Friday, July 4, 2014

One Other Thing

I'm not a photographer, though I love photography and I seem to take a lot of pictures. I say this not out of false modesty, but as an honest admission that I have no real clue what I'm doing and I don't have an especially good eye. (Susan will grab my phone and snap an occasional picture, and her percentage is a good deal higher than mine, I'd say.)

But I got it into my head to make a collection of cool door photos as we moved from country to country (started because there were so many cool doors in Barcelona, and it just took off from there).

The results are on a Flickr collection that can be seen HERE.

I love many of these, and as a collection they seem kind of fun. Every one was taken with my iPhone 5S, and many of them were taken hastily as I often had to stand in a busy street and snap quickly.

Vacation 2014: Wrap-up.

(Sorry. No pictures. Isn't 2,600 enough?)

And so it ends. Flying now above the North Atlantic on our way to Detroit, we are left to chew on a vast collection of impressions and experiences. This certainly ranks as my favorite vacation thus far. Apart from our brief flights thru Amsterdam, I had never seen any of these places we visited. And each one seemed in some way to top the last, such that the days seemed to get better and better as we went.

Part of this is, I think, just a readiness to take in whatever the day holds in store. I’m always eager to explore a new place, and so each new day is a no-lose proposition. But it’s also the case that each of these places is more interesting than I expected. I knew I’d love Venice and Rome, and I really wanted to see the streets of Monaco. But I had little expectation about Marseilles or Livorno or Naples or Corfu or Taormina or Dubrovnik or Kotor. And they all turned out to be fantastic.

Looking back, I think only in Taormina did our usual strategy of just hitting the streets and seeing what we see as we walked around miss its mark. The tender port for Taormina was actually a little coastal village that was nice enough. But it sounds as though the actual village of Taormina proper was spectacular and very worth taking the trouble to get to it, up and over the mountain range visible from the coast. But in every other case we just picked a place or shop or region we wanted to see, and just let the days happen to us. Especially in the bigger cities that’s a failsafe proposition. But even in the smaller places it worked.

I think our routing was a bit odd. We went very slowly from Taormina over to Corfu, taking our day at sea where one wasn’t required travel-wise. then from Corfu we bypassed Kotor to go to Dubrovnik, then went back to Kotor and subsequently had quite a haul to make it to Venice. We had to leave Kotor early—14:00—and steamed continuously to make it to Venice by 13:00 the next day. There must be a reason we didn’t go in order (Corfu, Kotor, Dubrovnik, Venice), but it would have gotten us to Venice sooner, which would have been cool. But I’m just thinking aloud. This takes nothing away from any of the ports.

One thought we had—not really a complaint, but more an observation—that we might apply to future trips: a cruise that hits 10 new places in 12 days makes for quite a number of new things to process. And it might be wise to restrict ourselves to that or to maybe only a single other place in addition. Getting to Europe (or, if it happens, to Australia or Southeast Asia or wherever) is enough of a trial that I think the smart money is on squeezing everything one can out of one’s visit since coming back is difficult and uncertain. We began this cruise with five days in Barcelona, and that may turn out to have been the best part of the same vacation. After this more leisurely stay, we both declared Barcelona to be our new favorite travel destination, and I can’t help thinking this is because we had the most time there. If we had started with five days in Rome (or ended that way), we both think that might have become our favorite place. I think there’s a place for little day-visits to these smaller countries; one would simply not need more time in Monaco or Livorno or Kotor, for example. But a little time to get to know a bigger place brings definite rewards.

I also find myself chewing on the whole cruise experience. I have a number of friends for whom this would simply not be their cup of tea as a means of travel, probably for the very reasons I allude to above: these little day-visits overwhelm the senses and do not allow the experiences that a longer visit does. We initially said that this would be a great way to get a general overview of these places with an eye on whether we’d want to come back and explore further. Well and good. But I find myself saying every day like a mantra: Everything Is Better On The Ship. I’ve said this before. Doing even the most mundane things on an ocean liner makes them a wee bit magical. I don’t know that this itinerary, say, by car, would have had the same impact as arriving by ship affords. But the ship is, well, magnificent. And not least because it’s your home and your hotel and your commissary and it travels with you! You wake up every day and your hotel had moved! How cool is that? This is offset by 1) the realization that no everyone will be so nourished by the ship, and 2) the reality that everything you see is accompanied by one or two thousand other people getting off the ship to see it with you (or more in a big port like Venice or Rome where several cruise ships dock daily). We almost never do the ship-sanctioned activities, but there’s no getting around a big influx of tourists to the little village you’re attempting to explore on your own.

To be fair, it was a great group of tourists on the ship (a third of the 2,200 passengers were Aussies!); there were very few whining, privileged Americans that we saw. And most everyone we saw ashore was polite and friendly and appreciative that people allowed the disruption of their little idyllic villages for a few tourist dollars. For the first time in 10 years of cruising, we actually met and befriended people on the cruise. We had dinner on two occasions with people we met on the ship, and both were fabulous couples. A shame that we’ve all come from such far-flung places; it’ll be hard to connect again. But I want to take a minute to celebrate what we had rather than lament what difficulty it may bring!

After a week in NYC and then these three weeks in Europe, I think we’re both well ready for some down time at home. Alas, Susan has a Broadway Theatre Teacher’s Workshop back in NYC this next week. So we have another week to wait before downtime can begin. Still, a couple days at home seem welcome.

Post-Cruise: Rome & the Vatican.

Pictures are HERE.

The three-hour train ride to Rome was painless. Easy. I used a cheap web special on the ship to scope out the location of our Rome hotel, so that I’d seem to have half an idea where to send the cabbie when we got there. The hotel was located about three miles from the train station in the general direction of the airport. Turns out to have been an unexpectedly good location for a hotel, right near the Piazza Navona (the hotel was the Suite Art Navona). Unbeknownst to me, the Piazza Navona is one of the primary public spaces of the city, the onetime location of the big public market in town. Now it’s an open square with three big fountains and surrounded by restaurants. It’s a perfect place for people-watching, and it’s easy to find and easy to find our hotel from there.

This is especially helpful, as there seem to be no straight roads anywhere in Rome. Everything twists and turns, changing names constantly, just as in most of the other medieval places we’ve visited this trip.

I’ve long thought that one of New York’s great charms for the visitor is the density of known, famous, or semi-famous places as you walk the streets. You needn’t go but a block or two before you’re guaranteed to see something you know, or know of. Rome is like that, except the famous things are all incredibly ancient. We rounded a corner near the hotel and found ourselves looking at the Pantheon—a 2,000 year-old quasi-church set in the middle of the city. You come upon it with little warning since, again, there are few straight streets that give you a vista as you approach (this is unlike the Colosseum, which can be seen from a ways off because of its size and a fortuitous few side streets that open up a vista of it). Wikipedia calls the Pantheon the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, and its age makes the accomplishment so much the greater. And while not everything looks truly ancient—most everything you see is either a more recent version of what was originally there, or it’s been substantially renovated—this place just reeks of age. All the stones are discolored and many have cracks of age, and it’s all just so pre-technology. The floors, the steps, the ceilings; everything looks not just like it’s intended to look old, but like it’s REALLY OLD. We saw it twice and were kind of stunned both times. (Most amazing, after the dome, were the two original bronze doors which must weigh many tons each and stand 20 feet tall. The Wikipedia article, again, says they are original, and they must have been a marvel at the time. Hell, they’re a marvel now. Those and the 20 huge columns, each of which, we are told, is a single piece of stone.)

 After our first visit seeing the Colosseum and roaming the Forum, this second visit was slated for the Vatican and just general roaming. This turned out to be exactly the right strategy. We arrived Monday around 13:30 at the train station, and were at the hotel by 14:30. They let us in early, and we dropped off our (ludicrously-overstuffed and oversize) bags and hit the streets. We strolled thru the Piazza Navona and then grabbed some pizza. Every restaurant in town apparently has the same menu: pizza, pasta, meat and cheese plates, Caprese salads. Which is fine by me. The pizza is wonderful, and slightly different from pizza elsewhere. I’m not even quite sure how. It’s just not as *substantial* as what I’m used to. Thin crust—but not too thin; it bubbles up along the doughy edges—just a little sauce, not too many toppings. More of a snack than a meal, though we used it as both.

