Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

Bear with me. This rant has a point. I think. October 18, 2008

So when I get home it will be November, and I’ve decided – in addition to the blog and the book I’ve been working on (slowly) during this trip – to do NaNoWriMo (http://www.nanowrimo.org) – National Novel Writing Month (and just a few letters more than the overly rich BC coconut dessert bar thingies). This is something of a community support site to write a novel in one month. It may not be realistic to try to do all these things at the same time, but if you want to change to a career as a writer, I figure it’s best to write. A lot. And maybe the ‘God helps those who help themselves’ effect will kick in? Or I’ll eventually write something someone wants to pay for!?

Meanwhile, I have a Kindle (Amazon’s electronic book device) with me (I love it. I keep meeting people who say they heard they don’t work, but mine has been flawless and a life-saver. It’s so small. Like the size of a DVD case. And the battery holds a charge – allegedly, I’ve never tried – for 14 hours. I can attest to at least ten hours of battery life. The Kindle was worthy every penny if you read a lot and travel a lot), and as a rule I’m aways reading three or four books at once.

Along with The Book Thief, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, and The Art of Racing in the Rain (all sad books, really), I’ve been reading this book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Actually, I’ve been reading it in small doses. It is arguably the saddest book of them all, and I find it incredibly upsetting. I really enjoyed Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, about the intertwined evolution of four plants (potatoes, tulips, and apples, and marijuana) in conjunction with humanity. All told, it was very interesting and thoughtful, but in no way distressing.

I guess that’s why I was unprepared for the Ominivore’s Dilemma. If you read Fast Food Nation, that was for children. Seriously. The situation Pollan paints is so dire that in some ways it seems unfathomable. And sitting on the Blue Star Ferry from Naxos to Pireaus (Athens) right by the “Goody’s”, I watched as dozens of overweight people bought themelves and their chunky kids what are no doubt corn-syrup and corn-derivative based “chicken nuggets” and “Goody Burgers” and “Star chickens.” and you start to wonder where it all ends? What happens when we literally deplete every fossil fuel on the planet and cannot develop antibiotics smarter than the bugs, but we’ve mutated our cows and our salmon and god knows what else to eat corn, and eat other cows (which is where mad cow comes from. Apparently a similar disorder occurs in human cannibals as eating the flesh of one’s own species carries a special risk for infection.) What happens when all we’ve eaten for several generations is garbage that has more or less been made in a lab and super fueled with antibiotics?

And admitting I have not very well explained the book, but drilled down to the worst of it. And even if Michael Pollan’s research is inaccurate or one-sided or prone to hyperbole (and I don’t know that it is, I’m just playing devil’s advocate), it occurred to me that the end game of this dilemma would make a damn good story. And although science fiction is not something I know anything about, I figure as long as my science is solid, the rest is fiction. So there you go.

And as what I’m taking as a ‘thumbs up’ sign from universe (BTW, is there anywhere that’s rude? I read not to slap a fist into an open palm or make the ‘victory’ sign in Turkey – but I don’t do these things anyway. I DO, however, throw around thumbs like I’m The Fonz. Ehhhhhhhhhh! Essentially, now that the head nodding and shaking is out, it’s how I try to convey to non-English speakers that I’m okay, or my backpack is on now and you can let go and stop whimpering, or I understand that the large white boat is the ferry or whatever. No one has ever looked offended, but I’m not always the best judge of subtleties. Let me know if thumbs up = something bad and where).

So I totally interrupted myself there. Let me try that again: As what I’m taking as a ‘thumbs up’ sign from universe, within ten minutes of coming up with this idea, I stumbled across a quote that strikes me as a compass for the storyline. It comes, quite auspiciously, from the brilliant science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

So now I guess we know (to some extent) what we’ll be talking about come November…

Meanwhile, the Italians have NOTHING on the Greeks in terms of aggressive male behavior. The Greeks are in a league of their own (which is not necessarily a good thing). On the upside, I have had three men tell me they love me today. On the downside, I don’t know any of their names. More on that tomorrow…

p.s.

