Mar 282007

I think we picked the perfect time to visit. It has been mostly sunny, with a few rain patches. The fruit trees are blooming, and everything is green.

We spent our last two days in Rome exploring more of the ancient ruins, the Vatican, and the Basilica. We are a bit church and bloody-Jesus fatigued, but still really enjoyed our time there. It is easy to see why there are crowds and lines, even in the lower season.

It seemed like every block you walked down had an old and slightly different, but impressive, cathedral or piazza. It is staggering to think how many loads of marble or rock have made their way to this city. As with most ancient sites, there is always a little heart break that go with them. Older sites were mined for their marble or vandalized. Other treasures were just plain plundered from other lands. Our capacity for creation is only matched by our capacity for destruction.

Overall though, the city is in amazing shape. I’m sure a significant chunk of money has gone into restoring and cleaning sites, but with the amount of cash this city must take in, I’m sure there is plenty left over.

We are on the ES* train, headed towards Florence…

Mar 252007

March 25th, Rome

I get the impression a lot of things in Rome will just take time. We waited for bags at the airport for a about 40 minutes. Our “checking-in” took about 40 minutes as well.

It must be spring break back in the US – there seemed to be a lot of english spoken on the train. I also get the impression that the city is pretty easy to get around with english. Even for someone with just enough itailian language to be dangerous, like myself. Initial impression of Rome’s suburbs: TV antennas. They seem to coat every building like cactus needles.

I turn thirty today. I’m not sure if Hostel life ever appealed to me, but it certainly doesn’t right now. I’m not sure if it is the actual facilities, or the people they attract. The folks in our location seem to be fine for the most part, but we only had to head to the laundromat down the street before someone showed up talking about stabbing pickpockets, and finishing with yelling and swearing at the laundry/internet place owner over a 1E minimum charge per half hour. On the other hand, the pizza place down the street is fantastic. Traditional pizza, sold by weight. Great stuff.

We wandered around today with our mouths open. My feet are sore, and my camera full – Rome really is pretty fantastic. I’ve seen plenty of pictures of the pantheon, but it still blew my mind. The piazzas, fountains, and sheer number of interesting buildings means you would have to be pretty jaded to not enjoy this city. Stopping for gelato every few hours, we hit most of the central city sites and walked along the river. I’ve really been enjoying the non-smoking in cafes and restaurants, you feel and smell so much cleaner.

Off to the Vatican or the ruins tomorrow…

Mar 222007

After a nice drive up the coast and doing some close examinations of the airport construction, we are finally in Barcelona. We should be here for a few days before heading over to Rome. Will try to post more later if I can leech some espania wifi.

Mar 182007

A few days in Spain and I’ve already hit my meat and starch wall. I’ve been snarfing down the oranges from the hotel lobby, but I finally went to a supermercado last night and picked up a bunch of fruit. They had the largest fuji apples I’ve ever seen, I’m crunching one the size of a child’s head for breakfast.

We’ve been in Valencia for a couple days for Falles. It has been a hell of a party so far. It is amazing how many people participate in the festival. Will write and post photos later, there is more of the city to explore for now.

Mar 162007

March 16th, Alaris train

There are plenty of people on the street at six in the morning in Madrid. But they aren’t early risers, they just haven’t gone to bed yet. There is still a bit of a party atmosphere as people stumble onto the first metro trains running. Sloppy grins all around. The couple across from us makes out, and the guys to the other side proclaim just how much they want some jamón.

The train is similar to Amtrak at home inside, but is only one level, and a hell of a lot faster. Renfe’s Alaris train goes 220 KM/H. We speed out of the still dark city nibbling our breakfast pastries. We’ve gone through a few iterations of sterile housing, warehouses, and more warehouses. But now, peeking between those spurts of gray are some fields of green. Madrid needs water the stickers around the city say, but it seems clear that the dry landscape around Madrid also needs the water to be productive. The well used land and crops remind me of an older version of home with olive trees.

In between the bits of agriculture near Madrid there is also a lot of familiar growth. Little bits of ticky-tacky suburban developments cut into some hills. Your pick of two models, and one color. But a little bit further into the trip we start getting into the older parts. A lot of white-washed mud brick farm houses and walls are still standing around, but not many are in use.

The bar/cafe has opened and people are wandering into that section of the train for their morning breakfast, assuming they didn’t get it on the way in. Two girls walk by us. One mentions, “I just want to be a little bit drunk”. It is 7:17 AM. I’m going to have a hell of a time keeping up here.

Mar 162007

March 15th, Madrid

So much for plans. I took my chemical help on take-off from Miami, but I think I only slept 3 of the 8 hours on the flight. Not exactly the sleep I was wanting for a full day in Madrid. I also managed to forget to charge my mp3 player up, so I just barely got started on my Spanish lessons. I’ve actually gone through most of them before, but that was six months ago, and most of the language has once again drained from my head.