After our snack, we made our way towards where we thought the Spanish Steps were, and instead found ourselves at an open square where a huge rock and roll concert stage was being set up for later that evening. (We did not recognize any of the names.) From there we did manage to find the Spanish Steps. Both it and the Trevi Fountain were under construction. Well, the Steps are getting a refurbished fountain on the street in front of them; the steps themselves are open and unmolested. But the Fountain, which we saw the next day, is empty and surrounded by a huge plexiglass cage.

From the Spanish Steps, we made our way back to the river and strolled along until we were over near the Vatican, and then plunged back into the city for a little more shopping and sightseeing. No earth-shattering purchases—Susan found a few little jewelry things—but it’s a fun way to see the city. I didn’t buy much, though I managed to have their fabulous cherry ice cream at least once every day (both in Rome and elsewhere on the cruise). There were also fresh cherries everywhere, which were delicious. In fact, the extra-sweet cherries I got in Dubrovnik were the best I have ever had anywhere.

This wandering took us a good four hours, and we finished back on a little side street adjacent to the Piazza Navona where we found a little outdoor cafe and had dinner there. This amounted to the best meal we had all trip. It was a plate of local meats and cheeses with a huge glob of fresh buffalo mozzarella in the middle. We ordered, quite unnecessarily, a mushroom and mozzarella and gorgonzola pizza as well, which was spec-freakin’-tacular. We liked the meat & cheese platter so much that we came back the next day for another. That was the day.


The next day we had an appointment for the Vatican museums at 10:30. The plan was to tour those and take a few minutes for St. Peter’s Basilica. Getting the tickets in advance was brilliant, as the lines stretched for blocks and moved very slowly. We were able to bypass the whole thing, and join much shorter (but still substantial) lines inside. 

The museum was extremely crowded, and the organization vis-a-vis shuttling thousands of people thru the facility every day seemed spotty. There was a lot of signage, but not everything made easy sense. We rented audioguides (my first one did not want to work), and the presentations were very nicely produced. 

But after a while the collection just overwhelms. You don't realize going in--I didn't, anyway--just *how much* stuff they've laid their hands on. I was never the guy toward whom these collections were aimed, and my antipathy towards the church made me awfully skeptical about whether it was even a good idea to tour the place. But it seems stupid to go to one of Europe’s great cities and avoid this singular thing out of pique. So I told Susan I would try to be good and keep my snark at bay as much as possible. 

But it was hard. On the one hand, their collection of paintings and tapestries and sculptures and jewelry etc., etc. is unquestionably beautiful and it represents much of humanity’s last 800+ years. And it’s our history and it’s being very well looked-after. And I should hardly complain to pay an actual museum, say, for the privilege of looking at their collection, nor begrudge them charging a fee to look after these things. But on the other hand, I cannot for the life of me connect this vast, unfathomable wealth—it’s obscene, really; no other word seems to capture it—to ANYTHING connected to the Jesus story. To see this collection is to glimpse the very human men behind the curtain, to grasp the reality behind the facade. Pay no mind to what they say, the saying goes, but pay attention to what they do. The Jesus myth may have talked about the nobility of poverty and about a righteous life of privation dedicated to helping others, but that has NOTHING to do with what’s going on here. This is about power and privilege (and, yes, beauty). These guys were / are interested in exactly what rich, privileged men are seemingly always interested in: riding the backs of others to a position of comfort and ease and power. The invention of Jesus gives a convenient mascot for controlling the great unwashed from whom one may squeeze a few kopeks (which, when added up in their millions, amounts to great wealth indeed), but apart from some of the refreshing public pronouncements from the current Poobah, this place could not be further from that myth-story.

I tried to keep to the admiration side of my split personality for the duration of my visit. But it’s hard, for example, to suppress the Tourettes-like ejaculation when one hears the audio guide talk about this pope adding on this or that vast wing and having the barrel vault covered in gold leaf or having a 368-meter mosaic floor (that's four football fields' in length, if you're counting) built with scenes honoring his own reign (or, in one case, a vast mosaic floor pillaged from someone else’s palace and carried thousands of miles and re-installed here), or another pope amassing these several-thousand mind-boggling statues “at considerable expense.” The quick insertion of “IN COMPLETE DISREGARD OF THE TEACHINGS OF THE JESUS STORY” kept coming out almost involuntarily, and indeed would have made much of the history of the collections in the Versailles-sized museums align more properly with reality. (We met a fantastic Australian couple on the ship who went to see these museums on the ship day, and she said she just got angrier and angrier as she made her way through. What could have been done with this wealth is almost incalculable.)

Quite apart from that, I cannot but laugh with jaw agape as the commentary talks about “the mythology of the Greeks” and then does not see what followed immediately afterward in Rome as mythology. THAT was just made-up shit, but then suddenly the same kind of nonsense was TRUE and has remained so forever.

Anyway. I survived, and I can say that I saw the place. St. Peter’s was noteworthy for being immense—it’s something like 50% bigger in interior volume than the next-biggest, if I recall correctly. But I find I’m much more strongly drawn to the gothic architecture of my favorite Parisian stone buildings. St. Peter's is huge and stunningly-decorated and in brilliant shape, and it doubtless has an aura for the faithful. But it's a less-interesting building to me than Notre Dame or St. Eustache or St. Sulpice (or certainly than the Sagrada Familia).

We went back to the hotel for a short nap, and then spent the last five or six hours again roaming the streets. At this point we’re both quite homesick, but it’s so difficult to pull yourself away from all the activity on the streets and prepare to leave. Much more so than Venice, I think I could come back to Rome again and again and still barely scratch the surface of it. It’s not nearly so singular as Venice, and it’s just a much bigger place. The age of it gives it a charm and a mystery that would take a while to get to the bottom of.

But it will have to wait for another visit.

Cruise Day 11 & 12: Venice.

Venice pictures HERE.

And so the cruise comes to an end. We arrived slightly ahead of schedule in Venice at 12:45 PM, after a spectacular parade past the sea-level city. We had the remainder of the day (Saturday) to play in Venice and spent the night on the ship. Then the following morning they kicked us off—after feeding us one last time, of course! It’s always a melancholy thing to get your card scanned one last time as you leave the ship, passing a boundary whereafter you are no longer granted all the privileges you’ve enjoyed for the last week or two.

And it’s been a really glorious cruise, my favorite yet by a goodly margin. I loved each and every port, and everything seemed new and interesting to me. We had letter-perfect weather, and we walked a ton. I feel like I know Europe (to the extent that anybody “knows” Europe) just a little better.

Venice is simply not like any place I’ve been before. It’s a shade like Amsterdam, in that there’s water everywhere. But Amsterdam feels like a city with canals cut into it, whereas Venice feels like somebody floated a city on top of the sea. It’s so odd that buildings rise out of the water with no land around them, and there are NO streets whatsoever in the middle of the city (there are cars and buses of course on the outskirts, like the cruise ship docks, which are near the train station, both of which require good road connections). That’s one of the big differences from other places: Venice has NO street traffic. None. Zip. There are no bicycles, no scooters, no cars no trucks no buses. Nothing. And the rights-of-way where motor vehicles DO operate—the canals—are not places where you could or would be as a pedestrian anyway. So it’s really a pedestrian-only city, and I’ve never seen that before. Like the other places we’ve been on this cruise—Dubrovnik, Kotor, Kerkira—the paths of Venice are winding and very narrow, and they open up every couple blocks onto a square ringed by a church and a bunch of cafes. It’s very civilized. And very crowded with tourists.

We bought a 12-hour pass for the water bus (their city bus, like every other mode of transport, is a series of mid-sized boats that travel six or seven different routes) and rode a couple routes. Like the rest of the city, this mode of transport is unique to the place. Amsterdam has a water bus system, but Venice has ONLY a waterbus. Venice also has water taxis, but they run 72 Euros for a one-way trip. Despite the expense, which is not so bad if you double up with another couple or if you have kids, they were doing a booming business. And the water buses were jammed to their capacity of a hundred or so people all day long. And of course there are the gondolas. There supposedly used to be upwards of 14,000 of them, and now there are just 400 or so, but they seem to do a good business as well. But they are slow and atmospheric rather than utilitarian. It would be a bit tiresome to live in the city and need regularly to get anywhere, as there are no straight lines, and none of the transportation goes directly anywhere or at any meaningful rate of speed. But again, everything was jammed all the time on both days.

When we pulled in to the cruise ship slip we were one of, I think, four ships of about the same size (our ship carries 2,200 passengers), and when one ship left another took its place. So there must have been, on ships alone, a good 8,000 people in town at any given time. Venice has a indigenous population of some 60,000 (down from 200,000 at its peak, we were told), and so these 8,000 folks plus maybe an equal number there NOT from the ships, makes for a substantial jump in bodies wandering the streets. Tourism is the only show in town, I think, and it shows.

