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.

Road Trips, Expected and Otherwise

This is long.  I don’t even know why, but it was fun to write.

Normally, the girl and i do not put a lot of mileage on our car.  Neither of us drive to work, and our routine activities don’t really add up to all that much.  So it’s been a fun month for the car in that we took two ~2000-mile trips up and down the eastern seaboard.  For reasons.

One of these was planned a long time ago, the new and improved summer version of my side of the family’s every-two-years Thanksgiving conclave.  A giant house with everything you could want, with the Outer Banks beaches as its backyard beckoned for a week of slacking off and drinking a ton of beer.  With enough beer, even i probably would like the beach more.

To North Carolina

We set off from Boston on a Friday afternoon and made fine time toward our halfway point in coastal Delaware.  Somewhere near the ironically named Walt Whitman service area on the New Jersey Turnpike, texts start flooding in.  About this.  First we figure we’ll just improvise, as it’s just a power outage.  Buy a lot of ice, plan on perspiring more and altering our grocery plans.  My mom, already in a motel for the night, stocked up on flashlights, because dealing with situations like this is her superpower.  A half-hour further down the road, and the text messages changed further.  Now it was an evacuation, destined to be a long one.  Now my mom’s working magic on her iPad, and suddenly several cars worth of us are all making a right turn and heading west.  As shown.

There’s no booking alternate accommodations on the beach in the summer for 14 people on zero notice, probably not for any amount of money.  Thus did we find ourselves still in North Carolina, but in the mountains of Asheville.  Specifically in a golf/aviation (yes, really) resort on top of a mountain.  So anyway, this is a change of plans, and we packed wrong for it, bought the wrong liquor for it, etc., but we are resourceful people.

Some things we learned:

  • Fuck golf resorts.  We rented a nice house in a nice, but not busy golf resort, with a clubhouse on top of the mountain with gobsmackingly nice views.  It even had a bar!  An empty bar with reasonably priced drinks!  Seemingly begging for well-behaved lushes like ourselves to exchange money for said drinks!  But they don’t take money, they start by asking for a $25 resort fee.  Per day.  Per adult.  Then you can pay for your drinks.  Perfectly engineered to keep the merely comfortable away from the actual 1%, ’cause while i can afford that, fuck you for asking.  Also golf, as typically practiced, is dumb and a waste of human effort.
  • There must be something in the water (or the tax breaks) in Asheville, as three different west coast breweries have branches in the area, as well as numerous homegrown ones.  So much cheap beer to drink in so many places.
  • The fact that there’s a US Forest Service-run natural rock waterslide that you can go play on for $2 is kind of amazing.
  • The Biltmore Estate is pretty cool (once we realized it was a thing you might go see in the area).  It is impressively large, but it’s telling that the thing that’s most often mentioned is how many rooms it has, it’s so impressively subdivided.  As the girl noted, it’s almost like it’s half mansion, half hotel.  And more than half park.
  • This part of North Carolina somehow has butterflies like we have mosquitoes.

To the Middle of Nowhere

After that (also, quality family time, including indoctrinating both my octogenarian great-aunt and my six-year-old nephew into playing ruthless games of Asshole), the girl had another quest for the ride home.  There’s a state park in northern Pennsylvania renowned for the darkest night skies east of the Mississippi, so she figured we should go chase the Milky Way.

One corollary to there being dark skies, which we quickly picked up upon, is remoteness.  Cherry Springs State Park is something like ninety minutes north of I-80.  About 20 minutes into that, we began to appreciate that there would be many closed gas stations between us and our destination, but maybe no open ones.  We backtracked and filled up, and were proven right.

This is well and truly Real America we’re driving through now; ‘towns’ that consist of six ramshackle houses, maybe three with any signs of life, but most with at least four cars (or what used to be cars).  Windy, narrow roads with no speed limit posted.  A burbling stream out our window.  Bugs pelting the windshield like driving through a snow squall.  Progressively smaller roads pointed further from civilization.

