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 my home state of Minnesota called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).  Many Minnesotans have been to the Boundary Waters once or more in their lives for 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’s the type of place you go if you are either an outdoor junkie or you’ve never been there or you can’t remember how rough it was the last time you were there.

Foreign travel can feel the same way.  It attracts a few junkies who enjoy every moment, but for most people it is a mix of uncomfortable adjustment and thrilling 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’d leave home.  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, careers, 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 (albeit, a homebody with wanderlust), do not like car travel, and passionately dislike 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 growing 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, a few tanks of gas or a plane ticket 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 and the paint was peeling off the walls.  And the beds sagged to 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 great city for tourists.  It has a few extremely high-profile attractions.  It has a subway system.  It has delicious cuisine available for purchase 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 you think 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 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-sing,” she said.  I did not expect this sort of ultimatum.  Have to?  I have grown to expect bizarre rule enforcement from customs agents or DMV employees, but not restaurant staff.  Irritated, I ordered a sparkling water.  I hate 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 extremely inflexible.  Due to my enlightened attitude or a bit of luck, our trip went without incident.  Except for a bit of rain during our trip 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 tastelss World War II joke.  Until we tried to leave.

All that stood between us and a flight home from London was a trip 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 30 minutes prior to 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, France 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 people were not able to fulfill the hopeful predictions of the downstairs Eurostar agent, 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 20 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,” says I, “so a full price, one-way tickt 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 had spoken correctly and, in fact, a one-way ticket was nearly twice as expensive as a round trip.


He seemed to be enjoying this.

Needing to calm down, I wandered away for a bit.  The 7:19 train pulled away from station.  There were no better deals waiting for us.  At this point, the price I would pay to leave France rapidly growing.  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.
Turkey is a chaotic place, always in motion, and tends more toward guidelines than rules.  There are laws, but there are many ways around them; we learned this even before we set foot on Turkish soil.  As our ship pulled into Bodrum harbor, we were told we could not dock because our ship was too large.  We needed a tender (a small ship to bring us from our yacht to shore).  But we couldn’t use our on-board tender because only Turkish tenders were allowed ashore.  But we could not 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 is world-class.  I never felt safer abroad than when I was in Turkey.  In most other countries, we walked off the boat and immediately went about our business.  In Turkey, we flashed our security badges to the border guards at the harbor, then walked by more Turkish police looking for anybody acting suspicious near the border checkpoint.  It appeared they had learned some hard lessons the hard way and were not about to make those mistakes again.

Once safely in the country, we were introduced to another fortified city constructed by the Knights of St. John’s.  Every stop on the cruise seemed to have some connection to the Knights of St. John’s.  I’m sure they were a valiant bunch, but of all the places in the world to conquer, build, and defend, Mediterranean ports and islands seem like the cushiest.  I had trouble respecting them for their bravery, but their wisdom was beyond reproach.

There was a beautiful aquatic museum full of artifacts discovered off the Bodrum coast by American university groups.  We walked through towers inside the city walls.  The towers were decked out as they might have been in the 16th century, when the city was teeming with tan, fattened knights.

One of the main attractions in Bodrum is the Mausoleum, one of the Ancient Wonders of the World.  We set out for it and, after wandering uphill through many rundown apartments and tight alleys, we 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 Mausoloeum 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 at the theater, a rough-looking gentleman who asked us over and over again if he could take our picture.  I guess 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 walk around on our own.  The theater was nicely intact and not too overgrown.  We walked up fifty rows of stairs to enjoy a nice view over the highway, down toward Bodrum’s shores.

Once we were back into the middle of the homes and apartments, we started to hear music that sounded like it might have been coming from somebody’s car.  It was the eeriest sound/song/wailing that I ever heard and as we walked deeper into town, it grew stronger and more disturbing.  As the sound became louder and louder, so did my run-and-hide instinct.  But my instinct never became loud enough to make me change course.  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 uncertainty.

We stopped in for a bite to eat at a shore-side café and found some very helpful Turks who told us which dolmuc (DOLE-moosh) to take to get to the most beautiful beaches.  We thanked them and jumped on the first ride that came by.  A dolmuc is a combination bus and taxi.  I’m still not sure if they have defined routes; our driver took requests pretty regularly, heading off in bizarre new directions whenever someone shouted out something new.  I never saw a dolmuc station or a dolmuc stop.  We picked up people along the way wherever we found them.  Despite all this, the dolmuc system worked remarkably well.  We were at our destination quickly, despite a significant language barrier, no bus 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 I have ever set foot on.  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 you could walk in endlessly before treading 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 is nothing to do in Kusadasi.  However, Kusadasi is very close to the biblical city of Ephesus.  Tour companies love this because they can list “Kusadasi/Ephesus” as a destination on their cruise, but charge extra for add-on tour of Ephesus.  Despite this bait-and-switch, 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 am not kidding – 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.  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 bathroom.  At the base of Main 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 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.  As Karie and I traveled east through Europe, it seemed each city was tripping over itself trying to outdo the last in historical heft.  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 aggressive Turkish salesmanship.  The bus dropped us off at a rug store, where we were taken downstairs and treated to a well-coreographed 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, we were back in the cold, cruel world.  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 took out a map, spun it a few times, took our best directional guess, and marched off of across the Bosporus.

Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, a very large, appropriately named, blue mosque.  The mosque sits in the middle of an elaborate garden, full of knee-high hedges and bright flowers.  Because it is 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 facing east.  On the eastern wall was a small staircase leading to an elevated podium, where the imam (prayer leader) would read the Koran during the prayer service.

After a trek through Hagia Sofya, we headed to the Basilica Cisterna, which our guide book listed as a “must see”.  After Berlin, I was skeptical of anything our guide book 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 below the surface.  At the base of the steps, we stood at the entrance of a perfectly preserved Roman temple.  As our brochure 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 guide book was right.  We walked in awe through the ancient pathways, able to appreciate the beauty of Roman architecture in a way that roofless ruins can never inspire.

Wincing as we stepped back into daylight, we strolled to the Grand Bazaar, a market that redefines 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 sugar, dust, and sweat.  A haze hung throughout the space, 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.  Clearly, we were in a wolves den of bargainers.  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 rug assistants flung rugs in front of us while the head salesmen watched eagerly.  When we saw a few we liked, the assistants stepped to the side and the salesman sat down beside us to discuss price.  The salesman gave us - in my opinion - a very high starting price, which we countered with a ridiculously low number.  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 eternity of awkward seconds, 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 our occupation.  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.  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 use 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 large 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 bathtime 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, but it was by far the most brutal bath beating I’ve 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 10:00 that night to take in a prayer service.  We were a bit nervous.  In thoery, 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 certain parts of the Muslim world really, really hate Americans.  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 entrance, 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.  I should not have been.  By this time, I should have put the pieces together.  Of all the people in all 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 (cantor) sang and chanted the prayer 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.  Once again, Turkey impressed me.  Their airport was one of the cleanest, most modern, and secure airports I’ve 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 given a delicious meal.

Turkish Air flies daily between Chicago and Istanbul.  If you get tired of reading about how miserable the Middle East is or you want a wonderful urban vacation, buy a ticket.  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 “deck” (open air, hope-you-don’t-slide-off-into-the-Adriatic accomodations) to “dormitory,” closely resembled naval beds, but were slightly more comfortable than the apartment floor in Rome.  I slept well and the sea was calm.  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 fast train to Athens.  Unfortunately, Greece, arguably the birthplace of modern mathematics and philosophy, occasionally diverges from rationality and logic.  The daily speedy train from Piraeus to Athens was scheduled to leave at 12:22, just minutes before the daily ferry arrives.  This meant all passengers were forced to the next train, which didn’t leave for two and a half hours.  When our ride finally pulled in, it was a sight to behold: dark black (no doubt from all the soot it was belching out), noisy as a cat on fire, and slooooooooooooooooooooooow.  In addition, it stopped approximately every twenty-five feet from Piraeus to Athens.  If we had the energy, I’m sure we could have beaten the train to Athens by 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 even became comfortable with the sheer hundred-foot drops off the side of the train.  Some nice old lady who didn’t speak a lick of English 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 on the nearby Aphrodite Hostel.  We grabbed some pizza and baklava and had a few drinks at the hostel bar, which was run by an ageing hipster Aussie woman and her pre-pubescent co-worker/son/lover.  They were so clearly far apart in age but so flirty with each other, it was hard to tell what sort of relationship they had.

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.  At one shop I noticed a place to buy little backpack patches that looked like national flags.  In my post-September-11th delusions, I imagined that we would be putting ourselves in peril if we admitted that we were Americans, especially as we neared the Middle East.  This inspired me to don the appearance of a Canadian who looked, spoke, and acted exactly like a Minnesotan but wore a little Canadian flag patch on his backpack so terrorists wouldn’t abduct him.  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.  I never got a good feel for what the strike was about and it seemed meager to strike for only four hours, so I can only assume that a few key decision makers in the Acropolis union wanted to sleep in.  To kill some time we wandered around the base of the hill and passed many workers placing bricks down in order to recreate some sort of ancient Acropolis road for the 2004 Olympic Games.  It looked like an endless task and I’m sure that 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.

Because it was so hot, we never really got hungry that day.  Even so, it was nearing 3 PM, so we decided we better eat something.  We found a nice café in town for lunch of mousakka, rice-filled tomato, and ouzo.  While we were eating, our not-so-politically-correct restaurant owner sat on the opposite 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.”  Though he did not have much luck winning them over, he persisted, undaunted.

In the morning, we took our time getting ready and did some last-minute sightseeing around the base of Acropolis hill.  As I was taking a break from all the walking we’d 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’d ever been to.  

“Oh really!,” he said.  “We’re from Lake 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 Piraeus.  There are very few reasons to go to Pireaus.  Unless, of course, your uncle wins a Mediterranean cruise but cannot use it because he won it in a raffle event for a charity that he himself is in charge of and he isn’t allowed to give it back to the raffle, so he gives you the cruise as a pre-wedding gift - which you cannot believe your lucky stars you got, especially after sleeping in dodgy hostels and eating pot noodles for 5 weeks – and you have to catch your departing ship in Pireaus.  So it was with much joy that we left for Pireaus.

