Sunday, July 31, 2005

Europe 2005 - The Netherlands

We made good time crossing Germany(average speed was 110mph) and we found the campground faster then we normally do (which is what usually takes up our time.) so we decided to go into Amsterdam for the evening.
Anne Frank House- We decided to go an hour before closing to try to avoid the lines since this is the most popular thing in Amsterdam. We had just finished "the diary of Anne Frank" just before crossing over into the Netherlands so we recognized all the quotes on the walls as we walked through. She talks a lot about the placement of the rooms and people throughout her diary so seeing in person how it all fits together was like finishing a puzzle in my mind. Stepping through the bookcase into the hiding area really was like stepping into a different world. At the end they had a room with a display that posed different questions about the freedom of speech vs. protection then allowed you to vote as a group. It did a really good job of explaining anti-Semitism as it is today. In the bookshop they had the book in all the different languages.
Red light district- We decided to wander around to see what it is like. The tradition there started long ago that the prostitutes would stand in the window to show what you could buy. I guess its like the produce guy displaying the fruit in the window. I think it was better then when we have been to Tijuana where they have a barker at the door that tries to get you to come in. They would harass you to no end. The funny thing was, was that all the windows were full of bored women in bikinis either talking to each other, texting on cell phones, or watching TV. L. thought the sex stores were pretty explicit with the DVD cases they showed in their windows.
More rain-The next morning we woke up to the heaviest raining we have had in Europe. The storm was strong enough to blow the tent enough that it would bend down and touch my knees. The tent we have is pretty good and successfully had kept all previous rain out but the raining all night finally got water in our tent but not our blankets so we put those in the car and headed into town to get out of the rain. We saw "Charlie and the chocolate factory" to get out of the rain, since so many people know English here they don't dub the movie. (just sub titles) Just as I thought there are things lost in culture differences as L. and I were the only ones to laugh at the "county fair" joke.
Rijks museum- Dutch painters style is both my wife's and my favorite style with the detail and reality. This was an interesting place to go since they have a lot Rembrandt and Vermeer. They had all the Dutch porcelain paintings that is so famous. The problem being that because of the rain everyone else decided to do a museum day too.
Van Gogh Museum- this is the largest collection of Van Gogh's anywhere and he is an easy painter to understand for impressionism so a lot of people, including me, like him. Van Gogh was never famous in his life, but he tried really hard to paint stuff people would like. To read the letters he wrote his brother and how they are correlated to the different places he lived, the mental institution, and finally his suicide can be seen as it progresses through the rooms of art work (its how they have them organized.) With that much of his work there it was heart wrenching for me to see the progression.
Hemp Museum- (its funny this place was not in our guide book but I had found it in another book I read called "weird places in Europe.") The police confiscated everything the first time they opened and they display those tags now too as badges of honor. They had a display of all the different ways people have smuggled marijuana along with a little note that the police were well aware of all these tricks. They detailed all the uses for hemp from fabrics to medicine. They did not seem to be none to happy with the strict laws and enforcement that the USA has. To top it all off they have a real working hydroponics greenhouse growing all the different varieties so you can see all the shapes the plant comes in. It was interesting and funny but I took at catalog as my only souvenir from their gift shop. So marijuana in Amsterdam is legal to own and sell (tax revenue- so no street dealers) but illegal to smoke or grow. I don't know how the museum and a few restaurants we passed were getting away with growing the stuff in their windows but I'm sure the police get tired of all the stupid tourists who walk down the road smoking a joint. It was weird to see people carrying bags of the stuff out in the open right past the cops.

Coffee shops- Go to a café if you want coffee. Coffee shops are the places you go to buy pot and they are everywhere. Whenever we walked past one the smell reminded me of the concerts I had been to. We were looking for an internet café and realized all the ones we had seen were all in the coffee shops. So we then went looking for a coffee shop with computers and found what must be the only internet café in Amsterdam which is good since all the smoke was giving L. a headache.

Politics-warning biased opinions of mine. Hemp- at the hemp museum they did a really good job of stating all the benefits of hemp and why Dupont and Dow Jones are fighting the competition but I really doubt that their main motivation for legalizing marijuana is to slow deforestation and make stronger ropes. the people that want marijuana legalized state their main reason for wanting to smoke it and it makes the argument weaker in my eyes.
Fear- while reading the diary, being in Germany and then walking through the secret annex I really drew a lot of parallels to what Hitler did with the Jews and what Bush is using terrorists for. Don't get me wrong - I am not calling Bush a Nazi or raciest. Simply that he is using fear of a small group to increase his power and temporary emergency powers getting codified into law in the name of patriotism. Do I think Bush is trying to become a dictator? No of course not but I do think this is a slippery slope and we are sliding the wrong way.

The facilities- I would not mention the urinals of Amsterdam normally but they all had something weird about them. For some reason they all had a detailed fly painted in them. I first saw them at the Van Gogh museum and thought they were being artsy but I saw them 3 different places with different brands so I am at a loss why they are there.
The dikes- Driving in and out of the Netherlands we saw the windmills and dikes that keep the ocean out. Its very strange looking one way and seeing the ocean at one level then looking the other way and seeing the houses at a lower level. Since everything is so flat when it rains it turns everything to puddles and mud.

Bikes- The Netherlands are famous for people riding bikes. When we were in China about the same percentage of people were on bikes there. The difference here is that the bikes have their own road system separated from the cars. There are a lot of bike overpasses and underpasses so they do not need to stop for cars. We always had to look both ways on the bike roads too or the bike riders would use their bells as horns.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Europe 2005 - Accident warnings

Many of the countries have ways to try to get you to slow down. Trying to convey this without using words to avoid a language barrier presents its own problems.
In Britain and Ireland there were signs in each of the cities that say how many deaths there were on the highway in the last year. In the more rural areas they showed statistics for the whole county and stretched it out for the last 4 years. The problem with this is that since I am from Los Angeles where there are so many people these numbers seem so low. It makes me think that the roads are safe and I speed up. In Los Angeles people dying on the freeways is communicated as time being added to your commute so I have become somewhat cynical.
In France they had life size cut outs of people. Abstract men like on the front of the bathroom door. For some reason some of them had a red stripe on their head like blood dripping down, some more then others. So I can only guess the really bloody accidents get more blood on their heads. The problem with these was when you rounded a corner that it seemed like they had escaped from their bathroom signs and were now trying to take over the world like zombies or something. Seeing these guys standing on the side of the road would likely cause more accidents at that point.
In Romania they hoisted the bashed cars up and put them on a metal post in the ground. The bashed up cars looked more like trophies as you drove by. It was like you too can achieve this if you drive just a little faster. As the sun went down it hid the post underneath so it looked like floating cars over the corn fields.
I think that Hungary had the best idea. The had huge billboards with a claymation guy. With his seatbelt on he was happy. Without it he was splattered on the windshield like Gumby.

Europe 2005 - Living in eastern Europe

Barriers- near the borders I have seen the curved concrete posts strung with barbed wire the only thing is now people are using it to fence off their garden or parking lot. My Dad tells a story of them waiting in line to get rail road ties from a railroad line being removed and I suspect the same happened when they removed all the fences here.

Police checkpoints- there were a lot of the deserted buildings left in Romania and Bulgaria. they range from concrete shacks, to guard tower looking buildings, to an inclosed lifeguard stand at one busy intersection. Almost all of them are empty and I’m sure a lot have been removed in the last 15 years but it is funny to see what some have been recycled into. In Romania they use them as truck checkpoints and weigh stations, and I have seen a lot of others turned into merchant shops along the road.

Shrines- as opposed to the mailbox churches in Greece we have mainly seen Jesus on a cross here. They are usually carved from wood but some have been gold leaf. They range from being in a corn or sunflower field to the sides of business buildings. They are all about the same size- 4 to 5 feet tall and look so similar that I suspect that they are purchased instead of hand made.

Scenery- as we drive farther north there are more trees and things are getting greener again. A lot of it looks like the farms seen in the Appalachians in Tennessee. Since we have not been driving on that many freeways the highways we have been driving have been taking us through little towns. In Bulgaria and Romania it reminds me of driving foothill (route 66) through Upland and Ontario back when they were still small isolated towns with dusty roads and not suburbs of L.A. In Hungary and Czech Republic it has been more like driving up the 395 through Bishop and up to Lake Tahoe. East Germany looks just like the rest of Germany with no Soviet architecture until you hit Berlin. The lack of soviet reminders surprises me. There is no where near as much soviet architecture as I expected and no statues that I have seen. They have been busy for the last 15 years.

Driving- there are still the old soviet style trucks here and they bellow more smoke then factory chimneys. When following or passing them if you don't roll up the windows and switch the air to internal you will feel dizzy within a minute. It is hard to pass them since all the smoke coming out the exhaust is on the left side and it is thick enough to obstruct your view of the road. We have seen the warning signs on the freeways (the freeways here are a lot like the 101 where it changes it mind whether it is a freeway or not about every other mile.) saying there are carts in Hungary and Czech Republic but have not seen any as opposed to passing many horse drawn carts full of hay in Romania and Bulgaria. If in your mind you see the carts with wooden wheels, they don't. They all have what looks like ATV wheels and I saw one tire being replaced and the hub looked like a drum break but since I see no lever to activate breaks I’m guessing they are recycled car chassis. We did not get stared at in our car in Hungary and Czech Republic since they are now part of the EU and have much fewer soviet style cars driving around.
This was the first time that we tried driving at night. Up until now the latest we have driven has been 8pm when it is still light out. We wanted to drive through the night since we thought we had so much distance to cover. We took turns sleeping and arrived at our destination in the morning but we were both tired so we have no plans to try it again. Unlike in the USA where we dive through the night all the time navigating is best done by the second person so they had to keep waking up.

