Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

My goodness, my Guinness August 19, 2008

I imagine tourists have always been a hazard: Looking up when they should be looking for traffic, stopping suddenly when they spot a souvenir shop, clustering together in large, slow-moving groups. All of this was enough. But give a tourist a phone and the ability to text message their friends back home while walking slowly and ambling into traffic…and they’re practically a deadly weapon. Who knows? Maybe I’d be just as obnoxious if I still had my Blackberry. But I don’t. And I can’t figure out how to work my “fun phone”, so I guess that makes me neither part of the problem, nor part of the solution!

There is a peculiar thing in our society of wanting to go somewhere different, but not really want anything to change: not the food, not the language, not even our habits. I was at a hostel here in Ireland a few days ago where a guy from New Zealand spent all day, every day in the common room working on his laptop. When I stopped in and started looking around for an electrical outlet, he pointed out every single one in the room. Kind of makes you wonder why he bothered to leave New Zealand, where it might have been cheaper, easier, and even more scenic to surf the web all day?

As for me, I don’t need things to stay the same, but it turns out I’m not all that interested in shelling out pound after pound (now euro after euro) to see faux entertainment drummed up for the tourists. Case in point, my visit to the Guinness Storehouse. I don’t have any hard facts on this, but I would guess it’s the number one tourist attraction here in Dublin. I can’t imagine what would beat it. Anyway, I’m not sure why I was gung ho to do this. I know how beer is brewed. In fact, super thick dark beer is the easiest kind to make! I would know, I made some as part of a class (earned chemistry credit for it, in fact) in college. Overly sweet wine is pretty easy, too.

Anyway, now I know how Guinness is made (roasted barley and the water does NOT come from the River Liffey, which is good news because that water looks pretty dubious. The guide had to answer this question TWICE, by the way (?) ), and I got my free pint at the Gravity Bar. Although I suppose it was semi-interesting and the view from the bar was nice in a gray, cloudy, rain-soaked kind of way, I couldn’t help but thinking that for the price of admission, I could have had five pints of Guinness and needed someone to carry me home. Maybe next time?

If nothing else, it was kind of amusing to see all the people coming out with giant shopping bags branded “Guinness.” At any given point, it seemed like a third of the town was carrying one of those bags. One is left wondering if Guinness might make more money off merchandise than they do beer here in Dublin? Sadly, I have not room in my backpack to load up on Guinness t-shirts, magnets, bottle openers, signs, posters, plaques, sweatshirts, and glassware. However, and again I don’t have any hard facts, but I bet they’ve got a web site where I can order up memorabilia to my heart’s content once I get home! Now I have a way to get the matching Guinness leather jacket, pants, and baseball hat combo I was eyeballing!

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Pity the shattered nerves of the University of Glasgow student August 15, 2008

The Elephant House in Edinburgh - where J.K. Rowling scrawled the original ideas for 'Harry Potter' on napkins. I took a handful of napkins - and scrawled a few ideas of my own - for good measure!

The Elephant House in Edinburgh - where J.K. Rowling scrawled the original ideas for

It's like a Westhighland Terrier convention in Scotland and Ireland! Here's a little one (Honey) on her way to go camping in Glasgow.

It

I’ve been staying in their (extremely) modest dorms for about 24 hours now. First off, it’s convenient to nothing. Well, it’s close to the University of Glasgow (duh), but otherwise nothing. And then they’re kind of Nazis. Its a baby blue room with full-on Ikea furniture – twin bed, desk, wardrobe – and a single felt covered board with the following posted on it, “All notices, posters, etc. should be placed on this notice board. The occupant will be re-charged for bedroom redecoration if notices/posters are elsewhere in the room.” Naturally, I went out and got my hands on every Hannah Montana poster in the country and covered every bloody square inch with the things. I paid cash for the room. Let them figure that one out…

Actually, the strict “do not decorate your prison cell” directives aren’t the half of it. The place has some INSANELY sensitive smoke alarms. As in, think about smoke or smoking or the smell of smoke or how you’d like a smoke and the whole joint erupts in ‘end of the world’ blaring and general pandemonium.

