Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sweatpants Sketchbook

Sweatpants Across Europa, the story of my Euro travels many years ago, is a proud participant in the Sketchbook Project and has been digitized as well!  Check it out here, complete with indecipherably small text (it's much better viewed in person at the Brooklyn Art Library) and below-average original sketchings by yours truly.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sweatpants Across Europa: The End

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story.  To begin at the beginning, go here. 

Far from the world of urban Europe there is a wilderness area in Minnesota called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Many people have been to the Boundary Waters once or more in their lives for a vacation, although a vacation in the BWCA is no walk in the park. The Boundary Waters is full of mosquitoes, outdoor latrines, long portages, and strange animal sounds in the middle of the night. It is the type of place you go if you are either an outdoor junkie or you have never been there before or you cannot remember how rough it was the last time you went. 

Foreign travel can feel the same way. It attracts a few enthusiasts who enjoy every moment, but for most people it is a mix of uncomfortable adjustment and often painful discovery, to be enjoyed only when the struggles of the last trip have eased from memory.

On our return home, Karie and I both knew it would be a while before we would leave again. We had been struggling and adjusting non-stop for months on end. We needed a vacation from our vacation, or at least a return to normalcy. It was great to be back in a land full of sweatpants.

However, traveling gets in one’s blood. It is stressful, expensive, and challenging. It is also thrilling, eye-opening, and highly addictive. Despite an ever-growing family, work, bills to pay, and dark news about world events everywhere, we still manage to get out and explore every once in a while. Though I am a homebody who does not like car travel and passionately dislikes flying, I have loved every trip I have ever taken. I would not trade a single one of them for an extra few dollars or another completed home project.

Fortunately, the world is growing smaller every day. Opportunities to explore new nooks are opening as we speak. So take them. Despite what the news tells you, you are not hated. You will be safe. You will be welcomed. You will meet wonderful people and see amazing sites and your life will never be the same afterwards. If you have an open mind, a touch of fearlessness, and are willing to be the only person in the room wearing a drawstring, then a mode of transportation and some time are all that separate you from your own collection of bizarro tales. Sweatpants Across…

Sweatpants Across Europa: London Again

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story.  To begin at the beginning, go here.   

By the time we arrived in London and found our way to our last hostel, it was nearly midnight. Our room was reasonably priced but it was also inconveniently located far from the airport, the paint was peeling off the walls, and the beds sagged to the floor. However there were two other people in the room and they had been there for a few nights, so we knew survival was possible. At that point, survival was all we wanted. Soon we would be home.  


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Sweatpants Across Europa: France

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story.  To begin at the beginning, go here.

Paris is a wonderful city for tourists. It has a few extremely high-profile attractions. It has a subway system. It has delicious cuisine available on nearly every street corner. Most attractions are within a long but reasonable walk from each other (although the Eiffel Tower is always much, much farther away than one thinks it is. Trust me.) Paris should have been the highlight of our trip. But it wasn’t.

I knew it wouldn’t be. I didn’t know how it wouldn’t be, but I knew from experience that in some way, Paris would frustrate me. The first time I went to Paris, I was a poor college student touring with some friends. We sat down to enjoy a snack at a small café. I wasn’t very hungry, but agreed to go along. The waitress took our orders but became very stern when she came to me and I told her I didn’t want anything. “You have to order some-seeng,” she said. I did not expect this sort of ultimatum. Have to? I had learned to expect bizarre rule enforcement from customs agents or DMV employees but not restaurant staff. Irritated, I ordered a sparkling water. I hated sparkling water but it was the cheapest thing on the menu.

For my return to Paris, I went with an open mind. These are nice people, I told myself. They mean well. There are just a few bad apples who are either arrogant or rigid. Due to the friendliness of the Parisians we encountered or maybe a bit of luck, our trip went without incident. Except for some rain during our visit to the Eiffel Tower, Paris was brilliant. We ate croissants every morning, visited art galleries that included paintings even I recognized, and never once felt the urge to make a tasteless World War II joke. Until we tried to leave.