English- I was not suspecting so many people to speak English here, instead relying on L.'s Russian. That has not been the case even in the non tourist areas. I think the reason for this is shopping. East Europe is full of small countries with a lot of languages. To get cheaper products in the stores it looks like it is easier to get them with the English labels instead of the native language. This has made it much easier for us but it must be a bear for the local that wants to choose between the ultra moisturizing and ultra vitamin fortified shampoo.

Pictures- in each of the countries in eastern Europe when going into any of the places that required tickets they also had a separate ticket if you wanted to take pictures. It usually cost around a dollar extra so its is no big deal and I would much rather have them not beat around the bush and charge extra for taking pictures instead of not allowing pictures in the hopes that you will buy all the post cards.

Looking for communism- I don't know why I was so interested in seeing all the remnants of communism in eastern Europe. I guess I wanted to witness it before its gone. I don't want to give the impression that there was communist signs everywhere because I saw very few communist architecture buildings left and there are no more statues or signs anywhere. I guess I grew up surrounded with to much Regan propaganda. I also like L.'s explanation of that this was history that happened short enough ago that we both remember it so we wanted to witness it.

Europe 2005 - Hay

I didn't think I would be making a post on this trip about hay but they store it in so many ways its thaumaturgic (thanks Brant!)
Besides the plain hay bails the current modern way for storing hay that I have seen in the USA is to have it matted down then rolled up into a roll about 7 feet high. Leslie's brother thought they were cow blankets when he was younger so that is the easiest way to refer to them.
In Britain it rains enough that it looks like they have to shrink wrap their cow blankets so when they use white plastic it looks like a bunch of giant marshmallows growing in the field. When they used black plastic and stored it next to the barn it looked like the barn had tank treads and could drive out to where the cows where.
In Italy they still used hay bails but they stacked them all 3 bails high. After having visited Stonehenge seeing so many pillars randomly in the hay fields I kept remembering the scene from "Close Encounters" - "This means something, it must."
In Romania they use the good old hay stack. There's a wooden pole in the middle and using the pitch forks they stack the hay up around it. The only thing is that every farmer seems to have his own acceptable width. Some were tall and skinny and looked like a 12 foot tall "Cousin It" from “The Adams Family”. Others looked like wide enough to be the grass huts from National Geographic. In the Czech Republic the hay is stacked in one place for the field. This makes for giant 30-40 foot mountains of hay that can be 70 feet wide.
As far as collection goes I have seen everything from the guys out their scythe slicing away and the usual tractor debate between International red and john deer green.
The transportation of hay always seems to be the same way, piled up 15 feet in an old truck with at least 4 people riding on the top or stacked up high on a donkey cart riding in the slow lane.(from behind it looks like a haystack traveling down the road.)

Europe 2005 - Germany

Crossing over the border we had our international drivers license checked for the first time. Up until now everyone has just cared about our insurance which is always called the "green card".
Berlin- we failed to find the campsites in our book so we headed to the tourist center and they booked us a room at the biggest hostel we have been to yet. (866 beds. We were lucky as it rained again and we would have got soaked.) This city is huge. Apparently both east and west to show up the other side for how well they could rebuild. Now that the 2 cities have been joined together it just sprawls on forever with stuff to see all spread out which is different from most cities that all the cool stuff was built when people had to walk everywhere.
TV tower- East Berlin built this huge TV tower to show how the communist's technology towered over any of the cities religious towers. ( there is a mirrored ball in the middle that reflects the sun in the shape of a cross which is called "the Pope's revenge") it the tallest of the TV towers that we have seen (which in itself is weird since I'm used to mountains being there for that purpose.)
Berlin wall- we walked along the remaining part of the wall. They invited artists to paint sections and now its called the east side gallery. The guide book says that it is supposed to be in a seedy neighborhood but all we saw was a bunch of construction. We walked headed for checkpoint Charlie so we kept crossing over where the wall used to be. It s really hard to tell where the wall used to be. (the easiest way is that in east Berlin they have left the cross-walk flashing men from communist times and they look like happy little workers.) In some spots there are long narrow parks that give where the wall used to be away. Where there are roads where they have laid a brick stripe to let people know but there are so many building you would never know otherwise.
Jewish museum- we have been to the holocaust museum in Washington DC so we were curious to compare them. In DC they present everything and to the point of overwhelming. Here in Berlin they start by modern architecture to set the mood. All the walls and floors are about a degree off of 90 so it puts you on edge. Then they explain the history of Jews in Germany starting as far back as possible. They work their way up covering the holocaust as another chapter then continue on to current traditions.
Check-point Charlie-
Before we left the Tivo recorded an old Mission Impossible were they traded spies at this point so I got to see how it looked in the 60's. It is very different now, looking like any other road except the guard shack in the middle of road and the sign that said "you are now leaving the American sector".
Check-point Charlie museum-
This is a museum that started in 1963 to document all the escapes from USSR. People hide in gas tanks, welding machines, dug tunnels, hang gliders, and balloons. (they were playing one of my favorite movies as a kid "A wind from the west".) the last escape they documented was in 1988 only a year before the wall came down.
Europa Center- They have a bombed out church here too as a symbol to not get into war again. Its just weird to be driving along then pass a church that is missing huge parts of it all blown out and it is surrounded by a bunch of shiny metal buildings.

German- growing up I always thought that English was more similar to the romantic languages but I think this was just being surrounded by Spanish. Here we have found we are able to recognize or guess more written words then we would have thought.

Driving-Its really funny with so many BMWs and Mercedes on the road everyone thinks they are a drag racer. Its hard to explain, the cars will race but all within the law. Racing from light to light but never over the speed limit.
the autobahn... hehehehehehe. I was getting passed like I was standing still at 180 kph on the autobahn but when there is a speed limit everyone slows down. (yes there are speed limits on the autobahn, its only when you are out of the cities that there is not a speed limit on the freeways.) I just wait for all the other cars to start racing then speed up. I’m glad our little car can keep up. The fastest I hit was 200 kph. The car topped out. I have never driven a car and had it floored knowing that I just could not get it to go faster. We could not figure out how to get the car computer out of "economy mode". We made great time crossing Germany (big country in half a day). It was at the expense of gas. This was the first time we had to gas up twice in a day. But all the autobahn is FREE, no vignettes and no tolls (gas is more expensive).

Skin Heads- We saw 2 types while there. There were the ones with the shaved heads and black bomber jackets. They looked silly because they just had sweat pouring down their heads and their foreheads were all sunburned bright red. Not the vision of fear I think they were trying to portray. The others were the type that just wear the cheeky shorts and vests. They also looked silly just because they looked more like they belonged in a strip club for how little they were wearing. We both had to stifle laughs until we were out of range. I don't think to many people were taking them to seriously.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Europe 2005 - Czech Republic

Here everyone accepts Euro or Czech crowns so they are a little ahead of Hungry switching over to the Euro.
Kutna Hora- A small little town outside of Prague that has one big site to see, the Sedlec Ossuary. So what do you do with the bones of 40,000 people left over from the Black plague when your remolding the church? Why you use them as decorating media. I don't know if they where trying to be theatrical or build a memorial to those that died. It is just hard to comprehend that there are the bones of the equivalent of a small city all in this small church with you. They built 4 pyramids, chandelier, 4 obelisks, and the family coat of arms then the guy that stacked them signed his name on the wall all formed with various bones. Leslie started to get freaked out since she had to study anatomy so much and was recognizing disarticulated jaw bones, femurs and hip bones in the ceiling decorations. I don't know how to explain it, as I looked at all the skulls I could not help but to think these were all people that if only they could tell their stories. Right as I was thinking this a tourist next to me knocked on one of the skulls to make sure it was real bone. I felt like knocking on his head to see the same. I wonder when these people died if any of them would mind having their jaw bone hold up part of a chandelier? This defiantly gets the most macabre award so far.

Astronomical clock- we ended up walking past it right at 12 so we got to see the little skeleton ring the bell. The crowd of people was large for how little it did. I thought it was cool to see all the men turning their heads and moving their legs in the clock and I'm sure it was breath-taking 700 years ago.
Charles Bridge- all the statues here have turned black with the soot from coal and it gives everything a sinister look. There is a plaque to St. Charles where they threw him over the bridge that if you rub the engraving of him falling in the water he will grant you a wish. If I were a saint I wouldn't be granting wishes if people were rubbing a picture of me dying.
Prague Castle- like most castles it's on a hill, and this one is quite the hill. The entire place is more like a city. Inside the castle walls is the cathedral where you can buy different combination tickets depending on what you want to see. After climbing the hill L. refused to climb any more stairs but I still convinced her to climb the 287 stairs to the main tower of the cathedral where the clock struck 2 while we were in the belfry. The spiral staircase was narrow and was used for up and down traffic so it was very cramped. We would try to go down quickly when no one was coming up but this makes you very dizzy. We ate lunch and then walked through the old palace castle complete with the throne and royal benches surrounding it. There were stores called the golden lane that were built into the castle wall. It was all very cute medieval looking but it seems weird to pay for tickets just to go shopping. They also have museum showing the evolution of armor and weapons which is what you pay for I guess. There are swords with a bullet chamber built into the hilt then this moved to guns with bayonets attached. It caught me off guard to see a real Greek helmet like the ones from the movie "Troy" and it moves through history to just having jousting armor.
We walked down the hill and Leslie bought a marionette since that is what Prague is famous for.
Architecture- Prague is supposed to be famous for their architecture since they didn't get bombed out during W.W.II. There are a lot of cool buildings and it is just mind-boggling to think that all the major cities were like this at one time.

Cynicism- While we are still very much enjoying traveling our humor of what we see has turned much more cynical. I think we may be traveling or seeing to much.