Finally we find it, and sure enough, it’s plenty full, with lots of people looking up.  Unfortunately they’re looking up at a full moon (which we knew about, and knew it would set later), and a persistent haze.  We pitched the tent in the dark easily enough, and sat and had a dinner of leftover Chips Ahoy and a beer.  After nearly half a dozen times taking the girl camping, i’ve still yet to actually do it well.  Maybe it pours rain, maybe it’s cold, or maybe we’re just half-assing it on the way somewhere else.  But i swear, you can get good at it, sleep well and warm, eat good food, and enjoy a fire all night.

So we get up several times through the night and look up.  Now there are a lot of stars, far more than we city dwellers are used to.  But we also know it’s not enough.  The just-set Moon is lighting the haze enough to hide a lot of the stars. It’s still nice, though.

The next day, it’s a further 90 minutes on back roads in the middle of nowhere until we get to I-86 in New York.  Through all this, i remain suspicious at Apple Maps’ decision making, but not once is she wrong.  More on this later.

To the Beach, For Real This Time

The girl was, to put it mildly, disappointed to have missed out on a week on the Outer Banks, as she does love the beach so.  Since we were already going to quest toward the totality of the eclipse, and this meant a lengthy drive in one or more directions, it made sense to at least rig it to stop somewhere near the water.  Thus:

As we drove south on Saturday morning, the girl was entertained in the car by play-by-play of Boston vs. Internet Nazis; even though it wasn’t a very close game, we regretted missing it.

So here’s where we started to appreciate, if not trust our telephone copilot.  Traffic bit us hard on this trip.  First, she routed us around a stopped bridge through scenic Chester, PA. Later, back roads in Delaware instead of the highways.  Sometimes it was a break-even, sometimes it was a huge savings, but we started to notice that if nothing else, these alternate routes were taking us places we maybe wouldn’t see otherwise.  Boring places, crappy places, beautiful places, but at the very least, parts of part of the country we wouldn’t have seen.  Considering how i lament road-tripping with no time to take side trips, having a computer there to generate advantageous detours really changes the experience.

In any event, we arrived at the Bay Bridge/Tunnel at sunset, which is a good time to arrive there.

So i hadn’t been back to the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area since i was in NROTC as a college sophomore; i spent a month there in the summer of 1995 doing push-ups and learning about the Navy and the Marines.  Anyway, not a lot of time at the beach.  Which is nice, if you’re into beaches, but even nicer if you like seeing F-18s taking off constantly or SH-60s buzzing the coast.  The beach was just teeming with people, lounging immersed in the shallows at low tide on a hot day.  And even i like playing in the waves.

But time for business.  The eclipse being a rather fixed deadline, we needed to get within shouting distance of it that night.  This is where we started running into the fun of lane closures on weeknights on two-lane interstates.  Watching the arrival time tick up on the phone, and debating back-roads-at-night versus actual stopped traffic.

This is also where we tried Bojangles.  Listen, i am a Popeye’s devotee, having spent formative years in New Orleans, but there are people who will try to tell you Bojangles is better.  This is untrue.  Chicken’s different.  Spicier at first, maybe, and with a good flavor, but less crispy and not as much like crack.  The sides are quite good, but really my quarrel here is with the biscuits, my good sir.  i say, suh, these biscuits are not up to any comparison <slaps them with a glove>.

To the End of the World

Anyway, the following morning we get up and bounce early and start heading south.  Traffic is heavy, and frequently stopped, but not the sort of thing that will prevent us from getting to our destination.  But, as my wife the weather person reports, our intended destination of Columbia is due for 47% cloud cover.  90 minutes west, Greenville has 25%.  We ask the phone lady nicely, she refers us promptly to a narrow side road with no yellow line and no cars, and we set off west, confidently.  It wasn’t scenic, but it was easy.  We even stopped for gas and what, judging by the line, was the only convenience store with a bathroom for miles.  Maybe i made some rash decisions there.

Emerging from the woods, it turned out Greenville is a nice little college town.  We immediately take the girl to a cocktail bar with a roof deck (full, sadly) and drink a little.  Perusing the map a little showed two parks, one along the river and promising a waterfall.  And sure enough it’s just covered with people, some sitting in the water, others walking around, plenty of nerds with telescopes and shadowboxes, and high-end cameras.

This is the part where we stress heavily: There is no substitute for the actual totality of an eclipse.  

