Monday, August 15, 2005

Europe 2005 - Epilogue

The Paris-Toronto plane was late getting off the ground (broken luggage belt- 3rd for the trip) so we ran through 2 customs, and 2 terminals to arrive at our connecting flight at the very minute it was supposed to take off.
Lucky-plane was still there.
Unlucky-They had given away our seats.
Lucky-Free upgrade to first class.
Unlucky-Not enough food on the plane.

Whatever we made it home safely.
Driving around now, the roads are huge, all the buildings are so far from the road, and the freeways have 6 lanes again. (the most we saw there was 3) It it truly obvious that the USA culture expects you to arrive to your destination by car. Not to mention everyone is speaking English and no one asks where we are from.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Europe 2005 - Things in retrospect

Blending in-We tried to blend in as much as possible with the locals mainly to avoid being hassled by merchants but also to avoid pickpockets and people trying to get us to join tours. in all the large cities except Istanbul there were enough of a mix of races of people that that did not play a factor. We took blending in a little to far by not wanting any writing on any of our clothes. We saw a lot of stores selling clothes with English on them so I don't think it made a difference. I do think that the tourists wearing the bright colors, shorts, and red faces did a good job of attracting the attention away from us though. The easiest way I could tell the tourist from locals was the direction of their heads. Locals looked straight or down focused on a task. Tourists looked more like bobble-heads and I’m sure I looked the same. If you judge by how many locals started talking to us in the local language while we are walking I apparently looked most like a Greek ( I guess my tan has gotten darker then I thought.) and L. looks German. It is really awkward when you have no idea what they are saying.

Phones-traveling with a phone to Europe from the USA takes 3 requirements. Everyone knows the phone must be GSM, but most people don't know that Europe uses different frequencies then the USA (the phone will be dual or tri-band if it works for both.) we bought new SIM cards but we were never in the country long enough to use the minutes. International calling was expensive (around 2-3 Euro a minute) and a little confusing since we had to look up the different codes to call out of the country where we bought the SIM card along with how that country handled the country codes. For jumping around to so many different countries just buying a cheap calling card that can be tossed would have been a better option. If we were exploring only a few countries then the cell phone would be better.

Accommodations-along with the guide book that we used so much we brought 5 different hostel books to cover all of Europe that we did not use once and a camping book that I think we were able to find the place once. The problem was that none of them gave good directions. The best way we found was just to book the next city on the internet since they always had good directions on their own websites or at least an address for the GPS. The other way that we used was just to drive to the tourist office and have them book the place. This may not have worked as well if this was a busy summer. There were a lot of hotels worked into the rest-stops and we tried to stop at the last one before the city but we always seemed to wait to long and end up in the city where there were no rest areas. We tried driving to the airport since they are easy to find and usually on the outskirts of the city with plenty of surrounding hotels. The problem we found with this is that the business traveler pays more so there are no cheap hotels near the airport.

Books- along with the hostel and camping books mentioned above that we did not use we brought a Rick Steves book for the museums. For how helpful his shows were the book (2005 so it was supposed to be updated.) only had an accuracy of about 50% when finding artwork in a museum. The lonely planet book for all of Europe was very helpful. We would just rip the pages out for the city we were exploring so we didn't have to carry around a heavy book.

These posts- I am glad I kept up on them. even while on my trip looking back things started to blur together. I am glad I could type them out using the thumb keyboard and saving it to the flash memory that could be uploaded at the internet cafés. I have tried to describe things exactly how they are, good and bad. I did not want to white wash anything and can only hope that it did not come across as me being cynical. Since the final destination for all this stuff being written is for me to reminisce it also includes a lot of my opinion and humor so I hope no one felt I was preachy, anti-USA, or was offended by the jokes. Going back and reading these posts I realize that the language sounds elementary. The reason for this is that I tried to write everything as concise as possible since writing using a thumb keyboard while in the passenger seat on narrow roads can require some dexterity. I also tried to write how I felt seeing something for the first time and it may have come across that I sound naive.

Safety- Our car looked out of place in Bulgaria and Romania but I don’t know how well founded the rumors are of having so many cars stolen. Either we were naive and lucky or paranoid. I’m not sure which. For all the stories of pick-pockets we never saw it happen. I think we took the right precautions by getting a car with a lockable trunk and paying for parking when in the cities. The main thing that I was worried about was having the bags stolen along with the car. While not having anything of value it would have messed things up since we would have lost things like chargers for our electronics.