And I think despite snapping a thousand pictures (everywhere you look seems to demand a photo) that is my primary impression from the walking we did: Venice seems like an all-tourist place, kind of like an adult Disneyland rather than a real city where we just happen to visit. Wandering this evening before dinner, a Sunday evening, we got off the beaten path and saw the natives gathering outside for dinner and to chat and catch up. But even then it doesn’t feel like a real place so much as a special magical shopping mecca that thousands visit every day and then leave. I’d be very happy to come back here, and I’m thrilled that I got a taste of the place, but I don’t think I’d plan a visit specifically to come here again, even if I don’t expect to see anyplace like it again. Everyone treated us very well and seemed happy we were there, and the food was excellent.

Tomorrow, we take a train back to Rome, and then, 36 hours and a Vatican tour later, we’re off for home.

Cruise Day 11: Kotor, Montenegro.

(Not a postcard. *I* took that freakin' picture. WITH AN IPHONE. I know, right?)

Kotor pictures are HERE.

In truth, despite our having had a really lovely time in each of the places we’ve stopped, 12 days is a bit long to be on tour at a new-place-every-day pace. One struggles with saturation, and many of the places are similar in general character, even if they differ quite a bit in their details. Marseilles, Monte Carlo, Livorno, Civitavecchia, Naples, Taormina, Corfu, Kotor: there’s a whole lot of old stone buildings and narrow alleys in those places, an awful lot of tourist shops, however fabulous.

I’ve been really itching to see Venice, and so I was kind of wishing I could give Kotor a pass. We’re both kind of homesick, and this just seemed like a place I didn’t particularly need to see.

Fortunately, nobody listened to me. Because we have an inside stateroom on this trip, there is no window and we only really know what it’s like outside when we emerge from below decks. In this case we came up for breakfast and found the ship hovering in the middle of a fjord, with fantastic, orange-tile-roofed buildings on both sides. A REALLY fantastic setting. So we headed ashore, and Susan made a beeline to a nearby pebbly beach to lounge on a chair under an umbrella (with a surreal view of the ship surrounded by rocky mountains) while I wandered thru the old town and headed up the ancient fortified wall that stretches, Great-Wall-of-China-style, up the mountains to an ancient, crumbling fort high over the town.

That turned out to be a hell of a walk, with a hell of a view at the end of it. I don’t really know how high up it was (I’m guessing a couple thousand feet up at least—this is what happens without an internet connection; I guess at stuff), but it was pretty steeply uphill for a good hour. Despite being in the shade most of the time (the sun was behind the mountains as we climbed) I was as wet as if I’d showered by the time I got to the top. A nice workout, actually. 

The walls / fortifications / path upward; all were crumbling and centuries past their prime. There were only one or two marginally-intact buildings along the path, and probably another 10 that were in ruins. Really, nothing useful is left intact—I can’t even figure out what purpose the wall served in the first place for all the effort it clearly took to build it. There’s nothing behind it for  anyone coming from the sea (and it only covers a short span above the city—it could easily have been bypassed by intruders) and it doesn’t cover enough to stop people coming from the backside. The path up looks like a medieval stone pathway suitable (in its prime) for golf carts. And next to the wall are narrow steps, about 15% of which are missing or crumbled. The path ceased to be functional for anything with wheels a couple hundred years ago, and is now mostly a Ramp Of Rubble that makes for slightly precarious walking. There were quite a few people doing the walk up and down (many stopping midway and abandoning their quest) and we had to get around each other on this steps / ramp combination. I had an ankle twist a couple times, though to no ill effect. But I wonder if they don’t log some injuries with so many tourists going up and down. They charged a paltry three Euros to walk up, some dude sitting at a card table with a little receipt-printer serving as the gate keeper. (In Croatia, the fee was seven Euros to walk the wall, and that money was clearly being poured into keeping the wall up; it was quite pristine.) There were pink garbage bags placed along the climb at regular intervals, and vendors carted coolers with water and soda up as far as they could make it and sold cold drinks for a couple Euros (I bought a water from one guy out of pity as he seemed to toil so much to get his cooler in place.)

After a few minutes’ admiration of the sight (and many pictures), I started down and met Susan back on the beach. We then strolled more thoroughly through the old town (which was inside the wall and REALLY like a blast from the past) before heading back to the ship. Because we had far to go before our next port—Venice—they needed to get an early start, and the all-aboard was at 1:30 PM. Arrival in Venice would be 24 hours later.

So I’m really glad I didn’t give Kotor a skip, as it was maybe the most extraordinary ancient village we’ve seen of all. And the wall climb was fantastic and some good exercise.

Tomorrow: Venice!

Cruise Day 10: Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Dubrovnik pictures are HERE.

I was looking forward to this day, as I’ve been watching Game Of Thrones, and the fantastic walled city is used for the setting of King’s Landing on the show. So I naturally expected a medieval feel. But the wall was more amazing than I could have imagined. This may be in part because it’s in such spectacular shape, and because it’s so tourist-friendly (and maybe this is because of the influx of TV money from GOT). But the city inside the wall is a fabulous tangled warren of narrow alleys packed with restaurants and kiosks and clothing boutiques, and there is a lovely central square with a couple big churches. Everything is roofed with orange ceramic tiles, and it looks almost like Pompeii before the ash.

That was our whole day there, really. We took a cab from the ship to the far side of the wall (per Rick Steves’s recommendation), and avoided any hint of a line. There was quite a bit of climbing, but the stairs were of normal size and pitch and the views took your mind off the workload. Really spectacular.

After a couple hours of that we roamed just a little in the old city outside the wall before catching a cab back to the ship.

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Cruise Day 9: Corfu.

Pictures for Corfu are HERE.

This is our second visit to Greece, the first being a couple years ago, when we spent most of a week in Athens with a quick side trip to Milos. Hard to get a sense of a place from a short visit like these, but one hopes to build a composite picture.

Corfu is much more intimate than Athens, but reminds me of it. Like many of the other places we’ve seen on this cruise, it seems old and medieval and compact. Much of the town consists of very narrow, twisting alleyways where you can never see more than about 1/2 a block ahead, and which do not move in a consistent direction. The sun does not make its way into many of these alleys, and so it’s difficult to work your way from Point A to Point B unless you already know how to get there. You enter the tangle headed North and emerge on the West side facing Southwest. But the town is not very big, and it’s loaded with charm. The shops are very touristy, which corresponds to tourism having become many of these places’ principle means of survival. And despite a degree of crumbling antiquity, they feel like they’re doing rather well. One hopes the disruption of having a cruise ship come and go from one’s quiet little seaside village brings enough money to keep everyone happy.

We wandered the streets, buying a few trinkets and having lunch at an outdoor cafe. When we were in Athens we discovered the miraculous little treat that is the cheese croquette. We’ve never seen them anywhere else, though croquettes are on many menus in the Mediterranean. But they’re usually made from chicken, odd handball-sized fried globs of pureed chicken that are delicious but slightly… disturbing. But back in Greece we again found cheese croquettes and were thrilled. This time the croquettes were finger-shaped, like small-ish fish sticks, but still tasted pretty fab. We got those plus a great Greek salad and a Margherita pizza (which got mistranslated and came out as an uninspired four-cheese thing with a food service crust).

But if the food lacked anything, the setting more than made up for it. After a couple hours’ wandering and a visit to the Old Fort (there is a New Fort as well, the latter dating from the 1500s; not sure about the Old Fort, but it’s, well, older than that) we walked back to the ship.

Another fabulous day.

Cruise Days 7-8: Taormina and a sea day.

Pictures for Taormina are HERE.

Situated along the Eastern coast of Sicily midway between Messina and Catania (the latter the site of the Naval Air Station Sigonella, where I flew a military charter some months back), Taormina is said to be a bit of Capri and Monte Carlo. It’s not a coastal town, as I had somehow expected (since the cruise ship kind of “goes there”) but rather a place that requires another inland transfer, bypassing the cute little coastal village where our tenders let us off.

We debated making this a stay-on-the-ship day, but decided after all to head ashore and at least walk the little village. This was actually lovely and a relaxing morning. There was another town perched on the mountains above our coastal village (with Taormina proper inland of that), but we decided to stick to what we could see on foot.