There’s a little sign by the sink (on the sacred blue wall, no less!) alerting you that the following inocuous activities could lead to  yet another 3am fire drill:

  • aerosol sprays
  • hairdryers
  • ironing
  • heavy breathing (okay, I made this one up. But why not???)

As I mentioned, I have been here a mere 24 hours. We have had FIVE or SIX (I lost count shortly after my ear drums melted) fire drills. And I haven’t exactly been here a consecutive 24 hours. I did actually leave for a while and wander around (yawn), and I went for a run this morning. And I went and got some dinner.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that no one will ever die of smoke inhalation or severe burns while studying at the University of Glasgow. They may go deaf and their nerves may be so shattered that they can never relax for the rest of their life without fear of blaring alarms going off for no reason. But no one will die of a fire or anything closely resembling a fire. Ever. You can bet your life on it. Or trade in a good night’s sleep. Either way…

 

A free bit of pre-marital counseling for you August 13, 2008

V by church outside Bath, England (apologies to the owner of the tombstone I had to use to prop up my camera)

V by church outside Bath, England (apologies to the owner of the tombstone I had to use to prop up my camera)

Bath, England street scene - a rare sunny moment

Bath, England street scene - a rare sunny moment

If you are considering proposing to or otherwise permanently committing to another person, take a trip to England, rent a car without a navigation system, print out some spotty Google maps directions, and navigate your merry way to Swindon, Bath, Stonehenge, and Avebury Circle. Feel free to grab a map at the rental office, not that it will help.

Then, assuring neither of you is left-handed or originally from Great Britain, take turns driving and navigating (unless you enjoy migraine headaches and near-death experiences, do not try to do both). Then, sit back and take turns raging, criticizing, and generally freaking out on one another. Enjoy!

If you can make these journeys WITHOUT that happening:

  1. You are saints

  2. You are not human

  3. You should definitely get married

  4. Hell, write a book on how to be more like you while you’re at it.

Fortunately for me (and anyone close to me), I am on this voyage on my own, so I had only myself to blame. Further fortunately for myself, I am pretty supportive of my own efforts much of the time, and try to self-soothe with such banter as,

  • “You’re doing great.”
  • “Lots of people drive around with the emergency brake on.”
  • “Hey, you’re American. It’s a wonder you haven’t injured anyone. What more do they want?”
  • “So you had your high beams on the whole team. Nobody died.”
  • “Way to work that roundabout – and in third gear, no less!”
  • “You’re fine. Ignore them.”

Otherwise, I might still be pulled over on some English country road shaking and crying and considering slashing the tires so that someone will come and get me and drive me back to Heathrow. Let me just say, I regard it as a minor miracle that i somehow managed to get back from (truly) the middle of nowhere (if no street anywhere is identified with a name of any kind and it’s all just country roads, stone houses, and lush landscapes, you’re nowhere in my book), return my car, navigate the train and the Tube and be writing you now from London. Whew!

BTW, London (at least where I am – West End) is so much like Manhattan it isn’t even funny. Next door to the Gap is the H&M and Urban Outfitters. Don’t forget the Black Angus and Pizza Hut across the street.

Anyway, before I get any further into London, let me finish up my Bath misadventure story by noting that it’s truly a gorgeous city. Amazingly, stunningly so, I would know because I drove every square inch of it – twice – and got myself cornered in every dead end in town. At the same time, Bath also has THE LOUDEST pigeons on earth – Insane, rowdy, ridiculous, raucous pigeons. It sounded like a pigeon orgy out there: They were screaming, moaning, shrieking, cooing, and caterwauling all night long. I don’t know whether pigeons can have orgasms, but based on the noises I heard, I’m going to go with “yes.”