As I’ve worked on this tonight, I can hear an Australian guy on the phone in the hall lamenting to person after person how someone picked his pocket on the subway today. I would like to take a moment and offer up some heartfelt gratitude.

TO THE POWERS THAT BE: THANK YOU SO MUCH that NOTHING of any kind (minus a cold, which was truly no big deal) has befallen me the last three months! Just let me know what form of alms you would prefer. Having been to the Archeaological Museum today, I’m up on Egyptian, Classical Greek, Estrucian, etc. etc. etc. Or if just reminding myself and anyone else who cares to notice how infrequently we stop to be grateful is good enough, then so be it. I’ve noticed…and muchas gracias!!!

 

I’m in it for the t-shirt October 14, 2008

I woke up at 4am to a strange sound, only to find that I’d fallen asleep with the TV on. This time it wasn’t the wind. Or the crying dog. Instead, what had been the Jack Black movie “Shallow Hal” was now hard core porn. Like so hard core it was sort of fascinating from an anthropological perspective. There wasn’t much talking, and what there was wasn’t in English, but I will say the Greeks don’t waste a lot of time on plot and character development and watch your back should you ever come across a woman in a a nurse’s outfit wearing a back strap-on. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

It’s another sunny day here in Santorini, and I went for a long run this morning. The winds are less ferocious, and I wasn’t lacerated by a half ton of sand, which was a happy change from Sunday. Also, you should know that as of yesterday I am in training.

Against all logic and reason, I have signed up for a half-marathon in Istanbul on the 26th. My only goal is to finish before they close down the course. I’m in it for the t-shirt. How did this madness come about, you wonder?

Well, let me tell you: A few days ago, on the train from Bucharest to Sofia – the train I probably would have missed in a more efficient country where things move a little faster and tend to be on time – I met a lovely woman from Slovenia. She’s one of those people that you hit it off with immediately and then still like ten and a half hours and 246 miles (which means the Bulgarian train traveled less than 25MPH. Sad!) later.

Thus, it was a happy coincidence to discover that we were staying in the same hostel, especially since we got in late at 11pm. The next day we ended up going for a run together, and somewhere along the way she told me about the half-marathon she was doing in Istanbul on the 26th. My original plan had been to get there on the 27th, but I couldn’t shake the idea of the run. And the novelty. And having someone to do it with. And the fact that if I just tweaked my schedule a little bit, I could join her. I looked it up on the internet, and the last day to register was today. I know a sign when I see one.

To be frank, I have no business running that kind of distance. I usually run five or six miles, maybe seven if I get lost. However, at this point in my trip, the time I have remaining is about novelty and natural wonders and doing the things I really want to do, even if that just means spending two hours seeking out a thermal pool or going for a run on an empty beach.

For me, that has been one of the best parts about visiting Santorini this time of year. It’s the off-season and the beginning of ‘winter’ (albeit 25C/78F and sunny). The grocery stores are wiped out (and what’s there looks like it came out of a compost bin), windows are being boarded up, and all but a handful of restaurants are closed. If you came looking for nightlife or a swinging party scene, you’re SOL. However, if you’ve ever wanted to stroll down two miles of black sand beach under the full moon and not even see another living soul, this is perfect timing.

 

Excuse me while I do a little dry heaving… October 12, 2008

Admittedly, I’ve never been to Egypt or India, but if there’s ever a ‘world’s worst tap water’ contest, I’d like to nominate Santorini, Greece. It is AWFUL. Actually, that’s not a strong enough word: HEINOUS. HARROWING. HORRIFIC. BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD.

I thought maybe if I boiled it…??? I succeeded in ruining a perfectly good tea bag. Earl Gray, no less.

I don’t really know what is occurring, but I’d say the closest description is the ‘water cure’ at the Turkish baths in Budapest. I took a single mouthful of the salty sulfur water at the baths (out of the spigot intended for drinking), and it was warm and creepy, but bearable. The Santorini tap water is in the same genre, but not as curative. Just plain old gross.

As a coincidence (or is it???), I caught a small bit of ‘Erin Brokovich’ on the TV while using the wifi in the reception area earlier today. Just enough to remind me that the lawsuit was about poisonous water caused by PG&E. Just enough to feel a little tiny bit uncomfortable about all that I have consumed while on this trip.