All that stood between us and a flight home from London was a ride on the Eurostar, the high speed train that traveled between England and France beneath the English Channel. We arrived at the Eurostar station at 6:43 PM, ready to buy our tickets for the 7:19 train to Waterloo. By the time we got there, the 6:16 train had not even left yet. Unfortunately there was a bit of a line, but it looked manageable. By the time we were at the front of the line, probably around 6:50, we were told we could no longer buy tickets for the 7:19 because we had to check in thirty minutes prior to the scheduled departure (never mind departure was clearly going to be at least an hour late). In situations like this, one expects a bit of compassion. Unfortunately, Paris is not the place to be a frustrated American looking for compassion. The ticket person told us that there was nothing she could do – regulations are regulations, after all – but we could go upstairs and plead with the EuroStar ticket window people up there.

Anyone who has ever been transferred from one customer service agent to another can quickly recognize an impending goose chase. Just in case the upstairs Eurostar agents were not able to fulfill the hopeful predictions of their downstairs counterparts, I asked if the next train, which left at 8:43, had any student-priced tickets available. It did not. If we did not manage to board the 7:19 train for forty euros, we would have to board the 8:43 at full price, whatever that may be. Not the best outcome, but not a huge problem, I thought.

We bolted up the aforementioned flight of stairs, past a sign marked “ticketed passengers only,” and approached a bank of ticket windows that must have been for ticketed passengers who just wanted more tickets. We waited in another, slower moving line while the clock ticked away. Growing increasingly frustrated, we spoke with a very unsympathetic Eurostar ticket agent who clearly had no interest in selling us a student-priced ticket aboard the half-full 7:19 train. However he did tell us that we could wait until twenty minutes before boarding to see if any “released tickets” came up. To nobody’s surprise, no tickets were released. We asked, as kindly as possible, what the full price of the tickets was. “145 euro, round trip,” was the reply.

Doing some mental math, we calculated the cost of a one-way trip. “Ah,” thinks I, “so a full price, one-way ticket would be half of that, or roughly seventy euros.” It certainly was not the price we wanted, but it was reasonable. So we asked, “What about one-way?”

“250 euro.”

I assumed he misspoke. I asked if he was correct and, in fact, a one-way ticket was nearly twice as expensive as a round trip.

“Yes”.

He seemed to be enjoying this.

Needing to calm down, I wandered away for a bit. The 7:19 train pulled away from the station. There were no better deals waiting for us. At that point, the price I would pay to leave France was rapidly rising. Lacking better options, we paid, boarded our train, and stewed silently while the dark French countryside flew by.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Sweatpants Across Europa: Turkey

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story.  To begin at the beginning, go here.
 
As our vessel pulled into the Bodrum harbor, we were told we could not dock because our ship was too large. We needed a tender to bring us to port. But we couldn’t use our on-board tender because only Turkish tenders were allowed ashore. But we couldn't use a Turkish tender because…they didn’t have one. So it was decided that we would be allowed to put a Turkish flag on our own tender and proceed to the coast.  
 
Security for tourists in Turkey was world-class. I never felt safer abroad than when I was in Turkey. In previous ports, we would walk off our boat without a security check and immediately go about our business. In Turkey, we flashed our security badges to the border guards at the harbor, then walked past a stern crew of Turkish police looking for anybody acting suspicious near the border checkpoint. It appeared they had learned some hard lessons and were not about to make those mistakes again.
 

Once safely in the country, we were introduced to a fortified city constructed by the Knights of St. John’s. There was a beautiful aquatic museum full of artifacts discovered off the Bodrum coast. We walked through towers inside the city walls decked out as they might have been in the 16th century.

One of the main attractions in Bodrum was the Mausoleum, an Ancient Wonder of the World. We set out for it and, after wandering uphill through many rundown apartments and tight alleys, found the site. There were some pictures of what the Mausoleum could have looked like and we walked among what must have been its basement or possibly some underground parking.