Of course, all this was only augmenting the ambient sound of people coughing and a guy that would work up to a snore so loud and annoying I thought I might have to climb out of my top bunk and kill him, and then he’d spontaneously fall silent for a few minutes.

This brings us to the subject of hostels. Six, eight, ten people in one room. Zero privacy. Group bed times. The weird freaking noises people make. The AWFUL beds – basically chicken wire with a few cotton balls on it. Yes, they’re damn cheap…and they should be.

Having had to quit my job to make this trip, I’m on a serious budget. The young version of me – the one that slept on trains every night so as to avoid spending any money – still lives and breathes. On the other hand, I’ve learned a thing or two. And if you don’t give the universe a chance to provide for you, how can it?

Thus, I’ve realized, to get all chummy with strangers and expose yourself like that when you’re young is one thing. I, however, am really not all that young. Which is why I’ve determined that there will be no further hosteling unless it’s a town that I’m passing through for just one night and if it’s f-ing close to the train station (this shit on my back is heavy). On the other hand, why am I making myself run around like this to a town a day? If there is anything worse than hauling your every belonging on your back like a gypsy and vagabonding to a new country every day, I don’t want to know what it is. Thus, the one-night stays will also be reduced if not outright eliminated.

A new era of sanity has begun! Amen.

 

 

Here comes the sun August 9, 2008

What is it about sunshine that always makes me feel optimistic? I remember the first time I went to San Diego. It was Christmastime and warmish, and I was wearing shorts. And as I was walking into El Indio, I remember thinking to myself that if I lived there, I’d probably be a better person.

So, sufficed to say, it’s a sunny day in Iceland. In about half an hour, I and a group of my closest tourist friends will be taking the “Netbus” over to the Blue Lagoon, which from the pictures appears to be a giant hot spring/mud bath/natural pool thing – like Disneyworld’s River Country, but without the slides. I was feeling a little down to learn that it’s sunny and 90’s at home, and the realization that I left a fair amount of creature comforts (including a swimming pool!) behind to freeze my behind off and slum it up in Northern Europe was bumming me out. Actually, I’ve been down on myself altogether – fantasizing about return tickets home – but I’m determined to tough it out a little more than four days!

The odds that I will hunker down and write the great American (or wherever) novel go up the more I subject myself to extreme alone time (and occasional loneliness)! Plus, this little experiment wouldn’t be much of a story for the grandkids if I bailed after four days… And perhaps most importantly, I’ve done this to give myself a shot at making a career as a writer rather than a banking consultant, and although I’m arguably going about it the hard way, I still want to follow the yellow brick road and see what happens.

Meanwhile, and unrelated, somehow yesterday’s post generated an (allegedly randomly) link to a trailer for a documentary called “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” which – in my opinion – looks fascinating. I watched it (trailer) twice. I particularly like the little guy grooving to the music at the end! Worth checking out if you have two minutes to spare: http://cnettv.cnet.com/9742-1_53-12299.html?id=12299&tag=sphere_mrss&clientid=sphere&part=sphere

In other news, Iceland is expensive. Goddamned expensive. A thing of yogurt clocks in at around $2.30. A beer – a SINGLE beer – at the pizza place by the guest house was almost $15.00!?!? No wonder Icelandic women have a reputation for being casual about sexual relations – you more or less have to put out after someone spends $600 buying you dinner and drinks!!!

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a gorgeous place and all, but I’m getting antsy to move on. I was in the lobby looking at postcards and there were a few of glaciers floating in the water, and I thought to myself, “Glaciers. You seen one, you seen ’em all.” As a result, I’m starting to worry that something said to me recently is true: Nothing impresses me.This was said sweetly, mind you, even affectionately, but about six weeks ago, I distinctly remember Brad remarking that – through no intention or conceit – I remain unflappably unimpressed. True, I have subjected myself to more insanity than most people, and I have a tremendous capacity to attract extraordinary circumstances and bizarre people, but is it possible to have really been there, done that to the degree that there’s nothing left to do, see, or be!?!?

