birds there other than pigeons and crows. Namely, some kind of thrush and some kind of tit. I didn't bring my European bird book, but I’m going to pretend the thrush was the elusive Florence Nightingale.

Probably the most beautiful sight I saw in Florence though was in Santa Croce, the church which houses the funerary monuments and/or remains of many famous Florentines, including Machiavelli, Michaelangelo, Dante, Galileo, and Marconi. The church is being restored on the inside, so much of it was covered with scaffolding. In the dark church, the lights on the scaffolding used by the restoration artists were oddly beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that I almost wish I could design a church altar myself out of scaffolding. It was the perfect bookend to a day begun with a conversation with the guide/architect about how Florence needs to find a balance between preserving its history and participating in the 21st century.

After Santa Croce, I found a restaurant some friendly Canadians ("We're from Ottowa, that's the capital!") recommended at breakfast. Unfortunately, it was closed, so I went to the restaurant next door which was nothing like what they described (nor should I have expected it to be).

On the subject of food in Italy, I should comment that I have found some of it disappointing. Not that is has ever been anything but tasty and delightful; rather, it may suffer from too high of expectations. Most of it hasn't been the mind-blowing culinary excursion beyond the experience of average Americans that people like Francis Mayes (Under a Tuscan Sun) would have you believe. And counter intuitively, I think my favorite meal so far has also been the cheapest. The things I've found that are definitely better than America are:

  • Ice cream (which, by the way, was invented in Florence as part of a culinary competition by a chef who would later accompany Katherine Medici to France and help establish what we now consider French food)
  • Gnocchi (I've never had any in America that I enjoyed, so making it palatable is an accomplishment in itself)
  • Caprese (the salad with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella)

I think the thing I'll miss the most is the cheese. It really is worthy of any Francis Mayes-esque description, but otherwise, I think America has done pretty well at adopting Italian cuisine. And in a few things, Americans have improved upon the Italian original. I'm speaking, of course, of pizza. While the pizza was good, I've had better tasting pizza in a similar style in Germany, Ukraine and Poland. And when you compare it to Papa Murphy's gourmet vegetarian, well, you can't.

Having finished my last Italian meal (for now), I collected my bags from the nunnery and took a cab to the train station, where my computer could be plugged in. I really don't understand Italian outlets. There seems to be two different standards, which is about the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard. (P.S. And now it doesn't fit the plug in on the train. What is up?)


Here’s a quote from the heated conversation of the two Russian girls sitting next to me at the train station: “You see a basilica and say, ‘Ooh! Basilica! Let’s go inside!.’ Then we go inside. On the next street, again “Ooh! Basilica!” I think that’s as good an expression of the tourist condition as any.

I won the gelottery.

This is a post I wrote after my first day in Florence, but didn't have the ability to post until now.

I'm a little frustrated tonight that my plug adapter doesn't fit into the electrical sockets in the convent in Florence. It worked beautifully in Rome, and I don't get how sockets in the same country can be different. Also, I'm fairly sure their Web site said this place has wifi access in the lobby. However, the nun at the front desk doesn't think so (and wasn't too clear on what "Internet" means), so despite being able to detect a strong but password-protected signal, I now have even less Internet access than I did in Rome. It's only for one night here though, than a night train to Paris. My plan is to work as long as I can on battery and then save things to a USB drive and go to an Internet cafe. (P.S. Internet guy wouldn't let me use a USB drive because of virus concerns. What was I paying for again?)

Despite all that and the continual smell of urine in the streets, Florence is wonderful. After breakfast in Rome, I got the 8:30 train to Florence and arrived just after 11:00 a.m. I was able to use the time to sort through and resize the photos from my first day in Rome, so hopefuly I can get those posted when the gods of fortune and Web access smile upon me again.