Camping- I am glad that we made the choice to camp so much. Along with the security of parking outside the city it was also cheaper for parking. A tent is more private then hostels and we interacted with more local European tourist families instead of the teenagers just in town to party. It did rain about half the days we camped but our tent leaked only once without our bedding getting wet so I am satisfied.

Sickness- I was expecting to get sick more. Neither of us had any stomach problems that are so common with travelers getting used to new foods. The worst problem I had was the allergies and L.'s main problem she had was 50 bug bites all over her body in Paris. The most common problem we had was heat rash on our legs from hours of walking.

Surprise items- the 2 things we packed as after thought but are so glad that we did were flashlights, packable jackets. The flashlights we brought were the small LED head lamps. We did not use them much for camping like we thought we would but they were great for exploring dungeons and catacombs that we visited. The jackets stuffed into their own sacks about the size of the miniature umbrella. The weather while on the trip has been very unpredictable with it going from no clouds to rain in an hour. It has been nice to have the jackets in the backpack for the rain or colder weather then we were expecting for a summer vacation.

Pictures- I never was able to upload pictures in Europe. After getting back I realized it was my hosting provider that only allowed very slow uploads. So one of the first things I did was to cancel my account.

Europe 2005 - Countryside

We have definitely taken the scenic route during this trip. Each country has had a dominant flower that doesn't just dot the landscape but you will see fields that never end. Starting in England was supposed to be the thistle but I didn't see a lot of it. I did see a field of lavender and strangely enough red and white poppies. These poppies were fully open even in the windy, rainy, cold weather, so I guess California poppies are just wimpy. There was also these bright yellow bushes that I think were St. John's Wart. The flower I have seen the most of are hollyhocks, they have been everywhere.
In Greece there were of course plenty of olive groves.
The winner is the sunflower! Every country has had giant fields of sunflowers. The bright yellow fields that roll out of sight over the hills are beautiful.

Europe 2005 - Foods

In each of the countries there were foods we tried to try. There is nothing we have not liked and is defiantly better then what we had at home for those dishes. Like my friend at work commented though sometimes other countries do food better then where it originated (the best French fries I ever had were in China) but you gotta start somewhere...
If anyone reads this shaking their head that I've reduced the gourmet of their country down to one food then just remember that the foods the USA would most likely be famous for is a hamburger (Germany) or apple pie (France).
International-cheese, yogurt, bakery goodies.
Britain-fish and chips, Indian food
France- escargot, quiche, crepes
Spain- paella
Italy-Pizza, Gelato, cannollis
Switzerland- fondue, chocolate
Greece- Baklava
Turkey- Turkish delight
Hungry- Goulash
Austria-Sausage
Germany- Strudel, sausage
Belgium-waffles, chocolate
Netherlands-marijuana (just kidding)

Breakfast-I know that the USA eats a bigger breakfast then anywhere in Europe and I usually eat a bigger breakfast then others I know, usually it is my main meal of the day. When we were in Florence we were promised a "big American breakfast" to entice us to book the hotel. The basic breakfast starts here with the bread (usually what we would call a French roll in the USA.) with tea or coffee. Mainland Europe had boiled eggs added to that. In Italy and Greece olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, lunch meat was added. In Austria and Germany there was plain yogurt with fruit mixed in and the lunch meat and cheese.

Preconceived notions- I guess I am used to the USA way of everything being in individual wrappings all under a nice layer of plastic. In Europe I am surprised by how much food is uncovered, and unrefrigerated at the grocery stores. The bread (long "French bread" all over Europe) is just sold without a bag and it is to long to fit in shopping bags so they carry it however. My brain screams “ahh that’s unsanitary” but I guess that many people can’t be having problems since that is how it is done everywhere.

Bread- The Atkins diet would never work in Europe. People eat to much bread. It was the normal thing that people would go for a walk in the morning just to buy a fresh loaf of bread. Many grocery stores had the bakery attached but with a separate door so that it was the only thing open ion the morning. It was not unusual when we started our touristing in the morning to pass people with a couple of long skinny loaves tucked under their arm. When we were camping the grocery stores would take peoples orders for their bread the next morning. I was lucky to wake up early and buy the pastries that they had over-ordered before I learned that it was any bread was supposed to be pre-ordered.