Seems we should have been more ambitious. Though our walk was lovely, it sounds like Taormina proper was much worth the trouble to get there. A friendly couple we’ve met on the boat went there and said that every time you looked you felt compelled to take a photo. But one of the criticisms we’ve heard of this cruise (if it can be said to be appropriate to criticize a 12-day Mediterranean cruise at all) is that there is only one sea day, so one has something to do every day. None of it is strenuous, of course, but it does deprive one of a little down-time.

The following day provided that in spades: our one day at sea. We spent the day puttering at a very slow speed Eastward from Sicily to the mid-coast of Greece and then turning North to follow the coastline up to Corfu.

Susan decided to rent one of the little poolside cabanas, knowing that both pools would be swarming. It was an excellent choice, as it gave us a nice place to sit / lay down and store our stuff for the entire day. Usually, we try to find two deck chairs together, but they’re hard to find and hard to keep when so many people want them. So the cabana was a few bucks well-spent. I can see especially if one had kids the space would be indispensable (the extended family group next to us rented two cabanas and pulled back the little curtain to make one big cabana. This was an excellent idea). The best thing, for me, was that it kept me out of the sun the entire time. I’ve felt that I was getting much too much sun this entire vacation, despite my wearing long-sleeve things and my trés-façonable Tilley Hat. Susan thinks I may have officially changed races.

Tomorrow, Corfu.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cruise Day 6: Naples.

Pictures HERE.

Naples has something of a bad-boy reputation. It’s supposedly raucous and dirty and crowded and loud; people either love it or hate it, it seems. And it’s also the jumping-off point for a bunch of worthwhile out-of-town destinations: the Amalfi Coast, the Isle of Capri, Sorrento, Pompeii. I admit to being tempted to just see what all the fuss is about in Naples itself, but it seemed positively wrong to be so close to Pompeii and not see it. In the world of archeology, it appears that Pompeii is a singularity, an entire town encased and preserved and then left undisturbed for some 2,000 years.

None of the ship-sponsored activities seemed especially enticing, but a fella at the train station at Civitavecchia yesterday was handing out flyers for today’s activities in Naples (very clever of them). His particular company’s tour promised to do more in the same time for substantially less money than what the ship had on offer, so we bit.

We gathered outside the cruise terminal and boarded two buses and hit the road. The goal was to drive out past Pompeii and across the boot for a view of the Amalfi Coast and then go back for a couple hours in Sorrento. From there we'd head back for a tour of Pompeii and be back in time for all-aboard. As it turns out, this was maybe a touch too much to accomplish in the time allotted. But points for effort.

The traffic in Italy is… insane. The roads are very narrow (except the expressways, which naturally do not connect the little resort towns on the coasts), and people cross the center line constantly to pass—especially those on scooter. That’s not so unusual, except that the roads we were on today were incredibly winding and perched precariously on the lips of mountains with sheer drops. The guide said that there were over 2,000 bends in the stretch of road we took between Positano and Sorrento (and beyond). Tiny little two-lane roads and huge tour buses on them and seemingly no extra room. (I’m reminded of similar conditions in Hong Kong, except there you ride in the upper deck of a double-decker bus and feel like you’re REALLY going to tip to your death!)

We stopped about an hour out of Naples for a potty break at a little factory that made wooden inlays for furniture and such. Then we made a short photo stop overlooking the Amalfi Coast—an amazing collection of buildings perched on the mountainside that looked like they wanted to tumble straight down into the deep blue water at the bottom. A flabbergasting site.

Then we stopped for lunch in Sorrento, and Susan and I did a little shopping in the medieval streets there. Very atmospheric. And I had the best frickin’ ice cream cone I have ever eaten in nearly 52 years. A sugar cone with some cherry-vanilla somethingorother that defies description and even belief. I almost went back for seconds. I wonder now if I wasn't hallucinating. Susan had chocolate-pistacchio and had a similar, if entirely in-body, experience.

Unfortunately, we wasted about half our time in Sorrento trying to find a cash machine that would work. I tried an ATM in the cruise ship terminal (since the tour, inexplicably, would only take euros or dollars; cash only) and for the first time ever my card was spit back out and I was told to contact my bank. The tour guide said not to worry, there would be other ATMs in Sorrento. I said I had used the same card literally around the world and had never had an issue. “It’s Italy,” he said with a shrug. We eventually found an ATM in Sorrento at an actual bank (though the bank was closed) and I got the same response. So we caved in and got cash on our credit card, which seems so… unnecessary (and cost about five times as much). But the immediate problem was solved.

We went from Sorrento back via the same route to Pompeii. Turns out the Pompeii workers had staged a half-day strike in the morning (which explains why we had not started there), so the crowds when we got there around 14:30 were insane (perhaps they’re always that way, though we were told the strike was to blame). We were left with only about 90 minutes to do what we were told required three-four hours, and we spent a good 20-25 minutes of that time trying to get our group tickets sorted out. Buying adult tickets (with money we paid separately) was easy, but the  under-18 crowd, who got in free, were told they needed to wait in the miles-long line. Our tour guide eventually sorted it out, and we headed off with our radios listening to her prattle on in delightfully-Italian-accented English for just over an hour.

Pompeii, more so than Rome’s Colosseum or the Forum, really feels like a preserved human settlement. The streets and curbs and steps and many of the walls are, we were told, exactly as they were in 79AD when the ash came. Very little has been reconstructed, and so nothing, for example, meets any kind of modern code. And that makes it feel antique, even more than is the case with the Colosseum, which has been extensively salvaged and resurrected. We wandered the ruins for about 75 minutes (we left a little late), and she took us to some really key sites: two different theaters (a big and a small), a couple houses, a public bath, a brothel. And we walked a number of streets, which were spooky cool. There really is a touch of the Andromeda Strain about it, like we were *that close* to seeing the real place before everyone was removed and the place aged a thousand years in a blink.

Turns out the ruins are about 75% excavated, though even the excavated stuff is still being carefully combed-over to be sure nothing was missed. I feel as though we could have spent more time there, but we saw enough to get a real sense of what the place is about; and the real drain was the heat and the incredible crush of people that kept you from getting much of a good look at so much stuff. But we were part of that same crush, so I cannot complain too loudly. Still, it might be cool to come back late in the day or during the off-season (if there is one).

Tomorrow, Taormina. We aren’t sure if we’ll get off for that or not.

Cruise Day 5: Roma.

Rome pics HERE.

This (along with Venice) was the expected highlight of this cruise for me. We again had to decide between one of the ship’s sanctioned tours or activities and just going it on our own. We prefer the latter, but Rome is one of those places where the things to see so vastly overwhelm the time available that SOME prioritization is necessary. The organized tours are one way to cram several high-priority sites into a short span of time, but 1) they tend to be expensive, and 2) they necessitate seeing the sites with a throng of cruise ship denizens. On the other hand, these sites will inevitably be crammed anyway, and the cruise ship tours generally let you skip lines and wander right in.

We are returning to Rome for another day and a half after the cruise terminates in Venice, flying homeward out of Rome. So we decided to save the Vatican etc. for our return and to focus on the Colosseum and the next-door Forum for our present day’s activities.  So we bypassed the Holland America sanctioned tours (and also their $100-a-person transport bus—since Civitavecchia is about 90 minutes from Rome proper) and opted instead for the $15 all-you-can-ride train pass. And as we were buying that we saw that, for another $20 or so, we could also get a no-wait ticket for the Colosseum and the Forum. Just what we had wanted! 

It was another of those days where I find myself emerging from a strange train (the Italian trains, while punctual, were hot and crowded and not very pleasant) in a strange, fabulous city with seemingly the whole world at my fingertips. Asking directions to the Colosseum from a tour guide in the Termini, she replied “Outside and keep going downhill.” The city was warm and crowded and chaotic—just my thing. Everything is old and slightly decrepit, and the ruins, which take up a lot of space, just spring up on you. Suddenly you look down a side street and find your view blocked… by the frickin’ Colosseum! How cool is that?

We made our way down the streets that, in some form, had to have funneled people to this site for thousands of years, past street hawkers and men dressed as gladiators selling photo ops. Thanks to our passes, we just bypassed a milling crowd of thousands and walked almost straight in. I couldn’t help thinking “Lambeau Field” as we walked the vaulted passages beneath the seating risers; the purpose of the place, as with the Greek theatres we saw a couple years back, is unmistakeable. People gathered here in huge numbers to engage in a collective event. And the size of the place really takes the breath away, especially given the time in history when it was made. Much of what we see today is crumbling, and there has been a lot of restoration. But it’s still spooky-old. We stopped by the bookstore for a couple things, one book specifically about the Colosseum and another about ancient Rome generally.

