Notes from London, Madrid, and Rome

17 February 2018, a bus near Bascombe Down, England

  • It’s striking as you walk down 50 rows to the back of a 747 and realize that the last 15 rows are the only normal ‘coach’ seats.  150 people in about 1/4 of the aircraft.  And 50 rich people get to lie flat in the rest of the plane.
  • It’s been almost exactly ten years since i’d been to England.  In that time, they’ve deprecated about £30 of the £50 of what i had lying around at home and brought back with me.  This isn’t the first time this has happened, either.  Lesson: spend it all.
  • Which of course is very easy in London, with the roughly $7 subway rides and all. On the other hand, last time i was here, a pound was closer to $2 than to $1.50, so thanks Brexit.
  • It’s interesting to visit places you’re very familiar with with people who are new to the whole experience. It affords you lots of time to sort of slack off on the touristing and just kinda soak and look for things you haven’t seen before.
  • On the other hand, a lot happened here in 10 years. For instance, they’ve decided to embrace the whole tall-building thing.  We tasked the teenager to find a thing to do for us, and she suggested we take our breakfast on the 31st floor of the Shard tower.  Hard to tell if it was her intention, but it is exactly the same type of thing that the awful rich people she watches on YouTube would do.  The difference is, we weren’t pretending to be blasé about it, and weren’t filming ourselves.  It was actually pretty great, and cost only a bit more than the elevator ride to the observation deck, but it was another reminder that rich people are the most foreign people of all.
  • Traveling with the in-laws means less walking and less Tube and more tour buses, but the upper decks of those buses are kinda great at dusk as the sun goes down and the light goes up.
  • Back home in Boston, we should feel pretty good about how accessible the T is compared with the Underground, which is pretty much a nightmare for people with canes, crutches, etc.  That’s about the only aspect we should be proud of, of course.  Amazing things are possible if you spend on infrastructure, Governor Baker.
  • I’ve come around on Hob Nobs, they’re a lot of good cookies for £1.
  • This isn’t the greatest airbnb to introduce the in-laws to, with lukewarm showers, funny beds and sheets, and other strangeness, but on the other hand that’s also kind of perfect.
  • The tour guide on this bus to Stonehenge and Bath is very well-read and scholarly, and thus is palpably disappointed in our inability to recognize the things she name-checks, and stay awake on a long, warm, bus ride.  If it were in her authority to give an exam, i’m pretty sure she would.  i’d pass, but only just.
  • Instead of single cans of terrible beer for dirt cheap, now you can buy single cans of pretty decent craft beers in your corner store for a reasonable price.  This too is progress.
  • It never ceases to amaze me that the world seems to love KFC, yet in all likelihood has no concept of the whole ‘Kentucky’ thing.

