Photos of a visit to my cousin Kim’s in sunny San Diego!
Friday, 9 November(continued): “Passive-aggressiveness, London style”Not all is perfect in London. I’m used to passive-aggressiveness in Seattle. When I first moved to the Emerald City in 1994, I thought, “Wow! How laid back, polite and flaky is the populace!” It was when I attempted to find a place to live that I realized how aggressive people could be here. At the time, the rental market had a 1% vacancy rate, and stories of 30-50 people waiting in front of an available property were common.
I was reminded of this as I try to board a coach during rush hour to Vika’s house in order to meet a gathering for a Russian dinner she’s cooking. A polite queue at the bus stop becomes an all-out shoving. It’s strange in that, only seconds before the bus arrived, people were polite and friendly, and then upon seeing a double-decker bus fogged with the sweat and smell of an already over-capacity crowd, did they scramble towards it wanting in on the action. It was kind of cool, though, to see businessmen and blue-collared folk compete for space on a loaded clown car that is a London bus.
Dinner is beautiful. The wonderful vapors emanating from the borscht remind me of my grandmother’s house (which at times could have both the smell of mothballs and boiled dumplings), and the surroundings in which the food is served are elegant — a welcome departure from a hostel common area.
The conversation jumps around the room erratically. At one point, we discuss Italian game shows, and why a bikini clad woman is usually present in each of them, and that her sole responsibility is to do nothing more than smile at the camera and wear a bikini.
It’s cold tonight, and we have to take the bus back, because the Tube stops running around 1 am. It gets us to London Bridge, only halfway to our destination. A shabbily dressed man asks us if we need a cab. He’s not licensed, as his rusting Hyundai Excel imitation indicates, so we wave him off. Money is well spent for the cab that does arrive 15 minutes later.
Ivan returns at 2:30 am. He missed the dinner, and we talk about the day’s events and what we might possibly do with our respective lives after we return to our respective cities of residence.
Saturday, 10 November: “You’ve been a great crowd”
Ivan’s off to LA, and I pack while watching a BBC Saturday morning children’s program, featuring a cartoon starring good and evil sumo wrestlers locked in life and death struggle.
I realize the finality of this journey as I purchase my one-way ticket to Heathrow at Earl’s Court station. I’m going to miss this city.
On the flight home, we’re stalled an hour. One of the passengers has had a medical emergency, which seems strange because they haven’t served lunch yet.
An Aussie woman sitting next to me is flying to Seattle to meet a friend. It’s her first time to the US. We talk about the WTO riots, Seinfeld and the Simpsons. It’s like she’s lived in America all her life.
“Funny thing, globalization,” I think, as the British Airways Flight 049 penetrates the cloudy gray shell that makes Seattle my home.
Wednesday, 7 November: “Chemistry 102”Poor Ivan. He spends most of the day asleep as a result of the previous night’s intoxication, so I head off with Jeff and Gabrielle to the public market. My head’s slightly fuzzy, so I order a baguette from the deli while the others get a slab of meat each from the butcher’s for cooking later tonight, and probably not for sharing with the vegans residing at the hostel.
After a long afternoon siesta, Ivan and I trek to the waterfront in search of Spanish food, but as we walk along the Boardwalk we find that nothing’s open until about 9pm. The restaurant we do eventually find is touristy, but the paella de mariscos (Spanish version of seafood risotto) and the appetizers are acceptable, but we wish we had done a bit more research before we had headed out.
Ivan and Janet broke up today, via email. It’s mutual, and the benefit of this is that he’s moving up to Seattle for a few months to get sorted. Likely he’ll head to San Francisco after his brief stay up north. (Update: Ivan and Janet reconciled upon Ivan’s return to LA).
A lot of new faces adorn the hostel tonight upon our return. Peter and Jeff ask me I’m going out tonight, and a voice inside my head says, “I really need a good night’s sleep tonight as I have an early flight to London tomorrow morning,” but the voice that actually speaks says “11pm, then?”
Last night was co-ed group night, but for whatever reason, the girls (women?) in the group head in one direction to go clubbing, and the boys go towards the Las Ramblas district in search of a drinking establishment.