From there we walked next door to the Forum. I expected (having done very little research) that the Forum was a single thing—a site or a building or whatever; a locale for some purpose. But it’s really more like a street with numerous structures along it. There has clearly been some restoration work on some things, but most of it is still bits and pieces of things sticking out of the ground. If anything, it seemed even more fascinating to me than the Colosseum because it was many things over a large area, even if no single thing holds a candle to the Colosseum.

It’s a bit like a big art museum in that I think one could profitably return numerous times with study in between and really learn things.

Walking through these two things, Colosseum and Forum, took us a good four-plus hours. And we walked from there back through the city to the train station and headed back to Civitavecchia and the ship. Fantastic day.

Cruise Day 4: Livorno.

Livorno pictures HERE.

This is the dilemma with cruise ship travel: to a large extent, the itinerary of any given day is dictated by the ship’s schedule. True, even without the ship (unless you just got off an airplane and lit out) you’d be bound by whatever reservations you made as you planned your vacation; but cruise ship schedules tend to put you ashore in the morning and dictate an all-aboard around suppertime. So you have a limited time each day to explore the port, or to choose between several options. If it’s a place you’ve never been before, the choosing can be hard.

And so it was in Livorno. Most people use this day as a jumping-off point to nearby Pisa (to see the leaning tower) or to head a bit further afield to Florence. We debated—Florence seems like a place to see—but we were both a little tapped-out from a week of travel (following hard on a long-ish week in New York). So we decided we’d rather make a short day looking around Livorno than to spend 4+ hours in transit for 5 hours on the hoof in Florence. (It always feels odd to me to depart a new place I haven’t explored for some OTHER place I haven’t explored, even as I acknowledge that the other place may be more noteworthy.) Nobody said anything very complimentary about Livorno, but it turns out to be an interesting town with a big water presence. We walked around and saw some Venice-like canals and an old fort that, apparently, was occupied by post-WWII squatters until the 60s. From there we just walked at random and stumbled upon a great street market that we spent a couple hours exploring. It was all quite un-touristy compared to the usual cruise ship fare—as with Marseilles, the giveaway was the preponderance of socks and underwear at many market stalls. There was a fish and food market in an old building next door to the outdoor market, so we roamed those stalls as well. Compared to the tourist sites we had seen thus far, it all seemed a bit tired and low-rent, but honestly that was refreshing.

And that was pretty much the whole day. We made it back to the ship after about four hours and close to 10 miles, with enough time for a short nap and a leisurely swim and snacks (in other words, standard cruise ship daily life).

One oddity was the evening’s entertainment on the ship. There is a big showroom which can hold about half of the ship’s 2200 passengers, and so the evening’s shows are repeated twice, once at about 8:PM and another at 10:PM. The shows are about an hour, and they rotate among the ship’s cast of singers and dancers, a comedian or juggler or the like, a couple small musical acts, and some kind of ethnic show from the ship’s complement of Southeast Asian employees. Additionally, there are three or four other musical things going on throughout the ship: there is always a piano bar (which is surprisingly well-attended for what sounds to me like—well, it IS—lounge music); there’s a solo guitarist up in the “Crow’s Nest,” a bar at the uppermost deck at the bow of the ship—with a spectacular view of the sea ahead—a small dance combo in the center atrium at a bar there; and the house band typically plays rock and roll favorites somewhere else on the ship for three or four hours a day. On this cruise, for the first time, I see a group called the B.B. King’s Blues All-Stars playing in a large performance space every night. This is something new. They seem quite good, though I’ve only listened to them in passing. There’s generally a string trio or quartet on most ships that plays a couple hours in the evening, and I’ve sampled them on each cruise. The quality varies from quite marginal to really very good. On this cruise the classical fare is provided by a violinist and pianist. I could only stand a few minutes of this, though the pianist seemed quite good (I confess the solo violin is a particularly difficult instrument for me; I just don’t like the tone in general, and I HATE the constant, waggling vibrato).

So I try to sample everything, if briefly. But beyond that I don’t typically do their entertainment.

But on this cruise the surprise was an actual concert pianist in the main showroom! (A Chinese-Brit whom I did not know and whose name I cannot now remember). This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this in the main showroom, and from the description—“Concert Pianist”— I quite expected her to be more new-age or even have a showtunes trio accompanying her. But no! She played Liszt and Chopin and Beethoven and one of her own compositions. And she was quite good indeed. There were, of course, only about 200 people in the audience, but they were receptive and gave her a rousing ovation at the end.

So unexpected but delightful!

Cruise Day 3: Monaco.

Monaco pictures HERE.

Well, Monaco has come and gone. Though I have of course heard about Rome and Venice since my early childhood, most of the places on this cruise I’ve never really heard of. Monaco is an exception. I’ve followed Formula 1 car racing for close to 20 years now (though not so much in the last couple seasons) and Monaco is the crown jewel race for this series. There are only a couple races on the yearly calendar that have been there since the beginning (in, I believe, 1950). Monaco is one of them and perhaps the most special. It’s certainly the most glamorous and the most anomalous. The race is held on the city streets of the crowded municipality—a tiny city-state, really—and there are virtually none of the safety features that have become required of any other venue that proposes to host an F1 race. Mostly, there is no room for error. If you are off-line, you hit immoveable things—armco barriers or stone walls. There is precious little space to pass another car, and, again, getting it wrong means broken things. It has long been conceded that no one trying to establish a race today would be allowed to consider an ancient mountainside playground for the rich and famous as a venue.

But it was here first, so the race itself has had to adapt over time. Despite a continuous tweaking of the regulations, the cars get faster and faster, more than offsetting the increases in safety achieved in other areas. So cars going 120 mph in this setting, though considerably slower than speeds achieved on any other track, seems INSANE when you see how cramped the track is. Suicidal, even.

I’ve known all this for years, of course. Anyone who watches the race on TV gets a continuous earful about how odd the circumstances are and how dangerous it is to hold a race in this setting. And from that TV coverage over 20 years I’ve watched hundreds of laps around the circuit from both onboard cameras and from general TV coverage. So it’s kind of surreal to show up and experience a thing you already kind of know well. We got off our tender at a pier not far from the center of town (the whole municipality can be walked one end to the other in hardly more than an hour, I’d say) and was suddenly overtaken with a sense of déja vu. I know this place! This place I’ve never set foot upon. Very odd indeed.

Well, I know it, but I don’t know it. There’s still a disconnect between what I’ve seen and what it’s like in the flesh. As it looked around I needed to do a little act of translation. TV plays with your sense of perspective and distance. The actual distances are much shorter than I expected, the quarters tighter, the hills steeper. I’ve listened to laments for years about how cramped everything is, but I wasn’t prepared to practically be able to touch both lanes of the track simultaneously.

Before walking parts of the track, we headed uphill from the tender pier to the oldest part of the city, high on a hill overlooking the spectacular harbor that is the city’s trademark. This is supposedly the old, original city. From there the narrow, winding streets lead to the famous cathedral where Grace Kelly is buried (along with her husband), and from there onward to the Royal Palace. All trés swank. Then one descends down the backside of the hill back to sea level. We went from there to a shopping complex where Susan shopped a bit and I went through the prince’s private car collection, which includes a bunch of F1 cars starting from about 1980 and continuing up to the present day (they had a stripped 2013 Lotus on display). He also has a bunch of older cars from many nations, actually extending as far back as horse-drawn carriages. I especially loved the ‘50s vintage Cadillacs. Fun to see how the American cars competed when we were at the top of our game. Our cars were utterly distinct from anything else being made.

After that, we just roamed the city, mostly following the F1 track. We did a little window shopping (I bought only a Mercedes team F1 hat), we had some lunch, took a boatload of pictures, and headed back to the ship. A really lovely day. There is a fairy-tale aspect to the place, and while I’d love seeing the race in person it doesn’t seem like a place I’d need to visit again. But I’m thrilled I saw it in person.

Vacation, Day 7; Cruise, Day 2

Marseilles pictures are HERE.

Today: Marseilles. A short overnight steam from Barcelona, we were docked 3-4 miles outside the city center of Marseilles by 8:AM. We were still struggling a bit with our sleep schedules, and were awakened by the 8:AM docking announcement. We decided the day before that we’d let the tour people get off the boat first, and it was a good call. Breakfast at 8:30 was not so crazy-busy, and at 9:AM we walked right onto the waiting shuttle and were downtown in a quick 15 minutes.