It’s impossible to describe sufficiently or do justice to with bad photos.  It looks like something you’ve seen before, but only in movies or science fiction.  Like some malevolent force has covered it over.  Or like the sun is the malevolent force just barely being held back, with the wispy, fingery corona spilling out.  It feels like a dark amusement park ride when someone accidentally turns the lights on, ironically, like some mechanism behind every day of your life has suddenly been exposed.  The two minutes passes quickly, and light spills out the other side like molten metal.

Staying in a Motel Would Be Too Easy

Now we had a day and a half to drive back to Boston, and obviously we wanted to make headway that afternoon.  The highways out of Greenville were clogged, so we got routed on surface roads, to suburban roads, to rural roads to get around them.  It wasn’t the massive gridlock that people thought might happen, but it was a big, significant movement of people the whole day.  We could tell because we were following this crazy backroads route with other cars from northern states (and in heavy traffic once we returned to the interstate, again, all people like us returning north).  Amusingly, we got within an hour of where we were in Asheville two weeks earlier.

So the plan was to camp the night in Shenandoah and close the loop by getting to see the Milky Way in the sky.  Conditions were perfect for it, but traffic meant that we reached Skyline Drive at midnight, with 25 miles to drive at 35mph, with presumed furry creatures waiting to jump in front of us at all times.  It was not awesome.

But the skies were perfect.  A nice band of the Milky Way (you know you’re looking at the right thing when you have to spend time deciding if it’s a cloud), and many orders of magnitude more stars than we get at home.  A trickle of shooting stars, even.  Getting up to take a leak at three in the morning becomes the greatest thing.

Other Stuff

  • Between the two trips we maybe ate at McDonald’s eight times, which is like, half a year’s worth for me.  It was glorious.  We also went to a Wendy’s, a Burger King, an Arby’s (not just for Jon Stewart), a Bojangles, a Dairy Queen.  No Chick-Fil-A or Hardees, obviously.
  • The girl continues to profess her love of Circle Ks, and their still-100% record on clean bathrooms.
  • Does anyone know why abandoned cars and road debris proliferate like mad as soon as you cross the Mason-Dixon line?
  • Similarly, why do people pull over into the left-side breakdown lane down there?  This is dangerous madness.
  • The further you get from Boston, the fewer Mini Countrymen you see.
  • The two trips were 4,300 miles in total.
  • There were actually very few Tr*mp stickers and signs out there in Real America.  Plenty of confederate flags, though.
  • In a line at a fast food restaurant, an older gentleman looks at the UHC logo on my Revs jersey and asks if i’m in the healthcare industry.  Polite conversation follows, we northerners squirm and wonder why.
  • After spending $28 in tolls in New Jersey alone, we again decided that Massachusetts needs to toll out-of-state-drivers better.
  • Related: Why does the rest of the country have better roads than the northeast?  Is it the snow, or is this an effect of them getting $1.37 back on their tax dollar and us getting $0.63?
  • Alas, i didn’t get to go to a megachurch this time.  Someday, though.

I know a place

The downside of having a hunger to see the world is that you do more than just see inert objects in foreign countries.  It’s visiting someone’s home; even the local-shunned tourist-trappy parts of someone’s home are still things they feel an ownership for, things they’re proud of on some level.  And you can’t visit someone’s home without getting to understand them a little, that’d just be rude.

So when i see a bomb go off on Istiklal street, i think of the disinterested people who served us crummy kebabs nearby, the bag-laden shoppers that are no different than the ones i’m used to on Newbury, and the cats in the Tunel station.

i think of that weird cafe in Brussels that seemed sketchy but fed us a nice dinner and the drunk bros that i sang along with at Anderlecht.  The smelly subway station even on a cool day.

i remember walking out the door and past the mediocre cafes and bakeries, the quotidien parade of shoppers, commuters, and schoolchildren in and around the attacked neighborhood in Paris.  The teenager that looked like he was ready to beat the hell out of one of his friends in the park.

It’s one thing to think about the postcards when you hear something bad happen in a place you’ve been.  Ironically, i’m most sad when i think about the shitty parts; the normal people that were rude to the dipshit tourist, the guy who sold me the overpriced bottle of Coke or the postal employee who snarled as i mangled her language.  People being shitty makes them more real to you, somehow, and the thought that these people are caught in tragedies is a good reminder of who’s truly an asshole.

