Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween (AKA an inside kind of day)

Happy Halloween, everyone! Let me tell you something about Halloween – it's a North American kind of thing. Well really, Canadian and American. The Mexicans have a whole different sort of thing going on, which is quite a bit cooler than swanky (or skanky) costumes, and free candy, truth be told. The Europeans don't really feel it. The Australians don't know when it is, and no one else seems to care. Sure you see one or two stores with things in the windows, but lets be honest, that's for the tourists. A fool and his money – all that. So for me, this is just another night. And that is somewhat upsetting. It's as if Halloween 2009, never really happened for me.

You know how you'll travel for big occasions, like Carnival, or The Running of the Bulls? I wonder how many people make their way to North America to feast their eyes on the spectical of Halloween – and really, it is quite a spectical isn't it? The streets are full, the clubs are running late, and no one is what they seem to be.

But that's magic for another time; that's magic for another year. Becase right now I'm in Milan, sitting in my hostel, where I've been for hours upon hours, catching up on the latest episodes of all the shows I would have been watching back home. I'm one episode short from being caught up with Big Bang Theory (until the new ep tomorrow) and I'm up to date with How I Met Your Mother. So, hey, at least Milan has been good for that.

But I did go out. I did wander. I did explore. So I'll try to be nice to this city, with not all that much going on. To start, I'll say it would make a great place to switch trains. If you have a two or three hours stop over, you can do everything this town has to offer, feel good about it, and continue on your way. Honestly, that's what I'd recommend, and it's from that outlook that I'll talk about this cozy little (terrifyingly urban) town.

You'll want to start off by heading to the central square where a great big impressive church rests. Honestly, it is great big and impressive. The problem with these things of course is the ABC syndrome – if you've travelled, you know what I'm talking about here. And not only that, but the people here seem to think that pigeons are fun and games. What is it about Italy and people letting their kids pick up and play with these little birds? Does this happen anywhere else in the world?

And why are we so prejudice against pigeons? If they were little song birds, we'd love to be feeding them from our hands. So that's still something of a mystery to me – but creepy to see, none the less.

From the main square you'll want to head straight to the castle. If you shop – or understand the concept, something which remains a mystery to me, you'll probably want to look into a few stores here, or a few stores there on the way. But not this guy – this guy will go straight to the castle.

There you'll find yourself in a courtyard full of people trying to scam you with friendship bracelets. It's an odd scam where when you say you don't want to buy it they force it upon you, and then when you try to give it back they act all hurt and say no – no – keep it. Keep it. But then once you've taken a few steps away they come and take it back. I watched this happen a few times – what? You're going to feel pity for how hurt they are and pay them?

And what happens if you don't give it back? Probably best not to explore that option, isn't it? Probably best for your continued good health, I'd imagine.

But – you are in a castle courtyard, and you can walk around it and through it for free. There's even a garden that you can wander through – or stand, covering your eyes – in front of a way too giant geisha.

If you want to go inside and see the museums there I've been told it only runs you one euro. So, very reasonable. But again – ABC (this time the C in the acronym is different.)

So by now you've seen a few sights, and perhaps you're feeling peckish. You will look around, and look around, but you won't find many restaurants in this area. Which is strange, really, all things considered. So you'll head off to McDonald's for a few (or five) one euro cheeseburgers. Hey – don't judge me. You're probably stuffing your face with sweet sweet Halloween candy right now, what's a handful of cheeseburgers compared to that?

Gluttons! Gluttons, the lot of you!

I'm sorry – I'm still just a little jealous and upset about not having a fest of witches, goblins, and girls wearing headbands with ears to distinguish the truth behind their costume (a la Mean Girls.)

So what you'll find if you go to the McDonald's in the main square is that they do not take their fast food requirements seriously. They clearly have not graduated from Hamburger University, nor do they wear the shirts proclaiming such a thing like employees in other parts of Europe (feel for those employees ladies and gentlemen. It's almost like wearing the Harvey's Grill King gear – but not quite as cool.)

So after waiting fifteen minutes for your three cheeseburgers (five at once would be ridiculous!) you can head back to the streets and explore that for which Milan is truly known. The shopping district. Two main streets make up this area, which is full of trendy people, and monsters created by far too much surgical work (who may not actually be considered monsters in this kingdom of dark. It's all relative, after all, isn't it?)

You'll pass by Gucci, and Versace, and – I don't know – others? You'll see stores that you can not simply walk into. Oh no – you have to be let in by door keeper, and bouncers, and other such things. For these hallowed halls are not for the meek. Or myself, it would seem – though I think that I am perfectly trendy. Now, sure, I may not have washed my Clothes since Madrid, and even there the machines didn't work properly, so it was more like I rinsed my clothe – but hey, grunge was big for a while, wasn't it? Gen 13 were proof of that, before they met their tragic (and retconed) deaths in the final few heartfelt issues of their series.

Up and down the streets you'll go, avoiding the few scammers there as well. A good ploy is learning how to say “I don't speak English” convincingly in another language. And you'll have quite a time, I'm sure. It will make a good story next time your friends start going on about the new seasonal trends anyway – provided you have such friends.

And then – well – that's all Milan has to offer. I'm told it has a simple night life, but most of the clubs are for the type of people who buy up to the minute fashions at all those stores I quickly walked by. Simply saying “Thanks,” when the bouncer says “Nice clothes.” (meaning nice clothes only) will not get you a place at the bar. And with ten euro drinks, and a twenty euro cover, maybe that's for the best.

And then you can hop back on the subway and be clearly guided to your stop by a metro that translates everything into English as well as Italian. And that's that – Milan is done.

A few hours and you're golden. A day and a half, and you may find yourself watching lots of internets – which is o.k. if you need a break too. I'm not complaining about it.

I do however feel a tinge of pain for all those who set out to spend a week long vacation in Milan due to the name recognition. In a country as beautiful and varied as Italy, basing your judgment of it on this one barren city is hardly fair. But once again, stopping here for a night, just to say you did it, before heading south? Well – there are worse things you could do, I'm sure.

Also, the police wear goofy hats.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Welcome to Suck-Town; Population: Me.

Milan was always kind of doomed to fail in my eyes – but man did it ever do a good job of really helping shove the nail in its own coffin.

I started off with a final toast breakfast in Venice, and then headed off to the train station with two other hostelers. This ploy was, of course, to prevent any of us from getting all that lost. And while you might expect this tale to end is upset, and tears, it really didn't. The plan worked, we all figured out the right way, and excellent time was made.

They had to buy their tickets; I had purchased mine the night before. And then we said our goodbyes, and headed to or three separate trains, already waiting in the station.

You know, there are few things I love more than sitting on the trains. There's absolutely nothing you can do but read, and pass the time by relaxing. There's no way to speed things up, nothing for you to see, no feelings of guilt that you're stationary. There's just you, the train, and your novel. It's fantastic.

A pretty girl sat down beside me, reading a Dragonlance novel. That was - well, it was almost enough to make me wish that I was wearing clean clothes today! But no such luck, Her book was in another language anyway, replacing our beloved quotation marks (“) with the ever so foreign greater than, less than alligators (<<).

Even so, I bet she wished that I was wearing clean clothes. Sorry pretty-nerdy-girl. No such luck here!

The longer I travel, the less and less concerned I become about my fellow travellers. And the more I realize my fellow travellers often smell themselves. These things are just to be expected. The thought of wearing a shirt only once before washing it – such things are comical to me newfound sensibilities.

So for the three and a half hours, I simply sat and read – read texts that continue to plague my dreams with Russian terrorists, and other such things. But then, the train ride started to come to an end.

The feeling of relaxation, and delight is always quickly fleeting at the end of a train ride. Where once I felt ever so secure, wrapped in a blanket of three ton steel, I now felt nervous, anxious, and a slight tinge of fear.