Our self-guided rubble-walk did not take very long so we had time to check out the next-largest icon on our tourist map, an ancient Roman theater. There were very few signs leading us to the Mausoleum and absolutely nothing guiding us to the theater. Even so, we eventually found our site half a mile away, on the far side of a highway bordering the outskirts of Bodrum. There was only one person there, a rough-looking gentleman who asked us over and over again if he could take our picture. Perhaps he was hoping we would mistake him for some sort of official keeper of the ruins or picture-taker extraordinaire, but we ignored him and walked around on our own. The theater was nicely intact and not too overgrown. We walked to the top row of seating to enjoy a nice view over the highway, down toward Bodrum’s shores.

Once we were back into the middle of homes and apartments, we started to hear music that sounded like it might have been coming from somebody’s car. To my untrained ears, it was a haunting sound. As we walked deeper into town, it grew stronger. As the sound became louder and louder, so did my run-and-hide instinct. But nobody on the street seemed to be panicking. Either there was nothing at all to worry about or there was something extremely horrible to worry about. I KNEW Turkey would be exciting!

Finally we came upon it. It was not a stereo or a car at all, but a speaker in a minaret tower. It was prayer time. Relieved, but also fearful that we were trouncing all over local customs by walking the streets during prayer, we proceeded cautiously towards the city. After a few more nervous minutes, we stumbled on Bodrum’s main street and saw other people milling about as though this sort of thing happened five times every day and only a clueless traveler would have an ounce of concern.

We stopped in for a bite to eat at a shore-side café and found some very helpful Turks who told us which dolmuş to take to get to the most beautiful beaches. We thanked them and jumped on the first ride that came by. A dolmuş was a combination bus and taxi. I’m still not sure if they had defined routes. Our driver took requests pretty regularly, heading off in bizarre directions whenever someone shouted out something new. I never saw a dolmuş station or a dolmuş stop. We picked up people along the way wherever we found them. Despite all this, the dolmuş system worked remarkably well. We were at our destination quickly, despite a significant language barrier, no route schedule, and some very vague instructions.

Our destination for the afternoon was the sandy shore of Barlacki Beach in front of a magnificent hotel. The beach was full of European tourists and we had to pay a small fee to the hotel for the privilege of sitting on the sand with them, but it worked out well. For our sitting fee, we received a towel and an umbrella and had access to the softest white sand on which I have ever set foot. Perched at the bottom of a barren hillside dotted with round green bushes, the beach bordered perfectly clear, deep blue water, the kind one sees on Caribbean vacation post cards. The sea bottom was as soft as the shore and sloped so gradually that we could wade endlessly before needing to tread water. We had a fabulous afternoon in the sun and surf before walking back into town, past several more hotels and a fenced-off military facility that seemed perfectly located to remind tourists to keep their guard up.

After a queasy night on choppy seas, we woke in Kusadasi. There was very little to do in Kusadasi. However, Kusadasi was very close to the biblical city of Ephesus. Tour companies loved this because they could list “Kusadasi/Ephesus” as a destination on their cruise but charge extra for add-on tours of Ephesus. Despite this apparent scheme we decided to take the tour, abandoning Kusadasi and its many newsstands and suitcase vendors.

The tour bus came to pick us up and we were greeted by a phenomenally talented tour guide. He was – and I believed him about this – part time tour guide, part time Turkish ambassador to Russia. Apparently if you are extremely bright and you want to make a lot of money in Turkey, you go into tourism. His English, one of many languages he spoke, was flawless. During the ride he told us about the history of Ephesus, its significance as a Mediterranean port during the biblical era, and how it filled in with silt, which killed the town as the coast moved out to Kusadasi.

The marble ruins of Ephesus were intact, set in a field of straw grass at the base of several barren foothills. The main street, which sloped down toward the former seashore, was bordered on one side by ancient market stalls where silversmiths once hawked trinkets of Roman gods. Along the opposite side there was a stone foundation and stalls for a co-ed (yes, co-ed) bathroom. At the base of this street sat a towering room that housed the Ephesian Library. To the right of the library, down a short road, lay a fantastically large, acoustically perfect open-air theater where the Apostle Paul was famously scheduled to preach before being run out of town.