Europe 2005 - Austria

It's nice to be back to using the Euro in a way because it means we don't have to plan our expenses out so tight so as to not leave the county with a bunch of un-usable money, but it will mean that everything goes back to being more expensive.

I have dragged L. around to enough art museums so for our day in Vienna she got to schedule the day for everything music, including our hotel. During the summer the cheapest place to stay that is in the city center is at the Music Academy. The empty dorms are used as a hotel. There are still students here and it is interesting to hear guitar playing as we walk down the hall and opera singers as we got dressed for the morning.
The first thing that we set out to do was to buy tickets for a concert that night. The guide book says to not buy tickets from all the people dressed like Mozart since they are overpriced. We found out that the tickets cost the same from the tourist office and from the Mozart's walking around so we ended up buying them anyway.
Music Museum- this is a very modern museum that studies how sound is produced and interpreted by the brain. There are a lot of computers where you can find the threshold of your hearing (L. can hear 100 hz higher then me, I guess I went to to many concerts.) and how the brain can decipher volume, sound delay, and location of the sound source. For the next level you are given a handset that will play different things in different parts of the room and in different rooms for each of the composers that worked in Vienna (Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss family, Mahler, Schubert, and Hyden)
Main cemetery- all the composers above are buried next to each other with the exception of Mozart who has a monument there. This cemetery is huge. There are 3 separate stops on the trolly to different areas plus there is a separate bus line that only takes people around to different areas. It is about a mile long. Of course we got off at the wrong exit but we got to see all the marble statues along the way.
Sigmund Freud museum- To stay with the theme I guess we went here to see why Leslie liked music so much. The museum is set up in his old office complete with the reclining couch. Since my minor in school was psychology I know enough about it that to know that every theory of his has been disproved but Freud is still important historically for being the first to use empirical evidence to categorize the original "desperate housewives" of Vienna. It just ticks me off when people still quote Freud like fact. I found it amusing that they displayed the cocaine- the new medicine that he experimented with and in ALL of his pictures he was shown with his phallic cigar.
Mozart concert- Since there are enough tourists that come through Vienna that want to hear music they have large concerts in any of the 4 music halls in the city. The one we went to was all Mozart music in the KonzertHaus. The summer rain was back and we got to listen to opera singers practicing in the rain at the Academy before leaving. The entire symphony was dressed in the full coats, stockings, and wigs of the time period. Since they were playing for tourists they played the most famous pieces. Our seats were great and it was 2 hours that sounded great and was relaxing.

Classical music- I did not used like Classical music, but L. has taken enough music classes where going to a concert in the park or symphony was either extra credit or an assignment. Seeing in person the actions of the players in time with the music and the distinct sounds from each instrument coming from all around you gave me an appreciation for it.

Tourism- it is defiantly lower then it should be. We should not have been able to get a room where we did without reservations. We keep finding empty museums and short lines. Trust me I am not complaining since some places have gone to charging low season prices.

Reading-we found another book store here that had an English book section and we bought a copy of "the diary of Anne Frank" as the next book to read to each other in preparation of visiting Amsterdam where the hiding place is.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Europe 2005 - Hungary

Crossing into Hungary we had the fun of watching a couple of guys stuff packs of cigarettes down into every nook and cranny of their overalls that they had bought at the duty free shop before they got back on the bus.
We did not have anything on the list for Hungry but decided to stop in Budapest since it seemed a waste not to.
Budapest-The map actually shows 2 cities. Buda is up on hill west of the Danube river and Pest east of river.
Buda- we added a funicular to our modes of travel. ( a system of 2 trains like cars that offset each others weight, as one goes up the other comes down a steep hill.) Of course we came across another local celebration. They had traditional dancing which looked similar to Romania being in a circle and the kids wearing white but with different decorations.( I really feel sorry for the kids since I was subjected to learning square-dancing at about the same age.) Magdalen tower is the bombed out church where only the steeple survived from W.W.II. It really does a good job of driving home the intended message- “War is bad, lets not do that again”.
Pest- The famous road is “Andrassy ut” because of the architecture. It was a nice walk and the Opera house is a really pretty example of that period of "hey you can always add a little more"
Terror house- The building is the one the Nazi's Gestapo used and then got used by the Communist secret police too, and is now turned into a museum. The museum is a no holds barred look at all the atrocities that happened during those 2 periods. I have never been through a museum where all the papers explaining what happened were so pissed off. (with good reason since they had it happening for 50 years. And the last prisoner didn't get out of Russia until 2000) They have good displays for the abductions, gulags, political favoritism, Communist propaganda, and the torture chambers in the basement.
Culture- According to the guide book Hungarians speak Magyar which is not related to any Romantic, Slavic, or Germanic language. This could not be truer as there is no similar words that we saw or heard at all. Here is one place that we were glad that people also spoke English. However everything did not seem as foreign as in Romania or Bulgaria, there are familiar stores to the rest of Europe and the driving style is organized and yields to pedestrians. In the terror house they really wanted to drive home that they were a democracy before occupation and became one again as soon as they could.

Money-New to joining the European Union they still have their own money but there were posters up everywhere for the Euro so it looks like they are getting ready. The exchange rate is about 235 to the dollar so it made it hard to do quick calculations in my head. (I finally just figured 250 to $1 so 1000 forint makes $4) things are not as cheap here as in Romania or Bulgaria and when we cross into Austria and go back to the Euro it will only get more expensive.

Family reunion- so today is my family reunion and it seems like I didn't quite make it to the other side of the world. I am only 11 hours time zones away, I just need one more. Just kidding - Hello all you guys I'm just celebrating from Budapest.

Europe 2005 - Traveling

I was not sure if we would still want be traveling after 2 months. (I made sure that changing our tickets would be cheap.) My wife and I were expecting to get more homesick, but it has not happened. I think my curiosity has won out, and L. is happy as long as we take a slow day every once in a while

Spending 2 months with my wife-After being apart so much the last few months because of school it has been nice. There are some people that might be scared to spend 24/7 with their spouse for so long. We have been catching up on all the trivial stuff and now many comfortable silences as we drive. I know it is supposedly disgustingly cute when couples finish each others sentences and we are now saying entire sentences in unison so it is good there is no one else around to hear us when we do it.

Driving through so many countries- Yes, we get lost a lot. We do get in arguments when the stress is high, we're tired and we still cannot find the right part of the city. But going in expecting it will happen has made it easier. Wrong turns have led us into weird places-Prostitute Street in Bologna Italy,into some very surprised dock workers in Athens, more then a few times down narrow roads where there is nothing but us and the cafe tables.

Health-Getting allergies as bad as I did led me to get asthma and bronchitis that lasted about a month. Leslie has had a cold a couple of times but neither of us has caught something that holed us up for any length of time. Luckily no eating bad food problems that get so many travelers.

Food-the only food that I could not finish was a bottle of sparkling water. Every dish we have tried has tasted great. It has been frustrating paying for water and bread at restaurants. (especially when they just refill mineral water bottles. The sparkling water I got was accidently filled in a "sans-gas" bottle but I decided to try it.)

Rest-It might seem like after a really bad idea for after a stressful last semester of school to go plunge right in into this big of a excursion but I think it has helped. After being in school for so long I thought it was just how I looked. Then one day while driving I folded down the sun visor in the car and saw that the dark circles and bags were gone from under my eyes. I looked at Leslie and saw the same results. I swear that some of my grey hair has gone back to black.

Anti-americanism- the place where we saw the most anti-bush graffiti was in London. Everywhere else there has just been peace flags. Most people cannot tell the difference between British, and U.S. accents, or if English is their 2nd language (if that is the case they learn it with a British accent) so they will ask where you're from. Everyone that has asked wanted to know more when finding out we are from California.

Americanization- while there are McDonalds everywhere they are different then USA ones. We try to avoid them but seem to end up at a few when they are the only ones open. A lot sell beer, and we did get a “McGreek” in Greece and a Cheese Royal in France.
TV and movies are everywhere from the USA. I wonder what image people receive from seeing so many American media. It was amusing when we were taking the bus to the Toulouse airport and a British guy starts singing the Flintstones to reference the movie "Planes, Trains, and automobiles". (He had to know what the Flintstones are, how popular they are in context of the USA and wanted to watch a movie about getting home for Thanksgiving, an American Holiday. But to crack the joke by singing the song expected that much of other riders on the bus.)

Language barrier- the world is getting smaller all the time, this means more people learning English as more people travel. It was weird to hear a man say "but I am from Iran" to a turkish border worker in English. Anywhere there are tourists English is being spoken. It really makes me realize how little emphasis the USA puts into learning another language. When I talk to other tourists and they are fluent in 3-4 languages(English is a requirement for all years of middle and high school plus they then choose one for themselves then depending on the area they have 1 or 2 native languages.) it really makes me want to learn another language (which is something I abhorred in high school.). In the situations that we have been where we are trying to read signs I have been surprised by how often we get it right. The little spanish I do know has helped in also reading Italian and a little of the French. When we are shopping the main way we bridge the gap is through pictures. We learn all the fruit names pretty quick since juice usually has whatever fruit is in it. Any modern words sound the same and are just spelled different- “turizm”=tourism, “polis”=police,”taksi”=taxi for example in Turkey.

