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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What gets left behind

Since 1987 I have moved 16 times. 
Yup 16 times if I haven't missed one or two in my count.
And I have left some things behind (you will not see my family and friends as left behind - ever I hope).
My fiance: well two actually but I suppose that is for another story. 
My piano: after moving it a few times. Didn't seem to make much sense lugging it around.
Walker and Sunshine
My wonderful dogs: In one very challenging I-broke-off-my-engagement-got-in-big-trouble-with-my-boss-have-to-get-out-of-here-move I temporarily left my dogs with my friend Mike. He assured me I could come back for them. The next time I saw them 
they were laying across his bed smoking cigars drinking whiskey wondering what the hell I was doing there. They wanted to stay so I let them. 

My cats:  when I left Kansas City for Paris, they assured me they would rather stay with my friend Annie than move halfway around the world.They were 16 years old and had moved 14 times.  One of them still loves me. The other will leave the room if I am talking to Annie on Skype. I think we are over.

Some of my favorite paintings: now winging their way back to me!

My books:  Love them. Couldn't part with them. No room for them in Paris. They stayed in Kansas City with my music.
All my other stuff: After deliberating for more than two years about what I should do I just gave it all away to my friends. And it feels good. I am happy to know they have it, and happy I no longer have to wonder what the hell to do with it all.
You know, I wonder if I have left some negative stuff behind in my moves as well.You think?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

I was a Eurovision Virgin

Over the Christmas holidays my friend Gina and I met Johnny Logan, the only 2 time Eurovision champ, in a street cafe in Berlin. We would have been way more impressed if we had any idea what Eurovision was at the time.

You see I was a Eurovision virgin. Until tonight.  Then my friends invited me to Eurovision 2012, and I watched the 26 finalists compete for the Eurovision title. The idea was for each of us to assign scores for song quality, performance and costumes/dancers, and then submit our top three most likely winners to win  the pot of money we assembled.

The opening act was Englebert Humperdinck. Not an auspicious beginning. He was the oldest contestant, and while not the worst he most certainly was not in good form. 

Who was worse you might ask? Well, some chick from Albania with one matted braid resting on her chest looking like the tail of some bedraggled creature for one, and also some generally cheesy acts including Ireland who went for THE BOY BAND factor with one of the two cutie pies repeatedly doing a little Peter Pan sort of leap with a click of his heels. They were pretty untalented otherwise. Rather than a numerical score these two acts received "Bad", "Worse" or "Just plain awful" from me in each of the three categories. I most enjoyed the following comments from the UK announcer:

"Her backup dancers are young offenders and this is their punishment" regarding the Ukraine entry;
  "He won't be getting another 12, but enjoy" regarding Maldova receiving a top score of 12 from one country and finally,
"I've been here too long; I sort of enjoyed that"!

Interestingly, the big 5 countries are automatically entered into the finals, because they give money? And in case you think it is a singing competition, please understand that the voting is almost exactly along geopolitical lines. And Greece always gives first place to Cyprus. It very much reminded me of figure skating before we changed the scoring method.

My top three picks (with links so you can enjoy them too) were
  1. the Russian entry, a group of six 70 something grannies who were fun and charming and had everyone dancing and they came in second. Singing Grannies
  2. Sweden and they came in first. Euphoria
  3. I picked Germany and they did not place in the top 3. Roman Lob
It will take more than one time to really understand the competition, the voting and the results, but next year I have a head start!

Friday, May 25, 2012

South Africa: Must return!

It has always been my dream to go to South Africa. Having spent a brief week here, it is still my dream. A week in South Africa is like a European tour in 10 days - largely unsatisfying. There is so much to see and do and experience, you feel like you have done nothing at all.

Between meetings in Johannesburg I managed to go to the Apartheid Museum in Soweto,  to Nelson Mandela Square in the north, to Moyo's in Melrose Arch, and to a Portuguese place Eira Moura  in the East. Consistently great food and wine and such nice warm people. Yes the men are kind of macho and yes racism still exists, but show me a country where it does not. In fact it was interesting to hear very nice men discuss how they were raised compared to how they are expected to think, feel and behave today. Clearly the law is helping, but we should also recognize that no law can mandate how people feel or what they believe. This is a much more complex topic.