I've talked to other travellers about this, and many of them feel the same. Being on the train is a pure delight, but stepping off into a new, and unknown city, can be terrifying, no matter how well suited, and travelled you are. Anything could go wrong, you may not find your hostel, you may not understand the local culture. Now, sure, within three hours of arrival you feel as safe and secure as ever – but those initial moments can be quite distasteful indeed.

Stepping off into Milan could hardly have gone worse.

First, their central station looks like it should be an outlaying station, where few travellers ever venture. It reminded me of where I had to change over in Spain, all that time ago. It was not the delightful central station a major city should have. And it proved this in every way possible.

I went to buy my train ticket for Interlaken, on November 1st, and found myself waiting in line. No take a number here. Look, if the guys that sell you beef can figure out a system that works, why can't a major train station? And when I finally found it my turn, the salesman tried to give me a ticket arriving at 1am. Excuse me, I said, but I said for November 1st. Oh, not today? He was shocked. He spoke English – and must have just glazed over my request. So no, not today. Had I handed over my credit card I'd have had no way to get that money back. Once bought, there is no refund.

Finally I explained my request, and he hooked me up with a train that would arrive at three o'clock p.m. Of course, where it would arrive at three p.m. I only discovered after the purchase. There will be no further trusting of Italian ticket sellers – and I've just been lucky to this point to be able to use the self-serve machines in country. Why anyone would ever not use those machines, aside from international destinations, is beyond me.

So my ticket will get me in to Brig at three. I was also told I'd have twenty minutes between trains. Also false – there would be two connections within Switzerland, with ten minutes each, which combines to twenty – if you don't understand your job. This was not a language barrier. This was him not knowning how to work his terminal. Had he put me in charge, it would have been a much smoother (and more beneficial) time. As it stands now, I might arrive in Interlaken on November 1st at four p.m. Provided there are no delays, and I make my transfers with much speed. Here's hoping. And if I miss them? Well who knows. More trains will be by, I'm sure.

And at least I'll be out of Italy. Won't have to worry about creepy Italian men grabbing my ass, and pretending like they slipped. Look buddy – I know you grabbed my ass, I felt it, it was not a slip. You don't slip, clench your hand on buttock, and then be standing straight up when I turn around. Look – I know what you did, you know what you did, and I'll just hope you were trying to see if I had a wallet there you could help yourself too. We'll all be better off that way. Good? Good.

Now, I really do love Italy – but Milan. Bloody Milan. Never make this your last stop. Travel North to South, don't sour yourself. Hell I'm only here to break up the train ride to Sweden. And say that I've been to Milan – which may come in handy if I'm ever picked for Canada's Next Top Model. It could happen. More likely though, I'd be featured on What Not to Wear – too bad Canada doesn't have a show like that! I'd love me some t.v. access. And some fashion advice. What I've been wearing hasn't been travel specific. This is my regular wardrobe. Even the travel doctor made fun of me for it. Jerk.

So I got my ticket, and left for the metro, because I couldn't find a map, and hostelworld only had metro directions to my hostel. Best to just pay the euro – at least it was only a euro – and be done with it.

Now if only I had a euro. The ticket machines wouldn't accept my credit card for a one euro purchase, nor would they take a twenty euro bill. And I only had thirty seven cents. And – oh bloody hell no -

Here come the gypsies! The god damned bloody hell gypsies. Look, I know that's not what they are – you know that's not what they are. We both know that gypsy is a term like “Indians” when referring to the indigenous people of North America – but when I say here come the gypsies, you know exactly what I'm talking about – and if you have a better term for them, please tell me – because I really hate the misused term too.

But here they came. Some were crying, and whining by the walls about how awful there life is, I imagine. Yeah – no kidding. My life would suck too if I spent hours in a subway station pulling at peoples pants, and bitching all day. Seriously. Get over it – get a new scam – go into the sun – and enjoy your time. All the “real homeless” in the city are up there, sleeping on benches, passing out on steps, and basically emulating the trends of the Toronto homeless that I'm used to. Somehow they're making it, and they have friends, and they have money to buy food and drink. They're making it some how without all the lying annoying scams – no I don't have a piece of fruit! Really, I'm sorry. I hear they have fruit in Paris. I don't know. I didn't have it then either.

But that's fine. Stay by the wall, do your thing. It's when I'm at the ticket machine, and you come up to me “ticket sir? You buy ticket?” and you try to 'help me' that I back away. I'm tired, I just got into the city, I'm discombobulated – and yes, I know that's exactly why you're coming to me. But no – I will back off, and walk away, and try to figure out another machine. Unfortunately there are more people there doing the same thing. So I'm never allowed to figure it out on my own.

Not that it worked anyway – bloody Milan with your must spend ten euro to use a card, or a twenty.

Now I don't know their scam at these machines. If any of you do know, please tell me, because I don't see how it plays out. They show you how to use the machine, and they have coins in their hand ready to put into the machine. But if you had coins, you'd have done it yourself. So what I figure is they buy the ticket? But then you, what, tip them for that? That actually makes a lot of sense, and would be a good thing. I would pay one fifty for a one euro ticket if I had no idea what I was doing. However, when they see all I have is a twenty, they can't think I'd give them twenty euro for the ticket?

So please – I have seen this in all number of cities, and I've never understood it, nor stayed around long enough to watch it play out. Because I assume it could also be a distraction method, allowing someone else to grab your stuff.

Needless to say, I did end up with a ticket – bought from a tobacco shop, cause, why not, right? Heaven forbid they people at the gate would sell them – nope, they just point to the shop. And there the lady tried to give me ten euro less change than I was due. But I was not ready to let this go – I was pretty geared up by this time, surrounded by people selling all sorts of silly toys that were quite wonderful actually. A Barbie that pedaled her bike in circles, a bubble gun, and a little helicopter that flew around in the air in tiny circles for thirty seconds before landing (this I almost bought – as it was the most amazing junk toy I've ever seen – but I knew it would soon break. Even still, had I the room in my pack, I still might have paid the handful of euros for a good ten minutes of simple childlike joy.

Ahh – and now, there I was at the final stop on the line (we'll skip over how the lines are under construction and the arrows pointing out the transfer from M2 to M1 were all lies.) And you'd think this is where my story would have ended. But no – for I got off of the train, and followed the instructions: right outside the subway. Oh yeah? But at least I saw the street I needed to be on. And it was just a few blocks past the sex shops, low income housing, and other delightful things, and – oh yes – I did step over to the wrong side of the tracks. But then i saw the sign for my hostel. And the gate was open. So in I walked.

Of course the door to the hostel was locked. And I'd need to ring through the buzzer outside the gate anyway.

Just for kicks, though, the gate was now locked. Uh huh – I was locked in. Slamming, and battering would do nothing to help me here. And after some time watching my struggle a man inside buzzed to let me out. Then I could buzz in, get in, and get registered.

Ahh. Finally. In Milan.

Now, here, they had a little dog. A cute little white dog. This I have mixed emotions about. For the last few weeks whenever I see a little dog I have been thrown between feelings of slight anger, and then feelings of sorrow. And here was one that I'd be staying with for a while.

So why – why was the dog upsetting, and all dogs recently, upsetting to me? Well – it's a tale of less than delight. A few weeks ago, my puppy back home had to be put down. She was sixteen years old, and it was amazing that she'd lived as long as she did. Leaving on my trip, I almost expected that I wouldn't see her again. Though, I thought I might see her in Florida one last time, in December. Though i didn't expect this either. There was a reason I took all number of pictures with her before I left.