GPS-using a GPS for driving around is a must have. Doing it again I would use a dedicated GPS unit. About 1 in 50 locals use one and the favorite seems to be the tomtom

Phone-the phone that we are using is awful. I would not recommend the HP6315 to anyone. I would like to blame Microsoft's pocketPC but I think that this is a matter of HP shipping hardware without full testing. Even my wife has become an expert at restoring from the backed up image. It crashes on average twice a day, and a restore is required about once a week. The GPS software pushes it to the limit and it seems to crash under a heavy CPU load, usually in a city when we need it most. I got it because it was the only phone that had WiFi so I was going to try to use VOIP to make internet calls. It worked when I tested it at home but it only crashes now when I need it. This is one thing that is going on eBay when we get home. (no I did not just get a defective unit. HP released a patch before I bought the phone claiming it fixed the problems people were complaining about. I can only imagine how bad it was before then.) I really don't know what someone that does not know computers would think.

Guidebook-We are using Lonely Planet’s “Europe Guidebook”. I am amazed how much they fit in 1300 pages. There are a lot of the smaller cities we are driving through that are in there too.

Tivo- Before leaving we set our Tivo to record anything with "europe*" in the title or description. Since it was the the 60th anniversary of WWII there were a lot of war shows. The travel shows it recorded were Rick Steves which were helpful and Samantha Bee which is what a trust fund brat could watch for where to shop and stay. One of the more interesting shows it recorded was "European Journal" which was like "60 minutes" for Europe. They covered a lot of the stuff about the new EU countries and the problems right before we left with France voting "no" to the EU constitution.

The List- While watching the travel shows, reading the guidebook, and from taking Art history class we used laptops to create and compile a master list of places and cities they were in that we wanted to go in each country. The night before entering each country we map out where all the cities we need to visit to see the things we want too see, then decide what is really important and which route to take. We didn't know how far we would make it and how the balance between wanderlust and exhaustion would play out for our schedule. We thought we would make it to Istanbul. I am writing this as we are driving out of Turkey so the next 20 days are just the cream on top. It also looks like wanderlust won out as we have only had one real beach day.

Route path-The route we are taking we made the decision to do a highlights tour. There is no way we could really get a good sense of all the local cultures. We are making this trip as a grand circle of Europe. There is no way we could make these long drives with kids so this is more of an overview of Europe. Then when we have kids we can go back and stay in the areas we liked (so far switzerland tops the list) and stay longer and soak in more of the culture. I think this was a good idea for the first time around since we have grown numb to all surprising things that we would see otherwise. Now we just go hmmm when we see a truck with 20 feet of hay and 12 people riding on top as opposed to staring and causing an accident.

Europe 2005 - Universal truths

In the places we have traveled we have found certain truths to transcend any culture.
-Anywhere a car can fit is considered a parking space by the locals.
-Anywhere a scooter can fit is considered a valid path of travel at full speed by the locals.
-No matter how detailed your map is it will not have the street you are on when you are lost.
-Women TV news/weatherpeople have blonde hair. It does not matter if that is a genetic trait for the area.
-Planned communities of homes will always give you 3 choices to paint your house.
-Kids will always whine in a store/shop/market/stalls if they are not bought something.
-"The Simpsons" humor is understood by every culture.
-No matter where you travel you will find a McDonalds and Coca cola. (I think they are waiting for the population to grow before they can expand.)
-Bread + jam = included breakfast.
-Every store and private merchant is always having a 50% off sale.
-infomercials are in every culture, have paid audiences, and are complete scams. (so far the best is the belt that makes you loose weight by sweating.)
-rest stops and gas stations are only there when you do not need them.
-Gas is expensive no matter where it is bought or with what type of money is used or how the exchange rate works out.
-girl in bikini + product = advertising (even in Turkey )
-no matter how remote the site being visited, or how many horse drawn carts you passed on the way in someone’s cell phone will always ring while you are there. (which is funny if you are a fan of “Trigger-happy” and it is the Nokia ring.)

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Europe 2005 - Romania

We decided to try traveling at night for the first time to get into Romania faster. This ended up with us crossing the bridge into Romania at exactly midnight. Since we came to Romania to see the Transylvania region we started trying to think of other similarities. We saw there was a full moon and Leslie had just drank the last of the blood orange juice that we had. As you can tell we were bored waiting our turn since in reality the only thing sucking blood was the swarm of mosquitos attacking anyone who dared get out of their car from the river we just crossed.
So Dracula is supposed to be based on stories about Vlad Tepes. You impale a few of your enemies on long stakes and the name sticks I guess. (Vlad the Impaler) When we were in Dublin where Bram Stroker lived the guide said the Dracula was Gaelic for blood (“dragule”) here they say its because he was son of the dragon. Either way they are not sure if this was his castle even though they know where he was born. (there are 2 castles vying for the tourists and they are only about 5 miles apart and with the exchange rate its under $3 for each so we visited both.) Since we can't go into Russia with the car Romania is as close as we will get to the Russian culture for L.'s interests. Both castles are a good example for this area of architecture.
Bran castle- this is the more popular of the two, and it has the vendors outside to prove it. I am glad that all the stalls weren't dedicated to dracula. Since the ones that were just sold halloween toys. Most had interesting local folk arts and crafts. L. was able to by a set of nesting dolls "Babushka dolls",that she has been wanting for awhile. The castle itself is situated up on a cliff but it feels more like a comfortable medieval cottage then somewhere Dracula would live. It is similar to tudor style of architecture, with lime washed walls and intricately painted and carved furniture. If dracula did live here, he would be very short,as a lot of the doors topped out at 5 ft.
Rasnov castle- this castle is more of a city type enclosed castle. It seemed like they were so proud of a skeleton that was discovered in the basement that was on display visible through plexi-glass. They were also happy to show pictures depicting many torture methods used on people. This display was in stark contrast to the festival and photo display that was happening in the center courtyard the day that we visited. There was a ring of children dressed in traditional white costumes and vests with fur hats folk dancing. You could even have your picture taken with a Transylvania knight for 10,000 lei (about $0.30).

Nuclear plants-We passed a few of these, some up real close. As we drove by the miles of venting tubes they looked pretty old and rusted and had pieces falling off. Romania is pretty poor and it seems like they have not kept these things up but steam was still coming out the cooling towers so that is pretty scary.

Driving- We were charged $20 at the border instead of paying tolls. There really are not any freeways in the country and all the roads are in pretty bad shape. When we left we were so used to being jarred around by potholes that it felt weird to be on flat roads again.

People Watching- I really should say people watching us. There were more people on the streets here then anywhere else even when I was driving on the road at 2AM. Compared to Turkey the bus would stop anywhere along the main road that people were waiting but there were a lot of roads where groups of men would just be standing there looking at cars driving by, busses can't be on all the roads. Everywhere we drove people would stare at the car. Any time we spoke English people would stare at us. I don't know if it is a culture thing or if there are really that few tourists but where we went a few people spoke English so there must be other tourists there too. As we drove out of the country there were a lot of people getting on the busses. The busses were soon full that we could see and people started trying to hitch from every car that went by. There is no way that anyone over the age of 3 could fit in our back seats or else I would have liked to get a local conversation for a while.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Europe 2005 - Bulgaria

Getting out of Turkey took another series of rooms and lines so it was nice to have an efficient border crossing. We paid 2 euro to drive through what looked like a car wash with sprayers coming up from the ground. It was to disinfect our car and it smelled very chemically. The border guard took the passports and registration and did all the paperwork while we waited in the car. We paid 4 euro to drive in the country and we were out in under 15 minutes. It took an hour just to get out of Turkey. (in Turkey's defense we would have gotten through faster if we knew the language to get in the right line. There is nothing more humbling then dealing with bureaucracy in a foreign language. We crossed both times on the roads less traveled so no one there and no signs were in English.)
Bulgaria is the first of the line of countries that we are going through that I never expected to go to. Growing up with communism eastern Europe was only where spies got in and out of. (While driving the MP3 for Mission Impossible came on and gave us a laugh while driving.) The very fact that it was an easy border crossing is weird to me. The signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet so luckily L. studied Russian in high school so that we can read the signs. (She is overjoyed that her language skills finally have a practical use.)
We wanted to drive along the black sea so we really had to take the back road in Bulgaria. We have been passing a lot more people riding their carts and donkeys then there was in Turkey.
Up until now when getting gas the lowest octane has been 95. Here all the pumps also had 92 so I thought great I get a break in price. The Gas attendant explained that that was Bulgaria old car gas and it would be terrible for fast european car like mine. I do think it is funny how many of the old soviet style cars are still on the road. Its looks like swarms of Volkswagon notch-backs only the engine is in the front as we are always passing someone working on one.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Europe 2005 - Turkey

After the London bombing we thought about not coming to Turkey. It does share a border with Iraq. We decided to go since we are only going to Istanbul which is on the other side (west) of the country.
The border crossing was very confusing. We got it wrong the first time and I finally just went to each desk asking if I needed to be there. In the order you are supposed to do it (each about 100 meters apart so you are never sure if it is the last):
-Go through greek customs- they stamped our passports since we didn't get them stamped when we arrived.
-Cross the bridges colored Greek then Turkish colors between Greece and Turkey with Army people from both sides making sure the other guys stay on their side. (Greece and Turkey are not to fond of each other.)
-1st booth checks passports and car registration to make sure you have everything.
-2nd booth (later called police booth) looks at passports and says I need to go to cash line.
-cash booth- get out of the car go into the building next to these booths, down the hall and buy a sticker for the passport ($20) this is the actual visa. This was the first time I used US dollars in a while and I am glad that Leslie and I both put a $100 in our money belts for emergencies.
-walk past your car back to police booth and have visa stamped.
-walk to booth 2 (called booth 2 for some reason.) past a different line of cars and show car insurance and get paperwork. They make sure insurance matches my passport and also stamp the visa and write the date.
-walk back to the desk in the middle of the line of cars. I think they called him the inspector. He looks over all paperwork, stamps all paperwork in triplicate and stamps and signs the visa. (with a special stamper kept in its own leather holster on his belt.)
-get back in the car and go to the next line of cars. This turns out to be the last booth, he looks over everything, stamps it again keeps some hands back some and we were free to go.
After taking an hour to figure out the process of how to make 400 meters make me realize how easy we have had it up till now crossing through all the European Union countries with the nod and wave we have crossed without even the need for a visa (you are kept track of by the hotels getting your passport number.)