We pass the Plaza Catalunya, where earlier I saw two women mistakenly feed pigeons, and then were immediately covered with dozens of them, hundreds in wait in a circling queue. The womens’ arms are outstretched and pigeons are perched on them. This promises to be messy, so I take a photograph for posterity’s sake.
We’re handed flyers to a couple of clubs, but we’re in youth hostel dress code, which will negate entry into most of them. They look pretentious from the outside, and I’ve already been to clubs like this enough to want to try something different. A group of prostitutes seem interested in not wanting us to enter the clubs, either. We politely shoo them away, as we search for the perfect pub.
Drink what you know. We had a great time at London Bar last night, so we go back for more. No jazz band tonight, however. It’s a Spanish cabaret act. A theatre group with musical instruments and badly-written sketches (keeping in mind that none of us even understand Spanish), but their musical abilities outshine those weaknesses. The lead vocalist is in her 50s and has a stunning voice, accompanied by a very capable flamenco guitarist and violinist.
Still, it’s a strange destination for six guys who just wanted to go out drinking. An Aussie guy in the group, Brigham, sums it up by saying, “This is mad. This is *so* mad,” at which point an actor jumps from behind the curtain dressed as Robin, and holds a cardboard cut-out of his professed love interest, Batman.
Mad, indeed. Ivan and I leave at this point, and wonder if they ever made it out alive.
Thursday, 8 November: “Brushing up on conversational English”
An uneventful transit and jet ride brings us to London in the late-morning. We’re not sure where to stay. Iain and Storme have offered their living room again for the two nights we’re here, but we really want our own rooms until we depart.
Hotels are a bit more expensive here, but we manage to find a hotel in Earl’s Court for 40 pounds a night ($60) each. It’s not a great deal, but we get separate rooms, and the added amenities of TV, Nescafe instant coffee and warmth, because London ushers in a 36 degrees F temperature today.
Pub food is comfort food, and their menu offers jam sponge pudding with custard, a happy second to the sticky toffee variety.
Tonight is rest. I watch BBC to the late hours. The Weakest Link is on. Anne Robinson hosts it here, too, but she’s much kinder to the guests here, and the way the guests defend their votes is almost… civilized. I prefer the slaughterfest of the US show. She’s much more in her element in the States.
Friday, 9 November: “Great Tate, Less Shilling”
I wake up with the television still on, blaring a British version of a Ricki Lake-like show. Eek.
The electricity in my razor grinds to a complete halt. I now have a badly conceived soul patch/goatee, and the beginning of noticeable sideburns. If I’m not careful, I might be mistaken for a dot-com programmer, albeit without the salt stains and Lord of the Rings t-shirt.
In the news today, a Latvian woman took a swipe at Prince Charles with a carnation. In other news, the WTO Ministerial Conference is being held this weekend in Doha, Qatar. More importantly, the forces of evil were defeated by the forces of malaise when Mark Sidran was unofficially edged out by Greg Nickels in the no-contest for Seattle Mayor. Wake me in four years. Mortie in 2005!
Ivan’s gone for the day. We’re meeting tonight at Vika’s house for Russian food with her, Iain and Storme. I forgo any idea of a shiny new suit and head straight for the Tate Modern, to finish an idea begun at the outset of this month of irresponsibility.
I would live at the Tate if they only provided accommodations. If I donned a beret and cigarette holder, I’m sure I could stay in the boiler room, brooding or something. Maybe reading Byron by candlelight? I enter the Katharina Frisch exhibit. It is so German. Where did I put that black turtleneck?
The exhibit spookily begins with Gespenst und Blutlache’s “Ghost and a Pool of Blood“. A plexiglass acrylic puddle on one end stands opposite a mannequin with a white sheet.
Now there’s a giant elephant in the room. It’s green and life-sized and made from wood and polyester. It’s funny in that I didn’t expect to walk into a room and see a giant elephant. Is it art? Like the adjoining collections of Madonna statuettes and found objects placed into intentionally arbitrary design patterns, I’m not sure.