Grocery shopping- I am glad we ate so much by buying groceries. We did it to keep our budget down but I really think we ate much more healthy because of it. We would buy 6-packs of water (1 and a half liter) and just keep them in the car using 1 a day. They cost around 1.50 for 6 instead of for 1, and I still don’t think we got enough water. I also think we had many more deserts since there always seemed to be attached bakeries. Its a good thing we were walking so much or we would have ballooned out with weight.

Foods I’m tired of- I don’t know if it was just because it was easier since we didn’t speak the local language or if everyone eats that many fries but almost all the time that is what we got with our food without the waiter asking if we wanted a different side.
We did not see a single pig farm but it seems like there is ham in everything.
After sampling so many pastries and having them as the only thing for breakfast we will not be eating them for a while.
Bread is good. Lots and lots of bread gets a little old after a while. Bread being the only thing for breakfast gets old fast.

Europe 2005 - Favorites

Gelato-me: crema or bannana, L.: lemon or chocolate

Yogurt- me: kiwi, the chunks of kiwi compliment the taste of yogurt well, L.: just like the fresh unprocessed taste of the unpasteurized yogurt.

tomatoes-Rome had the best taste, I guess they are called roma tomatoes for a reason

Pastry- me:flan in France (which is more like custard pie and not like Mexican flan) L.:-lemon tarts in France. Both- creme puffs in Hungary.

Place we most want to visit again-Switzerland, the people were just so nice and it was so relaxing.

Cheese- I honestly don't know. Half the time I couldn't read the label, sometimes I couldn't remember what we had. I guess I just liked so much variety we never had the same kind twice.

Favorite moment- sitting staring up at the Sistine chapel. But there are tons of close seconds.

Europe 2005 - Shocking sights

Cars pulling trailers- I am so happy to see such a lack of SUV's here. For summer vacation all the campers and boats are pulled by 4 cylinder engine cars. (roads go up to 12% grade here too.)

Hay trucks with 12 people- In Eastern Europe I am not sure if it was all the workers on top or the hay trucks functioning as a bus.

Family on a scooter- In Italy there was dad mom and kid quite a few times. Everyone rode scooters, even in formal wear.

Mr. potato on Berlin wall- along with the other art and graffiti he was there smiling away.

People carrying bags of marijuana past cops- As long as you were not smoking it rolling a joint was fine.

Beer bottle return when leaving the movie theater- must recycle.

Beer being on the menu at McDonalds- its funny to see how they adapted to the local culture.

A tank sitting on an overpass in Belgium- we later found out that the freeway split their army base and they have quite the problem with people attacking their embassies since a lot of international trials are at the Hague.

Sunflowers and sheep everywhere- there were sunflower fields and sheep grazing in every country we went to. Do people really use that much sunflower oil and wool?

Man smuggling cigarettes into Hungary- as more countries join the E.U. People have to drive farther east to find the duty free stores at the borders. Why someone would need to buy that much perfume or Swiss chocolate is beyond me.

Receipts with the full credit card number-about 60% of our receipts had our full card number on them. It was really annoying that we had to scratch it out so much. No wonder Europe is switching over to the smart cards.

All 6 feet of the head of head of the swordfish at the meat counter- we saw this 3 times along the way.

Europe 2005 - International English

With English originating in Britain and the largest group of English speakers being in India no one is taught USA English. (personally I don't think I was speaking the same language as the locals in Scotland similar to Spanish and Italian speakers understanding each other) this list is by no means definitive and is only what we came across.

ATM=bancomat, bancoautoma, cash machine, money from the wall, automatique banco, automat.
Restroom= WC when written, toilet when spoken. I got the strangest looks when I slipped up and asked where the bathroom was on the bus.
Vacation=holiday, saying you are on vacation apparently means you have been fired or headed to prison I couldn't quite tell.
bed & breakfast=Pension, Penziun, Zimmer.
Open 24 hours=non-stop
Freeway callbox=SOS phone
Pharmacy=Apothecary, Chemist (they all have a neon green cross)

Food
Diet coke=coke light
Lemonade=fresh mix
ranch dressing Doritos=cool American Doritos
Loaf of sliced bread=American bread
Circus=American circus
Regular (uncarbonated) water=flat, natural, sans gas, still.
Dine in or take out= stay or take away.

