Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

No, I’m not a suicide bomber. I’m just trying to make sure no one steals my camera. September 27, 2008

I keep having these little snafus that make me wonder what the universe is trying to tell me.

Case in point, back in late July, I paid big bucks to ship a box of critical items to myself for pickup in Vienna next week. The shipping alone was three nights in an above-average hostel in a big city. However, it seemed worth it, as I reasoned that by two months on the road, I would be elated to find myself with the creature comforts of a polar fleece vest, my pill prescription, some new contacts and the magic cleaning fluid (which you cannot find here. I know. I’ve tried). Also, I’m overdue for a refill on my Aveda shampoo and conditioner, and who doesn’t love a big old pack of beef jerky? If there is one thing I miss – more for convenience and a quick and non-grease laden way to feel sated – it’s beef jerky. Why is there no European country that understands the genius of Jack Links!?!?

Anyway,I swallowed hard at the shipping costs and bit the bullet. When I opened that box of goodies, it was going to be worth it.

This is what makes it kind of upsetting to learn that the box has arrived…BACK AT MY HOME IN THE UNITED STATES.

I suppose the good news (the only good news) is that I learned this before I sought out the Viennese post office and went through any kind of upset that my box had been hijacked or lost forever, but it still kind of sucks. Mostly because I find myself running out of some key items that I really needed replenished or replaced. Case in point: my razor.

So in America you hear about a business philosophy of ‘give away the razor, and charge for the blades.” Apparently, here in Italy, it’s more of a “give me your wallet, and don’t scream or I’ll kill you” model. I spent about $15.00 for a new Venus razor today. It did come with one replacement blade, but I really do hope the Gillette people hang their heads in shame. Ironically, however, it’s worth it. The other day I bought a 2 euro ($3) “Lady Alfetta“in cheery pink. I’m not sure on the translation, but I’m pretty sure that’s Italian for “Lady Bloodletting.”

One would not think there is much difference between a basic razor and a “Venus” razor, but that is like suggesting that there is not much difference between heaven and hell. Seriously, the cheap razor is so bad it’s not even funny. It’s medieval. It’s like an unplanned suicide attempt. I

What’s most amazing to me is that it requires some serious thought and skill to use. It has just one blade set incredibly low in the cheap plastic frame, so you have to angle it and handle it just so. It’s a breath away from going after your legs with just a blade.

This brings to mind something I’ve always wondered: How has the barbershop industry managed to make the straight edge shave a luxury up-charge? Is it that it’s “old fashioned”? Is it misguided jealousy – women have pedicures, and manicures, and facials and makeovers, but guys have so few ‘manly’ options of the same stripe? Is it the adrenaline rush experienced when you realize that it’s just a shave, and yet your life is in danger? To me, it just looks scary. And screams out “bad idea!” Sweeney Todd knew a sucker when he saw one too.

Speaking of scary things, I met some Irish girls who have put the fear of god into me regarding my only other night train (the first being Lisbon to Madrid, which minus some minor molestation was no big deal). They were saying that on the train from Budapest (Hungary) to Krakow (Poland) they were robbed (only their cameras were taken, but still…),. As they were using their bags as pillows, they are fairly certain they were gassed for this to have occurred. Rumors abound about people filling train compartments with some kind of gas, knocking everyone out cold, and robbing them. It was the story from a girl who claimed she’d woken up naked on the night train to Rome and Naples that kept me from ever going south of Florence in 1992.

I was originally going to do two night trains: Budapest (Hungary) to Sighisoara (Romania), and Bucharest (Romania) to Sofia (Bulgaria). However, I have heard and read such bad things about Bucharest (the worst city in Europe, packs of mongrel dogs that are known to attack people, the ONLY thing to see is the second largest building in the world – whoop di do, and – if the wild dogs leave anything behind – muggings galore. I’ll give them a few years to pull themselves together before coming back.) Sorry, got off on a little tangent there: I read such bad things about Bucharest that I’m blowing straight through. I’m going from Brasov (Transylvania) to Sofia in one, long, train-heavy day. It will suck, but I will live through it…and that’s all that matters.

However, I do have a bed on the train from Budapest to Sighisoara, and I’m torn about how to proceed. I don’t want to invent worry or make my life complicated for no reason, but I also don’t want to wake up from an inexplicably sound night of sleep and find that I have no money, no credit cards, no computer, and no camera. I do know my passport will be safe, because when you book a bed on an international train they hold onto it and present it during the border crossing for you.