Table Mountain in the rain

Off to Cape Town for some tourism where I took a cable car up Table Mountain, but saw nothing due to being smack in the middle of a rain cloud, had a lovely lunch and extended walk around the V&A Waterfront district, including the  purchase of a beautiful handwoven scarf, a sunset cruise on the catamaran Tigresse with 50 people from India, and a follow up glass of wine at Sevruga. The head bartender is from Congo and was delighted to have someone to speak French to. Another bartender was from a war torn area and came to Cape Town 4 years ago to escape the camps. His family is still there and you can definitely see in his eyes the pain this causes him.
Camps Bay and the 12 Apostles

Sunday was a tour of the greater Cape Town area including Camps Bay, Cape Point, Cape of Good Hope, an ostrich farm (not sure of the relevance), a penguin farm and a winery.

We drove past several beautiful neighborhoods with truly lovely houses, and also numerous townships with perhaps 100 decent homes each, and then up to several thousand shacks. Apparently the government sets up a neighborhood with a limited number of new homes. Friends and relatives then arrive as well and build pretty awful shacks, usually with very unsafe paraffin stoves for cooking. As you can imagine a fire in such conditions affects everyone, since the shacks are close enough to shake your neighbor's hand through the doorway.
It is impossible to describe the complexity of issues here. Of course it is not as simple as color: nothing ever is. Listening to people from different perspectives talk of their situation of being white, colored or black, I hear a real confusion about how things should be. How to provide equal opportunity to education, to meaningful employment, to a home with running water? How to prevent the growth of the townships where shacks continue for miles, where most have no garbage removal, no toilet, no electricity? How to deal with the anger that is created by the history, the lack of opportunity, the 25-50% unemployment and most of all the government's inability to fix things?
Not my photo. Taking pictures here felt disrespectful somehow.

Significant research and reporting far surpass my humble first view of Johannesburg and Cape Town.

South Africa's Post-Apartheid Generation from May of 2012 provides a brief overview of the situation before and after 1994. Of course no brief report can adequately describe the numerous issues. You also see a bit of Alexandra in this video, a very large township in Johannesburg of 250-500,000 people.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The um, well you know which room I mean

I have been thinking I could write about the er facilities of the world. Starting with what we call them. For some reason in English we never call them what they are. We say rest room, wash room, ladies room, loo, but never toilet. Why? Are we ever desperate for a rest? No - much more likely that we need the toilet. And about those...
Many of us have now had the less than pleasurable experience of perching over a well designed hole on the floor, but what other surprises have you had?

  • I described in an earlier blog my Shanghai experience with wash, dry, scent and oh-la-la!
  • Also in Shanghai separate loos for senior managers in the office
  • In Sorrento a 12 second timer on the light. Yes I know it is possible to pee in the dark, but it is kind of spooky. And who selected 12 seconds anyway - an incredibly fast peeing machine?
  • In Paris co-ed spots, often for washing up and sometimes for everything
  • Also in Paris only saloon doors between men and us blushing brides
  • In many places in Italy no seat by design (good exercise for the quads)
  • Gold plated faucets at The Paris Ritz.
  • In Bali (I heard) a soup pot that apparently resembled a pee pot (can't quite imagine) and almost was used for the wrong purpose by my friend
  • How about this rather obvious indicator of gender at a Johannesburg restaurant? There should be no doubt which room is the ladies and which is the gents. Although I am not sure they help the average person to self-identify!

Now don't describe anything gross please but if you have a bathroom adventure story I would love to hear it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Stranger Danger

Whenever I travel someone says to me
"Be careful" or
"Watch out for strangers" or
"That is a dangerous place, don't take any unnecessary risks".

And I am pretty careful. But some times things go differently than planned.