Painting tunnels on the sides of mesas

There’s some minimum relationship between the amount of time you have off and the amount of stuff you want to see, where, even if you’re driving places, and have the freedom to pull off wherever you want, you don’t really feel like you do.  You’re missing out on some of the best features of a road trip there, and in a way, you’re just driving instead of flying or taking the train.

This is why it was such a pleasure to have a little bit of slack last week in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona; to not be hustling madly to an end so much as hopscotching between and through cool things.  Turnouts, tourist traps, junkfood stops.  Leaning on the side of the car, stretching at a gas pump in the middle of nowhere.  Driving somewhere you’ve never been, the possibility of something amazing over the next rise.

Other notes from our adventures:

  • We went to Vegas without once setting foot on the Strip.  Instead we visited two different city/county parks.  Both were full of people who weren’t tourists, and waterfowl (even authentically unpleasant ones) that weren’t trucked in as decorations.  The water at one was even natural (no, seriously, wetlands exist in Las Vegas).  It’s nice to think of Las Vegas as a real city, though, and to hope that someday more of the nice people who live there can have good jobs that don’t involve so many things that are Bad For You.

Not a mirage, the duck assures me Sunset Park Sunset//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

  • As always, a 75mph speed limit is a hell of a thing.  Not to say i don’t sometimes drive 85 here, but i don’t set the cruise control on it for hundreds of miles and look at three-digit mileage signs as no big deal.

 

  • Driving to and through assorted national parks, a lot like family vacations of now long-ago years, made me think that while i was growing up, for my parents the National Park Service was kinda like their Disneyworld (not that we didn’t also go there once or twice).  Something of a reassurance that you were undertaking the best vacation you could possibly muster, and that you were going to be in the presence of awesome things.  A brand you could trust, and ironically for so many people days, it was the US government all along.  The familiar brown signs, clean restrooms, fine campgrounds with wholesome ranger programs in a wooded amphitheatre, and modest gift shops all pretty much perfectly suited to the task. That’s not to say it’s a comfort born solely of nostalgia, either; maybe they’re not for everybody, but places both new and old to me that Uncle Sam deems worthy of this designation have been universally worth my while.  Even without convincing the girl to go camping.

 

  • Thus, it was exciting to get to see two new places on this trip.  Saving the more famous of the two for later in the day, we set off from Moab to drive into Canyonlands National Park.  This is one of those vast, intimidating parks where there’s a sea of green on the map with tiny wiggles of road venturing timidly inward.  We didn’t do a heck of a lot of research in advance of our visit, so we really had very little idea what we were going to be able to see—for all we knew, this was the sort of place you needed a four-wheeler or a jeep to even get anywhere near.And while it’s a tiny patch of park that you do get to drive through, it’s the perfect place to take in so, so much of the park while only a mile from a parking lot.  Impassable//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js A gaping scar//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

    Pullouts that lead to fun rocks to climb on, short trails that let you drink in the scenery near and far for an hour or so.  And sure, you’re looking out on vastness that is inaccessible to your rental car, but you feel like you’ve seen it and played in it.Lonely bonsai//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js The low road//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

    Maybe we’ll come back with a tent and a mountain bike some other time.

