Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave September 30, 2008

Eating a banana, and glad to be getting the hell out of Pula.

Eating a banana, and glad to be getting the hell out of Pula.

So if it’s Tuesday, this must be Ljubljana…er….Pula? Again? Say it ain’t so.

 

It goes like this: It’s hard to get out of Pula, Croatia. According to the tourist office there, it’s easy: I could take a bus to Pazin (cash only, of course! What is it with all these cash only bus companies?) and switch to a bus to Rijeka and then either take a bus to Ljubljana or the 1pm train. That was a six-hour adventure that gets you in at 15:35, OR there’s a train at 6pm that gets in at 10:20p.m. Plus I have a rail pass, so it’s free (in a manner of perspective). So minus having to store my bag at the bus station with this incredibly rude jerk of a guy, and figuring out how to entertain imyself for one more day in Pula, the train seemed ike a no-brainer.

 

By 5pm I’d completely run out of things to do, went and got my stuff and hoofed it over to the train station (about 15 minutes away on foot). I was early, but I was getting out of there, so I was happy to be waiting. At 5:20 this ridiculous tiny one-car train (COVERED in graffiti) loaded up with people and left. And then around 5:50 it was back from the opposite direction.

 

At this point, I had expected to see my train pull up, so I went up to an employee to inquire about where I should wait for the train to Ljubljana. He repeated the question back to me about three times in what sounded like German, but I suppose must have been Croatian. He frowned, and motioned that I should come with him. In my experience, these moments rarely end with news you want to hear.

 

We went into an office where he got some paper and wrote some things down. Then he frantically rattled a bunch of stuff in Croatian (German? It sounded like German, and I could almost swear I kind of understood it. Maybe this is what’s happening when people tell me they don’t speak English, and I keep talking to them anyway, and they get it? Some sort of cosmic translation?)

Anyway, I kept the paper, so I can state with 100% authority that it looked like this:

  • Pula – Lljubljana

  • 15/09/08

  • Autobus Rijecka

  • Rijecka – Ljubljana

  • 20:45 – 23:45

 

Basically, that train that the tourist office told me about stopped running two weeks ago. Nice.

 

 

Long story short, there was no getting to Rijeka in time for the evening train., so Pula and I spent one more magical night together. It’s a brand new day, and I am now on the bus that takes me halfway to Rijecka (at some point, I apparently change buses, just to make it more of a hassle and to aid in wrestling some extra “baggage” fees out of me – about $1.50 per bag). Actually, it’s more like a mini-van than a bus. An overpriced mini-van full of loud talkers wherein every other word seems to be “dobre” or “da”. There’s a girl who looks amazingly like Thelma of the Scooby Doo cartoons. She even has the hairdo and the turtleneck/skirt combo. Her voice, although equally grating, is twelve times as loud. She also pulled my hair. Probably by accident, but whatever. This bus is too small for the both of us.

A girl and her crap.

A girl and her crap.

 

So while we’re on the topic, why don’t buses have seat belts? If it’s so dangerous to ride without one the police will pull you over and give you a ticket…how come it’s okay if 25 people do it together? I can see in the mirror that even bus driver isn’t wearing one. But there’s a rosary hanging from the same mirror, so I guess we’ve got God on our side.

 

Okay, so super weird, but literally FIVE minutes after I wrote that we nearly had a car accident. There was some kind of truck stopped on the side of the road, and I guess our driver was taking a nap and letting Jesus do the driving, because he noticed it WAY TOO LATE and came to a screeching halt. We ended up sideways in the oncoming lane, but we didn’t hit anything and no one hit us. I guess this sheds some light on the cash only policy: No paper trail. Just shove the bodies over the side of the cliff into the ocean and get a new load of victi…passengers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is what 60 euro a night buys you in Pula, Croatia...although you really can´t put a price tag on peace of mind like that.

This is what 60 euro a night buys you in Pula, Croatia...although you really can´t put a price tag on peace of mind like that.