Everyone everywhere was so helpful when we did not know the local language. I’m afraid to say, much more polite than someone not knowing English would be treated in the USA. I guess dealing with it so often they get used to it. We tried learning the basic words (or at least how to ask if they speak English.) in all the local languages and I’m sure we sounded badly enough that communicating in English was easier when possible.

Europe 2005 - More traveling

Graffiti- it is really depressing to see it on almost all the really important sights and churches. Why people felt the need write or to carve their name in seems beyond disrespectful. Most of the larger cities had graffiti painted on the walls and subways. Supposedly at sites like Pompeii they learned about the locals from the graffiti and I just wonder what they will learn from all we have seen.

Environment-It is plain to see that there is more effort going into protecting the environment in Europe. In France, Germany, and a few other places I saw they had overpasses that were for migrating animals. I had heard about a study of this helping in the USA but they talked about it as if it was science fiction. Recycling is very high here. Most stores charge a recycling fee for each bag which got annoying since we couldn't seem to remember to get in the habit of bringing them with us. In all the cities there separate dumpsters for cardboard, glass, and plastic. I tried but could not keep the colors straight since they were different in each country and I’m sure we ticked off a few people with how many water bottles we went through. I guess it is because there is so little nature left. I don’t know how many time we were driving that we thought we were in the wilderness until we crested a hill and saw it was only a thin line of trees between us and the city.

Annoyances: (I've got to blow off steam somewhere, even if I knew most of these coming in.)
Smoking- in southern and eastern Europe the cigarette smoke was even more acrid then US cigarette smoke.
Low ceilings-being 6'5'' (2 meters) I think I've lost a few brain cells even with the constant vigilance.
Diesel engines- I know they are supposed to be better for the environment but there were just to many tunnels we went through with our car roof down following a new car that was choking us.
Restaurants charging for bottled water in re-used bottles-This happened even in the least touristy places where it was all locals eating.

Being a gracious tourist- talk at a quieter level then the locals. Dress like you did not come to mow the lawn. Show respect in places of worship. Do not use the sentence "well in my country...". try to learn the basic interaction words (yes, no, do you speak English,...). Flash pictures will fade museum relics and if they say no photography to buy the postcards. We tried to follow these rules as much as possible and be the good tourists and when you are quiet you notice how many loud obnoxious tourists there are. Just imagine a large tourist group with a loud tour guide coming into your church. There is no surprise that so many of the locals do not want to deal tourists with how many tourists seemed to think the locals were just part of the scenery. However we did not meet any rude locals. Even in Paris that is notorious for being rude so I can only guess its because we were on our best behavior. So for us, being polite paid off.

Charging electronics-with our choice to stay in hostels and camp I went with the choice of using a power inverter in the car so electronics would not have be left out of my view to recharge. The GPS, and phone charged by 12 volt adapters and I had a 3 way splitter for that. The rest got 110 volts from the the inverter to charge the camera batteries, my shaver, and video camera.

Stress-We found there was 3 important things that cause stress when driving into a city where we would inevitably get lost: Food, toilet, and being lost. As long as we took care of the first 2 before getting to that last 30 miles into town (where the rest stops disappear) then the getting lost becomes more exploring. Otherwise the stress builds up and everyone starts saying what the other person should have seen and done since it seems to take an average of 1-2 hours to find where you booked to stay or find somewhere to stay close to what you want.

Burnout- Some time around Berlin it seems like we hit a wall. Starting out in London we were sight-seeing around 10 hours a day. Now we just didn’t feel like walking around any more after 6 hours. I think we got our second wind when we hit Paris but I know that I took a lot less pictures for the cities in between. I think it helped to take it slow in Paris.

Weather- I can’t believe we only had 1 beach day. We got rained out of having any more for 7 other tries. It also rained half the days we camped. When we talked to the locals all over Europe they said that this much rain at this time of year was really strange. It did a great job of keeping the part of the trip through Southern Europe cool. I’m just glad we had the jackets since of course we packed for much warmer summer weather being from California.