For example upon arrival in Johannesburg Tuesday we found ourselves chatting with a man in our hotel lobby. He gave us some local options for restaurants and tourist sites, and even offered to drop us at a nearby restaurant. As we disembarked from his car I joked to my colleague

"One thing I would never do is get in a car with a stranger in a strange land".

Well except for this time. And then again Thursday night when the same stranger showed us all over the city of Johannesburg, driving more quickly past the more dangerous spots. He explained that he moved his family from Johannesburg ten years ago due to multiple incidents of friends being shot, mugged, car-jacked, gun to the head, etc. He also shared with us a few brushes he has had with the law, including spending the night in jail Monday for a speeding violation. Apparently one usually only needs to offer the appropriate amount of money to avoid this, but in this case nothing worked.

Okay so we are in his car, cruising down the highway at 80 or 90 miles an hour hearing that he recently was arrested for speeding. All good fodder for an interesting evening.

We proceeded to Moyo's Restaurant at Melrose Square, a happening little touristy spot serving pretty authentic African food. Big pots of meat dishes that had been cooking all day, ox-tail, chicken tajine, seafood curry, ostrich - all delicious.We consumed copious quantities of wine, Jamesons, shots of tequila chased with pineapple and tobasco, etc. along with this wonderful food. It was cold, so we moved inside to the cigar lounge, where you are no longer allowed to smoke cigars. More tequila, wine, etc. Lots of stories all around and lots of laughter.

No worries: we all arrived safely home before midnight. 
Summary: Stranger 1, Danger 0.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

As Good as It Gets? Not even close!

Remember Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets? His question was whether we should settle for what we have, in case there is nothing better out there. I thought about that during a recent vacation where  I saw a certain type of relationship in two very different stages of life.

First an older couple sitting next to us at dinner. She appeared both classy and nice. Him not so much.
She suggested a bottle of wine to share. He ordered "the largest beer available" for himself, and told her a carafe of house wine was good enough for her since he would not be joining her. She wanted very much to engage in conversation, with her husband, with us, with anyone really. He just wanted to hear himself talk. He demonstrated this by talking over her at every opportunity, even when someone was speaking directly to her, not him. Clearly he believes he has more to offer the world than this educated, kind, classy woman who speaks three languages fluently (although he mocks her accent, and speaks only English), who has traveled the world and learned from her travels, and is even kind to this know-it-all.

Fast forward to our boat ride to Capri a day later. The young couple sitting behind us try to decide where they should sit on the boat for optimum viewing. He wins. He then proceeds to educate her on how lifeboats should be attached (ours apparently broke international regulations), how to use pants as a flotation device in case we should sink,  how to speak Italian properly, and various other subjects. She talks of what they will name their children. He says "That is not ever going to happen with teeth like yours". She apparently had something trapped between her teeth and he chose this moment to let her know. He then proceeded to sulk for the rest of the trip, or the rest of the day perhaps, because she moved to the other side of the boat, having invited him to join her, to take better photos.

So here is my question. If this young woman could see in the older couple how she can expect to be treated 30 or 40 years down the line, would it have an impact? Would she choose someone more kind? Or does she believe this is as good as it gets?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pompeii: I should have paid attention in History class

Okay sure I knew Pompeii was a city.  I mean I read the history books. But then we arrived there, and well it really is a city! They give you a city map and you have to pay attention to the street signs. A real honest to God ancient city. Nothing could be cooler than that.

Roman bath used for exercise, socializing and of course bathing

An altar in a private home, a quiet moment

Speed bumps?
A door shorter than Angie!

Small theater used for plays and mimes

Stadium and big theater behind

Bread oven

This mule driver died working.
 Don't let it happen to you!
Pompeii was a treasure, a surprise and also overwhelming. You could easily spend days there, even if you weren't quite as lost as we were. It was easy to allow your imagination to be in the daily life of the baker, the guy carting products down the streets, the tavern patrons. It was obviously a city of wealth, demonstrated by the many homes with multiple buildings around a courtyard, sometimes taking a whole city block.