Thus, I’ve decided to proceed as follows (and this would be so much better if I could present it as a flow chart, but alas. You’ll just have to use your imagination):

  1. Grill the hostel staff on historical safety of this night train. If concerned, abort and take a day train.

  2. If given the green light, case out the situation once I get there. If it seems sketchy, stay up all night pounding coffee in the cafe car.

  3. If it looks good and the other people in the room are fellow travelers (i.e. not locals of suspect nature) and the door to the cabin locks (as it should), then hide money and credit cards deeply in messenger bag. Use zip ties to seal bag shut. Place messenger bag in bottom of day pack (small backpack), put a ton of stuff on top of it, and lock day pack with TSA lock. Then (this is the part where it gets stupid, but whatever, if someone is going to gas me, I’m going to make sure they have to be Houdini to get to the good stuff and give myself every chance to wake up and scream bloody murder) take bike lock and large padlock and chain day pack to self.

    And don’t think I won’t do it.

    If they show up to rob me, and think I’m a suicide bomber with a bag chained to me…all the better! I’m not making it this far only to let some Romanian or Bulgarian @sshole rip me off.

So, with that resolved, I’m not going to think about it again until Hungary…or if I do think about it, think only good thoughts. For now, it’s off to walk around Trieste (former haunt of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway) for few hours. Trieste was not part of any tourist trail, and really relied on the Illy coffee company (based here) for many years, but now it has become a big port for cruise ships on their way to Croatia. Yesterday there were no less than three giant cruise ships in the harbor, and there was a strange Oktoberfest-like bazaar going on in their honor. I’m at a point where any swell of tourists is enough to send me scurrying in the other direction, so I when I saw the big crowds and the inflatable pretzel, I knew it was time to bolt.

So onward and upward. There is no internet at the place where I’m staying the next couple nights in Pula, Croatia, but if I can find an internet cafe, I will check in with you tomorrow and maybe finally get some photos uploaded. Until then, enjoy your weekend!

 

So, are the Village People even alive anymore? September 26, 2008

Or the bulk of them anyway?

I mean, with a bunch of gay guys enjoying their heyday during the carefree early 80′s, you kind of worry a little about AIDS and untimely deaths. BUT, that aside, and in the hopes that the cop and the Indian and the construction worker and the other leather-heavy guy (?) will soon be performing at your local Indian casino, I can attest that they must be living LARGE off their European royalties. I swear, if Europe has single, unifying anthem, it is “YMCA”. Followed, as a very close runner up, by “Go West.”

You cannot turn around without hearing these songs. At first I thought it was me. Then I thought maybe it was a conspiracy against me. Then I thought I had a malfunctioning alien implant. Now I realize they all just really, really love the Village People. White, hot burning passion LOVE. You hear the Village People (or just “The Peeps”, as I’ve taken to calling them), pouring out of storefronts, while in cafes, during Vodaphone commercials, in the subway, in the bus station bathroom. You name it. Nothing is above or beyond the Peeps.

Did you know that “YMCA” had a video? Neither did I. But – despite the fact the song is from the time before they invented “talkies” – it does…and it’s in regular rotation here on European MTV. Go figure.

Speaking of European MTV, I’m still quite sick and getting tired of it. So tonight I’m taking it easy and watching a little Italian programming. Let me tell you, they’ve got some strange ideas of entertainment. To be frank, and not to offend, but they’ve got more weird variety show than the Mexicans. If you’ve ever seen Sabado Domingo, you ain’t seen nothing. I offer up my own TV Guide as assistance:

  • On “Il Falso magro,” a gorgeous skinny girl laboriously measures the bellies of about twenty fat guys. It’s relatively unfathomable. I watched in silence for about five minutes with a girl from New Zealand who eventually said, “I have no idea what is going on.”

  • On Canale Italia, a pretty teen girl in just a thong bikini and a big sash dances awkwardly while a sleazy dude and middle-aged woman sing a song to the tune of Joe Cocker’s “We’ve Got Tonight.” The camera moves amateurishly between the singers and the feet of the teen girl, shuffling like a nervous horse in her four-inch heels.

  • And, if you’re more of a ‘Lawrence Welk meets Benny Hill’ sort, you’ll be happy to learn that “TAM” features old ladies in peasant garb beating the crap out of an old guy using nothing but the biceps the good lord gave them and some wicker baskets. Enough said.

However, and perhaps most importantly, it appears Italy produces no actual (non-variety) programming of their own. This is because the bulk of their production talent goes toward dubbing the living daylights out of American TV shows and movies. They leave no dubbable stone unturned. Advertisements for new movies – dubbed. Crappy shows (like Stargate) no one even watches in the US – dubbed. Two year-old reality shows starring Puff Daddy – dubbed. Ancient Looney Toons cartoons – dubbed. Voice over actors must be worth their weight in gold in this country.