Istanbul- the road atlas had the city in the back but no names on the roads or freeways and the map in our tourist guide was very detailed for the tourist area of the city. Istanbul is on both sides of the river that drains the black sea into the Mediterranean. Once we crossed the bridge over the river we knew where we were but we also ended up in Asia. We got lost and found ourselves in Asia. The funny part was they even had a message "welcome to Asia" when we got to the other side of the bridge.
Hagia Sofia-the biggest building in the world for 1000 years- christian church, turned Mosque, turned museum. It is weird to see the pictures of christ and mary right next to the large arabic medallions.
The blue mosque- this is the most famous mosque in Istanbul. It is just right across the square from Hagia Sofia so between the 2 there is just Minarets everywhere. It gets it name for all the blue tile it has inside. There are patterns of tile everywhere. This is the first time L. had different rules of dress than I did and she was to happy to take off the long sleeves when we were done because of the heat.
Basilica Cistern-these are the underground cisterns built during the late Roman empire. It is just interesting that its this giant area built with carved marble pillars and barrel vaults that’s only purpose was to be filled up with water and no one would see it. There is still about 6 inches of water on the bottom so you walk around on raised platforms and look at the fish that got in there somehow.
Grand Bazaar- 400 merchants selling stuff, a maze of tourists traps. It was interesting and its covered so while there is less sunlight it is more stuffy. When we were in Monaco L. found an English shelf in the bookstore. She bought "the Lion the witch and the wardrobe" since the movie is coming out soon. Since it was a short book we took turns reading it to each other. One of the main things in the book was Edmund’s desire for more Turkish delights. While at the bazaar we found some. (actually a lot, but I was still looking for it out of curiosity.) it tastes great (similar to the fruit jellies covered with powdered sugar, and the nut ones taste like sweet peanut butter.)

Salesmen- people ask you into their stalls here, we got that a little in greece but not really anywhere else in europe. Turkish carpet sales are a big money maker here and there are plenty of tricks to get you into a store. Most tourist groups I saw going into one at one time or other. Outside the blue mosque is the "carpet museum" that is more carpet stalls. We had an "english student" that wanted to be our tour guide through the blue mosque and then his "uncles" store. Don't get me wrong, they are very nice and there was a couple of times that they saw us looking at our map and gave us correct directions followed by an invitation into their shop. Probably the funniest thing that we were told to get us in a shop was after walking the gauntlet of the grand bazaar. A man gave the usual spiel to please come rest in his shop. L. gave a tired flat "no". I was walking behind her on the narrow sidewalk and the salesman quickly turned it around as he said to me "your wife breaks my heat I must have her, how many camels would you take for her? He smiled and said he wanted to make sure he was saying it joking then was polite to warn us about the train coming up behind us as I walked past.

People- people here are overtly friendly, even the salespeople. They are very happy to hear that we are American since tourism dropped so sharply after september 11th. (most would then rattle off cities they said they visited in the USA.)

Culture -Turkey & Istanbul are very much muslim. It has been interesting hearing the call to prayer at different times of the day and there mosques everywhere. (As we drove in we mistook 3 different large mosques as the blue mosque.) they also seem to really want to be a western country. From the type of advertising we have seen, and the adaptation of Italian, French and English words. They are still very eastern though in other things. We saw the future of camel racing as they introduced the new robot camel jockeys on TV. One cultural difference that the guide book and travel shows made to distinguish was that instead of saving money in unstable banks many people would build retirement houses slowly. We saw a lot of these unfinished houses in Greece too. Since we were driving in along the coast there were times that we saw whole sea-side communities of what looked like cement ghost towns with all the unfinished houses but it makes perfect sense to me.

Money- this is the first time that we had to deal with a wonkey exchange rate. $1 = 1.6 million Turkish lire. Its really weird pulling 50 million out of the ATM and it was amusing to see a "everything under a million" store.

Driving- while driving north into Bulgaria L. got freaked out almost running over a turtle. Almost all the roads we drove outside of Istanbul are being widened which makes for a lot of construction. I think that it is the IMF money at work putting people to work.

Europe 2005 - Moments

L. and I have been planning travel to Europe since we got married, "just right after we were done with school". That kept taking longer and longer and it is surreal to finally be here. We keep having those moments that we just look at each other as the realization of where we are or what we are doing. Here is the partial list so far.
* Getting asked how many camels my wife is worth.
* Getting lost and ending up in Asia.
* Swimming in the Mediterranean.
* Looking out the hotel window and seeing the parthenon lit up at night.
* Trying to explain symptoms to buy cold medicine in Naples.
* Getting lost walking on 2000 year old streets of Pompeii.
* Giggling in the Sistine chapel.
* Eating gelato sitting on the stairs of the Pantheon.
* Resting on a column head in the coliseum.
* Eating lunch on the lawn in front of the leaning tower of pisa.
* Reading "The Lion the witch and the wardrobe" out loud to each other in the tent.
* Getting accused of staring at "David's" butt.
* Riding on a boat in Venice.
* Sledding on a glacier in the Swiss alps.
* Reading about the London bombings while walking through Interlaken.
* Looking at price tags at the mall in Monte Carlo.
* Listening to the ocean from our tent on the French Rivera.
* Eating lunch on the beach in Spain surrounded by topless women.
* Climbing the stairs for the towers of sangria familia.
* Kayaking past a medieval village in France.
* Watching "Batman returns" in French.
* Choosing among the hundreds of flavors from 4 isles of yogurt.
* Seeing L.'s bag after 48 hours of waiting in the airport.
* Getting a parking ticket in Windsor.
* Staring out at the other side of the Atlantic ocean in St. Ives England.
* Using the wrong directions and driving through an open range of sheep.
* Driving right past stonehenge on the freeway.
* Having the steam from the water in Bath, England help clear up asthma.
* Climbing the city wall in York.
Staring out over the castle wall onto the Loch Ness.
Getting in a fight over who got who lost looking to the GPS to settle the argument only to have the GPS crash so no one can find their way again.
* Wandering through Mary Kings close and looking up to see a buildings floor.
*Reading the "join the IRA" mural in Belfast.
* Staring at the firing point where all the traitors were shot in killarney jail in Dublin.
* Wandering around the destroyed abbey in Cashel in a cow field.
* Learning to drive on the left through the mountain roads of the ring of Kerry.
* Exploring the dungeons of Blarney castle with flashlights.
* Eating at an Indian restaurant in Cork.
* Standing on the Prime Meridian in Greenwich.
* Walking backwards on the conveyer belt to get a better look at the crown jewels.
* Singing "Portobello road" from "Bed knobs and Broomsticks" while looking at shops down Portobello road.
* Listening to Handel's Messiah while looking at the original score.
* Staring at the Rosetta stone.
* Going to a comedy show and not getting half the jokes in London.
* Running into someone I knew outside the British museum.
* Walking along the Thames river and coming across "big Ben".
* Staying up all night trying to get rid of the jet lag before leaving.

Europe 2005 - Construction

While road signs are pretty universal it seems once there is construction all that is out the window. Its funny to see all the ways that they get you to slowdown. A lot of places use a waving orange flag but the way they do it charges. In Switzerland they had a full size plastic mannequin with a mechanical arm dressed as the other construction workers just waving the little flag away. In France the mowing tractors had a little orange flag on the back that waved like a happy tail as the tractor drove along the side of the road. The people picking up trash in Italy had 2 men devoted to waving flags but I think that it was the easy job that you got if you were good because these 2 big burley guys dressed only in orange shorts and vests were dancing and waving those flags like a cheer squad as they walked with their co-workers. In Ireland and Great Britain there were a lot less freeways where we drove so most of roads we drove were 1 lane in each direction. With no emergency lanes there is nowhere to divert traffic so they use temporary stoplights. The first time we came across one I almost went after a while because we were in the middle of nowhere with no cars and it was stuck on red for so long. I thought that maybe I was only supposed to stop like a stop sign when a long line of cars came over the horizon. The narrow lanes also effects the machines they can use. It was amusing seeing a bulldozer that is the normal height of around 10 feet but only 4 feet wide.
So many of the roads we are driving are through mountains. To keep the grass from overgrowing the road there have been a lot of mowing tractors. They look like other construction tractors with the exception of having a robotic arm with what looks like a “Bic” shaver on the end that can be angled to whatever the slope. They look like they are just vacuuming off the hill.
City construction is everywhere. I remember from one of the travel shows that said to invest in a European scaffolding company since it is everywhere. The amusing part is that they print out on the cloth that wraps the scaffolding what the building looks like so as to not offend the tourists.

Europe 2005 - Budget

For some $100 a day seems extravagant others probably think it is impossible. While that was the target it had been closer to $180 a day since the exchange rate is killing us. The reason why we are trying to travel so cheaply is that the last trip we made like this to China we ended up buying a lot of cheap stuff that added up on our credit cards. We were trying to pull off this trip as little of that as possible. The way that our regular day breaks down paying for 2 people is (all prices are in Euro which equals $1.20):
Lodging- if camping 20-30, hotel 70-80, hostel 40-60
Breakfast- grocery store 10-15
Lunch-restaurant 20-30
Dinner-grocery store 12-20
Gas 20-30
Tolls 10-20
Entrance fees 10-40
Souvenirs 10
Daily sundries 10

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Europe 2005 - Living in Southern Europe

Radio-I have been surprised by how much English music I hear. We can usually find a radio station that will play 2-3 songs I recognize. It is true that bands from the 80's are popular here but it is their new stuff that is getting played.( Bon Jovi, REM, Pet Shop Boys)

TV-when we have stayed in hotels we flip through the channels to see what is showing. I am amazed at the number of American shows that have been dubbed. This explains why everyone knows so much about American culture but we know so little about any others. I don't think I have ever watched a dubbed TV sitcom. Even really bad shows like "The Nanny" show up here.