19 February 2018, Iberia 3715, late enroute from LGW to MAD

  • The selection of craft beer here is amazingly different from when i was here in 2008.  Back then, my brother had a printed list of places with traditional cask ales to go hunt down.  Today, small pubs tended to have 6-12 taps at least with vastly better selection, and many casks as well.  At one beer focused pub near where we were staying, the bartender ironically lamented that he would only drink one or two of what they had, noting he preferred Foster’s at a “proper boozer” at home in South London. For all that, most of what’s on offer is tasty, even if still gentler and less alcoholic than what we typically drink at home. And the atmosphere in a good pub is still pretty hard to beat.
  • A bad one, on the other hand… on Saturday night we got dinner in a pub near Victoria, which was still serving food as the full moon was surely turning people mad.  How else to explain the three bouncers patrolling the interior and the plastic pint glasses.
  • Even though we needed two of them at times, there were some journeys that were better accomplished via cab, given that the lengthy hikes and numerous stairs to change trains were taking their toll.  Over a couple days, i had to get used to the idea that unlike at home, you didn’t have to make things easier for your driver, or assume that they might not know what you were talking about. The Knowledge is very real indeed, and coupled with the general friendly, chatty demeanor and entirely reasonable prices, it makes you wonder if Uber and Lyft wouldn’t be so ascendant back home if the incumbent service didn’t suck so very much.
  • The main impression i got of Stonehenge (which was very cool, and the people who maintain it have done an excellent job of giving people a good experience of visiting it) is that every single person visiting would really wish they had a moment alone with it. Not even just for photos, more that your mental image of the place doesn’t include other people, so why do they persist in being there?
  • In 2000 when i first visited England, the London Eye was brand new, so was the Millennium Dome and the Jubilee Line; it’s hard to think of any of that as being around 20 years old at this point, but there’s all manner of rich stuff and wacky architecture, sprouted since.  Change feels glacial when you live in a place for that period of time, but when you let a decade elapse, it feels like a sudden difference.
  • Why is it that Londoners still can’t achieve any kind of consensus on what side of any passage, sidewalk, or path to walk on.  The Tube often has signage posted for this very reason, but it’s badly needed, like, everywhere.  Without the threat of an actual crash as on roads, everybody seemingly feels free to adopt their own convention, and it’s madness.
  • This plane is roasting, which is the typical punishment for wearing your heaviest clothes so as not to pack them. Iberia’s ‘Express’ service is just terrible, in that it closely replicates the experience of sitting in an obstructed view grandstand seat that punishes your knees on a hot day in July.  Somewhere in Florida, i’ll just make the assumption that the Sox are stinking it up right now.
  • After visiting the Roman baths in Bath, which were 8m below ground level, i find myself wondering more about just how ground level gets buried.  We’ve heard about this in a few places, after all.  In Seattle, for instance, it was a massive civil engineering project in frontier times.  And i’m sure that elsewhere there are old cities with more crap buried deeper underneath.  But i kinda wonder who makes the decision to bury rather than tear down.  Is it just that eight buildings worth of rubble sit under your feet and the road rises at the same pace?  Because it’s hard to picture someone ever burying my house.  Although they’ll have to at some point, i guess, unless they want it to be water.
  • Bath seems like a perfect little theme park for adults.  Charming streets, historical significance, beautiful scenery, shopping and eating, neatly contained in impeccably themed little neighborhoods.
  • The elder child is enjoying life in Spain, but may have had her opinion of beer permanently damaged because her friends all drink Mahou.  i think i’ve said it before, but i’m pretty sure it’s the worst European beer i’ve ever had.
  • News from home: Maybe 24hrs after we dropped her off, my mom already had the cat sitting there purring next to her.  This is decidedly different from the first week she lived with the girl and i, he says, fondly remembering extracting her from under the dishwasher.
  • London remains utterly inexhaustible; i sincerely regret not visiting more often, especially now that flights are cheaper.  The very day before we leave, there are already places we’d want to come back to and eat and see and walk and relax.  Maybe on a weekend where there’s a soccer match to watch, too.  Even riding the tour buses and boats as a mode of transportation was educational and informative, and a fun and different perspective from things i was used to seeing on foot.
  • Not that my better half isn’t looking at her step count and lamenting it, of course.
  • This was among the worst airbnbs we’d ever stayed at. Dirty sheets for the spare beds, trickling, 28.8k speed internet. scant, lukewarm shower water and creaky, thin mattresses. It photographed so well, and the reviews were positive, but oh well. In any event, there were two bathrooms, sleeping for six, no stairs, and in a central neighborhood, and four nights of three rooms in central London would have bankrupted us.