Travelling, I haven't really been able to process this either. To me, my puppy is no more here, than gone – like Schrodinger's cat she is neither alive nor dead, until I look in the box. In this case, the box will be in Florida. As I'm travelling, I see her no more or no less than if she were alive or dead. And while intellectually i know that she is no more for this world, it's not something I'll process until I'm in a place where she should be – only to find her absent.

This has led to a few dreams – still combined with Russian terrorists, mind you – trying to process the fact, and the mixed emotional response when I see other people with their dogs. I think it's because I tried to cut off the emotional connection years ago – which is always a foolish thing to do, and never possible, and often leads to regrets.

But now here, was a little white dog, not unlike my own puppy, except that it was wearing a stupid green sweater. Which reminded me of the red raincoat and boots my parents tried to force on my dog a decade past. She would have none of it.

So Milan had struck out on all number of – oh, the dog jumped up on the bed, and curled up beside me. Well, yes, this is somewhat of a delight isn't it? And who can be mad at a cute little puppy, looking for warmth, shivering because the fur was cut too short and despite the coat, it will still be frigid in the night air. Hmm – well, as far as Milan goes, it's highly probable that this dog will be the highligh. The one bright spot in an otherwise dreary, and forgettable city – best to be avoided.

Asking other hostelers what there is to do here, what they'd recommend – and being met with “nothing.” does nothing to bolster my confidence.

Still – I'm cranky. And it was too late to explore when everything was finally settled. Perhaps tomorrow will do me better. I'll head out and wander around anyway. There must be something of interest here – let's just hope it's blue skies overhead, otherwise this city is truly doomed. I hear they have a castle? It's been a while since I've seen one of those. Maybe I'll go check it out.

And if not, well, there's a cute little puppy here, willing to spend hours watching Dr. Who streaming (for the first time since Spain) on my computer screen. And that? Well it's not so bad after all, is it?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Where We Lay Our Scene

“There is no world without Verona walls.” And being one who likes world, I felt that I'd have to go explore that for myself. And I assure you that within those city walls, there is a world. A world unlike any you would have expected.

Verona is an honest to god Italian town. It's not the Florence, Venice, or Rome crowded with tourists (sure there are a few, but they keep to their prescribed paddock mostly.) And it is full of surprises. Let me tell you of this town, shall I? Verona is built within the bend of a river. On three sides the water protected it throughout history, and a city wall blocked off the other. The toll booth that was used to allow and prevent access to the city still stands in its original state. And before it stands a Roman stadium. The third largest Roman stadium. In terms of size there is the Colosseum, then some other one, and then the one in Verona. Could you picture two star-crossed lovers meeting there to take is a show? Or some sort of extravagant event?

And unlike the Colosseum, this stadium still get regular use. There's an opera festival held there every year. Once you hit Verona, you'll notice something – or maybe you won't, but you'll feel it tugging at you, there just below the surface, and suddenly it will strike you. The sidewalks, that which your feet have been clapping against for the last little while, are not made of anything as pedestrian as poured cement, concrete, or asphalt. No, for this is Verona, and the sidewalks – some roads even – are made of marble. Looking for the serpentine fossils that impregnate some of the tiles can be a fun way to pass the time during a midday wander. Almost like watching for shooting stars overhead – but more prehistoric.

As you wander the streets you'll eventually make your way to the big open air market. You'll know it immediately by the large statue of a lion overhead. I'm told this lion was placed there hundreds of years ago to let the people know that they were a conquered city. More than that though, is a mystery. In the middle of the market a stone canopy stands, which once held the official scale for the weighing of all goods sold here. Today it make for a place to sit, and watch others buying sparkling masks, chestnuts, and an assortment of tasty treats.

From the market there are two obvious destinations, but we'll take the one less touristy for now. Over one of the streets hangs a giant whale bone, brought back many generations ago, and suspended. Story has it that it was placed there to remind the citizens that there was a whole wide world waiting to be explored. Maybe Shakespeare had it wrong, and there was in fact more outside the ancient walls.

You'll find yourself face to face with Dante in the next opening. Well, a statue of him, anyway. In any other city this would be a well known area, that people would flock to for their picture of he who was exiled here. But no – those tourists have gone the other route. We'll get there eventually. First we need to continue our walk down to the river. There is a church along the way, and it's apparently quite beautiful. And if you haven't seen enough churches yet, then by all means go inside, poke around, look at the little hunchbacks.

The water, as is often the case with this life giving element, was beautiful. Reflecting the yellow leaves, turned by the arrival of Autumn made for a most picturesque view, as the hills grew higher in the distance, with every closing step. From the bridge, a view of the waterway makes for a perfect place for two so very in love to pause and share in each others embrace. But what might their warring families think?

And it is for that reason – for those two – that Verona is so well known, that Dante is so ignored, and why the tourists are all condensed into one small area.

Back to the market, the other road leads to the street where the hat makers once lived. The Capulets – if you will. And it is here that some say Juliet once lived. Looking up at the balcony overhead one might almost start to believe this, most likely constructed, fantasy.

Juliet's balcony extends from a building covered in climbing ivy, as beautiful as you could have imagined. And to get to it, one need pass only through an archway, covered in the scrawls of lovers come to leave their mark behind. Notes, and names, and hearts paint these walls on route to the fictional young girl's house. And they are not left only by teenagers. Bring an extra market, for a couple in their fifties, young daughter being dragged behind them, may ask to borrow one so they too can leave their mark.

And then there is the statue of the young lady herself. People clutch her breast in order to find true love. Or so the story goes. Nevertheless, stay there for more than a few minutes, and you will see the statue of the thirteen year old girl inappropriately touched all number of times. And if you happen to be there as a tour passes by, well then – won't you be in for a treat.

For one euro you can listen to an audio guide of the house's history. For one euro both connected phones are allowed access to the message. Once more, lovers connect here.

Yes, it's touristy Рyes, it's clich̩ Рyes, it's lovely.

And after three hours exploring the town, and taking in the sights, you can leave – having seen the local life, the small markets, the large markets, and everything in between.

From Venice, Verona is a mere one and a half, or two hours by train (depending on what line you take.) And at only six euro ten each way, it's quite an affordable escape. Even cheaper if you, like myself, happen to arrive at the train station on a day that the ticket machines are down. Just hop on and buy a ticket from the man who checks your ticket – you may be told. However, when no one comes to check said ticket during the hour and a half journey, off you hop – having travelled free of charge.

Back in Venice, I was allowed the delight of wandering through the darkened streets back to my hostel. This was something I'd wanted to do for some time, strangely never having gotten around to it. The number of times, and ways, I got lost are best not discussed. But, after all, it's Venice! And after all, that's just part of the charm.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Time to get out there and explore Venice. The thing is, I'm not really sure how to describe exploring Venice. There are a lot of streets, and even more alleys that the people here like to pretend are streets, even when they dead end at water, and there's nothing down there – you know Venice? It must have the most named streets of any pretend city out there. Seriously. Go around and name all the alleys in your city, then you can compete – but until then? Venice has you smacked down from left, right, up down, and any other which way you want to take it.

Now I say it's a pretend city it that it's not all built on real ground – a lot was man-made. Though, so was a lot of Toronto – that historic Fort York wasn't always guarding more and more land stretching on forever until you hit the lake.

But unlike Toronto Venice is sinking. The planks are still on the road from when it rained last week. It's cute that the city floods all the time. Cute in that, I didn't want furniture on the first floor anyway, type of way.

I did all the tourist things in the city today. Both of them. I went to the big bridge – which is just that, a big bridge. And not a particularly pretty one either, all things considered. But still, people stand there snapping shot after shot. The view is kind of alright if you catch it in the right light. I got a picture taken of me there by this charming lady in her seventies. She knew how to pre-focus, and move me out of the middle of the frame. I could have kissed her – but she was Canadian. No one wants to kiss a Canadian. Gross.