Driving-In southern Italy the driving is very stressful but even during rush hour traffic moves faster then I have seen anywhere else. People pass into oncoming traffic with much narrower margins of error but I really don't see any other way. If you try and drive completely in the law by staying in your lane or following the speed limit then you will cause an accident since the local drivers expect you to drive like them. It is weird to see cops just standing there as scooters race through red lights though.
So far we have put 6500 kilometers on the odometer. It does not seem like it has been boring putting so many miles behind us. Luckily unlike driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for the 100th time we really don't know what is around the next corner, and there are some really eye-opening things that we do see sometimes when turning a corner.
One of the things that catches everyone off guard is we are driving a French car but speak no French. At border crossings the guards can't figure out why Americans would have a car registered in France.

Rest stops-Europeans on vacation usually camp since tourists drive up the cost of hotels. This means driving. We see a lot of families out on blankets having picnics. Smart parents brought jump ropes for the kids while they rested under the trees.

Fountains- In Italy there are springs throughout the cities. Its the same water that feeds all the springs as the fountains so a lot of them part of the fountain is for drinking water. If it was not for these springs heat stroke would be a problem. All you need is a small water bottle and you can dump out the hot water at every spring and refill it. All the springs have the ability to cover the spigot with your finger and the water will shoot out the top like a water fountain.

Food- the big surprise food that we like here is from the grocery store. Blood orange juice, I don't know how to explain it but it kind of like a wild orange juice. L. and I have found it in all the countries and wish we could get it in the USA. I have only seen blood oranges there in boutique health food stores.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Europe 2005 - Greece

Driving from the port town from Patras into Athens was yet another new traffic adaptation we got to learn. The roads are 1 lane in each direction so you're expected to get into the emergency lane if a faster car comes up behind you with some of the slower cars and trucks that just stay in the emergency lane. Along all the highways are little things shaped like little churches. (Greek churches-white with blue domes or red with tile domes.) but they are about the size of mailboxes. At first we thought they were mailboxes since they are not evenly spaced but now we think they are personal shrines either to protect their fields because I don't think that many people have died on the roads.
My theory is shot about there being a correlation between driving style and whether that culture uses lines (queuing) In Italy they had an aversion to lines but would line up if it was roped off. Here in Greece they do a much better job staying in their lane but it is whoever makes eye contact first for any service.
All the road signs, graffiti, and billboards look like giant math problems to me and similar to Russian to L. This is the first place we have driven that does not use the Roman alphabet. It really does bring light to the saying "its all Greek to me". While around Athens I could tell that many of the new signs had been installed for the Olympics and they also had English translations on them. The farther we got north the less we saw of those. Our road atlas has the Greek names in it but for an alphabet we don't have memorized any names longer then 6 characters and you start forgetting characters by the time you start looking up from the map to all the passing road signs. What’s worse is most of the GPS companies don't consider Greece as part of Europe so we have no GPS maps until Germany. Neither of us feel that we are experienced enough for this kind of driving yet but I guess this is how you learn and we can chalk up the rest to seeing more of the country-side.
Athens-driving into town we saw the Acropolis. So we thought great we can drive to that and buy a map of the city to find one of the hostels in the guidebook. The problem is as you get closer the tall buildings block out any view of the acropolis. There were scattered signs pointing down roads but if you followed the signs you would drive for a while then see a sign for Athens pointing the opposite direction. Next we tried using the map in our guidebook. It had the different city sections (boroughs?) labeled and the road signs pointed with the same names but that landed us in the seedy dock area. Just driving we passed a crowded area with tourist looking backpackers so we parked under the no parking sign with all the other cars and I hopped out while L. stayed in the car. I found a map and bought it but it was worse detail then we already had. After 2 hours of driving I thought that our luck had run out when I realized we had got close enough to the acropolis that buildings no longer blocked it out. We found the first hotel and they gave us a room for 60 Euro just to have it rented. We were across the street from the acropolis and had a view of the parthenon from our hotel room. Luck wins out again.
Through most of Italy we were being chased by a summer storm that kept it pretty cool. No more, the next morning it was 95 degrees according to CNN international. L. was still trying to kick a cold so we kept it slow for day, especially with the heat. Everything is very close together but it all on a steep hill (the acropolis) so its all up or down from each other. They sell it all as a combined ticket, I think to get tourists to go to some of the smaller places they wouldn't otherwise.
Parthenon- Once on top of the acropolis the area seems smaller then from down below. Even though the sign says that they finished construction on the parthenon in June 2004 it is still surrounded by scaffolding. In fact all the major sites were being repaired on top the acropolis, so much so it felt more like a construction site more then walking where the ancients had walked. (all construction was supposed to be finished for the Olympics just like the sign said they had stating it would be.) they had fixed the columns of the parthenon so they are now straight top to bottom. (they used to look more like stacked blocks growing smaller as the pillars went higher. The bow in the stairs is noticeable also. The funniest thing is that you see why the Greeks chose to build everything in marble. Its everywhere. The whole acropolis is one giant chunk of marble that has been polished on top from all the tourist shoes. most of the paths are paved with marble and very slippery when they are dusty or wet, so basically always. The walls lining the path are made out of the marble pieces left from other ruined buildings, so it catches you off guard to see part of a pillar sticking out.
Ancient Agora-so many people have lived here you really have to leave it to the experts to tell you which layer of history you are looking at. How they can put back together all the pottery is beyond me but they must be experts at puzzles and Tetris.
Countryside-You would think you were driving along the I-15/I-10 with all the oleander bushes, until you pass a truck with what you think is a dog in the back but it turns out being a sheep, or what looks like a fruit stand is also selling bottles of Uzo. The scenery here is similar to southern Italy, except for a larger concentration of olive trees .

Tourists-There seemed to be more French tourists at the acropolis then anyone else and there seemed to be less tourists then there should be for summer so I can only guess that some of the American and British tourists did not want to travel after the London bombings.

Scooters- In Italy the main thing the cops seemed to enforce is the scooter helmet law and there was about 99% compliance. In Greece we saw helmets maybe 10% of the time but the scooter drivers here are much less daring.

Camping- we camped one night on the Greece/Turkey border at the beach. It was mainly Greek tourists there and they were set up for staying the entire summer. Complete with satellite TV and microwaves in their large tents (the old cavas type).
Music-I bought 3 1gig memory cards for the maps for the GPS. I mis-calculated and only ended up using 2. With nothing else to put on the 3rd I filled it up with MP3's thinking we could listen while we were driving. The problem has been I can’t put in 2 memory cards and I have to have the map in for the GPS. since we can not use the GPS this is the first chance we have had to listen. We bought a Foo fighters CD in Spain and a Beatles CD in Italy for when we are out in the country. They have gotten old after listening to them so much so it is nice to have something different. Greece was the first country that has not had English songs mixed in so that helps too.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Europe 2005 - The boat to Greece

After driving down the peninsula of Italy the last thing we wanted to do was drive back up. Also since the next country on the list is Greece it would require us to drive through former Yugoslavia countries which are the only European countries that our car is not insured for. Instead we opted to add traveling by boat to the list. We can’t fly because of the car but this is not the ordinary car ferry I got used to living in Washington. The boat we are on can hold 800 cars and 1500 people and has a swimming pool and casino- it is closer to a cruise ship then a car ferry.. It is a 15 hour trip from Bari Italy to Patras Greece at 23 knots. This is a big enough ship that we did not know when it had started moving which is a good thing with how seasick Leslie can get. Since we finished up early in Naples we decided to try to get the ferry that night instead of the next day we had reserved since they sail every night at 8 P.M.. They did not have any cabins available so we paid for airline type reclining seats which is apparently one step above steerage otherwise known as unreserved deck chairs. I’m glad that we were tired and sat in our chairs because once underway a lot of people that had paid for deck chair seating came into the cabin when they saw how windy it was. There was a definite language barrier for the people trying to tell them they had reserved that seat. The vibrating of the engines made the seats vibrate and as long as you did not touch your ear to the seat it was relaxing. I went for a walk on deck and a lot of people had set up air mattresses and sleeping bags for the trip. When I woke up during the night the ground was covered with people sleeping that I had to step over to get to the bathroom.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Europe 2005 - Southern Italy

Amalfi coast- we drove some of the Amalfi coast and through Sorrentto on our way to our campsite. Yes, it was really beautiful with the cliffs but it took us an hour and a half to get 12 miles because there is one narrow road along the cliffs to service the all of the cities. Tour busses had a hard time passing each other and scooters didn't help matters.

Pompeii-Wow, the place is huge. It really is a city. L. and I went there expecting a few ruins but there is just block after block of buildings. They put up plaques for the street names so you don't get lost. If you don't have a map you will get lost. The problem with the map is that it didn't show which roads were closed for excavation so you can walk to one of the well preserved houses to find it closed. L. and I bought another book with the overlays so that we could see what the ruins were supposed to look like. (I'm on vacation and my imagination is lazy.) The thing that got me was that the streets are preserved enough to see the wagon wheel ruts, especially at the intersections where there are stepping stones for pedestrians it make the grooves closer together. We just wandered around looking at the paintings on the walls and tile-work on the floors. I was really glad that we went in the evening since there was little protection from the sun since most of the roofs were missing for the houses. In Rome all of the ruins were full of cats- usually 3 per building. Here in Pompeii it was all wild dogs that looked like a bunch of run-aways, content to lie in shade and be petted by tourists.

