Monday, June 29, 2009
We have more to share on our last day in Rome/first day in Spain, but
I'll share now that we are comfortable in Cartaya, Spain. We met up
with Jenny and Jane, had our first taxi experience, first driving in
Europe experience, and some beach time already. More details to come.
special exotic Americans' treatment when the Chinese girls at the
dollar store showed her the secret WC behind the wall of purses. While
she was on the web, I walked toward a mountain lake below Genova. I
really like the ocean, but there's something majestic about the deep
blue, calm waters in the lakes in the area.
We did a decent job of cleaning the apartment, but with a bachelor's
place, you worry a little less because the standards are different
(meaning lower - I bet this is an international thing and not just an
price for a trade off of twice the time of the express train). The
scenery was beautiful. After an hour outside of Rome, it was very
rural with lots of sunflowers, grapes, and wheat. Even a shepherd
with his flock near the tracks. Which brings us back to toilets. It's
a three hour trip, and as Gilligan experienced, it could be much more.
So we checked around on the train. There are gas station quality
lavatories WITH seats. But looking through those seats, you could
actually, visually, non metaphorically see the train tracks. This
sounds like a public health disaster. But not having a bathroom on a
three hour train is another disaster. At the very least, there should
be a sign in several languages saying, "Don't use while in the
station." Avoiding open sewers is one of the hallmarks of a
developed nation. The smell of some tracks in the station defies this
Once in Florence, we proceeded to the bus stops that I had looked up
on Google. We even bought a bus map this time. It's not a simple
process because not all buses leave from the front of the station.
They leave on all sides with a several block radius. We got on the
right bus. We pushed the stop button at the right stop. We stepped
toward the front door to exit. Then only the back doors opened. By the
time we shuffled toward the back doors, which closed as we approached
them. It turns out you can ask the driver to open the doors, but he
does not intuit that need when you approach the door. So the bus
crossed the river, and we ended up a mile away after exiting from the
back doors. Nov we had started 0.8 miles away. We could have walked,
but the bag was heavy and buses are easy, right? Then we got on the
right bus going in the wrong direction, ending up two miles from the
hotel. Many minutes later, we found the right bus in the right
direction. The right direction is not necessarily just across the
street because of the weird routing. The bus wins again.
Being defeated left me grumpy.
We arrived at the Garden Hotel, and it was nice and also affordable. I
started feeling better. The front desk lady knew some English, and
told us, "you walk-uh down the river-uh, it look-uh real nice-uh." She
was right-uh. We toured the center of the city. We had seen the
American consulate on the way over. By the time we were done, it
seemed like there should be an Italian consulate. Americans were
everywhere. So were shops for Italian leather. The city was beautiful,
but the tourists seemed to overwhelm it. I suppose we were part of the
The Duome Cathedral is a gigantic church with a gigantic dome. We
walked around it after the interior had closed. We had a nice dinner
at a sidewalk café with a view of the dome. The lasagna was
wonderful. They had all you can eat olive oil, vinegar, and parmesan
cheese but no free refills on Coke or even water. I guess Italians
have different priorities and a lot of olives.
The next day we dropped off our bag at the train station. Getting to
the train station on the bus was very easy. Every bus heading in that
direction is labeled on the front. Going the other direction is not as
easy; the buses are not labeled D+L's hotel. From the train station,
we walked to the bus stop that headed to the gardens. After two
missed scheduled times, we and several others decided to walk. It
started to sprinkle a little, so we headed to the covered Old Bridge,
the only bridge the Nazis didn't mine on their retreat from Italy. We
know this fact because we were crowded next to a tour group as we
huddled under the covering against the driving rain. One skinny girl
next to us could not stop shivering. L commented to me, "That's what
you get with no body fat." The rain subsided a bit still looked a bit
threatening, so we decided to head back to the dome. It was also
beautiful on the inside, but I think we have hit the wall and are
experiencing church touring fatigue. A McD €1 menu balanced out the
nice meal from last night.
While we waited on the Albano train in Rome, I scored an economic
victory. I found a cheap €1.70 1.5 L Coke vs €3-4 around the station
for a 500 ml from a black man in a Chinese block of Rome. Truly an
international experience in the eternal city.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
consistently in a while, much to D & S's chagrin, I'm sure. It's been
mostly heating up prepared meal type things from Costco. However,
here we've been eating at home mostly, so I've been making dinner and
packing lunches to take with us into the city. D's gotten a lot of
home cooked meals-gnocchi with tomato cream sauce, baked rigatoni with
sausage, cannelloni, calamari, roasted eggplant, etc. Have no fear,
we have eaten well in Italy J Plus, I've been wanting to make
chocolate chip cookies for Andrea, so I did a trial run today with D
as my willing guinea pig.