We had a vague idea of things we’d be happy to see—the Roman Dock museum, a couple churches, a couple forts—and we headed off on foot to see what landed in front of us. The harbor in Marseilles is lovely, and PACKED with boats, both working and pleasure. The docks extend from both sides of the harbor and almost meet in the middle, a channel being kept open in the center big enough for a couple boats to pass. The rest is parking space. So we walked around that and looked at both the many boats and the shops and restaurants that ringed the harbor (it’s maybe half a mile on each side). At the end of the harbor going inland is the old city, and we just headed inland and picked an interesting-looking street and took it. Interesting shops and historic-looking buildings. We then stumbled upon a semi-impromptu outdoor market that stretched along both sides of a walking path along a boulevard for maybe a mile or more. This was a market for locals, I think, similar to those that pop up along the streets of lower Manhattan. Socks and underwear and phone covers and numerous kinds of foods, etc. Susan found a couple interesting barrettes and I found a small metal wallet. Lots of fun.

From there we headed vaguely uphill towards a church up on the highest peak of land overlooking the city, the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. It was quite a hike to get up there, but the panoramic views of the beautiful old city and harbor far below were quite worth the effort. The church was quite lovely, and set in an unlikely setting. Lots of gold leaf and many memorials to those who died in sailing accidents over the centuries (our guide book says that Marseilles is one of the oldest cities in Europe, having been established over 3,000 years ago).

In all, it was a larger place than I had imagined. They have a pretty elaborate subway system, and we saw a number of bus routes, so there’s more to it than I realized. We, of course, saw only a small portion of it, but it was a lovely introduction.

Tomorrow: Monaco!

Vacation 2014. Part the First.

The days fly by when you have nothing on your mind, I guess!

(Panorama shot of the fantastic Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona.)

Barcelona pics are on Flickr HERE.

Tuesday was already Day 5 of our vacation, having begun in ATW and flown thru Detroit and Amsterdam to sunny Barcelona. We were lucky in our hotel choice; it’s a nice place, and we’re close enough to the action that it’s not much of a walk, but far enough away that our particular street is fairly quiet. (We booked via Kayak and even using a map and their star rating system you can never be quite sure. The map is helpful, but it’s a definite disadvantage not to know the terrain. Anyway, we were lucky. One quibble: the A/C worked only feebly on the first night; after that, not so much. But the windows had no screens on them, so I felt sheepish leaving them open wide overnight. We eventually did exactly that and lived to tell the tale.)

Our flight got us into Barcelona in the morning of Day 2, and we took a cab to our hotel. Neither of us had slept much on the airplane, but it was too soon to check in to the hotel, so we dropped off our bags and headed out to see the sights. We walked the 3/4 of a mile or so to the center of the older portion of town and the start of La Ramblas, the old shopping boulevard that leads to the waterfront. We found something to eat and looked at the fantastic architecture and made note of the hop-on / hop-off tourist bus that covered either two or three different routes (depending on which company you chose) with a translated audio guide included. We decided to buy a two-day pass on one of those for the following day, and we’d ride all the routes over the succeeding couple of days. This was an excellent way to get an overview of a place we’d never been, and it showed us where we might want to return. Our hotel even gave us a discount of a couple euros for one of the lines, so that decided for us which bus to take. We were pretty bleary from lack of sleep, so after walking around we checked into our hotel and had a short nap and then headed back out for some tapas at the University Square near the hotel. There was fantastic people-watching, and we sat at an outdoor table next to a thousand other people, many of whom were watching Spain playing somebody in the preliminary rounds of the World Cup. It was as noisy and enthusiastic a crowd as ever cheered on the Pack, and it made for a fun evening.

We had some paella (where I had to pick around the prehistoric-looking crustacean-like creatures looking back at me with their fried eyes. I ate the chicken, and, my wife informed me, the calamari (maybe there’s hope for me yet) and my first exposure to the ubiquitous culinary delight that is Patatas Bravas. We have our french fries, and Spaniards have their bravas. These are chunked potatoes, like American breakfast potatoes, though always peeled in the ones we ate (it does not appear that this is a requirement). They are supposedly fried in a pan and turned so that they get lightly browned on all sides, though some places seem to just drop them in a fry vat. But then they are served with this spicy mayo-based sauce drizzled on the top. It’s that combination that’s so utterly delectable. We had them for nearly every meal after that first evening—at least once a day—and they vary slightly from place to place but are always quite delicious.

Day 2 was spent on the first of two lines on the tourist bus. We picked the line that would take us past Gaudi’s still-in-progress masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral. The rest of the route was beautiful, and we both took to Barcelona quite strongly; but this cathedral was simply unlike any building I have ever been in anywhere. We got off the bus and waited in line for tickets—the line was very long already by 9:30 AM, and we waited maybe 45 minutes or so. They meter people going into the cathedral, and tickets have a valid time. Luckily, our valid time was almost immediate, so there was little more waiting. The outside of the cathedral is chaotic and noisy and covered in scaffolding and towered over by cranes and looks rather random and organic. From one angle it looks like a huge ant mound. Based on the outside it’s maybe hard to see the genius in the nuttiness. But the inside is another matter altogether; it’s almost like something you’d see on Star Trek. My exposure is limited, but this seems to me the only real innovation in stone cathedral design in hundreds of years. It’s still unquestionably a stone cathedral—there’s not a bit of the “Crystal Cathedral” about it—but you can’t mistake it for anything else. It feels genuinely innovative and simply awe-inspiring from the inside. Gaudi was brought on board after the project had already been started, and the small portion of the cathedral that was extant at the time is still there and looks quite traditional. But after that everything veers in quite a different direction. (Cathedrals are often the work of several centuries, and it’s not uncommon to see styles change mid-construction. But this is a direction not seen anywhere else.)

I say this elsewhere, I think, but I’m still trying to decide what to make of Gaudi. I think I automatically chafe at the bit toward decoration for its own sake, and it’s hard for me to see where his vision ceases to be decorative and becomes something else. He was clearly a gifted technician, as his works seem very sturdy and mechanically-sound. So evidently his vision was not in opposition to sound technical principles. And yet the smaller-scale things he did—houses or door knobs or furniture—just look weird for weirdness’ sake to me. But at the scale of the cathedral it’s hard to argue with the results.

Day 3. I was surprised that today, a Sunday, much was closed. The busiest thoroughfares and shopping areas--the Ramblas, the waterfront, some of the biggest shopping streets downtown--were mostly open, but most of the little shops that dot the landscape were closed for the day. Including the Apple Store, which astounds me. It's right across from the Placa de Catalunya, which is packed all day. Of course, I needed the Apple Store to be open, because (despite traveling for a living) I managed to leave home without any of the stuff I needed to keep my iPad alive (old 30-pin cord or mini-transformer).

Anyway, we rode the second tourist bus line, which passed a lot of cool stuff but took about an hour too long to do so. We were quite ready to abandon ship by the end. And we spent the rest of the day wandering the streets and eating. Most of our food has been quite casual--a sandwich here, a snack there, the occasional tapas. We've been logging just over 10 miles' walking a day, and again got back to the hotel just about sundown.

Day 4 involved a morning visit to one of the two major Gaudi-designed homes in town, the Casa Battló. This experience solved few of my conundrums about Gaudi. It's an intriguing and singular house, but it seems at first glance to have placed a priority on being... weird. None of the surfaces are straight, all the windows are oddly-shaped and custom-carved. The glass all curves in at least one dimension, making, I assume, for an expensive nightmare to replace anything. It all feels hand-made, if lovingly-produced, all seven or eight stories of it. Every single surface, every stick of furniture, all the light fixtures; all of it was obsessed over by The Master, and it's hard not to think it's a bit nutty and self-indulgent. And yet it has real innovations in air circulation and structure and other things, and it's still in excellent shape and sturdy as a rock after 100+ years of a zillion people a day walking thru it. But I could not imagine living there, honestly. The oddity of it overwhelms everything else, and it's oddly beautiful and singular without being... homey in the least. At least to me (and Susan had kind of the same reaction).

After that, with some false starts we did what I'm almost certain will trump every other activity on the whole three-week vacation--maybe trump everything else put together: WE DID A FREAKIN' SEGWAY TOUR!! Yes, you read that right. We rode Segways. I've wanted to do this for about 250 years but never managed it. Susan suggested it last night and it seemed like Jebus Hisself had beamed the idea straight from Valhalla. And it was the AWESOMEST THING EVER.