We’ve touched down in the stylish new terminals of Barajas. Its undulating stripe ceiling evokes more Scandinavian than Spanish design in my mind, but I’m sure that’s just my ignorance shining through. After disappointing the customs agent – I didn’t know which hotel we were going to – our first task was to get train tickets for the next day. We were due at Valencia the following night. We followed the directions of the green umbrella helpers until we found the Renfe office in the airport.

When we inquired about tickets for the next day we were given a slightly sad and smug shake of the head. No tickets she proclaimed, Las Fallas de Valencia, you know. Yes, we know. Damn. OK. Next plan. How about flights or buses? Not having much luck at the airport we decided to check into our hotel and head to a travel agent from there.

I love the metro. Easy, cheap, and speedy. I also love the underground car traffic in Madrid. The streets are lively but not jarringly loud as most cities of this size are. We checked into Hostal Luis XV and received a decent room at a decent price. Overall they were helpful, modern, and clean. The only troubling thing was they asked us to pick which room & key was ours on returning from the day. It would have been incredibly easy for someone so inclined to visit our room without fuss.

After check-in to the hotel, we head out in search of the travel agents to try for bus or plane reservations. The travel agent informed us there were no bus tickets sold here. My mind was beginning to race. Why not train, he asks. We relay our earlier story, but he is determined to find us a ticket. After some hunting, he finds two tickets on a 7 AM train. Needless to say, I’m even more relaxed after that.

We stumble on Museo del Jamón and decide to have lunch. We order a sample plate, some tomatoes and olives, and a couple beers. Nothing better than great lunch and people watching. A younger Japanese guy came in and ordered a ham sandwich. Or rather, pointed at one since he didn’t speak Spanish, and the bartender didn’t speak English. The meat and beer slinger seemed to have it in for the guy. I’m not sure if it was simple a language issue, or something deeper. Either way, the distaste was palpable. We ended up talking to both of them, and facilitating a rough conversation with much gesturing between the two about the difference between Japanese and Chinese, and slanted eyes. More than a little painful and amusing at the same time.

As with the other people we spoke with, our server warned us of distractions, pick-pockets, kids, and wearing your bag around front. I usually temper these warnings a bit, as some places I’ve been seem to warn much more than situations demand. But here and in some other European cities there seems to be plenty of evidence that there are plenty of professionals that will make you sorry you weren’t paying attention.

An hour into the Prado I hit my wall. I’ve only got three hours of sleep from the plane, a few more the night before. Add in the time change, and I’m dragging. I head to the cafeteria to down a coke. That keeps me from stumbling on the stairs at least. We finish up the museum and head out into the sun. The sunlight seems to kick me back into gear. I’m not sure what wind I’m on by now, but I’m happy to have it. It lasts until I head to bed that night.

After the museum we continue our wandering and people watching. We stop in at a bar proclaiming fantastic chocolate on a scrolling LED sign. We’ve missed the churro times, but I still had a cup of soupy hot chocolate with some miscellaneous baked treats. Anna had a coffee, and instantly regretted her choice. That’s not to say the coffee was bad. In fact, she says it’s been good everywhere so far. Probably because no one half-asses it here. Every little spot has a full blown espresso machine and a trained barista. Her regret was due to the fact that my hot chocolate was just damned good. It is much more akin to chocolate that you drink, rather than the water and milk mixture we have at home.

We stopped in for drinks and tapas at a few places, but didn’t stay up late enough to really explore all the spots we wanted to – our seven am train was responsible for that. The little bits of food you get with your drink are slightly different at each place. Sometimes it is something simple, like a little pickle stuffed in an olive. Other times, you get a mixed plate of various marinated things, like tomato, tuna, olives, and onions in olive oil. I occasionally encounter my favorite, Pimientos de Padrón, as a beer freebee, but usually have to order it. It is fried or grilled little green peppers with olive oil and salt. So simple, yet so damned tasty. They are the perfect complement to a beer.

We don’t need dinner after all the tapas and drinks we’ve consumed, but it wouldn’t matter. No one serves it until 10 PM or so. Which is about the time we make it into bed. Getting old, I know, but the early train and travel are wearing on us.

Mar 152007

March 15th, LAX

I’m not sure how much longer I can hold out. They are prowling now, Starbucks in hand. Circling Anna’s empty chair, probing for weakness. I preempt the question with a second propped bag. Ah, the cut-throat cruelty of the airport lounge.

