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.
Tuesday, 30 October: “15 is the new 12”Ivan and I piss away most of the day, eating and drinking and nettin’. That, and we see Notre Dame. It’s really beautiful. No wonder so many people are Catholic – the architecture alone is a great reason to join the crowd. I’m truly humbled by its beauty, but not enough to pay 50 francs to for a tour of the towers.
The drinking fountain near Notre Dame has an inscription in Sharpie: “US go home or we’ll kill you”. I take a great photograph of it – it’s for my new coffee table book “Mortie’s trip to Europe and fun with US foreign policy” – ask for it by ISBN number.
We eat at a touristy place called Quasimodo. The food sucks, but the wine provides an excellent muscle relaxant for our 15 (not 12!) hour train ride to Rome tonight.
Our train says we have a “couchette”, so we assume we have a sleeper cabin, and it seems that way, until a middle-aged French couple enters the cabin and says something in French that denotes equal surprise. They introduce themselves as Bernadette and Michelle (Michael!) and seem like they’ll be pleasant roommates for the night.
Ivan and I go to the dining car. We’re late, but served anyway, and share a table with an old Italian man and a younger friend of his. Across the aisle, a father and his two teenage daughters, all American, talk about French history. We join in the conversation, as we seem to be the only other English-speaking guests in the car tonight. One of the daughters is studying international business in Luxembourg, and their father is taking them across Europe for a couple of weeks. The international business student has also travelled to Russia, so we talk about that for a bit.
The bottle of wine sets in, but not enough to offset the snoring from the French couple who occupy the lower bunks. Despite that, it’s the most comfortable train I’ve ridden on. Amtrak could take some lessons here.
Wednesday, 31 October: “There’s no Halloween in Italy?”
The morning train journey to Rome ends with instant coffee and an appreciation for terra firma. I haven’t even stepped off the train and I feel comfortable here. People dress well, and wear it well. There’s an animated quality to the conversations here, and they’re acted out in a way that indicates sweeps week.
A young man approaches us and asks if we need lodging. We sense a scam, but he turns out to be legit, and we get beautiful accommodations at a local hotel for $35 each a night, at “Hotel Hollywood Stella”. No other references to “A Streetcar Named Desire” can be found, but we are down the street from the Hotel California. Uh, oh.
Italian is best spoken by Italians. There’s a sensual rhythm to the language, be it consonant or vowel. They figure us out immediately and respond in English, which disappoints Ivan, who has studied the language, albeit briefly, as we eat at the touristy Piazza Navona.
A demonstration of students is going on in front of a government building, but the banners they carry indicate that it’s a domestic matter. Still, we’ll not be visiting any of those symbols of American capitalism-we’re sticking to Roman imperialism, thank you very much, and visit the Pantheon and Piazzi Venezia.
Ivan talks to one of the employees of the hotel. Jaclyn is an ex-pat from Massachusetts who loved it here so much she got on the next plane as soon as she got back to the US. She’s looking to rent a room and has had some bad experiences, so Ivan and I become her personal entourage.
She says men are really aggressive here (a polar opposite to the Emerald City’s asexuality problem), and said that the last prospective landlord had a box of condoms ready because he had heard that “American women are easy, like Sicilian women”. Yow.
Train to bus, and long waits for both, as we slowly advance towards the possible room for rent. We’re dropped off in front of an old Italian military base, which could easily be a backdrop for a Scooby Doo cartoon. It’s creepy, and the landlord sounds creepy, so we never actually get to the apartment.
So back to Rome, where Jaclyn knows someone who works at an Irish pub in Rome! We drink Guinness. The place is decked out in Halloween, and possibly the only place in town that’s celebrating the holiday. BBC2 is playing on a large video monitor, and for a moment I remember what it’s like to be around others who speak English.
Thursday, 1 November: “Attack of the pregnant pickpockets”
We start the day fending off a large group of pickpockets. Ivan and I are accosted by a pack of pregnant women, appearing as a homeless family, carrying pieces of cardboard meant to conceal hands. Four or five women come up to Ivan at once trying to distract him, while another in the group quickly puts a hand in his front pocket to snatch money. As Ivan is a born-and-raised New York City native, he’s wise to this scam, and grabs the offender’s hand. Another in the group says “Merde!” (Shit?), thinking that they’re caught. Ivan quickly leaves his groupies, grabs my arm and pulls us to safety, indicating that they were about to prey on me like a pack of wolves.