Naples-There was 3 things we wanted to do here:
1-Visit Cappella Di Sanservero to see some amazing marble statues.( I really wish I had a thesaurus so that I could come up with some better words then amazing but with this thumb keyboard all my concentration goes into making coherent sentences.) They had St. John wrapped in a fishing net of marble but the main attraction is Jesus under a cloth. The technical art ability to pull these off is beyond me how they did it.
2-Eat pizza, growing up I had always been told that pizza was an American invention. Italy did invent pizza but it is different. American pizza is a cross between Italian pizza and all the toppings from focaccia bread. (here a soft flat bread about an inch thick full of all the normal pizza toppings cooked into the bread served with olive oil on top.-no crusty cooked cheese.) pizza in Italy comes 2 ways, Margarita (lumps of mozzarella cheese, sauce, and basil) and Marinara (garlic, sauce, and basil)anything else is for tourists. The pizzas are always the size of a large plate and when sold on the street are folded in half like a taco. As we dove farther south the crust kept getting softer and somehow tastier. Naples is the birthplace of pizza so I consider this one of my pilgrimages.
3-visit the city museum to see the spoils of Pompeii. Unfortunately about 90% of the museum was closed for some reason so no plaster casts of dead people or ancient sex paintings that Pompeii was full of for us. Instead of paying 10 Euro for nothing we headed off early to catch the boat.

Tourism- Naples is not a tourist city. At the biggest museum in the city there was not a single person selling souvenirs. When we arrived in the city we could not find anywhere that sold maps of the city. By total luck we ended up in the book seller portion of the city and found an English version of a tour book of Naples among the maps section. Shear luck will run out for us sooner or later.

Driving- Naples takes the cake for craziest driving. There are no lanes. The width of 2 lanes will create about 4 lines of cars at stoplights. Cars will pass on the right honking to make sure you know they are there. Scooters drive the wrong way down one way streets and on sidewalks. Passing is done over double solid lines with oncoming traffic. Some of the roads on our map were so narrow we had to fold in both of our mirrors on our small car to keep them from scraping. We had to duck into a building while walking since a fire truck needed to drive down the road and there was no extra room. I am under the impression that traffic works on the principal that half the cars really really need to get somewhere because about half did follow the rules. The cars appear more dented here but I don't know if that is because of accidents or just since southern Italy is poorer. I did not see any accidents while in Italy and we made it out without a scratch, although there were a couple of times that I had to repeat to myself that I was only in a rental car with 100% insurance.

Europe 2005 - Rome

We missed the shuttle Bus into Rome from the campsite so we were a little frustrated by that while taking the local bus and subway in. (it actually worked in our favor for not having to walk across the city.) All frustration disappeared when we stepped out of the subway station and the giant colosseum was just right there before us. A lot of Rome is in ruins so we bought a book with pictures of a lot of them that had overlays of what they used to look like 2000 years ago. It seems like the colosseum is about half there but still amazing that it is standing at all. We decided to get the combined tickets that would let us into more places
Palintine hill was a waste of time since it had been rebuilt in the 1600's as houses and gardens and those were ruins too. It did provide for a good overlook of the forum though
I felt that the roman forum was amazing to walk through. The main reason was that there was the temple of Caesar. I know you all had to read Julius Caesar for school. So to pick up after when he staggers out of the senate and dies in the street from all the knife wounds. His devote followers bury him on the spot and build a temple. Well old Caesar is still there and people still put flowers on his grave mound. (how is that for a cult following.)
We wandered north through the city and Rome is full of ruins. It seems like they are digging up half the city, a lot of the piazzas are sunken areas with ruins in them. Other ruins have been turned into apartments. (it was weird to see one of the colosseums turned into an office building). It seems that Rome started out as a completely flat city, the longer a building lasted the more the street level rose around it. Now there are some parts that are 40 feet higher then others and parallel roads going up to cliffs and down to first story of sunken buildings.
The Pantheon was cool to see just because it is so old and still in good condition.(If you want a building shape that will last a while there is a good example.) It ticks me off that the Catholic church tries to claim it as a church since they were the ones that stole all the copper off it, but the entry is free so I guess there is always a trade off.
We found Trevei fountain and it was huge. It takes up the whole side of the building and has a waterfall coming out of it. There were more people here then at the Pantheon. Supposedly it supposed to be hard to find but with the crowds there I guess it has gained popularity enough that the maps have gotten better. We threw our money in over our heads then found a seat among some of the boulders that made up one of the sides. With the waterfall blocking out the crowd noise L. was able to take a short nap on my shoulder while I rested.
Since we had the combined tickets we did not want to waste money so we went to the National Rome Museum. There were maybe 5 other people in the museum at most. I think that L. and I both liked this one because we got to wander around the marble floors and look at all the statues and heads in complete silence most of the time. Most of the statues were repaired in some way and it was interesting to see and read how they had decided to shape the missing limbs.

Vatican City- We had decided to see Rome on a Wednesday and the Vatican on Thursday since we did not want to deal with Pope day at the Vatican. First thing Thursday morning after about 45 minutes in line we got in. We hurried to the end of the endless museums to see the Sistine chapel before there was a crowd. It was the best thing we did all day because when we did circle around again and go through all the museums the feeling in the Sistine chapel the second time was completely different with a noisy crowd taking pictures. The first time through L. and I found an empty space on the bench that ran along the wall and just starred at the ceiling for a half hour. When in this position your mouth is already open and the "wow" just comes naturally. Just the amount of detail and the perfect perspective on a curved roof, how did he do it for 14 years on his back?
The halls of the Vatican museum are endless. While looking down the hall I thought there was a mirror but no, there really was that many gilded ceilings. I am not sure if they had so much stuff that they displayed some of it in the gift shops or if they had so many things to sell that they run out of space for gift shops. Anyway while walking through the labyrinth of museums they had the gift shops placed better then Disneyland. The second walk through Leslie waited in the Sistine chapel while I went back through and saw the paintings by Raphel.
St. Peters Basilica- After coming out of the museums we just kept following the lines and it led down into the catacombs under the church. There were still people paying their respects to Pope John Paul. They had finished his alcove complete with the marble covering with gold writing. We then went into the church itself. Of course it is huge but trying to make everything the biggest it seems more like a marble warehouse then a church. (They had Michaelangelo design a bigger dome since being outdone by Florence wouldn't do.) Getting to see Michelangelo Pietra was amazing. After seeing some of the marble statues from earlier Rome you really appreciate how good Michelangelo really is. Looking at his statues it is easy to forget that it is carved from marble whereas the statues in the state museum are more likely to have sausage fingers and such.
Since we finished early enough we hurried across town to see Michelangelo’s Moses (complete with symbolic Moses horns- don't ask me, but it was used as a way for the illiterate to identify Moses.) As cool as the statue was we were both so tired we spent more time resting then looking.
Police- I don't know if it so they can cover more of the city with less cops or if the cops just drive like I would if I had a siren. Any cop driving had their siren going. I swear that some of them were just getting to the grocery store faster to get milk and eggs.

Life- you really get the feeling of being more laid back here. All the rules are the same but enforcement does not seem to be there. Driving inside the lines, bus and metro tickets, lines of any kind, they all seem optional here but there was always someone that politely got up from their seat for old people in the subway and people pulled over for broken down cars. Some of the traffic was caused by people seeing people they knew and stopping right there to say hello, other cars going around without honking.

Theft- the security post probably sounded a little paranoid but everyone I talked to before going warned me about it and the closer we got to Rome the more stories we heard from other travelers of how fast the pickpockets are and what they lost to them. The only pickpockets we saw for sure were outside the Vatican while waiting in line. I wish now I had taken a picture. Women dressed every bit the part of gypsy beggars complete with child tucked under arm walking down the line asking for money. The only problem was that since we were there so early in the morning they were still adjusting their baby (a bundle of rags) and the scarf kept coming off their hidden arm. Maybe that was the ploy- they get you to think you see through their fake baby ploy trying to get more money begging. Then you feel secure in your superiority knowing they have no baby while they take your wallet. Either way we got a good laugh at a bad job and kept our distance and our stuff. So either we are paranoid or we took the right steps to not have anything stolen, since nothing was stolen I guess we will never know. (we still have to watch our guard more in Greece and Turkey.)

Catholicism- I might tick off some devote catholics but the Vatican seems to be in contradiction to its very existence. I realize that any institution that is around that long is bound to build up a lot of wealth but it seems that they spent it on building up Popes into kings. There is 100 foot wall between Vatican city and the people they are trying to help. I understand why there so many revolts against the wealth of the church. I guess my "ever important" opinion is that, like the kings that stayed walled up in their jeweled castles, is there hope that the those living in the Vatican can know what real life is if they live in the altered state of reality there. ( I know Pope John Paul traveled more then any other pope, and that's a good sign.) and that's my judgment based on buildings built 500 years ago!

City names- I knew that country names changed depending on which language it was but I didn’t know so many city names did. In the order of us visiting them- Milano,Venezia, Firenze, Pisa, Roma, Pompeii, and Napoli.

Tourists- Tour groups are the bane of my existence. All the tour groups at the Vatican clogged the hallways and really disrupted the mood in the Sistine chapel. At every site people would approach us asking if we spoke English then launch into trying to sell us a guided tour. At least we look a little like non tourists so they have to ask. The generic looking tourists just get barraged by tour guides.