Our day in Ephesus was hot and there was little shade. We were happy to board the bus and return to the cooler coast, but Ephesus was well worth the trip. I had goose bumps walking through those ancient roads, the same ones my Sunday school teachers once tried in vain to make me appreciate.

After returning to Kusadasi, we got our first taste of Turkish salesmanship. The bus dropped us off at a rug store where we were taken downstairs and treated to a well-choreographed display of fast talking and rug throwing. As the salesman described one rug after another and fed us apple tea, his assistants grabbed rugs that were scattered strategically in large piles throughout the room and flung them before us. The rugs floated in the air for an unnaturally long period, then fell in a dazzling array of bright colors and patterns on the floor. Several of the rugs were sewn with a unique thread that made the fabric appear to change hues as it moved through the air. I muscled together a mountain of self control and we walked away empty-handed. But the seed was sown. Few tourists left Turkey without a rug. Now we knew why.

The next morning, our cruise ended in Istanbul. We were back in the cold, cruel world and it was a bit of a shock. We had grown accustomed to a life of luxury and spent a few disoriented minutes trying to get our travel brains back. We dug out a map, spun it a few times, took our best directional guess, and marched off across a bridge over the Bosporus Strait.

Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, a very large, appropriately named, blue mosque. The mosque sat in the middle of an elaborate garden, full of knee-high hedges and bright flowers. Because it was still a functioning mosque there was no entrance fee, so we walked right in. I had never been inside a mosque in my life, so my primary goal was to avoid offending someone. Fortunately, there were plenty of other tourists milling about, staring at the walls. Four very large “Elephant’s Feet” pillars supported the dome. The walls were covered with thousands of hand-made blue floral-patterned tiles. The entire floor, except for a roped-off tourist area, was reserved for prayer space and was covered with prayer rugs. On the eastern wall was a small staircase leading to an elevated podium where the imam would lead the prayer service.

After a trek through Hagia Sofya nearby, we headed to the Basilica Cisterna, which our guidebook listed as a “must see.” By that point, I was skeptical of anything our guidebook said, but the Basilica was close by and we couldn’t think of a better option. It turned out to be a very good decision. We entered on ground level and took five flights of stairs down below the surface. At the base of the steps, we stood at the entrance of a perfectly preserved Roman temple. As our guidebook told us, the temple had sunk into the ground over the past few centuries, leaving it completely buried. A bit of careful digging exposed the original structure but the floor remained covered under a few inches of water. High above, the ceiling dripped steadily. Every pillar was preserved intact - thirty feet high, two feet wide, and meticulously aligned in perfect rows. For once, our guidebook was right. We walked in awe through the ancient pathways, able to appreciate the beauty of Roman architecture in a way that roofless ruins could never inspire.

Wincing as we stepped back into daylight, we strolled to the Grand Bazaar, a market that redefined high-pressure sales. For such a loud, chaotic, fantastic place, the Bazaar barely announced itself from the street. Nestled amongst ordinary shops and offices were several innocuous doorways marked “The Grand Bazaar.” Inside lived a circus of noise and glitz. Throngs of salesmen and customers engaged in perpetual, animated negotiation. The air smelled of spices, dust, and sweat. A haze hung throughout, adding to the sense of excitement and mystery. Most stores offered jewelry, handcrafts, or rugs, all without a price tag. Buyer, beware.