 

There’s a time and a place for patriotism…but my passport ain’t it September 29, 2008

So I have this memory from my original solo European journey back in 1992. I’m 99% certain that I’m recalling the details accurately, but it’s so bizarre to me now that there’s a small part of me that thinks maybe it was a dream or something. Anyway, here’s what I (think I) remember: I was crossing into Hungary from Austria, and the border guard came through the train. He stopped at a young couple a few seats in front of me, and made them completely and totally empty their bags so that he could search them.

This was – and remains – one of my ‘nightmare scenarios’. Not because I have anything to hide, but because I have so much stuff crammed into a 30 liter space. It takes FOREVER to pack the thing, and I’ve never even endeavored a full unpack/repack. Shudder to think.

Anyway, as he got closer to me, I was sweating bullets that he’d want to do a deep dive. Instead, what happened was this:

  • He looked at my passport

  • Looked at me

  • Looked my passport

  • Looked at me

  • Looked at my backpack

  • Looked at my passport

  • LICKED THE PHOTO ON MY PASSPORT (and when I say licked, I don’t mean like you’d lick a stamp. I mean LICKED like a full-on Gene Simmons photo op moment)

  • Gave it a stamp (I can still remember exactly how the stamp looked – kind of like fireworks with some printing in the middle)

  • And moved on.

Now I’m no expert on foreign relations (although, from the little bit of news I’ve picked up, it appears I am an expert on foreign relations when compared to Sarah Pallin), but this strikes me as a bit unprofessional.

On the other hand, I’ve been brushing up on my customs and etiquette for the brave new Eastern European leg that lies ahead. Thus, you can imagine my dismay to learn that the Bulgarians and the Turks have got it all wrong. From what I’ve read, in both countries they shake their head side to side to say “YES!” and nod up and down to say “No.” It’s permanent ‘opposite day’ (a game I never liked and which always annoyed me) in Bulgaria in Turkey.

Seriously though, talk about the Tower of Babble! It does make you notice (and wonder) about language and what we’re taught (and eventually communicate as second nature) and how it all evolved so differently all over the world. For one thing, I’m going to have to endeavor to channel the Tin Man during my time in Bulgaria and Turkey. This will be a challenge, since so much of my communicating consists of pointing at something and nodding enthusiastically when they grab the right thing, or shaking my head from side to side while frowning a little if they’ve got it wrong. Now I”m just gong to have to rely on Jedi mind tricks.

Meanwhile, it turns out nothing is open on a Sunday in Croatia during the off-season – and this includes markets, grocery stores, and restaurants – so I was pretty hard up for food yesterday. I had an orange and an apple and a tin of anchovies (don’t ask), but by dinner I was down to the emergency rations.

The emergency rations are three packages of instant soup (now just one) purchased all the way back in England. The first soup consumed was lentil, and it was horrific. I ate about three spoonfuls, poured it down the sink, and decided I’d prefer to be hungry that night. The second was potato leek (last night), and either my standards have gone down or it wasn’t half bad.

Anyway, I was reading the instructions (in English! Hallelujah!) on the back of the package, and they started with, “Empty contents of package into a pot, add 800 ml of water, and place on the hob.” Wait. On the WHAT? The hob? Do you mean stove? And it seemed so ridiculous that they would call a stove a “hob” (which is kind of a funny word, and may even make you start giggling like a dumbass if you repeat it to yourself enough times). Anyway, once I calmed down, I started thinking, “Well, what makes STOVE such a good word? Why not a hob?” But all this deep thought leaves you wondering (or at least if you’re me). So it’s only in the last 100 or 200 years that all these people that migrated over the ocean from England and Ireland and everywhere else, and eventually adopted English as their language (at least in the majority of cases). Why did they transition from ‘hob’ to ‘stove’? And from ‘torch’ to ‘flashlight’? And ‘lift’ to ‘elevator’? And where did our cool accent go along the way?

Like I said, Tower of Babble, baby.