And then I went to the big church. There are lots of churches here – maybe seventy? They're all over the maps. But believe you me, you'll know when you're at the big one. In fact there are signs all over the city pointing to both the bridge and the church. If you happen to know where your hotel is located in relations to these two landmarks, you will never get lost. Even the most barren alley will point the way.

And this church? It's pretty alright. I was excited enough by it to take a picture or two. Ah church pictures – just like parade pictures, zoo pictures, and museum pictures. You can't not take them, but odds are you'll never look at them again.

Unless you collect them.

And why not?

Maybe you'd check out a zoo picture again. Especially if it was of a cassowary.

And that was that – the hot spots, hit. But I had more hours of sun to photograph under. And so I headed to the extremes of the map. North, south, east, and west. To the east was my favourite. There was a school there, and no tourists, and people going about their daily lives. The streets are mostly empty, and it's lovely.

To the north there's not much, but on your way there, odds are you'll pass through the Jewish Ghetto. The first, the original, and (the best? awkward.) ghetto in the world. The ghetto from which all ghettos take their name! Just like the geyser in Iceland. Except less uplifting.

Today it's the are most likely to provide you with potato pancakes, that – by all that is holy – don't you dare put ketchup on. Yogurt only. You'll also find the local synagogue. Only one to balance against the ungodly (ironic?) amount of churches.

Then you go south, all the way to the water, looking out at – well another island. But it's not a bridged island. It's a water taxi only island, and I don't want to discuss the prices for those (16 euro for 12 hours, 6.50 for one way trip.) So that's as south as I went. It was full of the tourists, and the little shops, and the overprices restaurants, and the benches made of stone, because all the wooden ones have planks ripped off of them.

But let us address the tourist shops for a moment. They are largely located in these areas, but they are also hidden amongst all of the little back alleys that no one would ever walk down, and if they did it wouldn't be so they could grab a little shiny mask, or something like that. So my question – Venice is not cheap – how do they stay in business? If McDonald's can't do business in Iceland, how can these tiny little shops that no one can see – no forty meter tall poll with golden arches indicating the position from the interstate, here.

Still – when wandering through the darkness it's quite delightful to see them every few steps, reminding you just where you are.

And that is perhaps the only downside to Venice. It is a dark dark city. All the buildings are tall, and the alleys narrow. Unless it's noon, you're in the shade. And not the fun, trees in a grassy park, shade. They “we get the sun for one hour a day, otherwise it's cold and distressing” shade.

But then you hit the little bridges and the light, and it's all just wonderful.

I really do enjoy the lack of cars, and bikes. I did see one unicycle today. I wonder if he was breaking laws.

There's a port over to the west as well. The docks. And that's a good place to be, for a little while.

Wandering done, I decided that I'd just take a break of things, relax, and read – watching the world go by. This was a fantastic thing.

Tomorrow I'll go visit the home of who-lee-et! WHO-LEE-ET! Nothing like a good day trip to get the travel juices going.

I know I had more things to say. I know because I told myself time and time again that I'd remember to say them. And I said – no, I don't need to write them down, because I'll remember. I remember that I'm supposed to remember – but as to what I'm remembering? No idea.

On the plus side, I booked my hostels through Switzerland. So that's done. Not an inexpensive country, that one. And why can't they use the euro? I mean – honestly now.

Ah yes! It comes back to me now, as I sit going through my pictures from the day. By the big fancy tourist church, there are lots of pigeons. Lots of pigeons that are not scared of people. And why aren't they scared? Because people are fools. They will pick the birds up, place the on their shoulders, heads, hands, arms, and just hang out with them. These are not nice parrots or anything like that. They're flying rats. That want to give you all their terrible diseases. You see parents laughing and smiling as their young child gets covered in live pigeons, oh isn't it cute – see how little Lucca likes it so? No! This is not o.k. But please, carry on.

In another bird note, I was pooped on twice in succession today. What's up with that? Twice – in one five minute period. My Tilly hat protected me. Gross.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


The morning started early – I packed my bags, trying to fit all the new books into my already full pack – headed for a breakfast of iced tea and three cheeseburgers at McDonald's (bay-bee) – jumped on my train – and started the ride from Florence to Venice.

I'm still not sure why we feel the need to change city names around. Firenze isn't anything like Florence. No amount of terrible Anglicizing can be blamed for this.

Yesterday when I was buying my train ticket I nearly collapsed, twitching on the ground, trying to decide between one train or the other. On the one hand there was the InterCity train for only twenty one euro. On the other, there was the EuroStar for thirty six. This seems a simple decision, especially when the InterCity line would give me a brief stop at the station I hit coming in, which was covered in all the beautiful graffiti. But, the IC train wouldn't put me into Venice until five, which is when the sun starts to set. The EuroStar would let me loose around two.

Three hours can make all the difference, so I paid the extra money, and was done with it.

After my dinner last night of stale bread dipped in pasta sauce (look I thought it was a cheese dip – it said salsa – I have vowed that I will start spending money on food. Maybe not a lot of money on food – but I'll try to double my food budget. I'll need to look at my funds, and figure out if I can make this happen. But the difference between a day with a full and happy tummy, and a day on stale bread and pasta sauce – well there's no comparison.

So there I was on the train, and across from me a man was using his laptop. No big deal. But then I noticed it was plugged in! I've been riding InterCity too long (their first class ticket was cheaper than this second class ticket so it goes to show there will be a difference) for this train had a plug socket for all passengers.

I quickly threw open my lap top, and got to typing things up. The last two posts were done uup on the train. And having the time and being relaxed enough to write up the reflections post really does make me feel fine about the difference in price.

I also wrote up a number of emails that I'd been meaning to get to for a while now.

Just because everything seemed to be coming together so well today, I also got two long emails from friends back home this morning. So i was able to read and respond to them on the train as well.

Two hours of travel all without going through a single page of my novels, thus keeping them around for yet another day!

Well, the train has just stopped at Padova, and we're about thirty minutes from Venice (running about ten minutes behind, but that's alright.) And I notice I'm most alone now. Few people, it seems, are riding all the way to Venice Santa Lucia. Which is fine by me, I'll take the extra space. But man did it get a wee bit chillier when all those bodies just flooded off.

The Italian countryside is delightful – lush hills, quaint farms, suburbs that don't look like sprawl to me, because I'm not used to their design. I wonder if when people from Italy see the burbs here (the same for white roofed villages in Greece, and red roofed ones in Spain) they get the same chill and feeling of disdain that we North Americans tend to feel. Or if these really are picture perfect communities – hard to hate.

I guess they don't have the paved lots every few meters here though – and the whole community is designed differently.

i was noticing that grocery stores in Italy were expensive, but restaurant were relatives inexpensive. Strange how a little change like this can force a community to grow together, going out more often, and interacting with one another rather than hiding being their own four walls.

And because houses are smaller, backyards are limited, and public parks are well maintained and abundant, people seem to be visible rather than hidden. I'm not sure if this is just the ideal fantasy of a tourist, or if it really is how it seems. Urban planning – so much control through such small changes.

I stepped off the train – and there I was. In Venice. And yes, it really was as spectacular as I had imagined. My expectations did nothing to destroy my first sight of the city. The water is everywhere, and the way it caught the afternoon sun? Just spectacular. Of course, I had sixty pounds of stuff on my back, and that wasn't making for the best time to explore – still, I was grinning ear to ear like a little boy whom was just rewarded a whole box of cookies!

The directions to the hostel suggested taking the water taxi, but no thank you sir – I'll walk if it's all the same. I can understand how people get lost here, but there was nothing to it provided you follow the directions, or get yourself a map – ripped from, say, a copy of Let's Go: Europe.