Otherwise, and in all honesty, I cannot seem to shake this darn cold. I’m still sneezing and coughing and – god help me – blowing my nose into any scrap of fibrous material I can find every 15 seconds. Thus, I’m going to call it a night a little early, and fill you in further in the morning. Sleep tight!

 

Where the streets have no name September 25, 2008

Sorry for the silencio yesterday, kids. No internet access to be had in Venice…at least without an act of God.

I tried. The super nice guy who owns the hostel gave me a hot tip on a cafe with free wifi (so long as you buy a drink). However, he was a little cloudy on the exact whereabouts of said cafe. As with any oasis, you’ve gotta in search with nothing but hope, instincts, and desperation.

Thus, with only the name of a Campo (like a square) in the general vicinity, I went in search of the Cafe Blue. This is a tough game-show worthy challenge in any European country. In Venice, you need a cartographer and a psychic. I’m neither, but I actually found the Campo de Frari pretty easily. Actually, if you’ve ever been here, you’ll find this as weird as I do: It must be the wacko way my mind works, but I’m really good at zipping around Venice. I look at a map, make some vague plan like “go right, cross a bridge, go left for a while, cross a bridge, go left” and this things keep working out. Part of it is my reliance on ‘un-maps’. Since losing my guidebook, I keep ending up with these maps where only about a third of the streets are identified. I have a so-so sense of direction innately, but this lack of information – although initially wildly frustrating – seems to be helping me somehow.

Basically, I only have major landmarks at my disposal, so I just identify the primary direction and start my wandering. I’ve learned the hard way that getting home (sans map) can be a trick, so powers of observation and recall are also relatively crucial. Thankfully, I’m pretty good (and getting better every day) at noticing little details, so although I couldn’t tell you the name of a single calle, via, or campo name in all of Venice (except Calle Zen where my hostel is), I could explain to you how to navigate to the main sights or the one grocery store or the Guggenheim museum. Granted, these ‘directions’ would require navigation based on the position of the sun (and I’m useless at high noon), but that kind of advice is are arguably more useful here than actual street names.

Anyway, I get myself to Campo de Frari, and no Cafe Blue. So then I thought I’d see if anyone left their wireless access unplugged and wandered around with my computer open, hitting ‘refresh’. Nothing. I finally gave up and started to head back, when I came upon a “Blues Bar.” Could this be it!? Unfortunately, I’ll never know, because it was shut down due to a ‘problemi idreci’. By then it was pretty late by my ‘wandering around at night alone’ standards (21:30), so I headed back.

Today, I was hell bent on getting a blog up. I went in the heavy duty tourist area o the train station, and I’m now at “Ae Oche” waiting on my artichoke pizza, prosecco (I’m digging the prosecco. Champagne for no reason feels like a party!) and paying 8 euro (food and drink excluded) to post this. Oh well! Such is breathtakingly expensive Venice! It’s kind of a magical place, provided you can not worry about how much you’re paying for the basics and get away from the two zillion tourists. On the other hand, if it weren’t for the tourists, there would be no Venice.

You see, virtually no one lives here (on the island. All the residents are on Mestre – the mainland). This is because (according to the Italians I’ve talked to) it’s crowded and hard to get around and super expensive. And sinking. Lots of the homes are abandoned. So those who do live here, do so more or less do so because they are involved somehow in tourism (‘or very, very old’ one guy added). So in that sense, the whole place is a venture in make-believe. Welcome to the REAL magic kingdom!

As you walk around in the evenings and people are out on the gondola rides, there are two men that accompanies three or four of them in their own boat, singing Italian love songs (quite well, in fact). However, in all actuality no one really lives this way. There aren’t any native Venetians out on the boats for an evening sojourn or anything! You realize that the whole island is sort of an idea of the ancient Venice mixed with some tourist-based moneymaking ideas that stuck.

That doesn’t bother me. We could all use a little magic – real or fabricated, and there is no denying it’s a gorgeous, gorgeous city. I kind of like the confusing labyrinth of streets. It reminds me of a big hedge maze – and people pay good money to wander through those! Moreover, if you have any need for a photo of a stunning or quaint or spellbinding Venetian canal, drop me a line, because I’ve taken at least 50 of them!

As for today, I’m off to the islands of Lido, Murano, and Burano. Talk to you tomorrow from Trieste (hopefully!)