It was interesting. First of all, I don't have any measuring cups or
spoons (I think our host mostly uses his oven to store extra dishes),
no cookie sheet, and no mixer. Then, I had to go to two stores before
I found flour. I never found brown sugar, so I settled for Sugar in
the Raw. I also never found chocolate chips, so I bought a big
chocolate bar and chopped it into chunks. I couldn't find vanilla
extract, but I did find some sort of ultra concentrated vanilla
flavoring, and I just plum forgot the baking soda. Not to mention
even if I wanted to get it now, I doubt they have it, as baking is
something I've decided they just don't do here. Using a mixing bowl
and a wooden spoon, I managed to get the batter together (boy did I
miss my Kitchen-Aid) and I put the cookies on a broiler pan (the
closest he has to a cookie sheet). They baked okay, and even look
pretty normal, just a little lighter without the brown sugar.
Unfortunately, I realized he does not have a spatula, either. I tried
transferring the cookies to a plate with two forks with mixed results.
After my first batch of 9 cookies, I decided that I'd make cookie
bars instead and dumped the rest of the dough in his one Pyrex type
dish. This actually turned out really well, so I think he'll be
getting cookie bars. Plus, if the cookies are a complete flop we got
him a soccer shirt of his favorite team as back up.
If cooking and baking were not enough, I have even done some good
old-fashioned sewing. D managed to rip a couple of holes in a pair of
cargo shorts (absolutely essential because of all the pocket space),
so we had to hunt down a needle and thread and figure out how to
communicate at the Singer store that we wanted a regular needle not a
sewing machine needle. The Singer Store only sold machine needles, so
we went to a couple more stores before eventually finding what we
needed. Aside from a couple of stuffed owls I made recently for two
of my favorite kids (I miss you!), I haven't sewed since I was about
13 in 4-H and even then the only thing I did by hand was
whip-stitching a hem. D's shorts definitely look like someone with
very little sewing prowess fixed them, but they should hold for the
trip. We actually went to a couple of clothing stores and looked for
shorts. D didn't really care for the European style. Did you know
that they have men's capris over here? I've even seen men wearing
I am also the one who figured out how to use the washing machine. I
tried to explain to D how it was a matter of figuring out the
different sections of the dial and how they corresponded to the same
sections at home, but he got that same glazed look in his eyes that I
get when he talks about COBOL or the beauty of electron orbits. It
made sense to me.
In addition to bringing out my domestic side, I've never been more
aware of how female I am in Italy. I had heard that in Argentina
random men will come up and hit on you, but I didn't realize they did
it in Italy. I have been hit on in public a total of two times my
entire life in the US. I had men say stuff to me and whistle four
times in just the first day we went to Rome. At first I wasn't sure
if that was what was happening, but it became a pattern. I think the
funniest time was when an entire truck full (about 5 guys) whistled
and made comments while making direct eye contact with me a couple of
days ago while waiting for he bus. They totally even looked like
construction workers. It's been a bit surreal, and D's presence
doesn't seem to make a bit of difference. Ignoring them seems to be
enough for them to not pursue anything further, but I have to say it's
been a bit of an ego boost!
It's supposed to be our rest day, but I decided to rest on the beach.
All of this walking around has made me feel good but restless. L is
taking it easy.
It's a weekday and knowing the system made the trip a little faster.
On the subway, a woman sung with a portable karaoke machine. We've
also seen bands with accordions on the subway. They work for seemingly
meager tips. It's a captive audience but not an especially receptive
one. I'm thinking of doing some standup comedy on the metro: "What is
up with those toilets? Insert punchline here ... Please come back and
remember my metro A line material is completely different from my B
The beach was beautiful and less crowded and maybe a little cooler
than Sunday. There was a lot of wind surfers today.
On the way back, I picked up a discarded paper, Metro. On the front, a
picture that took up half the page showed a collision on the
Washington metro. I couldn't understand most of the caption, but I did
pick up "Takoma
e Fort Totten," two DC metro stops, so it's not Washington, Italy. Why
would they care here? I saw the same thing ten years ago in Prague,
with a big picture of a Conrail train overturned in the Midwest on the
front page. Maybe a good disaster picture works anywhere. I don't know
if it's specia because it's an American disaster. In Prague, a person
commented that he could never live in America, with all of the
hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, forest fires. I guess all of the
coverage convinced him America was all disaster, all the time, like
General Motors or the NC Global Transpark* (cheap shots but they
I thought this was too much detail, but L said to put it in. It
reflects on the differences in our food strategies. We had no sandwich
fixins when I left, so I thought maybe I'd get a couple of
cheeseburgers at the Termini station, much less than lunch bought from
a beach vendor. But on my way, I saw a sandwich vending machine. It
reported a temperature of 4° C (about 40 real degrees). So I grabbed a
salmon sandwich and put it in my backpack. An hour or two, I ate it on
the beach. They even cut the crusts off for me. Italian crust can be
quite crusty. To some readers, this was obviously stupid. Vending
machine + fish + time = gastronomic disaster. At T+10 hours, no
disaster yet. All I can say is my life's creed: It seemed like a good
idea at the time.