22 February 2018, Alitalia 61 over Spain

  • Well, we were concerned that visiting Madrid a second time in two years would leave us short of things to do for a couple days, but it did not turn out that way.
  • It is important, before commencing a trip, to obtain agreement that it shall be a No Hospital Trip.  Alas, i did not live up to quite the letter of that, and lo and behold, we have not gone to a hospital, but we have obtained a house call, and visited three pharmacies. We learned the Spanish terms for some very unexpected things indeed, and one of our party barely left the apartment for maybe an hour over the course of three days.
  • It was fortunate, then, that this was one of the nicest airbnbs we’ve stayed at, ever.  Big and comfortable, clean, with, unadvertised outdoor space.  Big, comfortable beds, a nice kitchen, and lots of room to spread out.  The upside of the modern, impersonal host, a vacation-rental service that just uses airbnb to fill days, it was a hotel-quality apartment for cheap.  The downside is, we left them lots of good supplies that they won’t even use, probably, because they aren’t even real people.
  • And the location; two blocks from Sol, a crosswalk and a passage from Plaza Mayor, around the corner from three famous places to eat.  It’s not always that we get to stay as centrally in another city as we live in our own.
  • Just like last time, we found Madrid to be terribly easy to walk around, and extremely pleasant, even in the mild winter.  The Buen Retiro park was full of people soaking up the warm sun on a late Tuesday afternoon, and the pond and colonnade there are a ridiculously nice place to sit.  A mediocre saxophonist and genial drunk guy dancing and selling beer (he asked me where i was from, and hearing ‘Estados Unidos’, started belting out, ‘Tromp! Tromp!’ and pointing at me while i protested) were ample entertainment until chased away by the ubiquitous police.
  • They really, really like junkfood in Spain and boy are they good at it.  Donuts, pastries, cakes, cookies, churros in chocolate, they’re available everywhere and dirt cheap.  The store-brand cookies and snack cakes are astonishingly good for as little as €0.70.
  • Not that the real food is any healthier, and even the tapas portions are formidable.  Patatas, croquetas, bread and cheese and meat, the staples, but also fried, breaded steak, roasted candied peppers, tiny dry-aged beef burritos.
  • None of this impresses the teenager, who has eaten sushi four times on this trip, and annihilated numerous of my aforementioned cookies, leaving the customary wrappers behind (or better still, just one cookie).
  • Her attention or lack of same to the wonders around us immediately fills me with sympathy/guilt for my parents’ situation on similar trips.  Were our brains elsewhere, were we wishing for stupid crap from home while being out somewhere amazing?  Were we straining at the leash wishing we could explore these places in our own way?  i know the answer to that is yes.  So it’s eye rolls and frustration (And mocking.  Always mocking.), but also realization that it’s normal.  And that hopefully she’ll be glad for a few of these dorky photos someday.

26 February 2018 TAP 837, Gate D6, Fiumicino Airport, Italy

  • We’re ticking through the last 60 minutes of our 2:55 connection time in Lisbon.  See above, we remain in Italy, where, a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean, it has snowed about 2” during the five hours of sleep we got.  Suffice it to say, they are not accustomed to it.  The deicing is proceeding at a properly Italian pace, but insofar as the pilot is rummaging through the galley for snacks right now, i don’t think the runway is open yet.  Bom dia to us.
  • Oh look, right after i say that, we suddenly push back. Well, it wouldn’t be any fun if we’re decisively fucked.  Now we get to fight for our way home.

A short while later, enroute.