In the same vein, I had my first glass of Greek wine today. A white wine apparently made in the traditional style. I had a sip, and I didn’t like it. The flavor was strange. Like herbs maybe. I couldn’t quit put my finger on it, but it was familiar.

I took another sip.

Oregano?

No.

Basil?

No.

Thyme?
No.

Mold?

Without a doubt.

Probably it came from a bottle that was corked, but I’m not sure. I know there’s a whole world of wine flavors. Is mildew a legitimate flavor profile?

Meanwhile, the hotel I’m staying at sells a glass of local white wine out of a box (less chance of corkage!) for 3 euro. However, if moldy is just the way it tastes, I really don’t want to waste the money. Thus, for now, I’ll just stick with my bottled water. On the other hand, tomorrow is my birthday (how weird is that???), so maybe I’ll live large and order up a glass of the box wine then? And I’m definitely getting some calamari.

Meanwhile, I had a strange night. After a solid week or more in hostels (and listening to people snore in all forms and fashion), I was so looking forward to peace and quiet. However, the universe had other plans. First, there was the wind. It got up to 45mph, and the sound of that is something else. At the very least, it’s not something I’m accustomed to, and some primitive instinct inside me finds it a little bit alarming. Especially when I’m on an island.

Next, there was my room. Not to pick on it, but the construction quality is little bit shoddy. The window has two panels – one glass and another wood – and they fit together and are held in place by a metal hinge that reminds me of a bobby pin. One strong breeze and they both come flying open.

Furthermore, the door to the room is jimmied into place, and a solid inch of daylight peers through when it’s shut. However, they have thoughtfully provided a sheet on a curtain rod, which I suppose is to try to block out the light or the breeze or ??? With respect to the door, the only thing that keeps it from flying open is a deadbolt which fits loosely in its slot. It’s a very casual arrangement from a security perspective, and if I knew I wouldn’t have to pay for the damage, I’d kind of be curious to see if I could body slam the door open using just my weight. I suspect I could.

Thus, due to the questionable craftsmanship and the intense winds, the door and windows spent the night slamming open and closed and creaking and straining and rattling against the deadbolt. It was incredibly noisy, and I probably woke up six or seven times. Then I would just lay in the darkness and listen to the wind and marvel at the fact that I’m lying in a bed in Santorni, Greece and my stomach is turning a little too much and does that water just taste bad or does the bad taste serve as a warning, like the stink applied to natural gas?

(Now you know why that little snippet of Erin Brokovich was particularly alarming…)

If the wind and the slamming and the creaking weren’t enough, there was the crying. At first, while still asleep, I thought it was a child. Then I realized it was a dog. In my sleepy confusion, I thought maybe it was in the courtyard of the hotel. I got up to look for it and maybe give it something to eat (I don’t have much in the room, but I do have some milk, some eggs, and an unlimited supply of hideous water). There was no one there but the wind.

I went back to bed, fell asleep, and heard it again. At this point, I realized it was coming from above my head, on the other side of the hotel. It cried and cried and cried, and I could occasionally hear it shake and the sound of a chain around its neck. I figured it must be afraid of all the wind or cold (or both), and it made me incredibly sad.

Today, I went looking and discovered a dog tied up behind a house near the hotel. I talked to the people here and they agreed that it was probably the same one I heard crying, that it’s always tied up, and that it “isn’t very nice.” I hate these kinds of situations. As much as I’m reminded of the magic in the world, it’s also hard to deny that people can be thoughtless idiots, if not worse.

If I were at home, I would go and talk to the owners and maybe even see if they would give me the dog or let me buy it from them. Anything to give it a better life. Here, and in these circumstances (with three weeks of backpacking left to do), I feel so helpless. I had to give myself firm talk about the insanity of trying to rescue a Greek dog. Or take it with me. Although if I can figure out where, I may go and buy it some meat or at least a bone. A birthday present to us both.

Speaking of birthdays, I was looking for a quote for tomorrow’s blog, and I ran across one so simple and yet profound, that it kind of made me tear up. As an added point of significance, it was said by Jonathan Swift, the writer that ‘invented’ my name (Vanessa) as a nickname for a student of his.