*A multimillion dollar boondoggle/ state attempt to build an airport
in the middle of rural eastern North Carolina to capture air cargo
business. Unfortunately most shippers don't ship much to rural eastern
North Carolina, and they don't need a hub there. You can't build a new
Research Triangle Park just by throwing a lot of government money at a
project. My attempts to build the Global Danpark with government
grants have so far failed, even though it's shovel ready.
The Danpark would consist of several McDonalds close to my house to
culinarily revive North Northeast Durham. There would a main McDonalds
and several backups. And Chilis, Krispy Kreme, and Chik-fil-A. That's
just the beginning. For irony, a really large gym would be in the
middle of the complex. Bowflexes will sculpt the neighborhood with
only 20 minutes 3 times a week. Government spending likes irony. We
could call it the gym to nowhere.
machine after carefully saving coins up for buying day passes. An old
lady kept gesturing and getting louder and louder, trying to help us.
She was helpful in that she pounded on the ticket window to get one of
the five employees, busy in conversation among themselves, to help us.
If I were in a fight, I would want an old Italian women to be on mb
side. We filled out a form and they will mail a check for €6 to our
house. The Vegas odds are 271:5 on us ever seeing that money again.
Today is Vatican day. For an entrance fee of €12 each, there is a lot
to see. The guidebook says you can stay until closing or until
exhaustion hits you. It was exhaustion for us. There's just so much
historical art. We saw 20 and 30 foot by 20 foot tapestries, many many
statues and paintings, the Sistine chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica.
The painting were especially interesting as they reflect the time of
painting as well their subject -receding hairline on baby Jesus, how
covered Jesus is, reflecting or hiding the humiliation of the cross.
St. Peter's was huge. It was big enough for several churches to fit
inside. It was so expensive that the church decided to finance it with
indulgences, the Visa debit card for sin. This practice are one of the
things that led to Martin Luther's revolt.
After a while, the shear number of items makes each individual item
seem less worthwhile. They were beautiful but overwhelming. For
example, we saw a guy sitting with his backpack directly touching a
2500 year old Egyptian stone sarcophagus. He must have figured it was
just another stone. The number of tourists is also overwhelming. No
priests or nuns were visible - just tourists.
When you claim to be "the Universal Church," and have your own
country, you can set an example by all you do:
-The Church serves Pepsi.
-The Church sees toilet seats as unholy
-The Church does not like shorts or bare shoulders and prefers
whispers to loud talking. We tried to dress respectfully, but there
were too many people for these policies to be enforced.
-The Church has a limited endorsement for air conditioning. It's more
for the types of art that require it.
On the way home, we found an Internet café for only €2.50/hour. There
was another café across the street-thank you competition for lowering
prices! We did some research for our Thursday - Friday trip to
Florence. We now know to look up bus routes in advance. Google maps
shows stops and times for today (it directs you to an Italian site for
future times). I'm also still trying to understand the timing of
getting to the airport. The Cotral buses are not good at publishing
schedules. I downloaded a 26 page document in Italian that might help.
I'll peruse it at home. I have figured out the airport train from the
Ponte Lunge metro is half the cost of the cost of the trip from the
Termini metro. The difference in distance is minimal, so I don't
understand the huge price difference and why all of the guidebooks
point people toward Termini. Anyway we can save about $15 and maybe
walk a little less because a single platform in Termini can be
hundreds of meters long. Lara also looked up some cheap apartment
options for Paris. Our house swap person had previously accepted the
swap but has been in communicado for the past few weeks.
That night, we ate again at the pizza place from our first night. L
calls it the best place we've been so far here.
By now, you realize this blog is about watches, internet, and toilets.