When I arrived at the Museum Hostel (I don't know why it's called that. Perhaps I'll ask – probably not) I threw my bags down and discovered that I had booked a bed in the female dorm. Did this mean I was screwed? Was I doomed? No. They had seen my name and transferred it properly. Fantastic! But it did mean that I had to pay the male dorm price, which was ten euro more a night. I don't know. I don't question. I knew Venice would be expensive and it is – forty euro a night. A night! To stay here. But then again, I'm in Venice, and that really is doing wonders for my caring.

Breakfast and dinner are included here, so my mission to start eating more will be off to a good start. And since I really don't plan to do much more than wander around, for three days, Venice won't really end up costing all that much. Time for a budget check though.

The guy who works at the hostel was a good chap, when I asked where to buy a map, he told me that someone had just stolen the hostels one, and he needed to replace it anyway – so he grabbed his jacket, and we were out the door. I had a guide to the map store. And for two euro, it was one of the wisest investments I have made on this trip.

I don't normally buy maps – actually I have done everything I could to avoid it so far. But, this is Venice. And Venice is huge. It is also shaped like a fish. Sure I had my little map, but if there's one thing that a real map offers, that free ones don't – and believe you me, it's needed in this town – it's a street index.

You see, Venice is a city that you get lost in. Everyone gets lost here. Locals get lost here. They know the vague direction they need to head, and then just set off hoping for the best. I think that's a lovely strategy. And it's one that I've employed.

But at the end of the day, you need to find your way home – and rather than searching the small print of hundreds of streets, you need only go to the index, and discover, ahh, you need to look in grid C4. And it's easy peasy from there.

After dropping my bags, the first this I did was walk in a random direction and start to maneuver through the streets. I tried to stay where the light could reach. Hey, you gotta take a few pictures, right?

I need to pause here to explain that I hate daylight savings. Seriously. I want my extra hour of exploring. Now, sure, I could just go out earlier. And this would be a good plan anywhere else, but this hostel serves breakfast from the reasonable hours of 9-10 and as such, I can't be out much earlier than that. I want my light!

But off I went exploring Venice, and this tactic of choosing a vague direction and walking towards it worked quite well for urban exploration. Sure I dead ended against the canals a few times, and wove my way into twisted back alleys from which there was no escape, but that's all part of the beauty, and the charm. And that's what I plan to do for the next two days. I'm kicking myself for not budgeting more time here – but I say that at every stop don't I? Whoever said Venice was a day trip – I see where they're coming from, but honestly, you need far more than a day if you want to see anything more than one or two canals. If you want to feel the life of this city, you need to spend nearly a week here. It's – just – so – big.

I saw gondolas, and I saw boats, and I saw a near boat collision – and that's when it hit me. There are no cars here. There are no scooters here. There are no bikes here. I can walk around in safety without fear of being run down, and that's great. You have no idea how great it feels to not worry about being run over, until you actually feel that relaxing feeling. Venice is like a massage after a long day of hard work. All the tension just disappears.

But you do need to be prepared to walk. And you do need to be prepared to go up and down steps, because all the bridges include steps. And if you have more than one suitcase, let me tell you, you're in for a treat.

I helped one guy get his bags up and over, and then headed off into my exploratory quest – good deed done for the day.

I don't know when I picked up on the American accent – because I didn't used to hear it. I couldn't tell the difference between Canadians and Americans, unless they had the Boston, New York, Southern, or Eastern Canadian accents. But now – now it's all I hear. Though it seems to only exist within girls, aged 18 to 24. It's that little raspy whiny twang? And the worst thing is, that after having a lot of kiwis tell me how much it annoys them, it has started to annoy me.

That, and it's mostly only Americans who choose to start singing “country roads – take me home – to the place – I have know – WEST VIRGINIA – blah blah blah blah” and then they break into laughter.

This has happened four times.

In twenty minutes.

That's all I'm saying.

The only thing that bothers me about the [oh they're singing again... goody!] American guys is that they're all from New York, or Philadelphia. And they're all so overjoyed about the World Series. Man – hostel to hostel, everyone is pleased as punch about this baseball series [again – again the sining occurs. I can't make this up. Not even a full paragraph written!] except for me. I think I'll have to back the team that makes the most people I'm near miserable about.

Honestly, and I feel dirty just thinking it, I think I have to root for the Yanks.

[... ... ... when will the singing end? How can they keep starting up. Why isn't someone, I don't know, throwing their shoes at them? My shoes are upstairs. I have an excuse.]

Now it's just a wait until dinner. And I'll need to pick up the wifi signal. Which is proving to be quite difficult in this hostel. Maybe if I stand up and do the little wifi dance, to appease the gods, I'll get something going. All I need is to upload this blog and five pictures. Please work, oh mighty guardians of the wifi.

[The singing has ended. Instead someone has decided that we would all like to hear their iPod play. Let me tell you something – and I'm guilty of it too, when I drive around, even if you think you're doing a public service by filling the silence with music that is just so totally rad, you are not. And everyone but you hates it. Ahh, silence once more.

And I'm not grumpy! I just – I just want to relax, and hear the sound of no street traffic. Is that so much to ask? Clearly not – because this is Venice, and Venice? Venice is awesome!]

Reflection on Travel

So here I am on the train from Florence to Venice, and I've got myself a nice little plug in the seat, which means I can laptop to my hearts content without having to worry about an ever draining battery. This means that I can type, and type, and think. I think best with a pen in hand, or with an open text file in front of me. And while normally I write to convey my experiences of the day, there have so often been times that I would like to just reflect on my travels.

And I haven't really done that. Mostly, the reason being after I'm done typing up my day, finding pictures, and getting everything uploaded, I'm just not in the mood to write any more. Mostly I'm in the mood to throw my laptop against the wall, and not have to worry about it every again.

That really connects with my original idea of bringing neither the computer nor a camera with me. My plan was just to travel, to travel and experience the world. And the lens that I would have seen the world through had I done that would have been a very different one indeed. But, ultimately, I decided against that. And I will keep spending the hours typing up my day, because I'm very aware of what a fantastic digital scrapbook I'll have waiting for me when I get home.

Videos, pictures, and text all filed in order, waiting for me to relive experiences, or better yet – try to remember just what it was that I was doing out here – will be more than worth the trouble I've gone to to put it all together.

Plus – if someone ever steals my camera, or my memory card, I'll still have about five pictures per day uploaded on the site. Someone I met yesterday, in the hostel, had his camera stolen. And, you know, the thing is – it's not the loss of the camera that hurts. It's the loss of the memory card. So, honestly, if you're the type of person looking to steal something for instant profit – at least be kind, and leave them the memory card, alright? And if we an all agree upon that then the world will be a slightly brighter place.

I'm almost two months in here, an I am ready to admit it. I'm growing tired. I just wrote this in a letter to my Grandmother, and as much as I hate to “reuse” material from emails in the blog, I felt this was a point that I really did need to communicate.

For two months I've been travelling from city to city, country to county, and it's starting to take its toll. I'm ready for a vacation. I'm ready to relax. Spain seems so long ago now; the beach, and nothing but reading in the sun, feels ever so far away. This is no doubt, in part because of how hard I hit Rome. But Rome's the type of place that you just really need to attack if yo want to do it right.

The thing about feeling tired while you travel is it never lasts. I know the second I get off this train and find myself in a new urban playground, I'll be back on my feet looking to take on the world, and really get out there, searching through all the alleys, and behind every little statue for whatever things I can find. But then you're in bed at night, or stuck on transportation, and everything just comes back and hits you.

At the same time you start to think about everything you've seen and done. This is the strangest part for me. I tend to forget where I've been, and what I've seen. The people out there reading my blog probably have a better idea what I've been up to than I do (this thought is poached from the e-mail I wrote to my boy Matty about an hour ago. The train is good for that – giving you time to do these things. Hi Matty!)