The Vatican Museum is closed today. We spend most of the day at San Pietro Basilica, the Vatican place of worship. This is it – God’s Catholic Headquarters. They’re very nice digs, and they put the Bellagio to shame. It’s truly a sight that cannot be described in ASCII, HTML or other Roman languages.
Ivan and I climbed 500 steps to the top of San Pietro Basilica, where you’re rewarded with a view of the entire city. No skyscrapers or modern buildings can be seen — it truly looks ancient.
It turns out that the Vatican is the last papal state, and in addition to having its own telephone and postal services, it must also remain neutral in Rome’s political structure. That must explain the presence of all the condom ads that litter Rome’s subway system.
Vatican phone service: Dial 2 for an outside number. I wonder what happens if you dial 0?
Ivan wants to see an opera on the trip. What better place than Italy? La Traviata has a waiting list, but we make it on the last of four seats! It’s playing at the American Church, a non-denominational, cathedral-like establishment with the happiest color scheme I’ve ever seen in a place of worship. There’s Hebrew and Roman lettering on the walls, too. It’s a stunning opera, and of course the main character/love interest dies at the end. There’s no happy ending/Bruce Willis saves-the-day scenario here.
Scooters of every likeness abound, from classic and new Vespas to crotch-rocket mini-sportbikes like Aprilla and Italjet. Vespa is Italian for wasp, and when you hear 20 or so of these things parading down the street, it *does* sound of infestation.
My first slice of folded pizza on the way home. Apparently, they serve it this way in NYC, but since I’m an upstater, I feel like a Canadian on his first journey to America.
Jaclyn leaves a note under our door offering several leads to karaoke bars in Rome. The future is bright.
Saturday, 27 October: “Pioneer Square, redux”The toll of the trip — it’s really easy to stay up late here, like the way it is in Vegas, except that they don’t pump extra CO2 in the atmosphere here — makes itself known. I spend most of the day dead for income tax reasons, sleeping in Paris and dreaming in English.
Until the late evening, that is. Paris comes alive, and we’re two blocks from the main strip. Ivan and I forage for food near St. Eustache. They serve *late* here, and the restaurants that stay open are much nicer than the Dennys and White Spot’s that litter North America. Our dining ritual here has been to split a bottle of wine daily, and that alone has raised our French to an unacceptable level — the French equivalent of grunts, clicks and whistles (Shamuex, anyone?). I could see how someone could become conversational here in a matter of weeks – it’s survival, really.
There’s a bigger ritual here — it makes Pioneer Square’s in Seattle and Rush and Division Streets in Chicago look absolutely subtle — and that’s *l’amor*. Ivan and I watch from the sidelines (literally, at a sidewalk café on the main strip) as beautiful people gaze at other beautiful people. Advantage: Mademoiselles. There’s a slew of under-21 here. It must be amazing to be under 21 and do more than hang out at Denny’s.
A creepy man is sitting in front of us — he looks desperate, and has most definitely been sitting here all evening, judging by the looks the waitstaff gives him. A quartet of horny Frenchmen sit behind us and yell/whistle at any female form that struts by. Of note: this ritual has little to no age restriction. Men and women aged 15-55 stroll by, dressed to kill. I wonder what the US disposition might be if it worked the way it does here. I haven’t seen so much leather since the Catwalk.
Sunday, 28 October: “Who has to go to the Louvre?”
We’re already becoming regulars here, with a morning habit of patronizing the same coffee shop and ordering cappuccino made with illy espresso. The woman who takes our order becomes slightly less annoyed with us each day and we eventually learn how to order in French, albeit using our piece-meal linguistic standard.
Today we’ve committed ourselves to see the sights, but because the queues are so long, it’s only a walking tour. This includes The Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, the Tour Eiffel, the Arc d’Triomphe, and a ride on a ferris wheel at the end of the Champs Elysees, which seems to be a great big shopping strip for the moderately wealthy (moderate because they have a Gap). More beautiful people everywhere.