Moreover, it is a sentiment that has come to exemplify how I intend to live my life: by following my instincts, my heart, my emotions, and my gut. By noticing coincidences and doing what feels right. By being flexible and open and real. And by not being afraid and trusting the universe to throw out a safety net when I need it. And those ideals – as simple, as elusive, as liberating and as complicated as they are – can be summarized a little bit like this:

May you live all the days of your life.

 

Incognito no more October 7, 2008

I’m going to venture a guess that there is no such thing as the Romanians with Disabilities Act. Or if there is, its enforcers need to host a fund raiser tout de suite. I draw this conclusion based on the fact that getting onto a Romanian train is about as easy as climbing a tree. With no branches. And with one hand tied behind your back. While being attacked by bees. And climbing onto a Romanian train with 40 pounds of luggage strapped on your ailing shoulders borders on impossible. And I say this as someone relatively youthful and in pretty good shape.

In the same vein, I don’t know why, but I’ve been found out. Throughout my travels I have blended in remarkably well. I am often mistaken for German or Italian or French, and more than one American has said that I “don’t look American,” whatever that means. Regardless, it seems I have something of a “generic European” face that somehow always looks local…except in Romania. The Romanians are quite dark, and blond hair is a relative rarity. Thus, for the first time, I am attracting scads of attention, which manifests in young men sitting all around me on the trains, engaging in a wide variety of antics in order to gain my interest.

The antics involve staring, shrieking, singing, clapping, hissing, raucous talking and laughter, more staring (standing up to stare over the seats even), drumming on the windows, and – during one unforgettably surreal hour – blaring Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” from a cell phone over and over and over. Yesterday, I tried changing seats (in an empty car, they will always sit next to and behind me), but they move too. It’s not a problem per se. I don’t feel threatened, just annoyed.

To be frank, I don’t understand the motivation. I suppose my obvious foreignness is fascinating somehow. They don’t speak English, so it’s a pointless effort, but what can you do?

I am going through some of this right now on the train from Sighisoara back to Brasov. Today it’s seven guys in their early twenties, and they are playing what I can only imagine is some local “rock’ music. It sounds an awful lot like a mix of polka and the background music at Indian restaurants…which I suppose, geographically speaking, it about right. One of the guys is wearing a red nylon jacket with a dozen Vodaphone, Bridgestone, and Shell gas patches sewn on it. I don’t know if this is an attempt to look like a heavily endorsed Nascar driver or what. I would hope if Shell and Bridgestone were paying his way, they’d at least put him on the bus. Meanwhile, they’re clapping and foot-stomping and staring at me, but that seems to be par for the course.

Otherwise, I’m hopeful of getting off at the right stop the first time around, and getting a day off from the trains. Riding the Romanian rails is rough. The heat is cranked up incredibly high, cigarette smoking is allowed, and there is no ventilation whatsoever. Plus, the seats are hard as a rock. After a few hours of it, you feel like a piece of beef jerky. I got to my guest house yesterday with a seriously sore butt and stinking like a pub.

I am staying the next couple nights in Brasov, Romania in the heart of Transylvania. The whole area is a strange mix of an over the top “Dracula” tourist trap and the Kazakhstan of Borat. The ‘real’ Dracula (or as close as it gets) was born in Sighisoara, where I stayed last night. Actually, he was born in what is now the “Casa Vlad Dracu” restaurant, where I ate my not-very-good but quite overpriced dinner. I was given a 50% off ‘coupon’ (something written on a scrap of paper) by my guest house and options were extremely scarce, so I figured why not. If you ever have the opportunity, may I suggest not.

Meanwhile, let me catch you up on little Transylvanian history: Vlad Tepes, a local governer in the area in the mid-1400s is the man known has Dracula. His father was called Vlad Dracul (dragon) for his membership in the “Order of the Dragon” (or devil. Apparently the word is interchangeable). As a young man, Vlad Tepes was sent by his father to the Ottoman Empire as a hostage. There he learned the art of impalement (inserting a large wooden stake into someone, intentionally avoiding the vital organs, so that they suffered a slow agonizing death), which he brought home with him. During his rule, Dracula (known as Vlad the Impaler) killed murderers, thieves, political rivals, the destitute, and the crippled this way. In short, he wasn’t immortal, he never sucked anyone’s blood, and he probably couldn’t turn into a bat, but he was still a bad dude.