At any rate, back to the original thing about the customs agent in Hungary: Maybe that was just a sign of approval of the United States or a coded threat: “We’ll let you into Hungary, but don’t outstay your welcome or things are going to get sticky”? I was reminded of this because on Saturday, on the bus from Italy to Croatia I had my first real border crossing passport check. Usually you just ride across borders like they’re states. Bus from Lithuania to Latvia? Didn’t even stop at the border. Train from Germany to Poland? No one ever even asked to see a passport. Flight from Ireland to Portugal with nothing to declare? Just walk on through. In a way, I’m bummed because I’m missing out on all kinds of cool stamps.

On Saturday I was near the back of the bus, and the guy got on and started making his way toward the rear. Those passports I’m guessing he recognized as Italian or Croatian he barely glanced at. For the Australian family I mentioned yesterday, he stopped and gave each of them a stamp. Then he got to me. And he looked at my passport. And looked at me. “Here we go….” I thought.

Then, he proceeded to flip very slowly and deliberately through each of the pages, studying each of them and maybe looking for stamps or visas from countries that would cause me a problem? This went on for what seemed like forever, and as I and the rest of the bus watched him do this, I remembered that the new passports have all these ludicrous patriotic pictures on every page. I renewed my passport in 2007, and I was dismayed to get it back looking like a souvenir you’d buy at the White House. Plus, they ruined my cute picture by plastering a stars and stripes hologram over my face. When you look at it in the right light, there’s a big star right above my lip – like the Cindy Crawford mole, only much, much larger.

An hour later, he finally stamped it and gave it back. At that point, I decided to look through and see what was so interesting. It was then that I actually tuned into the quotes on the top of all the pages. Nothing is blatantly WRONG with the quotes. They’re mostly from Presidents of yore, plus a token comment from the Native Americans (about the value of animals and the hope we don’t kill them all off – keep hoping, guys). However, I have to stop and ask myself, “Was this really NECESSARY?”

The pictures are bad enough. On pages 16 and 17, one finds a lovely bit of Americana – a scene of a steamboat chugging down the Mighty Mississippi. No harm done. Pages 18 and 19 feature a farmer plowing his fields the old fashioned way, with the aid of some bulls. In case you wonder what he might be farming, there’s a big ‘ol closeup of some wheat on page 18 to help you out. But then, blazoned across the top like a manifesto, is the following quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower, a president about whom I know nothing because my high school U.S. History teacher was obsessed with the Civil War, and we never made it past 1890.

That aside, Dwight apparently said, “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world, must first come to pass in the heart of America.” This I see as a problem. Probably not when he said it, but in light of recent events, I’m not too keen on flashing a passport that talks about America going out and doing stuff/enforcing our values/protecting our oil interests/WHATEVER in the greater world. Everyone knows it…do we really need to plaster it all over our passports? That’s the kind of sh*t that gets your American @ss kidnapped in some countries.

In the big picture, I suppose I should be grateful my passport doesn’t play “God Bless the USA’ when you open it. You know it, right? I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free… That would go over big in the Middle East. Open your passport, and hear the sound of 50 semi-automatic weapons being cocked, as you hum along to that terribly catchy little ditty.

p.s.

Yesterday being Sunday, I got nowhere with BofA. However, I also didn’t spend any money, so I’m holding strong and – with any luck – will get this fixed before things become critical. Here’s hoping!!!

 

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!

 

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!)

 

Kaleidescope of phlegm

Let’s talk about eating AND gross bodily emissions, shall we?

Well, there are a lot of different kinds of Italian food and they change up rather dramatically depending upon the region. However, where I’ve been, it all seems to center around the four basic food groups: milk, cheese, oil, and wheat. As near as I can tell, most Italian recipes evolved from the concept of, “I wonder if I could stuff cheese in this?” As in, “Hey, here’s a tube-like pasta, I wonder if I could stuff cheese in it?”

Check out these big squash blossoms, I wonder if I could stuff cheese in them and then deep fat fry them?”

Hey, look at this spare tire I found abandoned on the freeway, what do you say we coat it in oil, stuff cheese in it, and bathe it in a cream sauce?”