I’m exhausted! Ivan catches a movie ‘Le Petit Poucet’, a gruesome fairy tale made in France, but unlike regular French cinema, it has a happy ending! C’est la globalization.
It’s a quiet night. We sketch out the rest of our trip: Tuesday to Rome, Friday to Florence, Sunday to Marseille, Tuesday to Barcelona, and Thursday to London. Not bad for a month, although next time it’s one country at a time… Greece? Brazil? Boise?
The best late night snack ever is a crepe poulet avec fromage, a chicken and cheese crepe. It’s a very large thin pancake with the ingredients cooked within and wrapped into a funnel shape. Only five dollars and the tastiest meal yet. Perhaps food tastes better sitting on a curb next to a littered sidewalk?
The ‘Only in London W2’ book I’m reading is getting interesting – filled with scandal, but still not on a level deeper than the Old Pequliar back home in Ballard.
Monday, 29 October: “Stay away from Symbols of Capitalism, 10/02/01”
While I’m asleep, Ivan has taken the Metro to the train station and booked tickets on tomorrow night’s train to Rome. First class: $100. It’s an overnighter, 12 hours.
It’s an hour long wait to get into the Louvre. While waiting, two American students let us know of a travel advisory issued last week by the US Department of State that “symbols of American capitalism” may be designated targets (you can drink the water, though). It’s at this point that two of their friends join them and ask if they want to go to TGI Fridays for dinner tonight. The students say no, and a counteroffer of Hard Rock Cafe is suggested, where war protesters were holding up a giant banner that says “US Go Home”.
Ivan and I spend most of our time in the Louvre sculpture areas, but everyone’s here to see the Mona Lisa/La Joconde. It gets its own wall, but honestly, there’s much better work here. The visit here has whetted my appetite for the Vatican. Ivan said that the ceilings there are filled with art and laid with guilt, and I thought that was only natural since Catholicism is known for that, but he corrects me. It’s gild. My bad.
Wednesday, 24 October: “I smoked what?”
I spend most of the day asleep. The events of the last few days, the long trip back to Dublin, the frustrating experience finding last-minute flights to Paris on Friday, and staying out until the wee hours whenever possible (a sweet memory of nightlife in Chicago) have taken a toll on my body, so I engage in the preventative medicine of deep, soothing rest.
I’m back at the same hostel again, with a private room and the sensible idea of a good night’s sleep. These ideas only last so long, however. I’m in the mood to dance and head over to Ri Ra at midnight. I hook up with a couple of people I met on Monday, and meet two more tonight:
- Patrice, a Frenchman in his mid-20s who works at a posh restaurant in Dublin
- Fiona, studying computer science at Trinity College
- Cliona, who works with handicapped children. Her and Fiona grew up together.
- Amyric (pronounced Ah-meer-eek), a restaurant manager, also French. Roommate of Patrice.
It’s last call at Ri Ra. The Frenchmen suggest we all go back to their place, which we do, to smoke “cigarettes”. I smoke part of one, and am thirsty just a few minutes later. How about that? Conversations ensue in English, French and Gaelic. It’s amazing how much of this you can’t pick up in a few hours.
The clock in the hostel says 5:15am when I return. Michael: 1, Sensible Ideas: 0.
Thursday, 25 October: “You’re from where?”
I move to another room in the hostel, with two twin beds. I have a roommate today — from Seattle! Specifically, Greenlake He’s a 21-year-old college student studying computer science at UW. We geek out a bit, and get a big laugh out of the small world situation.
Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ accompanies tv and radio ads for Windows XP, which debuts today. The more I try to leave Seattle, the more it screams to be recognized.
Apart from making sure my body is sufficiently caffeinated, nothing else happens tonight.
Friday, 26 October: “Sinatra *is* the international language!”
Ivan meets me at the ticket counter in Dublin on Friday morning, and tells me about his amazing time in Galway, the least important event being singing “My Way” with drunken strangers. Such a good time that he only had an hour and a half sleep last night and drove maniacally to Dublin averaging 90mph in 2 1/2 hours. I’m so glad I didn’t have to read about him in the Irish Times Police Beat.
Liverpool Street station in London, our connection between yet another set of airports, is an architectural marvel.