Somewhere in this crazed arena - we were sure - lived a rug just for us. We walked past several shops, avoiding eye contact with the shopkeepers as we tried to gain confidence. Summoning an extra ounce of courage, we engaged one of the salesmen and were whisked inside to a private room. Apple tea arrived immediately. Just as we saw in Kusadasi, a pair of assistants flung rugs in front of us while the head salesman watched eagerly. When we saw one we liked, the assistants stepped to the side and the salesman sat down beside us to discuss price. He gave us - in my opinion - a very high starting price, which we countered with a ridiculously low price. The gap seemed insurmountable, hundreds of dollars, but we whittled away our differences until I could not whittle any more. The salesman sighed, sat back, and told us we could have a few minutes to think. Karie and I sat in confused silence while he looked off in the distance. After an awkward eternity, we told him we were at our limit. The salesman asked for our final price. We repeated our bid. He asked for our final, final price. We repeated ourselves again. Convinced that we might be serious, he asked us what our occupation was. I thought for a minute and replied “students.” I think I actually felt his eyes roll. All hope of finding a final, final, final price gone, he agreed to give us our rug. The next few minutes were a blur as his assistants magically reappeared and dove into a frenzy of rug rolling and wrapping. Our salesman ran - literally ran - with us to the cash machine so we could pay him. We returned, received our rug, and were ushered out the door with encouragements to tell our friends.

I have no idea if we got a great deal or not. Price tags, the crutches I depend on to know the value of an object, do not exist in the Grand Bazaar. What I do know is that I love our rug, in part because of how exciting it was to purchase it. Wal-Mart will never, ever be able to provide that thrill, no matter how many rolls of toilet paper they fit inside a single package.

Confused and riding on a little too much bargaining adrenaline, we wandered aimlessly around Istanbul, managing to get ourselves very, very lost. We walked into a dingy internet café to get our bearings. The computer I selected did not work. I mentioned this to the clerk and got an angry glare from him and several people sitting near him. It was possible that he and his friends always looked angry, or preferred not to speak English. Whatever the case, I did not want to push it. I had my rug. I did not need a working computer, especially if it meant dealing with potentially cranky customer service personnel. Karie and I packed up and left, trying to avoid their stares.

The next day, we stumbled on a series of vocally gifted street vendors, one of whom continuously yelled “KEBAB KEBAB KEBAB KEBAB KEBAB!!!!!!!!!” Impressed, I bought a meatball sandwich from him. It was undoubtedly the most severely undercooked meatball sandwich in all of Istanbul. At that moment, I vowed never again to base my purchase decisions on lung strength.

That night, we decided to check out a Turkish bath, under the misguided assumption that Turks, like the rest of the world, prefer bath time to be a relaxing experience. At the bath house, I was quickly whisked away to the men’s bath, Karie to the women’s. From there, I was escorted by a very large, very rough man to the changing room, then the sauna, then given the hot bath, then the vicious scrubbing, then the vigorous massage, then the cold bath, then taken back to the sauna, then the shower, then left on my own for the drying and re-dressing. I’m not sure how long it all took. It was thoroughly cleansing, but it was by far the most brutal bath beating I have ever had. I think I’m still sore.

Also, it cost me 28 million lira. I refused to do the math and figure out how many dollars that was. I was just proud I could afford 28 million of anything.

We returned to the Blue Mosque at ten o'clock that night to take in a prayer service. We were a bit nervous. In theory, we were welcome to view the prayer service, but it was dark, we had never done this before, we were completely unfamiliar with local customs, and deep in the back of our minds we knew that we were Americans and at least a few people in this part of the world despised us because of that. We made our way through the darkened streets of Istanbul, past the gardens of the Blue Mosque, and up to the entrance. Quietly and slowly, we neared the doorway, our traveler-sense on high alert. Just as we poked our heads in the mosque to see if the coast was clear, we were stopped by an attendant.

Expecting the worst, we were amazed when he graciously invited us inside. Even though we were clearly outsiders, he seemed eager to let us watch the service. I was floored, though I should not have been. By this time, I should have put the pieces together. Of all the people in all the countries we visited, Turkey held the kindest and most outgoing. This realization dawned on me as I walked inside the gigantic blue dome and listened to the enchanting sound of the evening prayer.

The service was simple. Worshippers kneeled and bowed on individual rugs while the muezzin sang and chanted prayers out of the minaret. After several minutes, we let ourselves back out into the cool nighttime air.

We got up early in the morning and took a shuttle to Ataturk International Airport, one of the most tidy, modern, and secure airports I have ever been in. We made our way through four security checkpoints before boarding a brand new Boeing 737. The flight was perfectly smooth. Onboard, we were offered a wide selection of international newspapers and fed a delicious meal.