Piraeus is a small city that consists of a port and nothing else.  But my-what-a-large-port it is.  We trekked around ship after increasingly large ship for over an hour until we found ours at the far end of the harbor.  By the time we made it, we were rushed on board minutes before the ship departed.

Our lives on board were in stark contrast to everything else we’d 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 up 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 next weekend on Istanbul International Airport, the same airport we were going to use for our flight to Paris upon completion of the weeklong cruise.  Fantastic.

Our first destination was the island of Mykonos, a fairy-tale island of white sand beaches, bleach-white homes, and the sort of cleanliness that you only find 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 is an island in the shape of a doughnut, with the middle having been blown out by a gigantic volcano many centuries ago.  According to legend, this is where the lost city of Atlantis once stood.

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 face.  I hate zigzagging up steep cliff faces on donkeys, 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 in and out of alleys, whitewashed homes, restaurants, and chapels.  

On the way down, I convinced my wife that we didn’t need to take the donkeys.  Overpriced, I said.  Gravity is on our side, I said.  I soon discovered the number one reason the donkey peddlers were able to do such swift business: the cliff path was covered in half a foot of donkey manure.  We kept a keen eye out for clean footholds, but that only caused Karie 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 on-board pool and hot tub.  Sometimes life doesn’t seem fair.  It’s nice when those times work in your favor.  

Our third day of cruise-life took us to Rhodes.  Rhodes was a walled city filled rug shops, presumable because it is within shouting distance of Turkey.  The moat surrounding the walls of the city were filled with gargantuan cannon balls, as if the moat had recently dried up and nobody had gotten around to cleaning the remains of the last battle.  We toured a museum, where we started to notice that artifacts were getting much older than anything we’d 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 terms like “Late Bronze Age,”  impressive even for a non-history buff like myself.

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.  Apparently, exit customs officials are much less picky than their entry counterparts; fake passports and the criminals that carry them can be dealt with by the next country, right?  All I had to do was get by the Italian entry guards and I was home free to Rome.  There are many reasons to be frustrated with Italians, but if you’re hoping for lax attitudes, there’s no better place in the world.  I don’t think the Italian guard would have known if I gave 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 was exotic in a Waterworld sort of way.  The last mile took us over a lengthy bridge that sat 10 feet above the water, allowing us to pass gondolas and transport boats at eye level.  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.  Unfortunately, the tourist office didn’t book hotel or hostel rooms.  After all, what would a tourist possibly want a hotel room for?  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 block.  This hostel was little more than a multi-bedroom apartment that 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 for real, we decided this was the place to stay.  After a touristy meal at a paper plate buffet restaurant across the street, it was off to sleep, listening to the endless, soothing Venetian drizzle.

In the moonlight, we stood on top of a canal bridge and watched the rain fall as tour boats moaned slowly beneath us. Immediately behind us, we saw mobs of tourists scream by, followed closely by mobs of pickpockets in search of another victim.  Italy was both trouble and paradise all rolled into one.

Venice gave way to Florence and then 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 to Rome, I left my friends at the train station, where they were quickly picked up by an unlicensed cabbie that took them on an unrequested tour of residential Rome and charged them double the going rate.  It was best to keep on one’s toes in this town.

Fortunately for us, we were staying with friends, so we knew there would be two non-criminals with us for the next three days.  Unfortunately, they lived at the end of the metro line…and 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 friends 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.  

The next day we trekked back into town for a tourist’s assault on Rome.  I tried this three years earlier.  The result this time would be similar – too much to do and too little time.  We took in a Sunday message from Pope John Paul II.  J.P. was nearing the end of his life and did not enunciate very well, but he sounded very sincere and it was wonderful that anyone could listen to the most powerful living human in organized religion just by standing in the courtyard of St. Peter’s on Sunday.  From there it was on to a whirlwind tour of attractions.  Rome is just small enough that you think you can get everywhere by walking, but just large enough to really wear you down if you try.  Tired, we headed home early for dinner and slept well.

The next day, figuring it would be one of our last chances to pick up a replacement passport, we headed to the U.S. Embassy, where they made us feel like visiting dignitaries; that is, until we walked in and were charged seventy-two euros for the passport.  They also took my old passport, which had been with me for many, many former trips and held a lot of sentimental value.  I’m still miffed that I gave it to them. 

Additionally, 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.  This may have been the low point of the entire trip.  Events like that will make you sour on a country very quickly.

Back in Rome, we met our hosts for dinner at a very nice restaurant with respectful service (fluent in several languages) and reasonable prices.   As our hosts said, to find the good restaurants in Rome, just follow the collars (clergy).  Sure enough, in walked a cardinal just as we were launching into our food.  The meal was fantastic 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; we got to catch up on old times and watch 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 treated to another array of hillside vineyards and winding rivers.  

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

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 he was full but 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 sandwich on rubbery bread with a side of cheese/rice balls was capped off by a vibrant sunset over the fading Italian shore.