When I got on the city bus in Florence to go to the convent (and was able to identify the correct bus myself!), it was pretty empty, so I sat in one of the seats and put my luggage in the other. At the next stop, it quickly filled up, and left standing were two Spanish ladies, an older Italian woman, and two American guys, a college-aged son and his fifty-something father. Recalling discussions with students in Ukraine about examples politeness, I got up, moved my luggage, and offered seats to the ladies. Immediately, the two American men sat down. Sigh. There are names for people like that, but none of them are fit for polite company, which is actually kind of convenient, since it means I could share them with those two.

After dropping off my bags, I walked by the Palace Pitti, over Ponte Vecchio, ate lunch, and wandered around until I eventually found the Duomo, but not until after finding a lot of other places I should probably return to but wanted me to buy admission tickets I wasn't interested in paying for at the moment.

The Duomo is one of the most amazing churches I've ever seen on the outside, but inside it's surprisingly sparse and austere. It's a night and day difference from the ornate interiors of the basilicas of Rome.

I climbed the 414 steps of the campanile, which nearly caused heat stroke. The staircase is barely wider than my shoulders and with very little air circulation. Add in a steady stream of people headed both up and down plus the actual exertion of climbing the steps, and it all sums up to heat, exhaustion and uncomfortably close encounters with people just as hot and sweaty as you. The view is worth it though, and descending the staircase was much easier. In fact, coming down I felt like a conquering hero.

After the campanile, I went in search of more water. You would think someone would make a fortune selling water and little fans at the base of it (or better yet, at the security office at the top), but neither the guards nor the souvenir stands had any. I asked for mineral water at a nearby restaurant and they directed me to find a grocery store, which seems counterproductive for a restaurateur, since I know they had it on the menu. I eventually got a liter at a Gelateria. Anyway, I feel this all points to one of the problems with too much tourism. It makes the locals not really care about the well being of guests. If you go to someplace that rarely gets tourists, for instance, Alliance, Nebraska or Koszalin, Poland and look on the verge of a heat-related medical incident (I felt like I looked that way anyway), people will find you water.

I'm sorry to be so negative all the time. I really am enjoying myself and experiencing amazing sites and tastes. I guess one of the downsides of not having a traveling companion is not having anyone to vent to, so it all goes on the blog.

Anyway, by the time I finished all my Duomo-related sight seeing, I'd been walking for about three hours straight, so I went to the train station and got on one of the open-air sight seeing busses. I've decided they're a great way of getting a handle on sightseeing priorities, and a godsend when you're tired. (Thanks, Jaque!)

One of the stops was the belvedere overlooking the city. The view is amazing. You'll see what I mean whenever I have the ability to post photos. Camera and I were there for about half an hour.

I got back on the bus and continued around the city. At a little afer six I started falling asleep on the bus and it conveniently stopped a block away from my convent. That's when I came in and started getting frustrated about power outlets and Internet access.

Tommorrow I do all the things I didn't buy tickets for today.

For now though, I'm going to head out in search of gelato before bed.

12 September 2009

Nothing that funny happened on the way to the forum

In Rome, there’s no such thing as an anachronism. Everywhere you look there is Baroque, Romanesque, Classical, Neo-Classical, modernist, etc, and it all looks equally charming, and usually equally dingy. It’s kind of like my kitchen. It seems like no matter how long a time it’s been since I’ve cleaned it, it’s always about the same amount of messy, give or take a few dishes.

Anyway, I made a list of pros and cons of my time in Rome. Spoiler alert: the pros win.

Things I’m rather happy about:

1. My daily gelato

Gelato translates as ice cream. I don’t think it needs any further explanation.

2. My tour of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel

I splurged and went on a guided tour. I had no illusions that I’d be able to see much in the museum, and at least with a guide, I learned a lot about the few things I saw. The guide had grown up in a bilingual home with an American mother and gone to college in the US, so both his English and episteme were more pleasant than most tours I’ve gone on.