The people reading the blog get nice little (o.k. not little – often thousands of words long) descriptions of my day. But it's just like any travel show – it's all pared down. My day has long stretches of nothing. And there are days when I am quite bored. But if on one of those bored days, I also happen to – say – see the leaning tower of Pisa, I can write about that, and that one fantastic hour. And that's what comes across.

Travel – it's not always exciting. In fact the guy I met yesterday who had his camera stolen, is just about done with travelling by himself. That has never been a problem for me, thankfully. But three months from now, we'll see how much I like it.

Still – when you're reading a travel blog or watching a travel show (Departures) you're getting the best of. In my case, it's the best of a day crammed into one post. In the case of Departures – is season three on tv yet, back home? - you get two weeks all compressed into forty five minutes. That's enough to trick anyone into thinking that travel is all fun and exciting. You never have to deal with being hungry – or getting into a strange city late at night – the occasional fear that arises when you get into a stupid situation.

But that's fine. And at the end of it all, those become the stories that worm their way into the best of recaps.

But, again – the people reading my blog probably have a better idea of what I've been up to than I do. I'm so focused on the here and now that the past is all a blur. I know I enjoyed Helsinki – to an extent – but I have no idea what I really did there. And I know I saw geysers in Iceland, and that was cool – but what did I really think of it at the time? And where was I before Spain? Paris? How did I fill seven days there – I remember that not being enough time, but what did I do?

And then you start thinking of all the things you have done. I mean, I SAW geysers in Iceland! I walked through the sculpture garden in Oslo. I climbed up the Eiffel Tower! I watched a bull fight in Madrid! A bull fight! In Madrid! I did all those things – me. And that's really hard to comprehend. It seems like these must be experiences that happened to someone else. Because I would never travel the world. I would never be able to obtain all these experiences for myself.

But I have to remind myself that, no, it was me. I really did all of these things, and I'm only a fraction of the way into my trip, with so much left to go. And every day, when I think there can't possibly be anything new to surprise me, there always is. God, Calvin – with his little stuffed tiger – was right: There's treasure everywhere.

Back to Florence

I hate Florence! It's so boring. There's noting to do. It's all just endless streets, and urban waste. You know – if you feel like skipping a city, skip Florence. Honestly – there's nothing here.

Oh – you mean that the old town is actually fifteen minutes to the east of me? Oh, and I should be walking around there? Why – what is there to see there? What could possibly...

Oh – my – god. Would you look at that building! Yes, it's another church – but... What a beautiful church. And look at the way the late day sun is catching it. And if I keep walking that way I'll get to an outdoor sculpture exhibit?

Is that a replica of David? And look at all those others. And is that statue holding a severed head in his hand? Oh he is. And isn't that spectacular.

Wait – keep walking that way? Why what will I get...

Look at that river! Look at how it reflects the mountains in the distance, and the brightly coloured buildings hidden amongst the trees. Dare I say nestled securely amongst them?

I think I'd like to just go back to that church now, and watch as it changes from white, to yellow, to orange, as the sun fully sets behind the horizon.

You know – forget what I said. Florence, it's pretty fantastic. Sure it's mostly just a church, and a river, and some museums – but have you seen the church? I'm glad that I only have a few more hours in this town, otherwise it could become the lure that Victoria harbour was in British Columbia. I might just have had to sit there and look at it all day.

And I'm coming from the Vatican here – there's no need to see another church once you've been there – and yet...

Florence is the type of city that if I hadn't been at the Vatican, and Brugge recently would have been oh so impressive. As it was, I am still most impressed by what it has to offer. Yeah, they know it's a tourist town, and all the market stalls and expensive restaurants are put up to catch you when you are right there. But that's O.K. Because it really is that pretty.

I think one day is all that you need to spend wandering and exploring the city, and that's just the amount of time that I had. So in I came, and out I went. Florence – it was lovely. Glad we met. Sorry we got off to such a bad start there – you understand how it is, I was in the wrong part of your expanse. An easy mistake. Maybe a sign here, a free map there, some boards at the train station – that's all I'm saying. Just make it a bit easier. But thanks, it was great.

And to be sure, that was Florence for me. A nice little collection of buildings, streets, and shops. Right in the heart of all those other places you'd like to see outside the city centre itself.

Back in the hostel, I spent another hour or so switching between the 80 degree Celsius sauna, the most beloved steam room, and the pool. I could have spent so much more time there, but there were things to do – bull fight videos to upload.

Back in the hostel I saw a Tom Clancy novel sitting around. Whose could it be? would they trade it. When I finish Rainbow Six, I'll need another book, and why not make it a third Clancy?

I systematically asked everyone in the room, as they came and left, if it was theirs. No one answered. Mine now, I guess.

I also picked up another more girly book – I'm not sure of the title, I just grabbed it because I will require it at some point.

Here's the problem. Books are heavy. Books take up a lot of room. And I am not trading – I am just amassing. Something needs to give. I'll have to drop some, whenever I get a chance to repack everything. I think I'm also about ready to gut my copy of Let's Go Europe – ripping out all the pages I no longer need. I'll leave myself the Switzerland, Germany, and Poland sections. For the other nine hundred pages – their time has come. There's just no way to bring this soldier back from the front.

Also – I have a few flights to catch, and my bag was dangerously close to costing extra last time I flew. So time to cull the texts. Goodbye Sophie's World – you were a real joy.

The Tom Clancy books will be harder to part with, though they're the biggest and heaviest. They are stamped inside showing that they were bought at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, and Point Zero. I'll try hard to rescue them, but, outlook is grim.

Two of the people in my hostel were from America. One was watching recaps of yesterday's baseball game, showing that New York will be going to the World Series. What a god awful series this will be, with them against the Phillies. It must be so delightful being a New York fan – every few years your love is rewarded. As a Toronto fan, I know only pain and sorrow.

His girlfriend was in school to be a teacher, doing her practice teaching in Luxembourg of all places. And they turned out to be delightful people. We headed down to the hostel's bar – three euro for a bottle of wine. Perfect for sharing?

I should not drink wine. I understand beer. I like beer. But one beer cost more than the bottle of wine. Let it be said that drinking before a travel day should never be done. I had stuck to this rule, but then it fell apart here – I had just met these people, and I was only here for tonight – so why not?

Down in the bar we played card games with Australians – and I believe there were card related drinking games as well. Children. In Canada we don't need games to drink. Unless it's beer pong. I've never played – never even seen it played – but the pictures make it look interesting.

Ten minutes later on the dance floor, I relized why it was that I don't enjoy being on the dance floor, and after being called ZZ Top (I had wondered when I'd get called that in Italy... Honestly – I didn't hear it in Rome, and so I've been counting the days – I get called that in every country. I wonder if they realize just how well known they are?) and other such things by the previously mentioned Australians, I made my exit and proceeded to put myself to sleep. After all, I had a train to catch in the morning.

Monday, October 26, 2009

What's the first thing you should do when you get to Florence?

What's the first thing you should do when you get to Florence? Leave Florence!

For the sum of about ten euro round trip, you can make your way from Firenze SMN to Pisa Central. And why, why would you go here? To see the tower of course. Yes, that magical tower that we've all grown to know and love, even if we don't know why we know about it.

Why is it leaning? What was it built for? I didn't know then, and I still don't know now – but I've taken a picture of myself holding it up, and that counts for something, doesn't it? Everyone needs to take this picture, and – yes – everyone does take it.

But first, you must get to the tower.

It's about an hour on the train and then it's still another fifteen minutes from the station to the leaning tower. I don't know why I thought I'd be able to hop right off, and there it would be. Ridiculous, I know – but, what else is there to the town?