Church bells- I've never lived near a church with a bell tower so I don't know if this is the case but there was no rhyme or reason to when the bells would ring. In most cities at some point between 6 and 8 the bells would just start ringing, stop, then 5 minutes later ring again straight for another 3 minutes. I guess the moral is to not set your watch by the bells.

Switching to metric- both of us switched over to metric pretty quick since we were so immersed in it. I found it easier to switch the GPS to kilometers to match the size, 40 degrees is very hot, fruit and vegetables by the kilogram seem expensive until you weigh items, and we soon got used to buying milk by the liter.

Europe 2005 - More moments

There are less of them. We were getting more used to traveling that things did not shock us as much or burn out was starting to set in.
-Driving along the black sea coast.
-Getting our blood sucked by mosquitoes at the Romanian border.
-Driving though the night in Romania
-Picking which town Dracula must have feasted on as we looked out the castle windows.
-Singing "Blue Danube" as we walked on the bridge across the Danube river.
-Listening to the concert in Vienna.
-Walking along the Berlin wall.
-Driving on the Autobahn at top speed.
-Watching the bored prostitutes in Amsterdam.
-Looking at the marijuana growing in the Restaurant window in Amsterdam.
-Laughing at the "modern" E.U. building being closed because of Asbestos problems.
-Staring out to sea at Omaha beach.
-Watching the colors change on the Rouen cathedral.
-Looking straight up under the Eiffel tower.
-Listening to "the bells, the bells" at Notre Dame.
-Trying to decide if Mona Lisa was smiling.

Europe 2005 - Driving through Europe

We made the choice to drive instead of using the train and we are both glad we did. We both think we got to see much more (even if it meant getting lost) than we would have otherwise. The farthest we ever got off track was 50 km (in Greece). Most of the times we got lost was in the city before buying a city map so that would have happened walking too. It was not the getting from point A to B that took the time since the toll roads are fast. It is finding somewhere to sleep that you booked or is close to the tourist sites that takes all the time. Our average was 2 hours with all the one way roads and nowhere to pull over.
I made the mistake of waiting until France to buy the road atlas. (The Michelin guide was the most recommended and I agree it is very good) We should have just bought it over the internet when we bought the rest of our books. We could have bought city maps then too to save a lot of hassles. The way the roads are set up here as we found out after buying the atlas is that there are not usually posted speed limits unless there is construction. Every country has different speed for the different roads. Freeways were 120-130 kph, highways and dual carriage ways were 110-90, and in the city was usually 50. We are glad that the atlas explained this. Also every country has their own requirements for what you must have in the car. France did not require anything so of course our car didn’t come with it so we bought a reflective jacket and triangle in Spain, we had a first aid kit with us so I guess that counts, and we assumed that with a new car a bulb would not burn out so we never got a spare. Hungary is the only country that our atlas said required driving with your lights on but everyone else was in Italy and Switzerland. We mainly just tried to imitate whatever the local driving style was.
The GPS we bought was the newest generation chip so it could get a signal even on the narrow streets with tall buildings but sometimes the signal would bounce around a little and mess up the GPS program (I guess there is always a trade off). We sometimes put the top down to get a better signal. One thing I would do differently is to not bring polarized sunglasses since it made it impossible to see the screen with my sunglasses on.
I have a lot of experience driving and in all honesty I enjoy going for a drive. (I couldn’t write this until now or L. would make me drive all the time.) At first, especially driving on the left side of the road, driving was really stressful. But I’m used to driving in cities, one way roads, and navigating by map that I soon got used to the narrow roads and sharp turns that are characteristic of driving in Europe. I could see how someone living in a small town would get freaked out but anyone that doesn’t have a problem driving in New York City and the Freeways of Los Angeles would enjoy driving here. I was successful in returning all 3 cars we drove without a scratch (UK, Ireland, and France).
Tolls vs. Vignettes- I like the countries that had vignettes (Switzerland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Czech republic) since you bought the sticker for the time you need.(usually a week but Switzerland was a year and even then that was as expensive as 2 days of driving on toll roads.) This helped for the countries that did not use the Euro. We left Turkey with more money left over then I would have liked because I was not sure how much the toll roads would cost. We only did not have enough money for the tolls once and they took credit cards so we didn't have a problem. France was by far the most expensive to drive in with an average of 20 Euro a day. Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg were free as far as I could tell (or I will soon get a charge to my credit card by the car leasing company.) taking the toll roads is the way to go though. Every time we tried to save money or take a shortcut we got lost and ended up spending more in gas or finding ourselves even farther back up the road and paying a higher toll.
Aggressiveness- With Naples being a 10, and Switzerland and Vienna being a 1 driving here on the freeways of L.A. is about 6, driving in California 4, NYC roads 8, and driving in Utah 5 to try to give it some scope.
Stats- we drove 11305 km in mainland Europe. Our car averaged 42 miles per gallon. gas prices averaged around 1.15 Euro per liter. (sorry I couldn’t figure out how to get all that in one base system).