Not to say they don’t do it with a lot of panache. One of my favorite offerings was the artichoke Roman style – they take a whole artichoke, dip it in batter, and deep fry it. It’s like the “awesome blossom” of artichokes. Sounds like a good idea, but it leaves you feeling like you’ve gone swimming in the wake of the Exxon Valdez.

Anyway, whether you love or hate the super rich food is probably more a matter of one’s own palette and mucous situation. And right now, thanks to the southerly progression of my cold, I have a pretty serious phlegm crisis playing out in my chest right now. You don’t need a medical degree to figure that all this dairy ain’t helping…although it has introduced some interesting forms and color variations that someone out there may want to document and study, if only they knew how to find me.

As for the Big G – GELATO – I have sampled. I figured you can’t come here and not eat gelato, so I have had two smallish cups with two flavors each time. For these samples I sought out the (alleged) two best purveyors in Florence, the birthplace of getato. First off, it’s high quality and impressive and the first bite is beyond amazing, and your head swims a little…but, for me anyway, it’s all downhill from there. It’s just too much. Frankly, it’s like eating a bowl of cold batter. And while there’s nothing wrong with a finger scoop of batter, I draw the line at a quarter cup.

So at the risk of offending all the sugar junkies, sweet tooths, and chocoholics out there, I offer up my own translation guide on the gelato flavors I tried:

  • cioccolato mousse – cold brownie batter enriched with melted chocolate bars

  • nocciolo – the beige side of those Nutella-like spreads where the chocolate and hazelnut are separate, only higher quality…and cold

  • cioccolato arancia – cold brownie batter with melted chocolate bars and orange liqueur

  • crema – cold yellow cake batter made with plenty of yolks and loads of butter

I tell you what, I wish they offered a painter’s palette where they would give you a taste of each flavor. Like two mini-gelato spoon’s worth. Enough that you can try them all, and get an impression, but no more. That would get me in the door. When they start selling that – even if it’s at an unfair and clearly inflated price – I’ll be the first in line.

That stated, my hands down favorite thing I’ve had thus far in six days in Italy? Bruchette. little grilled toast rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil with a heap of fresh chopped tomatoes and arugula or olives or anchovies or basil or some other fresh and wonderful thing piled on top. If only I could have one with a nice plate of sashimi or maybe some oysters and a gin martini, a little tiny bit dirty… (Now I remember why i don’t talk about food. Not that I’m starving to death or anything, but it makes me hungry for things that aren’t available or out of my budget if they were! This is the same reason I never mention dogs.)

As for my time in Florence, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am an un-tourist. In fact, rather than criticize, I’m suggesting we celebrate it I am not the person whose giant head is blocking your photo of Boticellis Birth of Venus. that’s because what I like to do is walk around, people watch, see the architecture, and get the feel for a place. If there’s something amazingly ancient (as in thousands of years old) or a particularly good zoo or aquarium, then I’m probably in. I love modern art, and I get sick of the ‘church art’ pretty quickly. I’m starting to resent the zombified tour groups as much as – or more than – the locals do.

Similarly, there’s a certain march of cities that everyone seems to follow, and once there, they all flood to the same three or five or ten places. At times, I’ve been as guilty as the next guy, but the other day it occurred to me: It’s not (at all) like this is the only trip I will ever take. It’s not like these places are going anywhere. I should do what I want to do (or not), and see what I care to see (or not) and whatever with the status quo. That’s the clearest upside to traveling alone – you can go to China and not see the Great Wall if that’s your prerogative.

Thus, as I’ve seen both the Accademia and the Uffizi before, and the wait for each was two hours and three hours, respectively, and I had a killer migraine headache…screw it. I went to the Museo di Storia Della Scienza (science museum with Galileo’s tools and telescopes), hiked up to the Piazzale Michelangelo and took in the view, and then found a place to hang out and observe the spectacle of it all.

And that’s why, despite all the old art and old churches and old buildings to see in Venice, and provided I can figure out how to get there in this maze of a city – you will find me this afternoon at the Collezione Peggy Guggenheim looking at the Pollocks and happy as a clam.