His overarching thesis throughout the tour was that most of us had come to see Michelangelo’s work, but in order to understand it, you had to first explore the works that inspired him. The Pope first opened the Vatican collection to the public during Michelangelo’s childhood. Prior to that, only princes, high clergy and ambassadors ever saw the art of antiquity. The act of making art public, perhaps more than anything else, informed the renaissance style.

3. The “no flash” setting on my camera

I have a surprising number of fairly good, guilt-free photos. Enough, in fact, to make me glad I’m hauling the beast around instead of a more convenient point-and-shoot.

4. Open-air busses

Per Jacque’s orders, today I marched my self down to Termine Station and got on an open-air sightseeing bus. You get a ticket that’s good for the entire day and you can get on or get off the bus at any stop, and when you’re done there, just get on another one. They’re about 10 minutes apart, so there’s very little waiting. They have recorded tours in at least six languages too, so you can hear about all the places you’re passing in English, and then switch to German when you go around again.

5. Mozzarella

For lunch, I had colonelleni (I have no idea how to spell it, but I know it wasn’t something I’d seen written before), which was kind of like pasta blintzes baked in cream sauce. With it, I also had a tomato and mozzarella salad. Basically, it was big slices of tomato and fresh mozzerela cheese with salt and olive oil and a little lettuce to garnish the plate.

I don’t know how to describe the cheese, but it was unlike any mozzerella I’ve ever had. It was moist, tender, and full of flavor without being pungent. Perhaps the best explanation is that it was like a slice of a giant cottage cheese curd, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t do it justice.

6. Old ladies from Manchester

This morning at breakfast in the convent, I sat with British ladies. This is their 31st trip to Rome.

The more talkative of the two ladies told me that she was a teacher for many years and had been married to a Polish man who had only taught her one word of Polish: chleb (bread). One of her sons is now on the Liverpool city council and a former student of hers is Paul someone, whose name I probably should have recognized because he now plays for Manchester United. Despite those connections to rival teams, she’s more of a Man City supporter herself.

When I told them my former roommate is a Chelski fan, they found that very amusing.

Here’s a highlight from our conversation about her grandkids: “What do you do with a bachelor’s in theoretical physics? Fix computers, apparently.”

The other one gave me a lot of advice about sightseeing in Rome, much of which I found to be inaccurate, but I’d imagine 30 visits or so ago, it was very useful to them.

7. Friendly Germans

Probably because of my family background, or maybe because my first trip to Europe was to Austria and Germany, but I gravitate towards Germans. Since I didn’t bring a watch, and I haven’t gotten a SIM card for my phone yet, I have been asking my fellow tourists for the time every so often, and usually I chose to ask the Germans.

In St. Peter’s square, I asked an older German gentleman with a watch, and he told me 6:20. His wife corrected him, saying it was 4:30. They then had a brief argument about which was the big hand and which was the small hand. She won; it was 4:30.

Shortly after that, I discovered that I can check the time on my camera.

8. The Pantheon portico

The Pantheon was, I believe, the first pagan temple to be converted into a church, and it’s still an active place of worship today. I know this because when I got to the Pantheon, it was 6:00 p.m. and they had started saying mass inside. There was a large sign and a barricade at the door, saying it was closed to anyone not there to pray.

A lot of my fellow tourists were hanging out in the piazza in front of the Pantheon waiting for it to reopen when suddenly we heard from out of nowhere loud, crashing thunder and then the pitter-patter of rain.

Within a minute, there were at least two hundred other people taking shelter with me under the columns of the Pantheon, and the rain brought out a festive atmosphere in everyone. When it let up, we all headed our separate ways, and I managed to get as far as the Fontana di Trevi before it started up again.

9. Cats in ruins

There’s a large excavation out in the open in the middle of Largo di Torre Argentina in which several black cats live. I’m not sure what the story behind it is, I think the site was some sort of temple, and maybe it was associated with cats. Anyway, there was also a large sign in Italian and English at the site advertising an animal shelter a few blocks away and describing how they care for the cats. Strange and wonderful.