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Europe 2005 - Paris

This was our final stop so we had to turn in the car.
Eiffel tower- what can you say this was just one of those I can’t really be here type of moments. Every time I looked up the only thing I could think was "that looks an awful lot like the Eiffel tower" since my brain would not accept that I was really there. We climbed up to the 1st and 2nd levels by the stairs. Its nice that they number them for you. Since the 1st level has about 300 stairs it compares with most of the church towers we have climbed. Its weird to think that up to that point the tallest buildings came up to there. Even though we were tired I am glad we took the stairs because of the shorter lines up and down but they crammed people into the elevators like sardines. We came back at night to see it lit up and it was amusing to hear the general gasp coming from all around (us included) when they started it sparkling. We sat on the park grass and watched it sparkle as salesmen went around trying to sell bottles of wine & champagne. we lost track of time and made it home on the last subway of the night at midnight.
Arc de Triomphe- L. was to tired from climbing to the 2nd level of the Eiffel tower so no more climbing. I think the funniest thing to watch is the 16 roads that dump out into the circle surrounding the arch ( you take a tunnel to get under the traffic.) I am glad that we did not drive though it.
Champs-Elysées- This is supposed to be the posh road of Paris like Rodeo Drive in Beverly hills. It seemed more like a lot of restaurants and movie theaters to me but maybe that is because I don’t like to shop.
Notre dame- This is the most gargoyles I have seen on a church. When we went in there was a mass going on so we tried to be as quiet as possible but tour guides there made that useless.
Orsay museum- I never realized how much I liked impressionism until we walked through that wing. Both of us were either saying, "I like that one" or "I remember studying that one" for most of the paintings. It was nice to see 4 of Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral after seeing the church in person.
Catacombs- Paris wanted the room so they dug up their graveyards and put all the bones here. This place did not have the impact of Kutna Hora since this was people dying naturally, not the plague wiping out the city. Also they did not try to create things from the bones. Instead they were neatly stacked by graveyard. Don't get me wrong, it was very eerie to walk through hall after hall of stacked bones. We followed our guidebook and brought along our flashlights and it allowed us to see the tops of the stacks better but there were not any unlit halls.
The Latin quarter & Île Saint-Louis- both areas just seemed like more tourist shops, not the quaint areas our guidebooks and tour shows seemed to make them out to be. I don’t know maybe we just missed walking down the right road to be enchanted.
Louvre-we planned for a whole day since it was so big. We had pre purchased our tickets and used the subway entrance to the museum right at 9am to avoid the crowd. We went straight to see Mona Lisa. It paid off as there was not that big of a crowd yet. Apparently a lot of people are disappointed by the painting but we liked it. We went back and saw Da Vinci’s other paintings then "winged victory". I really like how they have it at the top of the stairs. After seeing Venus De milo I was surprised to find out they had “Hammurabi's code” there. It was truly bizarre to see the first known written law. It is nice that you are able to re-enter so we could get lunch and just wander until 4pm.

Bugs- L. was attacked by bugs and we don’t know when. She is covered head to toe by at least 50 very itchy bug bites. Its weird since we have gone everywhere together but I don’t have any. It had to have been fleas in the cheap hotel we stayed in in Paris.