Europe 2005 - Forgotten items

Andorra-I don't know why but the food for the country seems like you are far away from everything. All the food at the restaurant was good but it tasted like it was all been preserved in some way. (Potatoes and ham was canned and the asparagus was from a jar.) While shopping they did not sell fresh milk or eggs. I guess they irradiate the eggs since they were all still in the shell, and the milk must be bottled before pasteurizing. Since we could not find any cold milk for cereal we bought what we thought was strawberry milk but ended up getting liquid yogurt (kefir, they call it Yop.) it tasted good still since the yogurt so far does not have the sour after-taste since it is not pasteurized. The milk in a box has come in handy though since we don't have to buy it the morning we are having cereal. It tastes the same which is weird since room temperature milk usually tastes different.
Switzerland-changing elevation so quickly by train gave both of us altitude sickness. We both got headaches and felt like lifetime smokers since we were out of breath at the top of all the many staircases. It was funny to see all the warning signs that just said to walk slowly. Driving in Switzerland was different. The drivers there were so polite to the point of it was almost dangerous if you were used to normal driving. Instead of toll roads they have an annual sticker you have to buy. L. and I both commented on how we liked the lack of toll roads but I forgot about the sticker until we were leaving. Luckily we were able to buy one before crossing over into Italy since there was a guard checking at the border and it is a 100 franc fine and you still have to buy the 40 franc sticker. Switzerland was the one place where the exchange rate favored us. One Swiss franc is about $0.80.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Europe 2005 - Camping

One of the reasons that we decided to drive a car through Europe is that we wanted to go camping some of the time. We wanted to go camping to save money (even with our impossible budget of $100 it works out to $6000 just for the daily expenses that have not been prepaid.) and more of the local european tourists on vacation camp for us to meet. The biggest problem that we have run into was rain.
A summer rain is nice while walking around the city, it cools you off and you're basically dry as soon as it stops. The problem we have been having is that it is hard to put away a wet tent. The way that we have been getting around this is that there is a cloth flap that rolls out in our trunk to make sure there is nothing above it for when the top is down. We have been using this cloth shelf to let the tent dry out on as we drive. We camped 2 days when we went kayaking and it rained while we were leaving. We camped on the beach on the French Riviera and went to sleep to the ocean and woke up to the sound of rain. We camped outside Barcelona to no event and it rained as we arrived at our campsite in Florence. (Luckily we had not set the tent yet, so no problems.) With hostels they are usually very close to the city center so we have had to pay for parking all night which makes them more expensive but that is part of the price with camping and they give you a bus schedule or have a shuttle into town. The main reason we wanted to camp in Italy is to be outside the city center. We read to many times of things being stolen out of cars or the cars being stolen. One thing funny that I have noticed is that the campsites charge by tent so the families that we are camping around have these giant monster tents with subsections in each of the 3 corners and a covered area in the center. The camping centers that we have been to cater to our kind of traveling pretty well with laundry-mat and internet cafes.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Europe 2005 - Pisa

We could not resist stopping in Pisa to see the leaning tower. All the buildings there in the square were leaning one way or another. It was like a 13th century fun-house. It really didn't look like a stone structure could lean that far over without at least some of stones falling out. There was no way that the building looks safe to climb so of course I wanted to. L. does not have the ability to run off of adrenaline so she wanted to sit this climb out. We then found out that the wait was 4 hours. I decided I would rather spend 4 more hours in Rome. Instead we watched everyone taking pictures while we ate lunch. Everyone seemed to fit into 2 categories with no one wanting just a regular picture. There were the nice kids that wanted to look like they were doing their best to hold the tower and the teenagers who wanted the picture to appear like they were knocking it over.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Europe 2005 - Florence

This was a highlight for the trip. There is just so much art to make it worth it. Galleria Accademia- When we arrived we decided the first thing we wanted to do was was to see "David" before the line got long. It was so worth it. Here is this giant 500 year old marble statue, but all the details are still there. I was just standing there admiring how Michelangelo got the flexed muscles compared to the relaxed muscles with David standing off balance and L. made the comment "you do realize you are staring at a naked guy." she understood but was having fun harassing me, but I guess that she can't complain as we look at all the naked women in paintings.
Da Vinci museum-On the way back to the city there was a museum that full size working models from Leanardo da Vinci's sketches. I would have to say that he is my favorite of the masters since he tried to do some of everything. I mean here is a guy that invented a bicycle, moveable printing press, tank, machine gun, ball bearings, and the first robot. I really liked how they had models of his different flying experiments that led up to his working glider. As L. read off what each invention was for I would turn the cranks or pull the levers. L. kept saying I had the smile of a little boy.
Markets- L. wanted to look through the markets and there were a lot. I guess florence is famous for its leather and every stall sold it. It kept breaking out in rain showers so it was funny to see how the merchants would deal with it. Some would use the umbrellas they were selling (with famous painting on them.) to protect their stuff. There were a lot of merchants selling sunglasses and watches that had built collapsable tables out of cardboard and covered with cloth. They could be folded up and standing under an eve in less then 15 seconds. I have a feeling they could pack up quickly for other reasons too since they seemed to be the unofficial merchants along the streets that had square boxes with numbers painted for where each merchant could go. All the stalls sold to much stuff with just a close-up of "David's" penis, or postcards of all the famous statue penises or butts. The joke got old real fast. One thing I did like was that we were not harassed as we walked down between them. I am used to being worn out by people yelling to you to come over like when we were in Tijuana or China, but that was not the case here even though most of the stalls sold the same crap.
Galleria Uffzi- it really started to pour heavily and we were planning to buy reserved tickets we instead decided to wait in the line since it was covered under a huge piazza and wait instead. We ate gelato and watched the portrait artists draw for the 2 hours in line. By the time we made it in we only had 1 and a half hours before they closed. There is to much there so we went for the most important stuff first- the birth of venus by Botticelli's then just wandered around admiring what we wanted. There were just endless rows of paintings of the whole Medichi family that we ignored. It was pretty weird popping into rooms and realizing that "hey that’s one of the paintings that I studied." As it turns out we left the gallery before they closed with 5 minutes to spare.
The Duomo- this had to be my favorite thing to do. The dome of this church is what started the renaissance. Brunelleschi was so ticked off that he lost an art contest to design some doors that he made 5 trips to Rome to study the dome of the Pantheon. Comes back, convinces everyone he can build the biggest dome yet for the church and the secret is having the inner and outer dome with webbing in the middle for light strength. Everyone gets ticked that Florence has a bigger dome and all of Europe starts studying art and science and math to try to one up each other. So that is the story, the cool part is that they still let you climb between the 2 layers to the top of this 650 year old dome. (cool for me at least, L.'s legs thought otherwise). This is still the tallest thing in florence and the view was really great, and the breeze was perfect. So L. and I just sat up there and admired the history (rested) for around a half hour.
camping- the funny thing is that were we camped we could see the whole city and was about a 5 minute walk downhill to the Ponte Vechio bridge.
Food- they have little sandwich shops everywhere and they are so good and cheap that we have been eating them instead making our own.
Tourists- We have found the Americans. Up until now all the people speaking english that were not British ended up being from Canada. I guess everyone from the USA goes to Italy. The only problem is that is seems like huge groups of spoiled rich kids that expect everyone to speak english.
Internet-We went a long time without finding any Internet connections in the hotels we were staying in. Now the problem is that I can't seem to get to not auto-translate into German or Italian, so I have been trying to post but some settings are hard to translate. Also I am glad that I type up these posts on the little thumb keyboard on the phone even if it is harder because every country has their own keyboard layout that makes it slow for someone that is used to touch typing.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Europe 2005 - Northern Italy

We crossed over from France into northern Italy.
Milan- L. was to sick to really enjoy anything and our phone ran out of minutes so I was not able to make reservations for seeing the last supper by Da Vinci. While she slept in I figured out the Italian subway (tickets seem optional but are bought from the newspaper stand.) even though I was first in line at the church where Da Vinci’s "Last Supper" is they were booked for the day. I stopped off at the cathedral which is the 3rd largest in Europe. It was HUGE. I can see very much how it would induce piety upon entering. There were statues everywhere and the columns just seemed to stretch up into the darkness.

Venice- we stayed at a hotel that was outside of Venice. They let us leave the car there while we took the bus to venice. We got junior tickets for the bus boats and public toilets. (The cut off the junior age was 29, I really think this is the last time I'll ever get a junior price.) we just took main boat down the grand canal and got off at the San Marco plaza. This was the first tourists lines we saw for our trip. We knew the lines would be there and were not planning to go into the church because of that. Instead we admired the glass in the shops of the square and then set out with the intention of getting lost. Since Venice is a bunch of islands you can't get far and the tour books said it was the best way to see the city. So we spent the next 3 hours turning the other way any time we saw tourists. When we stopped to rest we could not figure out where we were, as it turned out we had ended up walking most of the length of Venice and were almost back to the train station. We walked along the ocean side of the town back down to San Marco square and took the boat back up the grand canal to the bus stop. It was one of the most interesting things for me just to explore the city without looking for anything. While we were traveling down the grand canal we saw the police boats, armor plated bank boats, a limo gondola for a wedding couple taking them to the church, and taxi boats. It was easier to get around the city then I thought it would be (there were a lot of bridges) but I have no idea how they do construction because the paths are so narrow between the buildings.

Driving- yes there are crazy scooters and motorcycles but I have not felt them to be dangerous yet. Its a bit like the water flowing around the sand and since they are faster off the line they really don’t get in the way. The roads of Milan are 2 lanes wide with no lines, depending on the cars needs in the lanes it varies from 2 to 3 lanes. On the freeways it seems like the speed limits are posted in mph as compared to what people are driving. If I was to drive the speed limit ( which I think I have done very good so far up to this point) then I would get rear-ended. When there is traffic it seems like quite a few people feel that the emergency lane is a valid lane. We stick out for not being locals since we use our turn signals.