Why Bram Stoker decided to write about a real guy, but change it up such is a mystery. Similarly, Bran Castle (apparently denoted as Dracula’s home in the novel) is outside Brasov, but the only thing Vlad the Impaler had to do with it, is that his grandfather had lived there and ‘Dracula’ himself was once imprisoned in the basement by the Hungarian king. Nonetheless, I may take the bus out to castle and the Rasnov fortress tomorrow, in large part because there really isn’t that much to do. The day after is the dreaded, all-day train ride to Sofia. If only they provided plugs or my computer battery lasted more than 2.5 hours. I might not be considering buying coloring books or Sudoku puzzles or whatever sad entertainment is available to me.

On the other hand, no need to focus on that just yet. I still have a full day in Transylvania ahead of me, and who knows what kind of wonders await!?

 

Brought to my knees by the Bank of America September 28, 2008

So yesterday was a toughie.

I could kind of see it coming by the time I posted my blog, but when something is REALLY bothering me, I tend to keep it to myself. I think maybe I prefer to resolve it, and THEN tell you about it. However, I may be in the midst of a pretty big problem I can’t fix. Or at least that I have yet to see a clear solution to. So maybe you can help?

Here’s the deal: Five days ago, my ATM card quit working. I wrote you a long, highly detailed account of how I figured that out and what I’ve been through thus far to fix it, but it was boring so I deleted it. You’re smart people. You can fill in the blanks.

The card won’t work, and I can’t get any cash. NOT GOOD.

Some of you know that due to an incident in May, I already hate Bank of America and was closing all my accounts. To them I will say, Yes, it’s true, and I am so dumping them when I get home (unless they’re the only bank that hasn’t gone under, and then I guess not), but all my direct deposits payments were set up to go there, and I couldn’t get that changed.

Anyway, yesterday morning, I explained this little problem to Fabri, the strange guy who ran the B&B I stayed at in Trieste. Actually, I wouldn’t call it a B&B so much as a B&b. The little room I had was fine enough. Pretty basic, but whatever. Fabri had some bizarre decorating taste and a serious incense habit. I like incense as much as the next guy, but not when there’s so much smoke that you wonder if maybe a really fragrant forest is burning down next door. But it was for one night, so whatever.

The evening before, Fabri made a big deal about “what time would I like breakfast,” and was very specific about setting a date. Thus, when I pulled into the kitchen at the appointed hour, you can imagine that i was a little bit surprised to find a cappuccino cup, a very small juice box (30% real juice!) with a cartoon hippo on it, and a what looked like a single “Little Debbie” snack treat, still in the original cellophane wrapping (but on a plate). Hmmmm… Where’s the full Irish breakfast? Where’s the muesli and yogurt and cheese? Where’s the beef, Fabri?

Fabri in his eclectic and incense-thick glory padded out and poured me the requisite 1.5 ounces of super strong strangely thick cappuccino, and sat back to savor his hospitality as I struggled to open my Little Debbie wrapper.

Thus, all hyped up on sugar and caffeine, I decided to endeavor a conversation to determine if Bank of America was screwing with me, or if I was somehow dialing wrong. Bank of America kept sending me 888 and 877 numbers, but they wouldn’t work in the pay phones (even when I put money in.) Then they (the phone receiver) always rattled something off in Italian. Fabri thought about this, left for a while, and then came back and offered to try dialing from the phone in his room. He returned, and told me that the recording was saying that 888 and 877 aren’t proper extensions in Italy. And here some kid (via e-mail) SWORE that number would work. Idiots. No wonder the banks are all going under.