So what did I learn on my Italy vacation:
  1. Surround yourself with beauty. You know why.
  2. When in Sorrento eat lemons and drink limoncello;
  3. Never feel guilty about eating something delicious;
  4. Eat and drink from the local goods; it enhances your experience of the place.
  5. Don't ever be intimidated; you might miss the fun part;
  6. Live today as if it is your last; just in case it is. It was his and he went to work!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Positano and Capri:no more stairs please!

I had heard so much about Positano I could not wait to get there. Getting there is not so easy just before tourist season as it turns out. There is a boat that leaves at 10:30 AM and then leaves Positano for the return trip at 5 PM. And that's it, except for a bus. We were warned off the bus my my friend Janice who said the twirly roads could make you toss your cookies.

We took the hydrofoil on a sunny but cool day for the hour trip along the coastline, oohing and aahing all the way. The arrival is especially dramatic.

And as suspected there are many stairs to reach those beautiful views... so we climbed several hundred of them for what seemed like forever. I am not sure you ever reach the top of Positano!

But it is true we had an even more spectacular view.

We had a delicious lunch up there, and then didn't know what else to do. So we thought "Why not take the bus back?".

One reason only: there was a rock slide, so the buses could not pass through that day, that's why.
But we could have a driver for a very reasonable price. So we did, and yes indeed at a certain point one lane of the highway was blocked due to a rock slide. We easily drove around it, but in a bus it would have been quite dangerous.

So for us that was Positano. I think we might have missed something. It was beautiful and all, but so is eveywhere there! 

Now Capri, well that is another story altogether.

In Capri history is everywhere. The Empereror Tiberius used Capri as his headquarters from 27-37 AD so the castle there is rather impressive. We got our first glimpse of it from a distance.

The locals
Enjoyed the view if not the climb

Two Madonnas?

Former entrance to the castle
But Capri had another pleasure in store for us: the natural arches. 
Enough said! Just go and see it for yourself.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Thank you for Sorrento

After Naples, Sorrento was a big fat beautiful relief.
Have you ever seen a place more beautiful? Water more blue? Rocks and cliffs and colorful houses so pleasing to the eye?
Oh there was just one thing no one told us about.
The Stairs.
First we noticed a pretty little staircase beside our hotel.

As it turns out, it was a 214 step climb along 14 Stations of the Cross to a sweet little chapel carved into the wall of stone at the top. And a beautiful view as payoff for the climb.

We asked directions to the port
Long way down

Many stairs!

Sorrento was full of sun, cool evening breezes, beautiful hotel with 5 interconnected swimming pools, warm residents, great food and delicious wine.Try all of the local wines. It will be a challenge and may take many days, but there are so many good ones I don't want you to miss any.

We started a diet in Sorrento. On a typical diet you might say "Since I had a salad for lunch I can have pizza for dinner". Our diet was more like,  "Since I had pizza for lunch I can have pasta for dinner". Oh and did I mention the gelato?Trust me, with all those stairs calories were not an issue.

 Another great thing about Sorrento - it is an excellent jumping off point for Positano, Capri and Pompeii.More on that next time.

Nothing like being the center of attention!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Lost: money and innocence in Naples