Two 7′ diameter hearts, one made from metallic wheat and the other from metallic coins, lay on the floor. It’s called “Heart of Money and Heart of Wheat“. It’s good, but my gaze is upon the skyline. It’s cold, sunny and 40 degrees today. I hope it’s not this cold in Seattle tomorrow. I’m going to miss the sun – I was just getting used to it.
The Kraftwerk portion of the exhibit begins with “Company at Tables“, consisting of 32 mannequins facing each other at a long table with a red pixilated tablecloth and white benches.
Then there’s “Monk, Doctor, Dealer“, in black, white and red, respectively, represented as life-sized statues of the aforementioned occupations. The dealer has a hoof instead of a foot, and the doctor is a skeleton dressed in medical garments. Isn’t there any non-German stuff here?
Aha! Man and Mouse! A giant 6′ tall rat stands on a large pillow, which in turn rests on a man laying on an Ikea-like bed. Cool.
But not as cool as Child with Poodles! Rings of poodles, hundreds of them, circle a little baby statue with a gold foil star underneath it. There’s something about seeing hundreds of poodles circling a baby statue that gives me great respect for modern art. I mean, really – how can you go wrong with poodles?
And then there’s the Surrealism: Desire Unbound exhibit, focusing only on sexual imagery in surrealism. There’s not as many highlights as above, but there’s several classic items here, including work from Duchamp, de Chirico, Magritte, Dali and Miro.
Rene Magritte’s “The Lovers” is really powerful. It shows two people kissing, but their faces are each covered in sackcloth, so they don’t actually touch each other. I could contribute that this could be a societal statement regarding the not giving completely of ourselves to those we love, but I won’t go into that, since I typed that just now.
Salvador Dali’s “Venus with Drawers” is a statue of Venus with five drawers (each breast, chest, navel, and knee) with handles lined with fur. I can’t possibly add any literary comment here.
Hans Bellmer freaks me out. His work is *creepy*, in that it’s made with dolls or parts of dolls contorted into impossible positions. One of his dolls (aptly named “The Doll” and has no head) makes it into several of his works, and reminds me of Ivan’s jungle girl mascot, albeit a hideous, beheaded version.
The most interesting room, though, is the room filled with postcards, letters and photographs from the artists to their lovers. There was a lot of sleeping around going on, but still not the drama that is Ballard’s Old Pequliar.
The last item at the Tate I note is Rainy Day Canape (by Dorothea Tanning (still alive at 91). It’s a tweed upholstered sofa, twisted and contorted, trying to couple with itself. You can’t get that at Ikea.
Monday, 5 November: “The 10 rules for proper capitalist backpacking”
Dammit. Where’s Richard Hamilton when you need him? I was hoping to meet him at the casino and play baccarat. First I must learn how to play baccarat. Actually, now that we’re in Nice, I’d really like to go to
Monaco/Monte Carlo – Europe’s Vegas, but it’s all Bellagio.
Today is casual. Ivan is bordering on severe sleep deprivation, and it has been suggested that we part in Barcelona and reconnect on the flight to London on Thursday. He wants to go to Ibiza, a party island off the coast, where he can sleep on the beach for a day or two, but I’m wanting the city life and that hope of grabbing the brass ring that shines brightly as a Spanish karaoke bar. I don’t know any songs in Spanish other than “Feliz Navidad” or “Oye Como Va”, however.
My bank balance is rapidly depleting. I think Ivan and I could write a book called “Europe on $125 a day”. I’m relieved the rest of the trip is paid for. For sanity’s sake, the next trip will be one country per visit.
I finished reading “Only in London W2” last night. It’s a great read, from the perspective of foreigners living in London, and stressing the importance of celebrating one’s native culture in a different land.
Ivan and I separated for the afternoon. He’s asleep on the beach when I leave, and we agree to meet at the train station tonight for a slightly shorter 9 hour and 30 minute ride to Barcelona, consisting of one connection at 6 am in Port Bou, a border town.
A little sidebar here — Living out of a backpack for the last month makes you realize what is and is not important.