If you get tired of reading miserable news from the Middle East or you want a wonderful urban vacation, put Istanbul high on your list of destinations. You will not regret it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Greece

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story.  To begin at the beginning, go here.

Our accommodations on the ferry, which we had upgraded from “open air” to “dormitory,” closely resembled naval beds, but were slightly more comfortable than the apartment floor in Rome. The sea was calm and we slept well. However, at 4:30 AM we arrived at the first port-of-call, Iguomentsia. I might have missed this port were it not bored into my ears for thirty piercing seconds. “IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Needless to say, nobody missed Iguomentsia, including those of us who would have gladly slept through it.

By 12:30 PM, we arrived at Piraeus, ready to catch our express train to Athens. Unfortunately, the daily speedy train from Piraeus to Athens was scheduled to leave at 12:22, just minutes before the daily ferry arrived. This meant we and all our fellow passengers were forced onto the next train, which did not leave for two and a half hours. When our ride finally pulled in, it was a sight to behold: black, no doubt from all the soot it was belching out; noisy as a cat on fire; and unimaginably slow. In addition, it stopped approximately every twenty-five feet from Piraeus to Athens. If we had the energy, I am sure we could have beaten the train to Athens on foot. We eventually got acclimated to the rocking and the squealing and the stopping and the smells and began to enjoy our cliff-side coastal views, which were well worth all the inconveniences. I slowly became comfortable with the sheer hundred-foot drops off the side of the train. A nice old Greek lady could see me trying to glance out her ocean-side window, so she offered her seat to me and appeared to appreciate the interest I was taking in her country’s landscape. Just when it seemed we would be slowly touring Corinth for the entire day, we arrived in Athens. Our little-engine-that-could made the trip in just over five hours at an average speed of four miles per hour.

We were able to get a reasonable rate at the nearby Aphrodite Hostel. We grabbed some pizza, baklava and had a few drinks at the hostel bar, then settled in for the night.

We spent the next morning walking to the Acropolis, past streets lined with merchants and newsagents. Near the Acropolis, we encountered a steep incline with many crisscrossing streets and small alleys filled with tourist shops. One shop sold little backpack patches that looked like national flags. In my post-September-11th delusions, I imagined we would catch fewer scowls as we traveled east if I looked, spoke, and acted exactly like a Minnesotan but wore a little Canadian flag patch on my backpack. Thus, I completed my foolproof guise and we were transformed from lost Americans to lost Canucks.

After asking several people how to get to the top of the Acropolis, we found our way to the center of ancient Greece. However, ancient Greece - at least, its modern-day operating workforce - was on strike until noon. To kill some time we wandered around the base of the hill and passed many workers placing bricks down in order to recreate an ancient Acropolis road for the 2004 Olympic Games. It looked like an endless task and I’m sure it paled in comparison to the rest of the work that needed to be done in the next two years. I still have no idea how they completed preparation for those games.

By mid-afternoon we were hot and hungry, so we decided we'd better eat something. We found a nice café in town for moussaka, rice-filled tomatoes, and ouzo. While we were eating, the restaurant owner sat on a nearby curb and cooed at passing women. He seemed to take special interest in Asian women, putting on his best English accent to greet them with calls of “Hello Chinese…. beautiful Chinese.” He did not seem to fare well, but he persisted undaunted.

The next morning, we took our time getting ready and did some last-minute sightseeing around the base of the Acropolis hill. As I was taking a break from all the walking we had done, I was accosted by a fellow Canadian who saw the patch on my backpack and wanted to chat about being Canadian. He wanted to know where I was from. “Thunder Bay,” I replied, which was the only city in Canada I had ever been to.  

“Oh really!” he said. “We’re from Victoria.”

“Wow, it’s nice there!” I told him, and then realized the only place for me to hide was the bathroom, so I quickly broke away and prayed for no parting questions. It was a close call. I was quite impressed with my on-the-fly ability to fool even the most Canadian of tourists.