Is this the fate of the examined life? Total and complete nonchalance?

 

On second thought, maybe naming it ‘Iceland’ wasn’t all that deceptive? August 7, 2008

Boiling pool of Icelandic mud

Boiling pool of Icelandic mud

I’m here, and I have the freezing cold feet and frizzy hair to prove it. It’s almost 12:30 a.m., and having failed to enlist anyone on either U.S. coast (where it’s 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., respectively) in an e-mail conversation, I realize I’m sleepy. I should probably ride that wave, but in the interest of a quick post, I’ll share my first impressions:

1. Colder and wetter than I anticipated. I bet they make a killing on those handmade wool sweaters…

2. Despite my best efforts on neutral clothing, the second I open my mouth I am branded “American girl” – but not in a mean way or anything. In fact, the man who rang me up at the little grocery seemed positively delighted that I was from “the States.”

3. Somehow it’s so very European here. Every nook and cranny. It’s hard to explain, but if I were kidnapped and drugged and came to in this strange place (and said strange place happened to beReyjavik), I have no doubt I would know it was Europe somewhere (not that that’s a terribly specific insight). It almost has its own smell.

4. Forget Southern California, if you’re looking for blondes, this is your mecca.

 

If my chiropractor could see me now… August 6, 2008

He’d probably tackle me to the ground while delivering a long and powerful sermon on the dangers of carrying 1/3 of your body weight on your back. Admittedly, I’m no fan of it either – I’ve had no less than two bad dreams in preparation – but what are you gonna do?

I got the whole mess down to about 38 or 39 pounds…and unfortunately at least ten pounds of that is books. Trust me, if I thought I could do without I’d dump them, but when the bulk of your plan for three months is to wander and wing it through Europe, leaving your Let’s Go! Western Europe, Let’s Go! Eastern Europe, and Thomas Cook Summer 2008 train schedules behind seems foolish, if not plain old dumb. The fourth book is on freelance travel writing, which is probably more wishful thinking than anything. However, seeing as I’m unemployed now, money is definitely an object. I’m feeling a bit edgy about the fact that the dollar is worth more as a piece of note paper or a napkin in Europe right now.

In other news, having turned in my company car, computer, and Blackberry last Friday (an unlike a lot of people saddled with a BB for by their job, I LOVED mine and will miss it), I am low on technogadgets and adapting to my mini-computer, the ASUS EEE. I’m not sure how they arrived at this particular name, but phonetically (in my mind) it sounds like Ass Us EEEEEEEEEEEE. Not a good name. Thus, owing to my habit of naming inanimate objects, allow me to freestyle my way to a more fitting moniker for my companion. Insouciant, Assisi, St. Francis of Assisi, Frank, Sous, Susie. I’m liking Susie. Susie it is! Welcome to our solo backpacking trip, Susie. I promise not to paint a face on you with my own blood. Hopefully.

Anyway, the keyboard is crazy tiny and has a few funky elements (where right side shift key should be is page up, there’s some key combo Ive hit twice that wipes out the last sentence you wrote and replaces it with a $1 – TOTAL DIGRESSION: what is that were true!? Every sentence I wrote gave me a dollar!? Or better yet, a pound or euro? Seriously though, I like that. In my newly jobless gypsy state, I’m taking it as a good sign – back to the learning curve: need to hit the function key to get an asterisk, etc. On the good news side of the coin, but for my two bandaged middle fingers (paper cut and weird cuticle peeling thing only my dad and I seem to struggle with), I have small hands and with some practice, I think I’ll be able to pull this typing business off pretty fluidly.

No one, not even the rain, has such small hands…

 

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery August 1, 2008

and I can’t fit into my friggin’ backpack.

I didn’t want to be lugging 100 pounds on my back…but maybe the pendulum has swung too far in other direction? I have spent entirely too long battling the bag – to no avail – and I still have yet to work it out. Literally 29 hours until I’m at the airport…