Public Transit-the subway here is pretty easy to use once you figure out the maps. in each station they have maps for the busses, trains, local streets when you leave that station, then finally the subway map. We found it easier to carry our own subway map instead of trying to figure out which map we were looking at. It is nice that instead of using metal train wheels they have large rubber tires that make the ride much more quiet.
The airport is easy to get to from the subway system and I wish LAX was as easy. It was weird to see flights leaving for Tehran and Havana.

Internet- there are no real internet cafés here. They just have internet terminals in the subway stops that don’t have anywhere for me to plug in USB to upload posts.
There was an advertisement on one of the subways for an internet connection. For 29 Euro/month you get DSL2 (20 Mb) VOIP phone and 180 channels. I saw this in other cities and just thought it was an intro offer but that's it. So it looks like either Internet here is subsidized or no one wants to compete with the phone and cable monopolies prices in the USA.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Europe 2005 - Gymnophobia

A lot of people harassed me at work about going to Europe just for the topless beaches. Its true that for the first few uncomfortable minutes I didn't know where to put my eyes; but you soon realize that it is the culture and is no different then choosing bikinis vs. a "one piece" for our culture. The thing that soon surprised me was how many local women were wearing bikinis that were not topless. I wonder what the dividing cultural reason is. Nude beaches have also been next to our destined beach in England, France, Greece, and the Netherlands to the point that I think Leslie suspects me of planning it that way. No we have not gone to them.
Its not just the beaches that catch you off guard either. At the rest stops there is usually a lady that you tip to keep the restrooms clean. She has no qualms about cleaning while the urinals are in use. I guess this is better than many restrooms I have seen where the urinals are in clear view from the door. In France they just tack the urinals to the outside wall and I drew the line there, I couldn't use them. L. has been put off by the public urinating we have seen at least once a day while driving.
Its not just that though there are many more hints that the European culture has a lot less encumberments with nudity. I think it starts young in schools since many of the museums we have visited have field trips of kids at them and none of the kids are snickering at the naked paintings like I remember doing when I was their age. While at the comic museum we saw a lot of partially and nude women in the comics and they all can’t be for adults.
The advertising also does show more, but it seems that in culture here the breasts do not seem to be as sexy as close ups of the stomach when selling products. TV shows have shown both naked women and men but I would put it at a PG-13 where it is only a flash. Adult magazines are sold at newspaper stands displayed with all the other magazines.
The annoying part has been the over abundance of postcards that are nothing more then pictures of statues and penises. I blame this squarely on the tourists though since they wouldn't be sold if they weren't being bought.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Europe 2005 - Northern France

Our trip is almost at an end, we have re-entered France.
Bayeux- L. had to study the Bayeux tapestry for the art history class she took so she wanted to see it. It is a 70 meter long embroidered piece of cloth from the year 1139. Its amazing something so fragile exists that is so big from that time. The tapestry tells the story (sometimes very detailed- like what they had for dinner) of what happened in 1139. (basically the Norman duke crosses the English channel, kills the king and takes over.) the funny thing is that you really get the impression that France really wanted to drive home the fact that someone from there had conquered England and they were the last ones to do it. First they have an Artsy interpretive slide show complete with 80's style synthesizer sounds. Second they have a 70m long cloth that explains all the important parts (such as the invading, and the killing of the king.)Third they built scale models of the castles destroyed, the knights armor and such. Forth you watch a movie that again explains the tapestry. Now each of these different things causes a crowd of people to form so they really feel like separate exhibits. Finally after 1 more line- the tapestry. It looks really cool and they have it in a "U" shape to fit in the room. Since it is embroidered all the color is still there and you get the story one more time.
Normandy Beaches- we drove along the beach for a while and saw Utah, and Omaha beach along with the British and Canadian grave sites for W.W.II. There are still concrete barriers in the water and some bunkers left but the very beautiful beaches hide really well how many people died there.
Rouen- We wanted to come here to see where Joan of Arc was put on trial and burned and that was cool since they built a modern looking church over the spot. But Rouen is also where the cathedral is that Monet painted the cathedral so many times as impressionism examples. (very good series of examples showing fleeting light plays a bigger role then the object being painted.) At night they projected Monet's paintings onto the cathedral itself. It is one of the most beautiful things we have seen. The lines of the church melt away and it really looks like a giant painting that fills your entire view. They then project modern art interpretations onto the church only stressing certain lines complete with showing the shadows of flying birds and trees swaying in the wind. Your field of view is full of this church as it changes color and it is very overwhelming. I am happy that this is something that looks so good but also does not exploit what made the thing famous to begin with. I think Monet would be proud since this does the same thing he was trying to display with his paintings.