I realize that the chance to drive anything will probably take the top prize of favorite daily activity for me. But this was especially rewarding. Because it's like walking without walking. It's like floating. It's even a little like flying. The Segway is almost silent, and controlling the machine is almost totally intuitive. Susan, who despite suggesting it was actually rather resistant to the idea, was sure before she started that she would kill herself or others in the process. I actually had to kind of push her to try (something that… generally isn’t done). And the first couple minutes did not dissuade her (though our guide was very complimentary). But within about 10 minutes she had it figured out and could do the little test-slalom course easily, and after half an hour she was riding like she'd been doing it for years. (This reminds me of my teaching her how to drive a stick shift 15 years ago, something she was convinced she could never do. That’s a story for another time.) I found the Segway to be almost perfectly intuitive right away. And it's so unexpectedly fun! The little body movements and leans that you perform to operate it seem almost to tap into some unused circuitry of the brain, like finding you have the wiring necessary to fly if someone just put the right wings on you. Even as Susan was convinced that she could not really control the thing, we quickly found ourselves matching the speed of the people or other Segways in front of us, and able to maneuver in tight spaces and to start and stop easily. It just happens like you've been doing it all your life. (We were joined by a Norwegian couple who were also first-time Segway drivers, and they had it equally solidly within a couple minutes. We all had an absolute blast.)

And it gets under the skin.

We took a 90-minute introductory ride that became two hours. We'd have ridden longer but Susan's back was bothering her after a little fall yesterday. But we both declared it our favorite thing of Barcelona. Maybe even of Life On Earth Itself. (Susan protests this touch of hyperbole, but I WAS THERE. She was very enthusiastic despite herself ;-)

The next day, Day 5, was spent doing laundry and getting a last walk around Barcelona before catching a cab to the cruise ship terminal around 14:00. The cruise ship facility in Barcelona is new and beautiful, and we whisked through pretty quickly and were onboard in time for a late lunch. The ship pulled out around 16:30 and we were underway.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Long-Lost Love

Today's film: Finding Vivian Maier.

Car buffs dream of that once-in-a-lifetime discovery of the vintage '55 Porsche 550 Spyder or Mercedes 300 Gull Wing sitting dusty and forgotten in the back corner of some barn in Iowa, a miracle of automotive history covered in bird shit but otherwise pristine. Art buffs must have a similar dream of discovering the forgotten work of an indisputable master hanging forgotten in some dude's basement, or I think of Bach's Neumeister chorale preludes being found tucked in some book in the Yale library in 1984. Something of undeniable value and preciousness hidden in plain sight for decades.

Vivian Maier is that same kind of story in human form. Born in 1926 in New York City, she lived a quiet life almost entirely off the radar, eking out a career as a nanny in a succession of households around the country. But her real passion was photography, and she chose the profession of nannying in part because it let her spend her days wandering the streets taking photographs. Though she was of course known to the families with whom she worked, she was otherwise a bit of a recluse, and she made little or no effort to display her photographs to anyone, collecting more and more negatives and films around her to no end, moving an ever-larger collection of boxes with her from place to place.

She died in Chicago in 2009. A couple years prior to that, one of her unpaid storage units was emptied out and the contents, including a number of boxes of negatives, were put up for auction. A young man, John Maloof, purchased one of the boxes for some $300. When he got them home and began to look through them, he realized he was looking at a gold mine. He tracked down the other winning bidders of that auction and purchased their boxes of negatives from them. Maier was still alive at this point, but she died about the same time he decided to figure out who this unknown artist was. By the end of his search he had accumulated some 100,000 negatives and hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film, plus a whole storage unit worth of junk she had squirreled away. There was a lot of chaff, but it was undeniably a treasure trove.

The film Finding Vivian Maier, co-directed by Maloof and Charlie Siskel, is Maloof's attempt to put Maier's work before a wider public. It consists of Maloof himself telling his story (which includes a trip to France to interview people who knew her there) plus interviews with a number of people who were nannied by her over the decades. She seems to have had few if any friends and no acquaintances apart from the children with whom she worked. All of this is interspersed with her glorious photographs, mostly of street life in NYC and other places, and with the (to me) considerably less-compelling movie footage she shot and her cassette recordings of herself just... chattering.

I realize that a film needs to be something more than just a 90-minute slideshow of her photographic work, but Maloof tries mightily to find out what made Maier tick and in the process delves maybe more deeply into her mysterious personal life than is really necessary. She appears not to have been an entirely normal person, and her abnormality (if that's the right word) is compelling in a quiet, voyeuristic sort of way--she was stubbornly single and had a hot-and-cold temperament and was a packrat; as she got older she seemed to be more and more in the grip of paranoia. And loneliness. But I can't help thinking that none of these things really contributed much to what made her extraordinary. In any case, the film is certainly more intrusive than she herself would have welcomed or approved of. It's an open question about what she would think of her work finding a large audience, but there seems little doubt that she would hate the attention directed at her person.

Having said that, the borderline-obsessiveness with which she documented everything around her, and the cheeky boldness required to get many of the portraits she captures make her an appealing enigma (which is no doubt why Maloof focuses on it; he's trying to sell someone whose body of work needs to be recognized). I have long loved photography myself, and in my line of work I find that I snap photos kind of unconsciously. But--at the risk of comparing my brain-dead dabbling with the work of a great artist--I can't help feeling rather painfully the huge gulf between her photos and mine. So far as we know, she was entirely self-taught, yet the brilliance of her eye practically jumps off the page and grabs you by the lapels. The photos are just breathtaking, collectively as fabulous as any I've seen by any other photographer. (Susan is always ribbing me about how beautifully I scrub my own photos of any people; Maier, I can't help seeing, has a human subject in just about every photo she took, including a large number of quirky self-portraits.)

A sampling of the photos can be seen here.

Recommended, both for photography buffs (OK, especially for them) and history lovers alike.

Grade: A.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Kind Of Book Report

My layover routine in the past couple of years has focussed on taking longer and longer walks. I've always walked a lot, but after taking off a few pounds a couple years ago I found myself going further and further. In the last six months I've begun doing regular outings of 25-30 miles and more. This distance, at roughly 17:15 per mile pace, amounts to eight or nine hours on the hoof. Many of these walks have been in Cologne, where I take the train to a nearby town--Düsseldorf to the North or Bonn to the South--and walk back into Cologne. I'm pretty much moving non-stop for the duration, stopping momentarily at the little kiosks and street vendors along the way for snacks and drinks, and I usually end up at a favorite pub by our layover hotel back in Cologne for the aforementioned "Flammkuchen" (or Tarte flambée). But I've done them in a variety of places.

Part of my routine also involves having a good book to listen to, and with listening sessions of this length one goes through an audiobook quickly. So I've gravitated to some longer works. The last couple of months I've been working on Jean M. Auel's "Clan of the Cave Bear" series--also called the Earth's Children series. There are six books in the series, beginning with 1980's Clan of the Cave Bear, and each book in audio form is 20 hours or so in length.

I knew nothing about this book series, even thinking at first that the name was a metaphor for something. But no, it's just what it says: a tale of prehistoric humans, specifically about a single Cro-Magnon girl whose family is killed in an earthquake. The five-year-old girl, near death, is found by a group of Neanderthals who nurse her back to health and raise her as part of their own tribe. This setup is perfect for telling the Ultimate Story of Racism, with the Neanderthals fearing the Cro-Magnons as violent and incomprehensible and the Cro-Magnons thinking the Neanderthals to be little more than animals. Our heroine, Ayla, must bridge the two civilizations.

The story is of course entirely speculative. While there seems to be some evidence that Neanderthals and the anatomically-modern Cro-Magnon humans existed at the same time--approximately 30,000 years ago--I think the notion that they interacted is as yet pure invention. But it's an intriguing idea, and Auel has taken some pains to stick mostly to informed speculation. The Neanderthals are given a distinct culture and, though not physically equipped for speech (a detail currently disputed), they are here given the ability to deftly communicate among themselves with gestures, a kind of sign language punctuated by limited sounds. Here too Auel tries to flesh out this idea, giving many examples without giving any actual details as to how it would work. She implies that this form of communication is as nuanced and broad as spoken language; personally, I can't quite see it, but the story relies on the detail and we just have to take her word for it.