(p.s. HOT TIP: If you want to attract skads of attention in a Venetian cafe [from people speaking Italian, predominately] bust out a mini computer and work on your blog. I just had a small crowd gathered here. Who’d a thunk? You’d think I was demonstrating a time machine or something!)

 

My Super Dolce 16 September 22, 2008

First off, I would like to suggest that we give me a small pat on the back and perhaps a moderately loud round of applause for not once utilizing the phrase “when in Rome” while in Rome. This is not to say it didn’t occur to me. A lot. But I am ever-conscious of you, the reader, and thus try to maintain some high standards. This, of course, does not allow sinking to or utilizing that which is cliche, trite, predictable nor mundane.

You didn’t know this about me? Well, bion giorno, and welcome to the brave new world. Now finding myself supersaturated in the super powers of the glorious works of the Renaissance masters, I too am now an artiste. Oh yes, gone are the stories about fears of peeing on myself in creepy bus station bathrooms. We will only be talking about reliefs and frescoes and Machiavelli and Medici and meringue and merengue and creme fraiche. That’s right. Bust out the good china, because it’s a whole new fancy ball of wax.

This new leaf turned, you might be surprised to learn I just spent the last half-hour watching “My Super Sweet 16″ on Italian TV. This is 100% because there is a TV in my room, and – from there – 99.9% because it was the only thing in English. And for the first five minutes, it was a treat to listen to someone talk without having to concentrate.

But then what they were actually SAYING started to get processed. “Ummm…did you just say someone was coming to give your dog LOWLIGHTS!?” “Can you repeat that? If Kanyae West doesn’t jump out a cake at your 16th birthday party, you’re going to take a semi-automatic weapon to your private spoiled monsters high school and kill everyone?” (Although, upon deeper analysis, this might not be such a bad thing…)

I can only hope this show is kind of a joke. Something like, “I know that you know that I know that you know that I know that you aren’t really a sociopathic self-centered waste of space like you’re portrayed on this show.” I hope… If not, then I guess this starts to solidify some of the reactions I get when I reveal I’m from the States. It also explains the “Shot at Love with Tequila Tequila” graffiti I saw in Poland. I’ll confess, I’m familiar with that travesty. I was – until it ended – a major “Rob and Big” fan. I have a deep appreciation for the absurd, and there ain’t nothing so absurd as keeping a mini horse in your house.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I saw “A Shot At Love with Tequila Tequila ” spray painted on a wall in either Prague or Warsaw. At the time, I wasn’t really sure what it meant, and kind of forgot about it. However, combined with “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” I recognize it as the Eastern European shorthand for, “REPENT. THE END OF THE WORLD IS AT HAND.” You mix this stuff in with Iraq and Jerry Springer, and it’s no wonder the world thinks we’re a bunch of war-mongering psychopaths…

So getting back to my small world, I almost bypassed Florence today in favor of Milan. Somehow I had the very inaccurate sense that it took three or four hours by train from Rome to Florence. I caught the 10:38, and I suppose I thought I’d get there around 14:00. So when the trained pulled into some station around noon and the lights turned out, I didn’t even look up from “Snowball fight”. I fought on, in vain.

You see, snowball fight is this extremely crappy game on my otherwise useless cell phone at which I am utterly hopeless. I slowed the speed down to 2 (out of ten), but I still get clobbered by the little jokers nailing my poor kid with snowballs. I can’t even figure out what I’m supposed to be doing to triumph in this situation. But I digress…

We’d sat there a couple minutes and my cellphone screen inevitably flickered, “YOU LOSE.” Out of curiosity, I glanced out the window. “Firenze.” Hmmmm…. Firenze. What’s that? Wait a minute… FLORENCE? FIRENZE? Florence = Firenze!?!?!?

I started frantically putting my stuff away, realizing that (I was pretty sure) this was my stop. As with my near miss in London, I leaped off the train right as it started to leave the station.

And thank god, because I’m damn tired, and it’s nice to have a room to myself, no matter how much it’s an amalgam of “Things IKEA didn’t actually think anyone would ever buy.” You see, the last three nights in Rome were rougher than I let on: The first I was fairly sick and could barely breathe, the second I was kept awake by the snoring of an inexplicably loud Australian woman (what is up with these log sawing ladies!?!?), and last night I was a plain old paranoid wreck. I got up no less than five times to violently shake out my sheets (top and bottom) and perform a bed bug exorcism.Actually, it may have worked. I’m damaged, but no worse feasted upon than I had been the day before.