Our next destination was a return to Piraeus. There were very few reasons for one to return to Piraeus. Unless, of course, one's uncle won a Mediterranean cruise but could not use it because he won it in a raffle event for a charity that he himself was in charge of and he was not allowed to give it back to the raffle, so he gave one the cruise as a pre-wedding gift - which one cannot believe one's lucky stars one got, especially after sleeping in dodgy hostels and eating pot noodles for five weeks – and one was required to catch the aforementioned cruise ship in Piraeus. So it was with much joy that we left for Piraeus.

Piraeus was a small city that consisted of a port and little else. But my, what a large port it was. We trekked around ship after increasingly large ship for over an hour until we found our vessel at the far end of the harbor. By the time we made it, we were rushed on board minutes before departure.

Our lives at sea were a stark contrast to everything else we had experienced in the previous four months. If we wanted anything anytime, somebody would come rushing to our side and smile and immediately give it to us. Every meal included thirty seven courses and pushed the elasticity of our stomachs.

At 8 AM on the first morning, the roar of the motors woke us as we docked. We received a “USA News” packet so that we could keep tabs on what was going on back home. The top news for that day was that terrorists were planning an attack soon on Istanbul International Airport, the same airport we were going to use for our upcoming flight to Paris. Fantastic.

Our first destination was the island of Mykonos, a fairy-tale island full of white sand beaches, bleach-white homes, and the sort of cleanliness that one only finds in vacation communities of the very wealthy. We wound our way around the small city, spent some time on the beach, pretended to blend in with the ultra-rich tourists, and came face to face with a live pelican.

We awoke again the next morning to the sound of the motor churning in reverse as the ship pulled into the harbor of Santorini. Santorini was an island in the shape of a doughnut, the middle having been blown out by a gigantic volcano many centuries ago.

We took a small ferry from the ship to the island, then hopped on a donkey and zigzagged our way up a very steep cliff. I hated zigzagging up that steep cliff on a donkey, especially with Karie snickering at my white knuckles and my clever donkey enjoying the occasional lunge to the edge of the path. Somehow we made it to the top, which was covered in a cloud of mist. Again, we walked through tight alleys bordering whitewashed homes, quiet restaurants, and blue-domed chapels.  

On the way down, I convinced Karie that we did not need to take the donkeys. Overpriced, I said. Gravity is on our side, I said. I soon discovered the number one reason donkey peddlers were doing such swift business. The cliff path was coated with several inches of donkey manure. We kept a keen eye out for clean footholds but still managed to trip and slide several feet down the path through some not-so-clean footholds. Tired and smelly, we made it to the bottom, where our cruise ship helped us quickly forget the trials of the donkey trail. We spent the afternoon onboard our ship in the Santorini harbor, swimming in the pool and hot tub. Sometimes life did not seem fair. It was nice when those times worked in our favor.  

Our third day of cruise-life took us to Rhodes. Rhodes was a walled city filled with rug shops, presumably because it was within shouting distance of Turkey. The moat surrounding the walls of the city was filled with gargantuan cannon balls, as if the water had recently dried up and nobody had gotten around to clearing away the remains of the last battle. We toured a museum, noticing artifacts that were much older than anything we had seen to this point. Some of the pottery chips and spear heads and metal sticks with balls on the end were dated without numbers, just impressive eras like “Late Bronze Age.” As we traveled east, human history seemed to be receding before us.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Italy

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story.  To begin at the beginning, go here.

Leaving Slovenia was no problem. The exit customs officials were much less picky than their entry counterparts. All I had to do now was get by the Italian entry station.

Fortunately, the Italian official did not seem to be too detail-oriented. I don’t think he would have known if I had given him the backing to a spiral notebook with a stick figure scrawled on it. He was perfectly fine with my passport and let our whole bus through without making anyone get off and prove themselves. However, our bus driver spent the rest of the ride stewing over our layover in Slovenia. When I got off in Trieste and tried to apologize, he looked at me with a sneer and, using his best Rodney Dangerfield voice, told me my “brain [was] kaput.” Several times. Thanking him for his honesty, we caught our train to Venice.