Driving- the crucifixes are back. They are only when you crest a hill or something though so it appears that the farmers are using them as double duty for scarecrows over the corn fields too.

Food- if anyone is wondering, snails have the exact same texture as clams without the occasional sandy crunch. They were also served like mussels where the only thing you taste is the garlic and butter. Quite tasty, and I recommend them to anyone.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Europe 2005 - Luxembourg

We didn't have anything to see in Luxembourg but I just have such a fascination with these tiny countries. L. was to tired to explore with me so she dropped me off in the city center and went back to the campground . You know the country is small when the city and country have the same name. So I heard everyone speaking French but the architecture reminds me more German with the black roofs with lots of cupola peaks. Luxembourg is a small enough city that it is easy to walk around. There are 2 bridges that the city is proud of that look very similar to “suicide bridge” in Pasadena, CA. and the city center felt just like old town Pasadena so I guess that's why I felt so at home just walking around. I walked the 3 miles back to our campground only making 2 wrong turns. That night we froze to death in our tent. This just did not feel like camping in August.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Europe 2005 - Belgium

We have had campsites that were close to town before. They were usually on the last stop of the tram or bus line. Here in Brussels we are right in town. I guess the church makes money during the summer by letting people camp in their court yard. The internet cafés here are cheap too (for some reason it averages about 1.25/hr everywhere else has been about 3 euro/hr.). We were able to burn our pictures to a DVD too without it costing $100. (it was only 3 euro so we made a backup too.) I had heard all these stories about everyone having such fast internet connections here in europe I didn't think it would be a problem uploading them. But I guess that is not the internet cafés because it takes an average of 4 min. per picture so the DVD backups will have to do until I can get back.

Brussels-
Musical Instrument museum- here is another place I found in the “Weird Places in Europe” book. They have instruments from all over the world and throughout time. 4 floors of every type of instrument you can think of. The interesting part is that they give you a pair of infra-red headphones. As you walk through the room there are little spots on the ground that if you stand over them you can hear how the instrument in front of you sounds. Listening to the evolution of the sound of the piano was interesting to me. L. was just happy to wander forever. When leaving a room the random sounds you would hear as you walked out sounded bizarre since you had to walk over many spots.
E.U. Headquarters- Brussels is the headquarters for a lot of the departments of the E.U. I thought we would be able to tour the building but apparently they are removing asbestos so no one is using it right now.
Comics museum- Brussels is proud that they had the first university to teach comic art as an art form. All of the comics on the walls were in French or Dutch so I could only focus on the art and not the story line. The art style is different here then what I have seen in American graphic novels. Apparently comic style art is pretty popular around here as it is painted on the sides of buildings and comic stores are everywhere. The most famous is tin-tin (apparently a cross between Richie-Rich and James Bond.) who is the mascot for the 175th anniversary of the country.
Grand Place- this is the central square for the city and it is surrounded by some interesting architecture since they were built by powerful guilds at their time. This is where we found all the tourists.

Bilingualism- Belgium has come to terms with 2 languages long ago so even 100 year old churches have the name in both. (its weird to see since I’m so used to them being brand new signs when companies are just barely getting on the band wagon for multiple language signs.) the problem being is that with the French and Dutch being on all the signs of the museums it squeezes out any room for English that we have been enjoying reading.
Politics- (my swami hat is now donned ) As more countries join the E.U. A lot of people see it becoming more like the united states of Europe. With more combined money than the USA they will have a lot of economic sway (as soon as they convince France and the Netherlands) that will make products start following European standards like metric sizes. (or maybe something like the Japanese craze in the late 80s) I guess I’m saying the USA needs to get off its laurels.

Driving- We are back to the more aggressive driving. I think there is a correlation to how friendly a culture is with their neighbors. The more people stop in traffic to chat with people they know the more it forces people to swerve around them. With all the cars double parked and the narrow roads its every person for themselves. I think this was avoided in the Netherlands since so many people rode bikes.