And honestly – that's the question. It's cute and all, but it has no real life aside from the fact that it is home to a well known landmark. Kind of like Niagara Falls, before all the depressed addicted people moved into the casino there.

You have to wonder if this tower is a boon or a detriment. On the one hand it brings people in, and that's good. On the other hand, it prevents the town from developing a life of its own, because – hey – people are already coming in. And that, my friends, is bad. It's a lovely walled city with its old European innards iced in tourist shops, and restaurants. Its outtards are – well I don't know – lets be honest, we all bee-line as south as south can be see the – what's a synonym for tower?

And once there, you are completely taken back. It's actually as impressive as you thought it would be, while managing to totally underwhelm at the same time. You want it to be more – but really it's all it could be. There's a fantastic green field of grass, contrasting the brilliant blue cloudless sky. And stitching them both together is this obelisk of shining light. Bright white, reflecting the sun's midday light.

After you marvel at it for about twenty seconds, you set up your camera and get to work taking a picture of yourself holding it up.

And then you look around, and take note of the dozens of other people doing the exact same. Out of context it looks like a silent tai chi exercise, or silent ballet. I highly recommend taking pictures these people, out of context for later delight.

I had a solo traveller ask if I could take some shots for him. I did – and they were fantastic. I got all the right angels, and put him in just the right place. It's great to ask me to take your photo. Then he asked if he could return the photo. I backed away. What quality of images could I expect from one who didn't even carry his own mini-pod? There is nothing more disappointing than the pictures other people take for you.

One day I'll post some to prove this point. But not today.

It's fine if you know the person you're with, and you can explain how you want the shot set up – but when you review the image, and they ask “how is it?” what are you going to say, aside from “great!” Will you really look at them and say – mate, it's crap! What's wrong with you?

But there it is –

Pictures taken, it was back to the train station, for the hour ride back to Florence.

Total time in Pisa? Two hours.

Videos are Up

I finally got a working wifi connection that has some fine uploading speeds, so I added videos to the entries dating back to Madrid. I also back-dated two posts full of videos.

Madrid Bullfight
Barcelona Magic Fountain

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Welcome to Florence, bet you wish you stayed longer, huh?

So I boarded the train to Florence, and had myself a good time to relax. I had forgotten the simple pleasures of just sitting down and reading a book. And they are great. Sure the books I'm reading are invading my dreams, and causing all sorts of messed up scenarios involving Russian Terrorist and quick response forces, but that's alright.

The three hours just sort of breezed by, as I watched the countryside go past, as countrysides are wont to do when you ride in trains.

Then my train stopped. Not at the big train station i had expected from Florence, but at a small little station, where everything was covered in Graffiti. And what graffiti it was! The trains here look like those from 1980s fictional New York (think The Warriors, or more awkwardly Double Dragon.) But hey, what do I know about Florence? Maybe it's just a small town.

I checked my instructions on how to get to my hostel, and wasn't it great when I came up with nothing making sense. I was at the wrong station. Right town – wrong station. But did I get nervous? No – because I arrived during the day, as all smart travellers do when entering a new city. And I had a credit card. Money solves all problems. But before it came to that, I headed to the station, checked out the automated ticket machine, and managed to find the ticket for the big station. Total cost? One euro ten cents. Nice. I was back in business.

Unfortunately, the train was leaving in five minutes, so I rushed as quick as I could, snapping shots of about one fifth of the graffiti there, and then boarding, not without a sense of regret, for my final destination.

From there it was just a one kilometer walk down the street to get to my hostel. And let me tell you, I wish I planned more time here. Less time in Venice. Yeah, yeah, Venice is the place that I had always wanted to see – one of only two places I actually care about – but... The hostel.

I'm staying at Plus Florence. It's fifteen euro a night. And it's wonderful. There is a pool, a steam room, and a sauna in the basement. A pool – a steam room – and a sauna! My first two hours in Florence were spent here. The next few were spent on the computer typing up blogs and such – and the following few will be spent back there. Yes, I'm sure Florence has a lot to offer – but, you know – poolsaunasteamroom. This is how you want to follow up Rome.

And so many day trips can be taken from here. Venice, two hours each way, I've been told makes a perfect day trip (and when you factor in the price difference for hostel, it's just as cheap to stay in Florence, and train out) – Piza is also just a train ride away, so you can see your tower, take your picture, and be done with it. Not to mention the Tuscan countryside. Which, I guess, some people are into. There was that book turned movie, after all.

Tomorrow my plan is to head out to Pisa, and then spend the day wandering Florence, getting a feel for it, before packing up and getting ready for the shift over to Venice, and expensive everything that may just make me cry. My tears, however, will be lost in beautiful canals and streams, and oceans. And that will make up for it all, I'm sure.

But if you happen to be passing through Florence, or just want a good base from what you can see a lot of Italy, I would highly recommend this hostel. Truly wonderful. And, once more, poolsaunasteamroom!

Colosseum Lovin' on Such an Autumn's Day

Colosseum, you big ol' crazy hunk of rock you – who could say you were unimpressive, and that they didn't love you? What type of person would ever hold such a view as that? Maybe the type of person who arrived from the south in the rain? But never someone who arrived from the north, looking at your slanted cracked exterior, and marveling at what secrets might be hidden away inside!

And oh what secrets it holds. The type that make you wake up at seven o'clock (not that hard due to daylight savings giving you an extra hour of sleep) and checking out – throwing your gear in the luggage room, and then hightailing it over to the subway, so you can be first in line for the tourist experience that all those who travel to Rome must embark upon.

And first in line I was. Twenty minutes later, when the gates opened, I was third to buy my ticket. A disaster! But fear not, for people who had their Rome pass, and should have been able to go right in, couldn't figure out the swiping system, bogging up all the lines, stopping other people who bought tickets from getting in. With a quick spineronie, and fast break, I was around them all, and first into the ancient stadium.

Ah yes, and how I marveled at my solitude. It was just me, and the guy in the orange vest, down below, doing whatever job it is he does. Many pictures were taken in rapid succession, as I attempted to get as many pure shots as possible before – and then there they came – everyone else spilling in. Honestly, I was surprised I had as long to myself as I did. Those Rome Pass people must have really gummed up the mechanisms. All the better for me, I guess.

And is it worth the twelve euro to go inside? Yes, I'd say it was. Just to be there, where so many others were before you, is an impressive feeling. And it's only from the inside that you can see the labyrinth of rooms, walls, and doorways in the grounds below. It would be here that the gladiators prepared, that animals were housed, and that many dark deeds were done.

There is also an audio tour, which I'm told is quite good if you don't know anything about the building – but, if you've watched the movie Gladiator once or twice, you're probably best to skip it.

The guy who worked the desk at the hostel said that this is the type of place you need to spend only twenty minutes in. He tells lies. I tried to run through it as quick as possible – aware of my train leaving later in the day – and it still ran a good forty five minutes. And it really was a good forty five minutes, not a boring, or a dawdling, or a trying to fill time forty five minutes. And I had no one to talk to about what I was seeing – factor that time in, and you'll probably want to spend a good hour and a half here, alone.

Now twelve euro may sound steep for an entrance fee here – and it is. The ticket also allows you access to the Roman Forum, and the other ruins on the hill where all the Emperors built their palaces.

Running across the road, and down the street, arms flailing, no doubt, like a madman, I rushed through the entrance to the ruins. The train would leave without me. Sure I still had two and a half hours – but, you know, ruins.

So once more, I ran through the ruins, trying to take in everything that I could. And let me tell you, they are far more impressive as you walk through them, than when you just look at them from behind the guard rails. Sure that view was free, but... it just doesn't compare to walking the same steps, that Ceaser once did.