10. Understanding conversations … in foreign languages!

Most of the time, the conversations I overhear are exactly the sort of thing you hear in English. However, even the mundane becomes exotic and challenging when it’s foreign.

For example, at the Coliseum, I overheard this dialogue between two Russian teens:

Brother: “Stand over there so I can take your picture.”
Sister: “Why always me?”
Brother: “Mom said we must take pictures.”
Sister: “Why don’t you stand over there?”
Brother: “It’s my camera!”
(His logic is unassailable.)

Likewise at the Coliseum, there was a Ukrainian family who were quite peeved with the ticket cashier because they did not qualify for the “European” ticket price. Ukraine is the center (geographically) of Europe, whether it belongs to the EU or not!

I just wish I could understand the Italians who I actually have to rely on for goods and services.

11. Business casual clothes

While my original intent was mostly just to not look too American, there was a guy ahead of me in line the guards ordered to tie a shawl around his legs at St. Peter's today, and I was happy it wasn't me. Grown up clothes have their advantages.<>

12. Zen tourism

Douglas Adams described the Zen method of driving as picking a car that looks like it knows where it’s going and following it. While you might not get where you wanted to go, you usually end up where you truly need to be. Given my somewhat famous lack of directional orientation, I tend to apply Adams’ theory to sight seeing. I don’t think I would have ever found the Spanish steps if it weren’t for following a small family carrying groceries. Likewise, I didn’t even realize the church I stumbled upon following a Japanese couple was the one I was looking for until I’d already explored about half of it.

I may not know where I’m going, but I do a pretty good job of ending up where I need to be.

Things I could do without:

1. That smell

While walking down a dark alley, I overheard two Germans coming from the other way. The lady said something to the effect of, “Do you sense the stench I’m smelling?.”
The man replied, “Yes, urine.”

Their conversation could have easily narrated many other places around the city. It seems wherever there is an open archeological dig, someone has recently urinated there.

2. Cashiers

I don’t know what the deal is with cashiers here, but twice yesterday I was glared at and sparked a whiny conversation with a coworker for needing to break a twenty instead of having exact change.

Today I had a much better time with them because I had coins. I did, however, manage to drop my wallet and spill its contents on the floor of the restaurant I had supper at because I was trying to juggle an ice cream cone, my camera bag, and find exact change. The elderly cashier, who could almost pass for Santa Claus, was very kind about it, considering I was able to give him exact change.

3. Jet lag

I tried writing and going through photos last night and faded out sometime around 8:30 p.m., then awoke around 3:00 a.m. ready to meet the world. Since the world, particularly breakfast, was not yet ready to meet me, I eventually managed to go back to sleep and make it to 7:00 a.m.

4. Kodak

When the Vatican Museum decided to restore the Sistine Chapel, they found they had no budget for it. So, they had companies bid for the rights to the chapel. Long story short, Kodak owns exclusive rights to all photography or other reproductions of anything in the chapel for another fifteen years still. That means we can’t take photos inside, even without flash on. Epic P.R. fail. Kodak managed to take an overwhelming good they were doing for the world and turn it into a reason for tourists—the people most likely to purchase their products—to resent them.

5. Soreness

It doesn’t matter how good of shoes I have, my feet just aren’t used to this much walking anymore. Yesterday was actually worse than today, probably because of amount of time spent hauling my luggage around the streets of Rome trying to find the convent I’m staying at. Thank you, Thomas Jefferson, for America’s grid-pattern streets.

6. The tanness of everyone around me.

If there's anywhere that needs a civil rights movement for the ghastly pale, it's Italy. The few redheads and I stick out like sore thumbs. Perhaps that's why I've been gravitating toward the Germans.

I have, however, done my best to "get a little color" as Mom calls it, and currently that color is lobster red.

That's about it for my time in Rome, bright and early tomorrow morning I'm headed to Florence for the next two days. I will post photos at some point, but I need time to sort through them and also an internet connection that doesn't require begging a nun for a Cat-5 cable.