  • But: definitely the same time of year.  We knew it was beautiful in Vegas this time of year already, what with visiting annually and all.   Dry, sure, but cool and clear and perfect weather for exploring.
  • Arches National Park always seemed to be the more famous of the two, what with its user-friendly landmarks.  Oddly, it turned out to be less so, with seemingly long (not that long) distances between these landmarks, which seemed more like anomalies than indicative of the whole place.  Most of the place is rolling, freaky-greenish-gray brush, and less sculpted red rock. What is this, an arch for ants?//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Creepily Organic Rocks//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
    Stranger still, you sort of get the impression that Delicate Arch, the most famous landmark is 1. bigger and 2. more accessible.  It’s actually a 1.5 mile steeply uphill hike away to get close to it, although you can see it distantly from an accessible viewpoint.  From the middle distance, it almost appears beset by ants, which are people that made the hike, but nevertheless, the scale is smaller-than-you-expected.That’s not to say there aren’t mindblowing things there.  Crawling around balanced rocks and lesser-known arches and windows as the setting sun lit them all on fire was amazing.  Sometimes it’s all a matter of accidentally being somewhere at the best possible time; the difference between ‘meh’ and something you’ll remember always.
    Red-eye, no. 2//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Red-eye, no. 1//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
  • In both cases, though, these aren’t the high-traffic National Parks you might have seen before.  Small visitor centers, and few campgrounds.  In the offseason, few people.
  • Being out in the desert in what’s technically the winter gives you a great appreciation for the sun.  Obviously i underdress, but the mere seconds or feet that separate you from light and shade make you want to layer up shockingly fast.
  • Despite the ample time in barren canyons, we were repeatedly struck by how forested northern Arizona is, and tried to pick what state it should resemble if we didn’t know any better.  Between Moab and the Grand Canyon, and between Flagstaff and Sedona are crazy scenic places to drive, just in ways we weren’t expecting.
  • On the other hand, the sparse, small towns in and around the reservations that we drove through can be pretty depressed places.  Lots of stray dogs and people who clearly have nothing to do.  We often wondered just what it was people did for work hundreds of miles from so much as a McDonald’s.  Given the number of people hanging around gas stations, probably nothing.
  • Obviously, the best contrast we could obtain for the quiet national parks would be to proceed directly to the Grand Canyon.  Lodges, visitor centers, bus systems.  In the offseason, no traffic jams, at least.  Previously, i’d been to the North Rim, so the South Rim was all new to me.What is there to possibly say about it, really.  It’s stupefyingly vast, and defies cameras and words alike.
    Creeping day-shadows, no. 2//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Gotta fill it up with something//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
    i think my favorite thing about it is standing on the cliff edge and hearing cars, or wind in trees to your one side and just silent empty air to the other.  There’s just nothing near by.  It’s a mile away and a mile down.Try and take photos all you want.  Obviously i did.  Many of them will come out great.  Just don’t expect any of them to substitute for being there.
    A speck with wings//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js Just over that next ridge//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
  • The nice thing about being in a bigger park is the old lodges nestled within; leftovers of the parks’ origins as reasons-for-people-to-get-on-railroad-tycoons’-trains. These were not things we frequented in our youth; they were expensive and camping was more our speed anyway.Having said that, we were excited to eat in one of the restaurants, which was precisely the 1960s throwback we were looking for.  Quasi-regional simple meat-and-starch dishes, friendly service and solicitiousness of kids, old-school dress and decor (like you’re in the only finished room in a log cabin).  A few local beers on tap as a nod to modern days (come on, this is important). Packed with fellow travelers, even in a very off season.
  • Naturally, the opposite of this is your proverbial tourist trap.  Things which the girl and i seem to be drawn to, such as the drive-thru wild animal safari.  The thing about tourist traps is that in this day and age, on some level, they’ve got to make somebody happy, or 1-star Yelp reviews are going to finish them.  So often enough, even though they’re cheesy and may have a name like ‘Bearizona’, you know what?
    You’re going to see bears, and a lot of them.  Couple that with the electrified fences and drive-through gates, and the girl was living up her ‘Jurassic Park’ fantasy big time. If this is the baby...//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
  • Even though we’re elitist northeastern snobby assholes, we honestly love going to other places and having a good time and thinking, “you know, this place ain’t so bad…” in cities that maybe stray far from our walkable yuppy comfort zone. Take Milwaukee or Kansas City as places we were fond of.

    Phoenix isn’t really one of those.  Don’t get me wrong, we sat by a pool, drank beer, ate some good food, and saw some weird things, but at the same time it by far lived up to our expectations of SUV-clogged strip-sprawl.

    What it means that so much of the country is seeking this out is a question for another day. The iconic Saguaro//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

On southern Europe

It should go without saying that traveling with your wife is far different than traveling by yourself. My previous Eurailpass-heavy adventures were equally heavy with train station food and grocery store cookies and street vendor snacks. i wasn’t the least bit unhappy about that, but this time was filled with Michelin-starred restaurants, lavish buffets, liberal applications of patisserie and gelato, and hole-in-the-wall local recommendations. In short, i’ve got the girl to thank for my stomach finally seeing Europe, not to mention the fun of seeing favorite old places and new places with her.