Anyway, Fabri had the idea to look on the web site (and laughed rather extensively when he learned that my problems were stemming from an institution called Bank of America), and found a number for the credit card department that would receive collect calls from Europe. Incredibly relieved, I called them that afternoon, but they’re only open 8am to 5pm (of course). When I got to Croatia yesterday evening, I called again. Actually, I called ELEVEN TIMES – all collect, and anywhere from ten to thirty minutes per call. I spent two hours and thirty seven minutes calling. And each and every time I was transferred to the wrong department or the wrong area, and eventually ended up in one of two of Dante’s layers of call center hell:

  1. A queue in which there is some very chipper music that reminds me of The Sims, but which starts to make you feel homicidal after about thirty minutes. I could totally sing you the tune if you were here. Anyway, it is regularly interrupted by a male voice that says, “Your expected wait time is at least five minutes.” Then it starts saying, “Your expected wait time is approximately two minutes” and you start to feel hopeful…for ten minutes. And then back to the five minutes, no wait two minutes, five minutes, two minutes…until finally there is a silence and a sound of fumbling, and you’re hung up on. That exact scenario happened three times.

  1. You have to interact with this CRM system where you must speak to it. Again, it’s a male voice and he sounds pleasant enough. This is to mask the fact that he is actually the devil.

Please tell me a little about why you’re calling today.”

“My debit card is not working.”

Okay, did you say you’d like to hear about a loan?”

“NO.”

Okay. Please tell me a little about why you’re calling today.”

“ My DEBIT CARD will not WORK in the ATM.”

Okay, did you say you’re looking for an ATM location?”

“NO.”

Okay. Please tell me a little about why you’re calling today.”

“I CAN’T GET ANY MONEY OUT OF THE F**KING ATM.”

I didn’t quite get that, could you repeat it?”

“CUSTOMER SERVICE. CUSTOMER SERVICE!!!

I didn’t quite get that, could you repeat it?”

“IF YOU DON’T CONNECT ME TO A HUMAN BEING IN THE NEXT THIRTY SECONDS, I AM GOING TO FLY TO THE UNITED STATES AND BURN DOWN ONE OF YOUR BRANCHES.”

“Okay, let me connect you…”

Silence. Sound of Croatian dial tone.

After the seventh such interaction with that guy, I cried a little. Not a lot. But maybe four or five hot, fat tears. And I felt kind of defeated. And I’m a pretty optimistic person overall, but I really am not sure how to get beyond the 300 departments at Bank of America and talk to someone that can help me. And I didn’t have it in me to call back for a twelfth time, and I’m staying so far out in the boonies that there are no pay phones, and I couldn’t call back last night.

The only thing that brings me even a little comfort is the hope that all those collect call charges amount to at least $500, if not more.

However, rest assured that today has three exciting things on the agenda:

  1. Figure out the train schedule for tomorrow

  2. Find an internet cafe to post this

  3. Call the f-ing Bank of America back and hopefully restore access to my money

Meanwhile, I took the bus from Trieste to Pula yesterday. All was looking good for a quiet journey until an Australian family pulled in at the last second. The man looked almost exactly like my chiropractor (and was equally enthusiastic), and he and his wife had a sulky teenage boy and very bizarre 13-ish girl in tow. I used to have a boss who always referred to her oldest daughter as “special needs.” I never knew what was ‘wrong’ with her, per se, she was a pretty girl and looked normal enough, but she was a bit strange – standing too close, asking weird questions, telling you really off the wall stuff, etc. I’m pretty sure that whatever was ailing my boss’ daughter also had its teeth in this girl.

They came to the rear of the bus where I was, and all took their own row. The girl then proceeded to slam the tray on the back of the seat up and down for about fifteen minutes. The whole bus turned around to look at this at one point or another, but the parents didn’t seem to notice. If anything, they were really hard on the 15 or 16 year old boy, that he was “starting trouble.” No wonder he was so moody. He’s growing up in backwards universe, where the kid with obvious issues is the good one.

Back to the girl, after she tired of the tray, she very suddenly flailed all around violently, as though she were being attacked by bees. This caused me to jump and suddenly go on the alert. If there’s a bee attack about to go down, I like to be prepared, but apparently she was just frustrated because she couldn’t get her foot rest ‘just right.’ This caused her to change seats about 1,693 times.