Depending on who you ask, Naples is either a beautiful port city rich  in history and culture or a bit of an exhibitionist, lifting up her skirts for all to see what lies beneath. Like most things in life, both may be true.
Arriving in Naples we had mixed feelings. After all we were in Southern Italy, so although the city looked a bit like a shit-hole at first glance, we kept a positive outlook. We stopped for a late lunch of famous Naples pizza. It was fine. Just fine. Nothing to write home about. But we were offered the first of many free limoncellos to come during the week which lent a rosiness to the rest of the day.
The one pretty thing I was tempted to photo
Our waiter then explained to us how to get on the bus to do our walking tour of some interesting bits of the city. We climbed aboard the R2 in front of the hotel, narrowly escaping death by oncoming traffic several times in the process, and looked for a way to pay. The driver said we had to buy a ticket, but not on the bus. Somewhere else. He didn't know where. As we approached the next stop, still without having paid, we noticed two transit officials waiting to board. We quickly hopped off the bus to look for a ticket and avoid being arrested.
After a few false starts we obtained our tickets at a Tabachi and got on another bus. This one was so crowded we barely made it on, only succeeding thanks to a kind gentleman who made a space for Angie on the bus, and then made a space in her pocket for the Euros that she had placed there. Yup within moments of boarding the bus she was pick-pocketed.
It gets better.
At some point during the ride she managed to get a seat. The man behind me took the opportunity to position himself very close behind me, well shall we say enjoyably for him. Uncomfortably intimate for me. I stepped away, and he stepped back into me. There was no escaping him.  I finally turned around abruptly, looked him square in the eye, and was relieved to see him change his mind (and also his position). In fact he looked all shifty-eyed and immediately got off the bus. I should thank my friend Janice for teaching us all how to give the powerful "stink-eye". It worked.
Our walk about was less than thrilling, so we went back to our beautiful hotel in the not so beautiful city center. I decided to have a bath, since my Paris apartment only has a shower.
Newsflash: Kindles float in a bubble bath. They don't work after but they do float.
Oh well off to dinner in a highly recommended restaurant overlooking the water.
Food, service and wine all average.
Okay we only spent one day, but having been robbed and throbbed/ molested and nearly arrested within 10 minutes, we were eager to discover a kinder, gentler Italy. Time to move on to Sorrento. Note: the trip takes a huge upward swing in the next chapter.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Rome for just a day

Each year around this time my sister and I try to go somewhere special. It is a double birthday celebration, my actual birthday, and her second lease on life. On Cinqo de Mayo 2006 we almost lost her to a heart condition. Trust me when I tell you that I celebrate this date each year with a profound sense of gratitude that she is still with us.

The corridor leading to our room in the convent
This year we chose Rome as the launching pad for our vacation. Our taxi dropped us at the beautiful Donna Camilla Savilla hotel. It used to be a convent, and has maintained the tranquility I can imagine from its former life. Really beautiful, calm and in a nice part of the city.

Our attempt to find dinner the first night was less than successful. I did not remember this area being so crazy with tourists. Every restaurant including the one recommended by the hotel had a line. We finally chose a place at random with no line, and had a perfectly satisfactory meal.

Our next day wanderings included crossing the Ponte da Sisto, seeing Pont Fabricio built in 62 BC,  a very old mill started around the same time, and then a long walk past  Circus Maximus, a former chariot race ground all the way to the Colosseum.

Pont de Sisto

The Mill at Fabricio

Pont Fabricio

The Coliseum

While waiting in a very long line of hopefuls wanting to see the inside, we were approached by a tour guide who offered us a reasonably priced guided tour, the ability to jump the queue, and a follow up tour of the Roman Ruins. We took it. Now to be fair we still waited 45 minutes for the tour to get organized, but definitely learned a lot about the history of the place as a reward. For example in the movie The Gladiators starring Russell Crowe the only accurate rendition is The Colosseum. Everything else about the story and the characters is made-for-Hollywood.

On to our tour of The Palantines,the very foundation of Rome and home to a castle built by Nero and renovated by several other Emperors over a few hundred years. Also saw the location of the den where a she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus.  We are so lucky to have these permanent structures and written histories to learn from in Europe.

The Forum

We walked back through the Roman Forum, original marketplace and commercial center of Rome a couple of thousand years ago, and had lunch at Lunch at La Piazzetta. When we asked about the 2€ cover added to our bill the waitress explained to us that it is the Italian version of the American 15 to 20% tip expected from each patron. When she put it that way I was not able to complain.
Angie at Piazza Navona

A walk to Piazza Navona, and then our tired feet insisted that we return to the hotel for a bit of a refresh before dinner.We had reserved dinner at Ai Bozzi, which turned out to be an incredibly difficult restaurant to find. We had to do a 50/50, phone a friend AND ask the audience before we found it. It was very busy. We were seated at 9 and finally served dinner at 11. The table next to ours gave us their bread in sympathy at one point.People were still arriving by the dozens throughout.
All in all a very busy and productive day.