11 September 2009

Winding my way to Rome

I’m now in my convent/hotel in Rome. I’ve been in the city for about four hours now and still haven’t done any sight seeing. I have successfully taken the train from the airport, bought my next train ticket for Florence to Paris, took the metro to the stop nearest my hotel, and checked in to the hotel after about 40 minutes of wandering around wondering where street names might be on both my map and the streets themselves. Melinda’s yellow bag got quite a workout.

The smells of Rome remind me more of Ukraine than Western Europe. The train from the airport to the central station smelled like Sergey after a soccer match, and after my long flight, I’m sure I wasn’t helping any. At the train station, I stood in line to buy tickets behind a young American couple. I hope I didn’t creep them out by continually sniffing in their general direction. Admittedly, mass transit systems are generally the armpit of a city anyway, so I’ll see if the smell similarity holds up at the more touristy areas.

The flight over was perhaps the worst Transatlantic flight I have yet experienced. It didn’t help that the flight attendants didn’t have a vegetarian meal for me as I had requested and said it must be my fault. But the icing on the cake was the shrill woman from Kansas City who sat in front of me. She was a leaner. About an hour into the flight, she shoved her seat back into my knees and kept it there for the rest of the flight, even during and after touchdown when we had all been instructed to place our tray tables up and our seat backs in the full upright position. The result was seven hours of my knees at odd angles. Now, I know the ultimate fault lies with American Airlines for their seat design and spacing. However, I still feel it is always rude to lean back your seat if an adult is sitting behind you.

Even the lady sitting next to me tsked at the woman, but it went unnoticed and I didn’t want to cause a stir. You never know when there’s an air marshal on a power trip aboard.

My seatmate was a good part of the trip. We didn’t talk a lot, but when we did it was pleasant, she didn’t smell, didn’t drink, and stayed on her side. What more could you want in a seatmate? She was wearing hijab, so naturally I wanted to ask her all sorts of questions related to Little Mosque on the Prairie, but since she was from Los Angeles and not Canada, I decided that would be inappropriate on more than just the usual levels.

The guy sitting behind me in O’Hare sounded almost eerily like Lowell Hagele when he talked: pitch, cadence, intonation, all of it very Hagelian. When I turned around just to make sure it Lowell wasn’t stalking me, I saw his mohawk and the dragon tattoos on his scalp flanking his hair were less like Lowell. He did talk about living in Japan though …

In Omaha, the 20-something Latino woman sitting next to me was speaking to a friend on the phone in a mixture of Spanish and English. During one break in the Spanish, she said, “I want to be on the hot tamale train.” I was reading a very funny book, so my laughter may or may not have seemed related to her conversation.

Well, considering I only meant to write that I’m here safe and sound, I should probably get going. My goals are to 1) find a bankomat (ATM) 2) find something to eat and 3) go to the Coliseum. From there on, it’s anyone’s guess.

P.S. The "free Internet" the convent advertised is not, in fact, Wifi, but rather a cord I can plug in only in the lobby. So, I won't be doing a lot of updating from here.

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27 August 2007

The black cat determined to cross my path.

There's a little black cat that lives about half a block away from me on Prescott. Every time I walk by, it runs out from its hiding place near the porch and wants to be petted. It meows plantively and follows for the rest of the block whether it gets petted or not. It's really cute, and I'm not superstitious. Still, it seems a bit odd to me that, out of all the multitude of cats, the one who wants to be my friend--to get "familiar" if you will--is a black one.

About me

  • I'm Scott
  • From Lincoln, Nebraska, United States
  • Busily carving a niche somewhere between angels and apes since 1979.
My profile

    "... if you're not on videotape, or better yet, live on satellite hookup in front of the whole world watching, you don't exist. You're that tree falling in the forest that nobody gives a rat's ass about" (Palahnuik, Chuck. Survivor). This is my performative culture; I am your dancing monkey.