Anyway, as is par for the course, Florence is lovely. The Duomo is like some kind of birthday cake I would have pined for as a little girl. My cold is fading. I have a vague cough, but nothing worse than anyone else in ‘smoke ‘em if you got ‘em’ Europe. And I’m dog tired, so off to saw some logs of my own, and talk to you tomorrow!

 

Never trust a bedbug to read the fine print September 21, 2008

I said they could bite so long as they didn’t bite me. I suppose it wasn’t the most clever approach to hope they would all vacate the room and head out with the grouchy Mexican girl. They didn’t. A few stayed behind and had their way with me. They feasted on my tender flesh, and I hope they all get food poisoning. Regardless, one more night, and I’m on to new things.

Otherwise, I’ve got no complaints with Rome…except maybe that it’s too damn good looking. I’m talking really, really, ridiculously good looking. And all of this breathtaking architecture and endless grandeur and utter magnificence and plain old splendor leaves me EXHAUSTED. I came around a corner on my way home today on a street called “Grecca” I believe, and there were a couple ruins and a magnificent fountain, and I found I couldn’t do it. I had lost the ability to pull my camera (now giving me the flashing empty red battery warning sign) out and take yet another shot of something remarkable. Rome has officially supersaturated my senses.

I’ve had all I can stands, and I can stands no more. I’m just going to hang out with the bed bugs in this dingy hostel until I can look at something carved or marble or Roman again without flinching.

In other news, I started my day with a long run. I’m a firm believer in sweating out what ails you, and I spotted a park-looking area to the south of where I’m staying (by the Coliseum). I found a nice long stretch of grass and dirt and like-minded folks. Plus, along the way, I was able to observe some authentic Roman exercise, and all I can say is yikes. I saw more strange things today than I know how to articulate: Not one but TWO men running with a body posture somewhat like that used to go under a limbo bar. A very heavyset man running with hand weights and flailing them about like you might if you were practicing really telling someone off for once and for all. Head to toe shiny spandex outfits straight outta ‘Xanadu.’

Then there was this jungle gym/obstacle course area, and all these super macho guys were there doing all sorts of goof ball stuff, but looking super-serious about it: Pull ups, flips, hanging from the knees, some primitive form of Jazzercise, etc. My favorite was the shirtless guy throwing punches in the air with intense ferocity. And me without my camera…

Afterward, I went to the Coliseum, and got a good jump start on my visual overload. I am so completely and utterly taken with the Coliseum. I could sit there and stare at it for hours. If I were a billionaire, particularly a super-eccentric one, I would build a Coliseum replica somewhere. I think the world could handle two of them. Put it somewhere like Flint, Michigan, where they could really use the tourism revenue.

So anyway, as I was wandering away from the ruins in pursuit of some pizza in the Travestere, I spotted a Peruvian band (of course)…and then another across the street. Dueling wind flutes. You ALWAYS see Peruvian bands. There must be a Peruvian band on the moon. You don’t always see them set up shop across the street from one another – it’s like Jets and the Sharks.

Anyway, the second band was blocking some particularly nice ruins, so I paused to walk behind them and take a picture when I heard an American ask one of the band members how much their CDs were. “10 Euro,” he replied. The questioner wandered away, and an unmistakable Long Island accent asked, “What’s the matter? You couldn’t Jew them down?”

Hey lady, you kiss your mother with that mouth? I’ve just spent the last three weeks knee-deep in the history of the six MILLION Jews killed during the Holocaust, and I think you can come up with a better verb (negotiate, bargain, haggle, compromise) than that. Yikes. Embarrassing. The next confused Italian who asks if I’m from England is going to get a proud, “Yes!”

I wandered for a solid eight hours today, and it was at around hour six – at the Pantheon – that the overload started to kick in. There were simply too many people, and they were pushing and elbowing their way into this ancient building like an angry mob. Someone gave my back what felt like a serious two-handed shove, and I had some uncomfortable memories of the Gimme Shelter movie. I don’t have any need to be part of an Italian reenactment of the Stones concert at Altamont. Especially not at a building that’s been around for 2000 years, and will most likely be here on some future visit. Thus, at this point some some temporary agoraphobia set in, and I bolted off to the Trevi Fountain.

God help me, the Trevi Fountain. It’s unreal. Have you SEEN this thing!?!?! The closest comparison we have in America is Caear’s Palace in Vegas (I know, that’s sad…) but Caesar’s doesn’t even come close. It’s glorious, and if it weren’t in a city with two hundred other amazing things, I might have even heard of it before yesterday.

All this gushing aside, I promise to get some pictures of these marvels up in the next few days, provided I can get through the night without requiring a blood transfusion or a gallon of DDT.

 

 
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