Rule 1: Don’t buy souvenirs/crap at the beginning of the trip.
Rule 2: A week’s changes of clothes becomes unequal quickly. Less shirts, more socks and underwear.
Rule 3: You understand the importance of nail clippers and AA batteries.
Rule 4: Cigarettes and playing cards can be used to curry favor with the warden.
Rule 5: Ignore Rule 4
Rule 6: Jeans get stolen frequently at youth hostels. Clip the labels so the thief thinks they’re an off-brand. (See Rule 4, importance of nail clippers)
Rule 7: Nothing over $100 is worth bringing, except for a jacket.
Rule 8: Don’t buy Italian boots with the intention of wearing them on the same trip.
Rule 9: Learn how to shave without electricity. I look like C Everett Koop right now, although younger and with a spring in my step.
Rule 10: Use a concierge and a Hyatt Regency the next trip, when you’re not motoring about in the Jag.
Bonus: If you have long hair and intend on getting it cut within the next 10 years, pull it back for the passport photo to spare yourself the strange interrogative expressions of customs officials.
Our couchette bunkmates for the evening are Peter and Jeff from Port McCrory, Australia. They’re undertaking the same type of journey we are, but with more destinations and a longer time span.
The train we were supposed to take had been cancelled due to a railway strike, so the train we’re on now has a connection is somewhere-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, France, at 3:45am — an hour and a half earlier than our original connection.
Tuesday, 6 November: “Classin’ it up at the youth hostel”
We drowsily board the connection in France. The coach isn’t heated, and our chilly two-hour ride is filled with the smell of cigarette smoke. We’re rewarded at the Port Bou cafeteria with hot coffee and sweet rolls, provided we exchange money for said goods, which we do.
The train to Barcelona from Port Bou is the most comfortable coach I have ever had the fortune to ride in. Sleek, modern, *warm*, with the only drawback being the unwatchable “Meet the Parents” glaring away on the video monitors, with no audio.
The sun is rising on the coast to our left, and Spain shows her beauty through silhouetted hills and a golden sky reflected upon shimmering waters, that gradually fill in their color as the train and the morning progress. Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro can’t compete with this.
A young Aussie woman gives us a flyer for “Angie’s Residence”. It’s cheap, in the middle of downtown, and only $13 (2600 pesetas) a night. Instead of discovering the subway system, we take a taxi, and sleep for five hours upon our arrival. I wake up to the sound of two Australians talking and it turns out Peter and Jeff have found the same place, and are checked into the double room next door!
Within an hour, I meet about 10 others who are staying at the hostel. We all go to the supermarket around the corner for a food and booze run. I feel like I’m 19 again. Cheap beer is *really* cheap here. But remembering that I’m not always a backpacker, I purchase salmon pate, a slab of gruyere cheese and some pita bread, and make a plate to absorb the bottle of merlot I’ve purchased for the evening. It’s a practical strategy, and the beginning of a great evening.
The group collectively devours meat and cheese, wine and beer, while Canadian television (!) plays without sound to St.Germain’s “Tourist” release on the stereo.
Ivan passes out. It’s 9:30pm.
Our group (myself, Colin from New Jersey, Jeff and Peter from Australia, Anna from Sweden, Gabrielle from Australia, Martina from Germany, Nate from Minnesota, and Joel from Vancouver BC) venture to London Bar, a jazz club in the touristy Las Ramblas district. The band is adequate, the conversation is lively and the Kilkenny pours freely, and it’s nice to be sitting in a room filled with people around the world, sharing travel stories.
We return to the hostel. It’s 5:30am. Que una noche feliz!
Friday, 2 November: “Home of the $1200 suit”The Musei Vaticani is open today, and I get to view the staples of the establishment: Raphael, Michelangelo, souvenir stands in every hallway, and the Sistine Chapel. I thought the chapel was its own entity, but it’s part of the fortress. There’s no photography allowed, and a Vatican guard makes sure I know that, as I sheepishly put away the camera. Everyone’s supposed to be quiet in this room, and there’s a recording playing very loudly every 10 minutes in several languages reminding us to do so.