As we land in Paris, it occurs to me that I don’t know any French. We’ve got 3 nights at a cheap hotel near the Opera on rue de something-or-other. We’re now nine hours ahead of Seattle, but that still doesn’t help them beat the Yankees retroactively. It’s time to move on now. (Cubs in 2002!)
On our way to forage for food in English, we pass an establishment that boasts karaoke every night!
Dual-priced menus showing the franc and the euro. The euro goes into effect on 1 January 2002 and is so close in value to the dollar that we know exactly how much we’re being fleeced at the restaurant we eventually choose.
I’ll never drink coffee from a machine in the UK again. Wine is expensive, and damn, it’s good. No screwtop caps here.
Women and men are very fashion-conscious here, and it looks great on them. Leather is the new denim.
We pass the karaoke bar on the way back. Ivan’s tired, but I convince him that this is the fair and just thing to do, if only for either the children or the American PeopleTM.
Hey, everyone’s singing in French, and the audience is singing along! It reminds me of the time I was at a party a long time ago when the host put on a Garth Brooks CD and everyone knew the lyrics except me and proceeded to sing and I felt like I had entered a Twilight Zone episode or something and wondered if my friends that I thought I knew so well had been replaced with beings from some horrible alternate universe.
Ivan requests “It’s Now or Never”. He gives admirable effort, but the audience seems much more receptive to French songs. Maybe if we sang in *outrageous* French accents?
I get the courage to sing “Lady is a Tramp” (apologies to Jeannette, who reigns as the tune’s owner in the greater Ballard area) in English, and I belt it out as loud, as unapologetically, and as Sinatra-like as I can. This feeling completely overshadows the fact that I paid 9 dollars for a Heineken. I feel a part of Paris now, albeit a miniscule one.
Monday, 22 October: “Drive on the left!”
“Drive on the left, drive on the left, drive on the leeeeefffffftttt!”
from Ivan and Mortie’s hit “Drive on the Left”, now playing in the Fiat
Ivan and I fly to Dublin today – our friend Jillian is to meet us there. Ivan decides to rent a car, a tiny Fiat Punto (punter? some Spanish swear word?). He’s never driven here before, but you have to learn sometime, and a large label affixed to the windshield’s interior reminds us to ‘DRIVE TO THE LEFT’ with an arrow pointing to the … left. It’s in German and French, too. They drive on the same side of the road as we do, apparently.
Apart from one error on the way out of the rental car lot (the people at the booth must have a scorecard for how many rental car drivers exit the lot the opposite way), Ivan does a capable job getting us to the city center. We make a game of it, singing a made-up song called “Drive on the Left”. The only lyrics to the song are above — it’s a work in progress.
Ivan learns how to drive in Ireland by spending two hours looking for parking in the city center, while I check into the hostel, and wait for him and Jillian to arrive. We’re at the Ashfield House (actually, Ashfield Concrete Building is more accurate), complete with pool table, continental breakfast (here that means assortment of fried things) and sparse but comfortable rooms.
Jillian checks in across the hall from us. She’s sharing a room with a couple — two Americans working here for the last month — and the girl apparently has a Valley Girl accent. I meet Jillian’s friend Ken, from Dublin, who drops her off before he’s on his way.
Jillian moved to Portland from Seattle in September, and then to Ireland to work at the Glencree Reconciliation Centre, a facility that helps students and groups from Ireland understand the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland, and to work towards a solution. As a volunteer there, she gets to work with the students and will be there through mid-December.
After dinner, Ivan crashes in the room, fast asleep. Jillian and I go to the greatest dance club in the whole of Dublin: Ri Ra (Gaelic for ‘uproar’). We close out the place at 3am, and get late night chicken kebabs under bright fluorescent lighting. Life is good.
Tuesday, 23 October: “Oh, I love that dirty water”
Ivan and I decide to separate for a couple of days. He wants to drive to the West Coast and see castles on islands and cliffs. I want to go to Glencree for the night and back to Dublin. Ivan agrees to give Jillian and I a lift to Glencree, as he’d like to see what Jillian’s place is like.
People cross the street in front of us as we drive there, with little regard to the danger. Cars have right of way here. There’s a few close calls, especially from elderly women who almost seem to *want* to run in front of Ivan’s car. We affectionately call them “Grandmakaze”.