You may think to yourself, as I no doubt did, that you've seen all the ruins you'd ever need to see – but just like people who have been “churched out” will still marvel at the Vatican, and those who have been castled out will still make their way to Edinburgh's Castle (well... I didn't, but – you know) and those who have been Arted out will still go to The Louvre (o.k. again – a bad example in my case...) but these were some impressive places within which to walk.

Running through it took an hour and a half here. I would have loved to spent more time. I would have loved to have packed a lunch and eaten it in the upper gardens. But there was no time, and no such luck. So out I rushed, back onto the metro, back to my hostel (stopping only once for some more pay by the weight pizza, made with sliced mozzarella and fresh tomatoes and a jug of juice. Then it was off to Termini, and on to Florence.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Scavenger Hunt from Hell

Finishing off the map – that was the plan for today. The map had sixty seven places of interest marked with cartoon buildings, popping out of the flat grid of streets, and half marked green parks. It became my mission to see them all. Though most of them were covered over the past two days – some near the outskirts were skipped over. Today that would be corrected, and the final destinations would come within my grasp.

Once more with the Australian - who due to reading his copy of Lonely Planet was able to act as quite the tour guide – I headed off. For the first time, under the warm sun, and a blue sky. We made our way to the Colosseum to snap a few pictures that would look all the nicer for not having a field of greyish white clouds as their background. The Colosseum was a lot more impressive today. Who can feel anything but love when the sun is warm, and the sky is blue overhead?

From there we headed to Isola. This was an island the map made out to be a fantastic wonderland of delight. It had a church, and a pharmacy. Thanks map. Way to go.

Crossing over the river was important though, as it put us within reach of Villa Sciarra, and Porta Portese. Neither all that impressive, but they were on the map, so they needed to be seen. The Villa was located in a park far away from the tourist centre, though. It had walls on one side with loopholes built into it, which made me wonder just how old that formation was.

I noticed that a fence had been snipped through at the very edge. If someone went to the trouble of breaking the fence, there must have been something good back there. So pushing past one, and walking over another, I found myself on the edge of a steep drop onto the roadway below. But – looking out over the city, all the way to the mountains, for the first time with blue in the back, it was worth the precarious footing. And also the climb up to that point. Because, of course, this park was at the top of another hill.

Across the bridge led to another lot of buildings, all in a row, near the Arce di Dolabella. With those four cleaned off the list, it was back to the Colosseum. By this point, the sun was in the right position overhead to allow for the perfect shot. Well, the shot that would have been perfect, if only the Italian family of seven would have gotten up off their chain-fence and left the frame! As it stands, I have a fantastic shot of the. The type that they might have used for the cover of their family vacation binder, or Christmas card, or something. It was a great shot – that's all I'm saying.

The Colosseum is home to one of the few metro stops in Rome, and as such, I hopped on and zipped over to Piaza del Popolo. There was an Egyptian obelisk here. If there's one thing you must remember about Rome, it's that there are obelisks everywhere – and if you don't see one for more than thirty six hours, you're doing it wrong.

After that it was a brief walk down to ausoleo Augusto, and Ara Paica – and then... that was it! All of the various monuments crossed off the list! I may not know why I saw them, or what they were – but I saw them! And heck, I even took pictures of a few!

So that's that, Rome is cleared! New high score! I saw the city, and I wandered off the map, and I did everything I felt the need to do. Fantastic. More pizza and pasta was eaten in celebration.

Phew. Glad that's over with – now tomorrow it's on to Florence, to start this train wreck all over again.

By the way, I've been thinking. If you ever feel like visiting one of the cities I've gone to, and you're wondering how long you need to spend there – take my estimate, and double it. Triple it to be sure – because I don't think most people put in ten hour days of walking followed by seven hour days of walking. But what do I know? Maybe we're all mad here.

Things About Rome that didn't make the posts:
The movie Bruno just came out here on the 23rd. There are lots of posters and ads for it. It – just came out – it must be on DVD by now back home.

There are two vampires who live in my hostel room. They're gone in the morning (before eight) and the don't get back until well after sleep, around four thirty. Why this qualifies them as vampires, I can't quite recall. But they are.

The guy one bunk over won't share his Oreos.

There was another protest today, but I missed most of it, so it's not worth mentioning. Something to do with free Tibet. All I saw where twenty or so stragglers, and about forty police officers.

The adult beverages are no good warm.

My room is on the third floor. Seventy two steps up, and seventy two steps down – every time.

A girl in the room lost her passport on a pub crawl last night. Who takes their passport on a pub crawl?

Who knew that Michaelangelo's David was the same David who fought Goliath?

Tonight at Midnight is Daylight Savings. I gain an extra hour. I just know this is going to screw everything up for the next day or so. And, I never would have known if I didn't overhear people talking in the office.

Halloween is Right Around the Corner

With halloween right around the corner, and it not being a big thing in Italy – I've spent twenty three hours walking the streets over the last three days (normal people don't walk this much when they travel, do they?) - and only seen one shop with any witches, or pumpkins in the window – I have started to think more and more about it. So, for those of you out there, I present a brief tale, and some advice.

I receive emails from friends, family, and the likes. Today I got an e-mail from she who will be joining me in Florida (you'll hear more / see more of her in – oh – six weeks, I'm sure.) And it was this e-mail that spurned the post:

“So on wednesday when i was at school, one of the girls in my programme, who also has farmville, came up to me and said 'last saturday i was playing farmville and my boyfriend was over. He looked over and saw the tiny profile picture of you and your boyfriend, and for the last five days he hasn't stopped talking about how cool your boyfriend's beard is. We went to a costume shop to find something for halloween, and he found a beard. He ran up to me wearing it, and said 'please? please can I be that girl's boyfriend for halloween?'

you've become a potential halloween costume!”

Now I support this idea. In my vanity, I think that more people need to dress up as me for halloween. At summer camp, I had a special day where all my campers made beards of their own to wear. I've often thought that I would make a fantastic line of action figure – as I have a number of variants, but hardly stray from any of them. I'm like a cartoon character, with four or five different looks.

So now, let me please suggest the various looks:
-awkward bowl cut
This version has the bowl cut hair cut that for some reason seemed acceptable a decade and a half ago. He also comes complete with shaved face, and Jurassic Park t-shirt. Preferably the one with the raptor on it, but the logo itself will do. Also, jeans. Jeans that don't fit properly, and are very light in colour, and look ridiculous. This will be the last time jeans are worn.

-gothy trench coat kid
Here you need long hair, and a black wide brim hat. You'll also require a black button up short sleeved shirt, black cargo pants, and a long black trench coat. I'd let you borrow one of the seven still hanging in a closet somewhere, that I used to use. Doc Martin boots are also a must.

-bearded version one
The bearded version one is similar to gothy trench coat kid, but has a full beard, and often wears a Woodstock 99 t-shirt, or a plain white t-shirt. No longer is black the only option.

-hawaiian variant
Trench coats were packed away the moment hawaiian shirts were discovered. Cargo shorts, a full beard, long hair, and the most ridiculous hawaiian shirts possible are to be worn for this.

-teacher, professional
this version requires dress pants, a button up long sleeved shirt, and a tie. Dress shoes, glasses, and a smart fall jacket are part of this ensemble. As is long hair and a full beard. Many students will claim their teacher never dressed like this – but for a year or two I did. Then I just started dressing full time as...

-the traveller
Cargo shorts, and whatever quick dry button up short sleeve shirt happens to be on sale at M.E.C. with closed toe sandals. Again the long hair and the beard are required for this version. Optional accessories are a Canadian flag bandanna, a wide brimmed hat, a ridiculous black poncho, and Geordie LeForge sunglasses.

So there you go – you could have a party, and everyone could come as a different version of me through the ages. It would be terrible, and awkward – and if it happens, take pictures, send them my way!

Only one more week...
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