And that's not the most unlikely idea she puts forth. Her Neanderthal "Clan" people are able to pass memories on genetically, a detail justified by the different shape of their brains from ours. This skill allows, for example, a medicine woman of the Clan to pass her hard-won information about plants and animals on to her children without direct communication (Lamarckism, anyone?). Kids thus pre-loaded need only be "reminded" to find they already know things. Given the kinds of knowledge that ARE passed on genetically in the animal kingdom (I think of a bee hive or the migrating behavior of birds or little marsupials climbing up their mothers' abdomens looking for their pouch), this is perhaps not a complete absurdity. But it does seem a leap.

What I did NOT know--honest!--is that the series is known for a certain moist-and-meaty depiction of sexuality, earning it a legendary titter-worthiness among teens and young adults. I spent some time looking at series reviews after I had finished three of the six books (trying to decide after the rather irritating third book whether I should bother to continue), and at least one reviewer reminded us that the sex scenes are not too big a part of the whole story, not least because you have to wade through some 900 pages before you even get to the first of them. But then Auel has left her mark on the world of sex writing, having apparently invented such terms as "throbbing manhood" and "warm, moist folds" and many other seeming-staples of soft-core porn. The first time these scenes flash before us it is in the service of the story, but then they become a bit distracting and superfluous.

Or so it seems to my superannuated self. I find myself skipping tracks that seem to have been inserted, like a drop-in addendum, from the last encounter and the one before that and so on. (The skeevy vibe is not helped by the narrator, one Sandra Burr, sounding very like one's grandma reading the Penthouse Forum aloud to you.)

However cloying and repetitive, this remains a pretty small part of the narrative. What IS fascinating, and what I think many people would find resonating, is the close-up look at what life is like when there is nothing to do with our time but to LIVE. The business of procuring food and shelter in this setting, especially when traveling, is a full-time job and something very far removed from modern life. And Auel has done a good job of showing us what skills are needed and how one might excel at things I've never even thought about. Ayla is given a great problem-solving brain, and we are shown the kinds of dilemmas a pre-historic person might have faced and shown how we might have solved these issues. I've done almost no camping--none whatsoever in over 35 years--so this survivalism is probably further from my daily consciousness than it is for some. But the idea of wandering a vast, virgin continent and foraging and hunting and finding uses for its resources has a distinct appeal.

Auel spends a fair bit of time talking about both Clan and Cro-Magnon interaction with "the spirit world," another detail that is perhaps supported by archeological artifacts. But all the talk of "totems" and the homages paid to the "Earth Mother" and such naturally make one wonder. It's hard for me to wrap my head around what advantage would have been gained in the ancestral environment to ascribe meaning and intent to things that did not have that meaning. How does believing something that's simply not true help the organism? Indeed, I'm probably spring-loaded to see this as a detriment, a diversion that takes resources away from survival, and Auel takes no pains to explain how these beliefs might have aided survival. But to the extent that Auel's depictions are true, they must have aided survival. It seems like survival for early humans was much more a razor's-edge proposition than it is in modern times, and anything that posed a burden may have meant the difference between survival and extinction. The fact that we're here to speculate about it makes me think my instincts are wrong, but I can't see how. Anyway, it's another thing to chew on.

Even apart from the groan-worthy depictions of sexuality, I can see why teens and young adults might be drawn to the books. They are written in a very simplistic and straightforward style. Everything moves at a glacial pace and the plotting seems wooden and stale. (In between the last book and the current one, I listened to William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms and was shocked at its comparative sophistication. I hope the brain cells are not permanently lost.) But the grand sweep of the adventure overcomes this. We come to identify with the feisty, extraordinary woman and I find myself eager to follow her ongoing adventures--even as I skip over the tawdry with an eye roll.

I'm currently about halfway through the fourth book, and my sense is that she has spoken her piece at this point. Now we're just muddling along with standard plotting. But having invested some 70 hours in the story to this point, it'll take some real bungling to keep me from seeing it through.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

One Quorum. Two Quora?

Not much going on at Ye Olde Journal lately. I feel more and more that I repeat myself in my posts. Some of that is inevitable, I know, as we all have our pet topics and passions and inclinations. But often as I type now I have the nagging feeling that I’ve covered the subject at hand before in a similar fashion. Apart from the occasional movie review, there’s little new going on in life that needs sorting out. (Even with movies I’m on a bit of a slowdown. I’ve seen a few things over the last couple months—well, a couple things—but nothing seems to warrant hashing over. Well, I’d make an exception to that rule for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel—which I’ve seen twice; so chalk that one up to laziness.)


A friend of mine recently introduced me to the online discussion site Quora. Another vocal atheist and liberal in a world where religion and conservatism seem to hold sway, he recommended the site to me as a place to discuss issues and concepts in a more in-depth and civilized manner than sharing posts on FaceBook. I spent a couple days poking around and then joined. The site consists of questions, aligned by topic, submitted by members and answered by others. Anyone can answer any posed question, and comments are allowed and encouraged, including comments on the comments—a discussion. The discussions there cover a huge range of topics, but I have mostly limited my input to topics related to atheism (with a couple posts on political and flying-related questions).

I have been a convicted atheist for my whole adult life. I had nagging questions about religion even as a child, though we went to church regularly until I was about 7 (I don’t doubt that my fetish for organ music comes from this early exposure). But my father died and my mother remarried and we moved from our small Iowa community to a little town in Minnesota and our churchgoing slowed and stopped. As soon as I did not have hoary mythology rammed into my head every Sunday I began to have doubts, and having begun to look at the subject critically I found it crumbled to dust entirely. As soon as I allowed myself to think in these terms, it was obvious that none of it was true: there was no overseer; no one was listening to or answering prayers; there was no cosmic accounting of wrongs; death was obviously death and people who died were gone and would stay that way. The more I learned about scientific explanations of natural phenomena, the more clear it became that a god would have nothing to do--nature was quite explicable without this injection of magic. Though I did not take any comparative religion classes in high school or college, the growing awareness that billions of the world’s citizens—a majority of them—believed something different and incompatible with the convictions of my own community was kind of the final nail in the coffin. Most of us were wrong in our convictions; this was a simple, undeniable fact. Yet knowing that we were probably wrong—and that most people certainly WERE wrong—didn't appear to stop anyone from believing fervently in whatever cultural hooey into which they were born. 

Having seen the folly of all this, I have had not an instant of pause in this conviction for the ensuing 35 years. On the contrary, the obviousness of this conclusion is daily confirmed.

So Quora. As I am long settled in my convictions (which is not to say that I’m unwilling to accept evidence that would change those convictions), I have become more and more puzzled at how organized religion keeps its hold on people in this age of unlimited information. Quora provides an opportunity for people to explain their convictions, and to perhaps persuade me what I’m missing in my own. The internet, especially places like Facebook and major news and opinion sites, has a high percentage of semi-literate people and troublemakers. Trolls make civilized conversation difficult, as they quickly degenerate discussions into brawls. Quora has its trolls, but there are also moderators and rules both for posting questions and for contributing to existing conversations. There are also, I was delighted to see, a large community of highly literate and outspoken atheists.

Well, one person’s troll is another’s hero, and I admit to having had a couple of my own answers “downvoted” by readers and one “collapsed” by moderators, especially at the beginning. Some of this is inevitable if you speak your mind (atheist comments on Atheism topic questions are expected, but atheist responses to Christianity topic questions are often unwelcome) and some of it is a frank reflection of my cantankerousness (I slapped someone for asking the question “Do we get to keep our names when we go to heaven?” as a laughable bit of categorically-unknowable folly). But overall it’s been a good place for airing and discussing real ideas.

I suppose it’s inevitable that discussions between atheists and believers eventually boil down to faith. But we usually have to work through a bevy of points of logic and pseudo-philosophy before we get down to the bedrock of “I just believe this is true” vs “I just don’t.” Lately I’ve been involved in a couple discussions that are gradually working their way thru this process. No matter where we start, we end up talking about the foundation beneath our convictions, and that leads inexorably to the faith-based convictions of the believer and my own rejection of that as a basis of knowledge. After a few times around this wheel, I begin to wonder if this isn't a colossal waste of time.

Maybe a smarter person than I would have recognized the dead-end 30 years ago and have moved onto more utile things. But with the rise of the unholy alliance of white male dominionist Christian fundamentalism in politics and corporate control of our supposedly-democratic government, I feel as though the goal of exposing the folly of Christianity (to say nothing of confronting the constant misery of Islamist terrorism throughout the world) is a necessary goal, even a vital one.

So I soldier on. Current discussions explore whether a lack of belief in gods is in fact a “belief,” and whether the world would be a better place without religion. The latter question especially, though necessarily speculative, is a worthwhile thing to chew on. But there's lots there to keep someone entertained.