The country roads are *narrow* out here — about the width of two Yugos when you drive rurally, which we do. A very large truck coming around the corner scares the bejeezus out of us. I sing “Drive to the Left” in my head to return my blood pressure to normal.
We arrive around 3pm (that’s 6 am 3 days prior, Seattle time), and it turns out that Ivan’s destination on his cross-island journey is 4 hours away, so he stays the night at Glencree instead. He’s put in the Turkey Room, which contains a couple of posters from Turkey, and I’m put in the Finland Room, which looks like an Ikea showroom.
The water is brown here, on account of all the peat in the area. Not potable.
We meet Jillian’s fellow volunteers — they’re from all over the globe and seem to be a tight knit family. Counting Ivan and myself, we bring the total pool of Americans to five, throwing off their ecosystem a bit.
Dinner looks like rice and chicken kiev, but the chicken bit is actually ‘quorn’ — I think they told me it’s a mushroom and corn based meat substitute. It tastes good — I don’t know if they sell this at home, but can anything replace a Vienna beef hot dog with cream cheese?
Jillian’s friend Patty, an older Irishman, brings out a guitar and sings standards. He’s very good. Ivan and I sing ‘Sweet Caroline’ with him, and then Patty plays along as I sing a folksy version of David Allan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”, where one verse in the song contains the perfect country song. That part is written by Steve Goodman (who wrote a couple of pep rally songs for the Chicago Cubs) and goes like this: Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison/and I went to pick her up in the rain/But before I could get to the station in my (broken down) pick up truck/She got runned over by a dammed old train.
Since Ivan’s here *and* has a car, we go to a local pub in Enniskerry. Ivan’s excited — there’s going to be a live band here tonight, and he hasn’t heard traditional Irish music. Little did he know we’d leave the club still waiting to hear it , as they played mostly American covers. That’s fine, I guess, but Suzanne Vega’s “My Name is Luka”? Bea (bay-a), a Spanish volunteer, cringed at the music, and her bottle of red wine with the screwtop cap. Yanik, the French volunteer, joined in with a fine wince.
They played ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. Making lemonade from lemons, Jillian and I performed a swing dance hoedown to Skynyrd’s classic, and it was a much more tasteful performance than my friend Spenser and I swing dancing in a drunken state to “Amazing Grace” at Molly Maguire’s a few weeks prior.
Ivan’s our designated driver, and drinks no absinthe. We sing ‘My Way’ on the way back to Glencree, much to the chagrin of our foreign guests. Maybe Sinatra *isn’t* the universal language.
20 October, Saturday: “Coal: the old nuclear”
“Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said, ‘I drank what?'”
Val Kilmer, Real Genius
A very late start today. Poor Ivan — he has failed chemistry class, and is out for the count. Learned before we leave today:
- Those weren’t 8 nuclear reactors we saw today. They’re coal-burning. Whoa.
- Some flats here don’t come with a stove. You have to buy or rent one.
- Same with a fridge.
- And heat(!).
- Renters pay property tax.
- There’s a laid back way of things here. It took Bill and Sherry nine months to get a gas bill, for instance. There’s not as much convenience here as a Canadian or American might be used to.
- Bill makes amazing French toast! He says the secret is Canadian maple syrup, but that can’t only be it. Sure the skill of the cook factors in?
We head out for lunch and a 2:30pm morning cup of coffee (after all, it *is* 6:30 am in Seattle) at the Cinema, a cafe with great espresso and an even better aubergine curry. Ivan orders nothing. Rather, he stares intently at a non-existent piece of dust in the air several yards away, when he’s not sleeping. Poor, poor Ivan. I bring him a glass of water and some mango juice. Still images of classic films are shown via projector onto a large wall in the cafe: The Big Lebowski. City of Lost Children. The Border…
We’re off to Edinburgh via Virgin Trains right now. Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Trains, Virgin Records, Virgin Megastore, Virgin Energy, Virgin Atlantic airlines seems to have a Gatesian quality in the ownership of many aspects of British life. The trains have a reputation for being late, and our train has the added distinction of being overcrowded. We’re SRO for a stop or two before we settle in for the 3 1/2 hour journey North, to meet my friend Mary’s friends Kenneth and Chris. Chris asked me if I wanted to do a little design work when I phoned them yesterday. I’m not averse to making a bit of coin while I’m here.