Yet at the same time people are fighting to retain their chair fiefdoms, they also place a huge amount of trust in total strangers. I’m sitting in LAX’s terminal 4, watching worldly possessions for strangers while they talk to gate agents or use the restroom. Trust is an interesting thing. Statistically, they are on solid ground. If you involve someone directly with your plight, they will often act on your behalf, though they have no direct motivation to do so. Is it part of what has kept us around for so long as a species, quick empathy and the lightning quick speed at which we band together? Or left-over omniscience complexes – our propensity to act noble when we believe we are being watched.

Everyone also seems to reacts the same way to a man with a gun scooping poop. I’m not sure if it is a case of badgered travelers getting pleasure seeing security inconvenienced, or just the simple fact that poo is funny. Either way, everyone got a giggle out of cops wiping down tile after their sniffing partners squatted.

After some entertaining luggage shuffling between overhead bins, we are heading towards Miami. I’ve got sound blocking headphones on, but the AA announcements are still shrill. I’d be happier if they displayed videos of plane crashes to motivate attention spans, rather than cranking volume. I suspect their sales department might disagree. From Miami we will head to Madrid, stumbling off the plane at 8:30 AM local time. Definitely not the time my body will believe it is.

I’m packing some medicinal aids for sleep for the first time in my travels. Evidence shows you can help reset your internal clock by exposing your eyes to direct light when you arrive at your destination. Slight does of caffeine, melatonin, and a number of other things can also help. However, true to American culture, I’m not satisfied with just that. I’ve looked deep into my heart and have decided to support those in dire need – the pharmaceutical industry. I’ll be taking three nights of temazepam. Since it is only in your system a short time, it is supposed to help with jet lag. Without the help of caring people like you and I, how will they maintain massive profits? Do your part by developing a chemical addiction today.

Unfortunately, we will only be in Madrid for a day. Just enough time to grab some jamón and pop in the Prado before we have to hitch a ride on the train to Valencia to meet up with Colan and Pete. We will be arriving near the end of the Las Fallas festival, but should have plenty of time to get our fill of fireworks and each neighborhood’s giant figures before they go up in toxic smoke on the night of the 19th. From there, the plan is to Barcelona, then we split up. Anna will stay and explore Spain and maybe, Portugal. Colan, Pete, and I will head on to Rome, Florence, Paris, and London. At almost 4 weeks, it will be a long time to be away from home and work, but already it seems too short.

Europe is the typical destination for college aged folks – before and after school. It sometimes seems strange that I’ll turn the ripe old age of 30 on my first trip to Europe. I’ve tried to do a lot of traveling the last six years, it just hasn’t been to Europe.

Part of the issue has always been cost. This trip will probably cost close to the same as our trips to Peru, Costa Rica, Cambodia, and Vietnam combined. I’ve always gravitated towards travel where I get a lot for my dollar. But I think it has also been much easier to sway me to visit somewhere completely different from my home. The more foreign and exotic, the better. Deeper, there is probably a twinge of anti-crowd element to my personality that comes into play as well, but that’s hardly a valid reason to stay away from a place.

My neighbors are doing their best to make this first flight less than perfect. The one in front has reclined back as far as possible. The one behind seems intent on using my seat as the sole support for her many standing and sitting episodes, and playing with the tray table the rest of the time. I’ve also learned that being two seats away from the lavatory is not nearly enough to avoid the natural and chemical smells that waft out occasionally. Details to remember for next time.

I’ve also learned I’m a big fan of Neon Bible, Arcade Fire’s latest album. It is cutting into time I should be using to let Michele Thomas’ guttural lessons saturate my ears. I’ll queue the old boy up next.

Mar 072007

I’m just going to rip the text of this WP story:

Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson and other conservative Christian leaders are calling for the National Association of Evangelicals to silence or fire an official who has urged evangelicals to take global warming seriously.

In a letter this week to the board of the NAE, which claims 30 million members, Dobson and his two dozen co-signers said the Rev. Richard Cizik, the NAE’s vice president for government relations, has waged a “relentless campaign” that is “dividing and demoralizing” evangelicals.

Cizik has been a leader in efforts to broaden evangelicals’ political agenda beyond abortion and same-sex marriage. He says Christians have a biblical imperative to protect the environment, which he calls “creation care.”

“I speak with a voice that is authentically evangelical on all the issues, from religious freedom around the world, to compassion for the poor, ending oppression in Darfur — and yes, creation care is one of those issues,” Cizik said yesterday.

The NAE’s board is scheduled to meet next week in Minnesota. Its former president, the Rev. Ted Haggard, resigned in November after a scandal involving sex and drugs.

His successor, the Rev. Leith Anderson, defended Cizik as “a great asset.” He also said that the Dobson letter was released to the news media before it was received by the board. “I guess that says it all,” he said.