Bits and pieces from two weeks of gallivanting:

    • Embarrassingly, we nearly missed our flight out of Boston.  We had been generically thinking it was 6-ish since we booked it and roughly planned accordingly.  Later, more detailed plans were made thinking it was 6.  It went into my calendar as 6.  It was 5:20.  We got off the Logan Express bus, hailed a cab, who did a great job going up and over Beacon Hill to the Callahan in heavy traffic, while i keyed in our passports and junk to check us in on JetBlue’s website on my iPhone just barely in time.  We made it with 5 minutes to spare, thus beginning an inauspicious first day of our trip.  Later, the shitheads at Emirates decided that two people booked together were best seated in middle seats on opposite sides of the plane.  Later still, our hotel in Monaco bumped us somewhere else because ‘another guest decided to stay longer’.
    • Monte Carlo was a lot more interesting than i remembered.  Still not a big place, still a place that’s mostly about gawking at rich things, but we got to see the old part of the city, with its fortifications, its tiny (tourist-clogged) streets, and its old Roman amphitheater.  It’s weird to think that relatively normal people live there and go to the beach and kick the ball around.  The train ride from Milan was much nicer than i remembered, too.  It swings and weaves along the Mediterranean coast, in and out of shady, green-covered cliffside and countless tunnels.  It’s a suitable introduction to the succession dramatic-yet-peaceful towns along the coast.  Maybe i liked it better because ten years later, the train was air-conditioned and fast, as opposed to roasting and interminably slow.  But apparently no matter what, the train trip is thrown into upheaval in Ventimiglia, Italy.
    • Monaco was the first stop, and the first place we noticed the ubiquity of selfie sticks, both for sale from street vendors, and in use by people of all ages, surprisingly least of all by the stereotypical millenial social-media types.  More the cruise ship crowd.  They. were. everywhere.
    • We very nearly were rented a fancy convertible in Nice, but they weren’t going to let me drive that to Paris.  Driving in France wasn’t so bad, though, especially with our curt British-accented GPS as dictatorial navigator.  Although she did up and route us into downtown Cannes for no good reason (maybe she wanted to see the movie stars, since it was during the film festival, natch).  Highways are very nice, well-marked, and very fast; 130km/h is a pretty comfortable speed limit indeed.  They’ve got very familiar-looking service areas (albeit with very convoluted parking lots).  And the thing is, while France is a big country, it’s not large by American standards, so we really transited a lot of it in a day and a half with a car.  Despite that, we still found ourselves doing a ton of driving due to our fairly ambitious itinerary.  Because, of course, at some point we left the highway.  For the innumerable rotaries of the suburbs of Avignon, the country roads to Uzès, and the windy mountain roads through the forests of the Cevennes national park were all a bit slower going, suffice it to say.  Even though it took us a long time on increasingly tiny little roads to get to Saint-Nectaire to buy some cheese (go ahead, dear, tell them about the cheese), it was a pretty amazing day for a road trip.
    • It’s kind of a great thing to be rolling through all these little French mountain towns, with tiny little bridges and ancient houses crowded onto modern roads. As great as the train is, this sort of thing is impossible to see that way, and the train is definitely not going to slow down for you to take a photo.  The flip side to it is, it makes you wish you had weeks more, not days more.  The sheer number of tiny little towns with tiny little restaurants that i did not have a beer in is dismaying.
    • And without hopping in a car to go road-tripping, we would never have discovered La Maison d’Uzès, a fancy B&B in a little, old old town that despite being fancy was worried about us getting there and kept the kitchen late for us in their Michelin-starred restaurant and insisted we sit down and eat while wearing jeans and a soccer jersey.  Really genuine hospitality.
    • Tolls are pretty steep; we probably spent €50 all told between Nice and Paris.
    • Driving through Paris (on the highways, i’m not insane) was predictably full of traffic; it probably took us an hour to go one mile due to a fender bender we didn’t even get to see.
    • Goodness knows i’ve been to Paris enough times, but it’s tough to actually explain just how comfortable it is for me.
    • For whatever reason, i found myself really working my rusty French pretty hard, particularly when the crazy yet insanely friendly gardien of the apartment building decided my replies were good enough that he just went faster and faster.  Maybe it was a function of spending some time further from Paris, but there were a bunch of times when i got out of the shallow end and away from the few sentences i’d thought through ahead of time, and had to begin ad-libbing. It’s more than a little fun, but tiring.  Almost as tiring as patting myself on the back for it.
    • Pâtisserie shops are so plentiful that only chumps go to just one a day.  Champions go to four.
    • Somehow, we walked in and got seated at two restaurants that we really should have had reservations for.  Go us.  One of them clearly was an open secret amongst American tourists (who probably watched the same TV show that we did about it).  We sat next to this group of bucket-listers who were shamelessly trying to one up each other’s travel stories (“oh, you simply have to get to Angkor Wat…”), and resolved probably a bit futilely to not become them.
    • Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to go straight from a balcony apartment and plentiful baked goods in Paris to being pressed up against sweaty Turks on an interminable subway ride in from the airport, but then again, it’s a fair representation of what Istanbul can be like.