I picked up Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Island”, at Bill and Sherry’s recommendation. An American writer, he lived here for 20 years with his British wife and reflects upon the cultural idiosyncracies here before their move to the United States.
Another long journey, and we’re thankful to arrive in Edinburgh. A cab ride takes us to Kenneth and Chris’s flat in the Stockbridge neighborhood, which they describe as a sort of trendy district. It’s a great place — spacious, tastefully decorated, and filled with four Macintoshes! It looks like I’ll be helping Chris put together the design for a CD cover and booklet for a BBC film archive disc he’s made, containing mostly audio clips and some video footage of old BBC shows. He describes it as a remix for a new generation.
Kenneth is a cinematographer. He was here this summer to talk to Mary about a film project she’s interested in doing next year. I pass him an envelope from her friend Tom, a fisherman he’s interested in sailing to Alaska with next summer in order to film fishing boat adventures there. Tom has given Kenneth a couple of crosshatched renderings of what he might expect — it looks like he’s going to be quite cold up there.
Ivan and I are hungry. His hunger is much worse, though — it’s that post-hangover hunger that immediately hits when the alcohol has left your system, and a tad before the healing begins. Fortunately, across the street, is a restaurant that serves… Mexican food! The burritos aren’t bad… it’s a little strange hearing “Oye Como Va” at a Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh, though.
Two Americans are sitting at a table next to us (do we all sound that nasal? Wow…), and discussing websites. Maybe they’re from Seattle? Or maybe they’re unemployed, like Ivan and I, remembering the Age of the Great Extraction of Cash from Large Corporations. Hmm…
“Poison Ivy” with Drew Barrymore and Tom Skerritt is on BBC 4 tonight. To be fair, we get that karma back when PBS shows “Are You Being Served Again?”
The UK version of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ allows a contestant the chance to win one million pounds! That’s like 1.5 million dollars! Great deal, that. I wonder if the Italian version is one million lire. That’s what… 10 dollars?
And they’ve got ‘Lost’, the show where they drop three groups of two contestants at a secret location. They end up getting planted in Venezuela, and have to find their way to London, via Martinique. Really, though, they just have to get to Martinique, and book last-minute flights home with money provided when they get to Martinique. (Where’s the sport in that? Ivan and I have spent several hours doing that this trip…)
Anyway, one of the teams drops out, and one of those team members is happy to be done with it. The film crew follows him home to his wife, kid and dog, and they rent ‘Friends’ videos and order kebabs for delivery. I was thinking that the episode should have started filming here. The show would be called ‘Lost’, but a person is dropped at a location known to them (say, in front of the living room tv with kebabs and Friends videos) and then has to discover themselves through risk-taking. Maybe they become gurus or something in the process.
Swearing and nudity are allowed on television here. Most of the swear words are British, so I have little idea what they mean, and why they are swear words in the first place. Pratt? Bugger? Londoner?
As I write this entry at Kenneth’s place, a group of women are returning from a pub and very loudly singing “Summer Nights”.
I like the vibe here — it’s a bit more laid back than London.
Sunday, 21 October: “FECK! ARSE! DRINK!”
Chris keeps me busy today after breakfast. I spend most of the day helping him design the CD cover and booklet. We order in Chinese food and watch ‘Father Ted’. One of the characters, Father Jack Hackett, is so memorable that I’ve ended up shouting his curse words sporadically, sort of like Irish Tourette’s, to this day.
Later, on a mini pub crawl, I find out I’m sitting next to Mark O’Donnell, part of a Scottish TV comedy series called “Velvet Soup”! Kenneth, Chris and I talk to him for a few minutes. He’s surprised anyone outside of the UK has seen the show, but I let him know that I saw it when I was visiting Scotland this summer. He finds out tomorrow if the show is picked up for a second season — fingers crossed.
Anne Robinson is on the front cover of a Sunday newspaper magazine. Anne, tell me *I* am the weakest link! Hello!
They get Ricky Lake and Montel Williams here. To be fair, we get that karma back when PBS shows “Are You Being Served Again?”