  • We knew we were in trouble when we got through check-in and security so easily, that there was no way we wouldn’t pay a price for that.
  • So, Rome. In 11 years since i last visited, a few things have changed for the better, but fundamentally, not too much is different.  For instance:
    • Even remembering back to my time in Italy in NROTC in 1996, i remember being shocked to spend the equivalent of $3 (in lira, at the time) on a can of Coke.  It’s possible to spend as much as €6 now in restaurants in tourist areas.  The worse news is, back then beer was cheaper than a soft drink, and now it’s at least the same cost. It’s still meh.
    • In 2007, when Suz and i went to Rome, it rained the entire trip, to the point where we were using the hotel hair dry to rehab our shoes for the next day (nb: there is no way for this not to smell bad, and it is never going to achieve dry).  We had ‘fond’ memories of ubiquitous pushy umbrella salesmen.  Fast forward to 2018, when it rained on us all but one morning, and the umbrella salesmen are unchanged.  As soon as they see you without one (this time, i had one, but twice the teenager left hers behind, so i gave mine up), they just descend on you, step into your path, and do their thing.  i think the best part of it is the way they interpose themselves between you and your destination, fan out their wares like the dinosaur in the Jeep in ‘Jurassic Park’, and look at you in disbelief when you decline their offer of ‘umbrelli’ (‘umbrelli!’).  Like, it’s obvious you’re getting wet, why on earth aren’t you buying this from me?
    • The sheer numbers of tourists, even in the off-season are staggering, still.  Shepherding a group through the mobs around the most popular spots is a challenge.  And let’s not forget their behavior, either; pushing and shoving, stopping the world for your elaborately posed photo, just as it was in Barcelona two years ago.  i don’t remember people blowing off the “silence” request in the Sistine Chapel back in 2007, though.  Maybe we’re all getting worse. Or maybe i shouldn’t talk.
  • On the bright side, eating well in Rome means eating well indeed.  Assuming you’re not somewhere with truly jacked up prices, and that you’re hungry, getting into the multi-course dinner mode can be fun. And the local food is heavy on the ricotta, pork, and veal, too.  Pork cheek in your carbonara (apparently this is most correct, and most typical) is a very good thing.
  • Considerably more of the Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum were open and explorable than was the case eleven years ago.  It really changes your perspective on the Colosseum, for instance, to be down low and see the walls and stands so high above; it correlates it so much better with your experience of modern stadia that way.  And seeing the foundations and remains of the Forum area at ground level and then from above really helps you picture it so many years ago as a city recognizable in ways similar to your own; agglomerations of buildings piled on one another in disorganized, but functional ways, natural gathering places, streets, places grand and mundane.  It’s like one of those cheesy computer-rendered recreations from documentaries, but you’re making it up as you go along. It makes you want to learn more.  Also, to play Civ on the flight home; i’m coming for you, Gandhi.
  • While i had appreciated that there were pockets of other ruins outside the major sites, i don’t know if we really looked for them, before.  The other night as the girl and i had some time on our own and an urge to pad our steps, we sought out promising-looking dots on my map, and found really big, even spectacular old structures and pieces of things.  Just sitting there, or in some cases, improbably incorporated into modern structures.  Like, the first four floors are an arched, round wall of a Roman theater, and the fifth is someone’s apartment.  With lights on. Makes me wish i looked for that on airbnb.
  • In keeping with tradition, one of our days was rearranged by a large protest.  Against fascism, in this case, which manages to qualify as refreshing in this wonderful day and age.
  • In crowds, the pointy bits of everyone’s umbrella are right at my eye height.
  • After spending a decent amount of time looking at Catholic art, it dawned on me that it was all a lot more fun if you pictured the scenes as part of some sort of beer commercial.

    IMG_4292
    “I’m back! And I brought the Bud Light!”
  • Given that some of our party (not the teenager, whose opinions don’t count) didn’t have the appetite for walking that we do (and that the subway wasn’t much better), we got to take a lot of taxis.  Taxis in Rome are an adventure.  In the best case, they merely drive like maniacs, weaving through busy streets and circles, and accelerating at pedestrians in so many cobbled back streets until they absolutely have to stop.  Beyond that, they might push a high flat rate on you, not turn the meter on, or run up the meter by taking the scenic route.  i mean, i’ve had worse experiences in taxis, obviously, but it was enough to make us wary.
  • After seeing so many little smarts driving around Rome, i dearly missed my old little car (and wondered how they survived such crappy road surfaces, considering the damage mine took here).
  • It’s common to find ‘types’ of street vendors/crap salesmen/whatever in assorted places you go. A puzzling one was the large number of chatty bead salesman who introduce themselves by asking you if you’re from Africa. Mind, they’re very black, and the tourists are overwhelmingly Asian and pasty white, so it’s a bit baffling.  Other than that they’re the usual “hey nice to meet you here’s a gift, that’ll be €7” gag.
  • Do all Europeans have as little regard for their tap water at home as they do in restaurants?

27 February 2018, Home.  In closing:

  • We did indeed make it home.  At full speed, i ran across the airport in Lisbon to make sure they knew we were coming, but it turns out they were on the lookout for people from delayed flights like ours.  At work this morning, people had seen reports on the news of Europeans surprised by atypical snow, so apparently it was some kind of a big deal.
  • Number of postcards sent: 17
  • Trips on subways: 8
  • Trips in taxis: 11
  • Trips on a boat: 1
  • Pubs: 3
  • Tapas dishes: 18
  • Gelato: 2
  • Number of times the teenager contrived to eat sushi in countries that weren’t Japan: 4
  • This may be my beloved messenger bag’s last big trip, considering my better half’s very serious demands that i replace it.  Admittedly, Rome was too stern a test of its waning waterproofness, and there are massive rips in the outer fabric.  And it’s filthy.  But it’s been to five continents, dozens of countries, and a majority of the fifty states, been soaked by three oceans, gone to two World Cups, and logged thousands of miles by bike and on foot.
  • Photos.

Author: rcolonna

crashes, bangs, maniacal laughter.

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