    • Ironically, our first stop on the ‘kebab crawl’ the first night we were there was the first stop I made on my previous visit. It was a short 20 minute walk from Aksaray to Sultanahmet, it turned out (In 2008, the subway shut down at midnight, mid-journey, leaving me using inadequate, printed-out-from-not-Google’s-best-work paper maps to navigate the rest of the way, which went badly). Aksaray is a Muslim-dominated, working-class neighborhood and, it seems, a locus of good kebab places.
    • It (was) election season in Turkey, and boy is it more festive there. Giant buses with candidates’ names and mustachioed faces drive around blasting music, and big tents with flyers and enthusiastic supporters are all over the place, while PAs drone on about (presumably) all the good works that the party does. Alas, Mr. Erdogan’s party had the best stuff, but maybe it wasn’t enough, since he’s not a very nice person.
    • People, by which i mean men, in Turkey, walk around whistling bird calls.  In subway stations, airports, out on the streets.  Some seem to want attention for it, like they’re selling something, others are clearly just doing it because they enjoy it.  It’s a weird habit.
    • Then again, we also walked by a man serenading a cat at close range, who was not having it.
    • i don’t know if i’d ever really planned a trip before where there’s an element of it that’s so important where if it turns out to be shitty, the whole thing’s going to be a downer.  Historically, i’ve mostly not stayed in fancy places or put a heavy investment on one piece.  Not so this time.  So there was some trepidation when the van from the airport on Santorini pulls into a dirt parking lot near Oia’s water plant and says ‘we’re here’.  Never mind, however.  The guest house we booked was excited to greet us and as soon as we rounded the corner, all we saw was stairs down the cliff to our accommodation, and the caldera and the sea below.  Santorini is ridiculous, a landscape out of the imagination of a sunnier version of George R.R. Martin.  We stayed in one of the innumerable white-painted villas cresting the edge of the caldera like sea foam on a wave.  Both of us were guilty of having our brains register them as snow from a distance.
    • Strangely enough, there is more than one craft brewery on Santorini.  This is not by any means a bad thing, and apparently it’s getting easier to find American beers and our style of beers over there.  Good for them, catching up finally.
    • Through the magic of the facebooks, i knew that an old friend of mine from college was on the island at the same time, but i figured vacation wasn’t the right time to catch up.  Obviously, then she recognized me at a local winery.  Reminders of how small the world can be never fail to amaze.
    • It’s hard to figure out how everything on Santorini is so cheap, considering it’s a resort and an island.  We barely spent anything on food and drink, even in tourist-focused places.  One night, the lady who ran our guest house sent us to her little village‘s best restaurant, and we feasted and drank for like $30.  For that reason alone we questioned ever leaving.
    • Sure enough, the day of leaving such an easygoing, restful place was the most difficult travel day on the trip.  Turns out our flight off of the island was delayed the night before, so we could have slept in and enjoyed our patio some more.  Instead of the floor of the tiny airport.  The worse news was that our four hour delay instantly killed our plan of going to the opera in Venice that night.  i know, tough life, right?  Still, it was a disappointment.
    • Venice is one of those places that was almost certainly cooler twenty years ago.  And more so twenty years before that.  Even though 50,000 people still live there (maybe that’s all that ever did), it is more museum/mall than city for a lot of the parts that you’ll walk through.  Don’t get me wrong, those parts are beautiful still, and the gelato is cheap and delicious, but it’s also fun to take wrong turns and wind up in abandoned alleys and passages and see nothing but hanging laundry and the cranky glares of locals.
    • And obviously, with my postcard obsession, i care more about this than normal people, but i really really hate the scam for postage ‘stamps’ in Venice.  There’s no post office that i can tell, but every convenience store sells nasty looking ‘stamps’ for postcards which you put in a special ‘mailbox’ for €2 and some private enterprise takes it on its way.  A system only a Republican could love.  Then again, the postal clerk in Milan insisted i needed €2.30 to send a postcard through Poste Italiane probably because she was having a bad day and decided to fuck the tourist.  But then again, dealing with people who aren’t used to dealing with tourists is part of the fun of sending postcards.  At least most of them seem to have arrived.
    • A couple restaurants we went to have adopted the measure of handing you a glass of prosecco and a snack while you wait for a table so you don’t leave.  We didn’t.
    • i was amused/gratified to find that the Expo 2015 in Milan truly was a direct descendant of the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans of my childhood.  A whole bunch of exhibits about countries that can be summed up as, “Hello, we’re ________, please ignore what you’ve heard about ________ and come invest/visit!  Also, drink our local beer, which is terrible.”
    • By the numbers:
      • Distance driven: 1,134km (703 miles)
      • Pains au chocolat eaten: 7
      • Cans of 1664: 4
      • Bottles of wine: 4
      • Ice cream: 4 different types, 9 different times.
      • Kinds of transportation: Plane, train, boat, car, taxi, bus, funicular.  No donkey.
      • Biggest macaron: 3″ diameter
      • Smallest macaron: .5″ diameter
      • Metro tickets consumed: 18
      • Types of food purchased from street vendors without knowing what they were: 3
      • Items forgotten: 1 (an iPhone charger)
      • Acts of blasphemy committed in famous places of worship: a few, probably.
      • Amount of Bleu d’Auvergne cheese purchased in a misunderstanding over quantity: 1 lb
      • Maximum number of flights of stairs climbed in a day according to the girl’s iPhone: 75
      • Most miles walked in a day: 14
      • Honked at by French drivers: twice
      • Ships jumped off of: 1
      • Postcards sent: 27
      • Price of a selfie stick: €3