It’s quite beautiful. I wonder if Michelangelo was afraid of heights?
Shiny suits start at $1200 at Prada. Maybe there’s hope in Florence? I wonder if there’s a Nordstrom Rack here. Maybe a Prada Rack?
The media has been reporting today of possible targeting of the Golden Gate bridge. Ugh.
Ivan and I have ended the culture portion of our tour. Apart from a visit to the Uffici tomorrow in Florence, the rest of the week will consist of eating, drinking and sun in the French Riviera.
Exhaustion prevents an evening of karaoke tonight. Instead, I opt for an evening of Italian television, beginning with Men in Black, dubbed in Italian. It’s much funnier this way. There’s a music video channel VAVA (go-go?) showing rave and club videos, and they’re an inspiring use of the medium.
The Golden Gate item is starting to worry me. That, and I worry about the likely suspension of civil rights (you GO, Barbara Lee!). I feel that this must be what the terrorists want, and this erosion of constitutional protections seems a greater loss than another physical attack on our shores. This probably wouldn’t have happened in the first place if we weren’t trying to be the world’s policeman and a proponent of globalization, which seems set to implement a monocultural world standard. How boring.
But then, I could be wrong. What do I know? Maybe McDonald’s *does* taste different in Rome.
Saturday, 3 November: “Florence… EXTREME!!!”
Why spend the night in Florence and make it easy on yourself when there’s cheap train travel? Ivan and I, after spending several hours journeying to Florence from Rome, find out that the least inconvenient way to get to Nice (no way to Marseille from here) is to take a midnight-thirty train which will supposedly put us in Nice at 10am on Sunday. Price: $35 per person.
What to do? Il Duomo and the surrounding structures are nice, but after seeing the Vatican and San Pietro, it’s sloppy seconds. Florence is a college town. People from around the world study art here, and why not? It’s home to the Uffizi, which contains more art per square inch than anywhere else in the world.
It’s touristy, too, but not for us. We enter the Uffizi one hour before closing. That’s enough to see a scad of Botticelli, Da Vinci, and several hundred other works, provided we use the National Lampoon’s European Vacation method of touring. We do. My head spins.
A bowl of pasta, a liter of wine, and two cappuccinos (each) later we make our way to a wine bar near the train station. The place is unpretentious and the vina della casa is $7 — a bottle. I wish Seattle’s wine bars were this inexpensive. You can’t go wrong with a house wine here, and we don’t, but to keep our wits for the trip we order a liter of water and another cappuccino each.
Sunday, 4 November: “Pain makes you beautiful”
Our train journey is not so convenient after all — we must have missed a connection somewhere. I do remember getting into Pisa at 1:30 am (we didn’t see the leaning tower) and leaving on a supposed train to Nice at 2:45 am, but at 7am the train reaches the end of the line in Torino – still 3 hours from Nice, and no longer coastal. We’re in the mountains now, and it’s *cold*. Well, 25 degrees F anyway. The wine and coffee from the previous evening haven’t helped the ride any.
A pay toilet in Torino’s train station is worthy of the 1000 lire (50 cents) admission. The bathroom is palatial, and you can eat off the floors, which we don’t.
Our Torino-Nice train is only two cars long, and smells of strange fumes. I’m tired, cold and hungry and after entering Nice at 11:30am (!), we wobble to the hotel room ($30 for a two-bed room – score!) after learning of no way to get to Barcelona by air on last-minute notice. It seems like it’s going to be a nine-hour train ride to Barcelona on Monday night.
Ivan tells me there’s a beach here, as we’re on the French Riviera, but I wouldn’t know. I collapse on the bed after having a snack, and wake up two hours later. Ivan’s gone to the beach, and the TV is blaring the show ‘Viper’. That it’s in French does not make it a more pleasurable viewing experience.
We score a $10 dinner from a local restaurant, and eat well. Four courses, and a half-liter of wine. I’m really looking forward to the beach tomorrow. No more art this week. No more statues. Just food and drink and sun.