The train into Venice took us over a lengthy bridge that sat only a few feet above the water, allowing us to pass gondolas and transport boats at eye level. Upon arrival, the rain kept us from venturing out in search of a hostel, so we stood in a long line outside the tourist office and waited to find a room. Oddly, the tourist office did not book hotel or hostel rooms. So we were back to square one. Not a minute of confusion passed before we were approached by an umbrella-carrying gentleman who wanted to take us to his “hostel” nearby. Wary but needing a room, we followed him a few soggy blocks down an alley to a run-down apartment building. This hostel was little more than a multi-bedroom flat he shared with whoever he could pick up at the train station. Not really wanting to search anymore and convinced by this man that he was legitimate, we decided this was the place to stay. After a touristy meal at a paper plate buffet restaurant across the street, we were off to sleep, listening to the endless, soothing Venetian drizzle.

After a couple more rainy days in Venice, we visited Florence briefly and made our way to Rome, where my guard went up tenfold. Nobody does pick pocketing and tourist scamming better than the 21st century Romans. In a previous trip here, I left my friends at the train station where they were quickly picked up by an unlicensed cabbie who took them on an unrequested tour of residential neighborhoods and charged them double the going rate. One is wise to keep on one’s toes in this town.

Fortunately for us, we were staying with friends for the next three days. Unfortunately, they lived at the end of the metro line, plus two bus stops beyond that. It took us an hour, but eventually we found their apartment. It was an enormous relief to be in the company of familiar faces after six months abroad. No more worrying about saying the wrong thing or wondering whether the adjacent stranger loved, hated, or didn’t care about you - at least for the night.  

In the morning, we trekked back into town for a tourist’s assault on the city. We took in a Sunday message from an aging Pope John Paul II. From there we embarked on a whirlwind tour of attractions including the Coliseum, the Vatican, St. Peter's Cathedral, the Spanish Steps, and quite a few others. Rome was just small enough that we thought we could get everywhere by walking, but just large enough that it wore us down significantly when we tried. Tired, we headed home early for dinner and slept well.

The following morning, figuring it would be one of our last chances to pick up a replacement passport, we headed to the U.S. Embassy. They made us feel like visiting dignitaries; that is, until we were charged seventy-two euros for the passport. They also took my old passport, which had been with me for many previous trips and held a lot of sentimental value. To make matters worse, while we were waiting for our turn in line, Karie discovered that our camera had been stolen from our backpack in the subway en route to the embassy.

Mourning the loss of our camera and passport, we met our hosts for dinner at a very nice restaurant with respectful service and reasonable prices. As our hosts advised, to find the best restaurants in Rome, just follow the collars. Go where the clergy go. Sure enough, in walked a cardinal just as we began eating. The meal was delicious and included a sing-a-long of Ave Marie. After three hours of luxury, we were treated to a cab ride home by our hosts. Chatting with our old friends, we watched the lights of Rome pass by overhead.

After sleeping in and reserving our train ride ahead of time to avoid any surprise fees, Karie and I ate nearly all of the breakfast food in our host’s apartment, said some reluctant good-byes, and headed for the train. We connected with our shuttle to Bari, the exit port for our ferry to Greece, and were graced by a charming array of hillside vineyards and winding rivers.  

In Bari, we bought our tickets from a very bored sales clerk and had a brief but confusing discussion with the shuttle driver who was to take us to the SuperFast Ferry.

Me: “Is this the SuperFast Ferry shuttle?”
Guy: “Yes. After.”
Me: “Should we get on?”
Guy: “Yes. After."

With that he slammed the doors in our face and sped off without us. Not knowing what all this “after” business was about, I became a bit worried. Thankfully, it only meant that his van was full and he would come back “after” a short period of time. So we waited and caught the “after” shuttle and were soon on board our ferry for the night. Our dinner of chicken sandwiches on rubbery bread with a side of cheesy rice balls was capped off by a vibrant sunset over the fading Italian shore.