On going back to places, and Seattle

A week or so ago, me and the girl were sitting on the slopes of Mount Rainier, eating cheese and drinking a beer. Looking up at the forbidding, snowy slopes, i was reminded of the last time i’d been there.
IMG_8384 Where nothing ever grows

Last time i was there, i was 21 years old, and it was the literal apogee of a lengthy road trip that started in Troy, New York a week and countless sleepless nights and gas station meals earlier. Not content with the visitor center, not content with the paved (steep!) walking paths in the immediate vicinity, we reached the end of same and kept going. At the end of a trail, we reached a mysterious outhouse, peed in it, and kept going further still. Into snowfields in the height of summer, traipsing across a glorious expanse of white at the top of the world. Later, we were called idiots who could just as easily have perished at the bottom of a crevasse without anyone knowing.
On the slopes of Mt. Rainier

i had my trusty Crayola 110 camera with me, so this part of the adventure was even documented.

So after getting back from this most recent trip, it dawned on me that visiting Rainier with my family in 1995 made it seem like a great day trip with my friends two years later. And that golden day at the end of that most epic summer in college made me want to show the wife that kind of grandeur. Going back to places is yet another limitless gift of traveling, but going back to places that are the same, when you’re so different, warps my fragile little mind.

It’s easy for us to find reasons to go to places, though, or back to places, or some of both. A whole year earlier, i’d been out in Seattle for a World Cup qualifier. In this case, the girl and i went out there to go run The Oatmeal‘s road race. It was full of cake and Sasquatches and other good cheer. When you pick such a flimsy excuse to go visit a place, though, you’ve got other things in mind. Like a sweet airbnb above an unfamiliar town. Warm basking rocks in the middle of a gurgling river. A sunlit bar window to eat pizza and drink beer. And a nice place to eat cheese instead of an ill-advised wander into danger.

Plenty of new places to come back to some other time.

Evening at the Dairy Freeze Plenty of parking A torrential mist Out on the river Seaplane over Seattle Night and the emerald city Serious Annette is Serious.