The enthusiastic dad would call her attention to every last thing out the window on my side. And since she eventually settled in the empty row next to me (it probably was a lot easier to stare bug eyed at me from that spot), she would do things like rush up until she bumped me or throw out an arm out across the aisle until she nearly poked me in my bad eye.

Oh, that’s right. I also failed to mention my bad eye. That’s mostly because I didn’t want to worry you, and also because I didn’t want to further worry me.

So on Friday I put my contacts in, and during the train ride from Venice to Trieste, they started bugging me. It was incredibly hot in the car, and I swear it smelled like cigarette smoke from time to time. I also have these eye drops that I am now very suspicious of. At home I use these “Tears” drops that my ophthalmologist recommended. My eyes are really sensitive, and I react to all kinds of preservatives used in regular products. A refill was in my box that is now on my desk at home.

Anyway, I think there was some accidental leakage, because by the time I hit Spain, I was completely out. I went into the pharmacy and brought the empty bottle. Not one, but three people in white coats consulted about this, and I tried to explain the specifics as I understood them and referenced the ingredients to a degree that was probably insulting. Eventually, one of the guys reached under the counter and came out with a bottle that looked almost exactly like mine.

There are a lot of variations in eye drop bottle shapes, and the Spanish doppleganger gave me hope that this was the right stuff.

Now I’m not so sure. In fact, now I wonder if those people were promoted up from the “Everything for a euro” shop next door and matched my bottle to a lookalike, contents unknown. Sufficed to say, I put a bunch of that stuff into my eyes during the hot,, smoky train trip. At the time, I would have described the effects as “net zero” – didn’t really seem to help, didn’t hurt.

When I got to the B&B, I took out my contacts. My left eye was still pretty pissed off, but I figured it was from the High Holy Mass going on in Fabri’s room. That’s why I was pretty surprised to wake up yesterday morning to find that my eye hurt. Like really, really HURT. Closing it BURNED and made me wince and felt like there was glass in it.

I don’t know about you, but that’s scary. I could be bleeding out from a big gash on my arm and would figure, “That’ll clot. I’ll be fine.” But when it hurts like fire to close your own eyes…!?!? Well, it’s hard not to acknowledge a little low-grade panic setting in.

It’s probably fair to say that if you’re worried about some aspect of your health, the LAST thing you should do is get on WebMD. So that’s exactly what I did. Actually, minus the overuse of some words like “scarring” and “blindness” it was fairly innocuous and just said to flush with water and if the pain continued, go to a doctor. That’s easier said than done, buddy. I’m on my way to frigging Croatia. Know any good ophthalmologists there?

I was spooked enough that I got out my travelers health insurance information, wrote down the policy number, and used the online service to lookup some English-speaking doctors here in Pula. They don’t list eye doctors, but there’s a hospital, so I figured if worse came to worst, I’d start there.

However, as of this morning, it looks and feels fine. I’ll probably forgo my contacts for several days just to be sure (and I looked up doctors all the way to Vienna, just in case) but with any luck I am now just penniless, not blind and penniless (although the latter is a better combination for street-side begging).

Lastly, happy birthday to my dog, Dozer, who I miss very much, and who is three years old today. I’m sure he reads the blog daily, and is probably peeved that I don’t ever mention him, but it’s my general policy to keep this about me and not drag other innocent parties (or at least those I plan to see again) into it. Plus, I know it would be hard for him to reject any statements or make comments in his own defense, as his paws are too large to type effectively. Anyway, attached is a picture of him from last month (sent to me, obviously). He looks beautiful, as always, but he also looks a little down in the dumps. I’m sure he’ll cheer up when I get home in about a month and throw him a big, belated party.

(Also, buddy, if you do figure out how to use those big paws online, maybe consider wiring your beloved master some cash to the Vienna Western Union. Okay? Good boy. Go get yourself bone.)

He ain't no Lassie, but maybe he can figure out how to navigate the BofA automated phone system for me?

He is no Lassie, but maybe he can trot down to my local BofA branch and tear someone's pant leg off as a sign of protest?

 

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!

 

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!)

 

 
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