Everyday concerns often trump history and beauty. Nevertheless we are
enjoying the history and the city. The differences and exploring make
the trip worthwhile. Except the toilet seat shortage - that's just
wrong. We'll be contacting the European Court of Human Rights on that
We decided to explore Angina, where I saw the saw the Ikea. It is
right across the interstate highway from the bus station. The most
direct route would be under the interstate while crossing a clover
leaf interchange. The diesel fuel coming off the highway smelled of
elderberries and death trap. So we went away from the doomed
interchange toward a bridge that looked less complicated on the GPS.
!There has to be an easier way, I think! However:
1.That doesn't mean, as a far-n-r, you are going to find it.
2.You have no moral obligation to find the absolutely cheapest and
mind-blowingly efficient option. NASA will not call for suggestions
(if you do call, please mark the voice-mail urgent so I don't miss
it). (This is what I deduce to be the truth - my obsession with
efficiency makes my actions communicate otherwise).
3. Unintentionally indirect routes (what Obama~ would say instead of
"getting lost" even when it's as bad as a blind man with a limp loses
his guide dog) are not always bad. UIR's produce new experiences* and
you find new things.
4. Getting yourself killed while pursuing the direct route is its own
form of inefficiency.
So we went on a 2 mile hike to actually travel 0.5 miles. Along the
way, we discovered a shopping mall. Air conditioned, with free
bathrooms with toilet seats(!), and escalators, it was a for real
mall. Noticeably absent were teenagers. They seem to be in every
shopping district. Their volume makes them hard to miss (I just got 5
years older by saying that).
We proceeded to the next stop+. Ikea was big as always. We had the
cheap snack bar hot dogs that came with a coffee and cola. The
fountain was outside the register, so I assumed free refills. There
were some instructions that may have been refill restrictive, but they
were in Italian; ignorance is bliss.
Then we found a sign:
Qui Internet veloce senza fili
Which translates to Fast Internet without wires
I got a very strong signal. But I couldn't connect. I tried to ask an
employee how to connect, but he didn't understand English. No luck.
Ikea was next to another mall, but this one was somewhat outside. It
had a McDonalds with free internet. This was ideal: uncrowded, air
conditioned, and with power outlets for the battery-challenged laptop.
But Italian terrorism laws require internet places to gather
information on users. So the registration process asks all sorts of
questions, like passport number and tax ID. In the US, this would be a
social security number. I tried every length possible. It was still
not possible. When I got home, I stuck the laptop out the window and
looked up Italian tax IDs, which are very complicated.
More info at:
The next day, on the way back from the Vatican. I tried using an
example I found. This corresponds to name, birth day, and other
JLT RSS 68A41 Z114A
This time I just got a generic server failure message. Another dead
end, after a lot of work.
We took a bus just to get back across the Interstate. There we found
a bunch of vendors hawking cheap goods. I like my €5 watch, but it
fits too snuggly (It doesn't look like a woman's watch, but it seems
to be made to fit them better. Strong enough for a man, PH balanced
for a woman?) So I got a €3 watch that fits better. The vendor even
set the time for me. He tried to make small talk with about 20 words
~As an American, I am required to state that I deeply respect Obama
and his eloquence. Even when his choice of words is vague and
confusing, they arc still eloquent and inspiring.
+Did you get the Vanilla Ice reference? If so, mail in to get a €0.05
coin. Offer expires 1/1/09. Voided by time travel or other quantum
Nervous people don't read these footnotes:
*except when they result in bodily injury, cancer, and, in some cases,
death (notice required by the California Bureau of Overwrought Safety,
Squaresville, CA 90318, (888) CANCER!! Leave out the last ! for shear
Monday, June 22, 2009
Saturday, June 20, 2009
unfortunately moving back toward getting up late. It's not terribly
hot in the apartment, but we miss air conditioning.
I started Scary Movie 4. It turned out to be in Italian only. The
beginning with Dr. Phil and Shaq was amusing - you could tell what
they must have been saying. Then came Charlie Sheen; gross and not
funny aren't a good combination. Then I watched the end of Gioruo Di
Ordinaria Follia (Falling Down) with Michael Douglas. It's a classic
in any language, but they had English, so even better. "I'm obsolete.
I'm economically unviable," so I am going to blow lots of stuff up,
and, in the process, learn a little something about myself. "I'm the
bad guy? How did that happen? I did everything they told me to." Then
a brief piece on the making of Bourne Ultimatum. I didn't realize Matt
Damon did some of the stunts, including laying a motorcycle down and
jumping from a train - things to try while we're here.
After taking easy for half the day, I noticed my watch wasn't working
right. In the GPS I looked what looked like an electronics shop (the
names were in Italian). I couldn't do more than that because we've a
lot of trouble gettting an internet signal(more on that later-I'm
sitting on a flower planter in front of an apartment building to get a
signal right now. The store was in the next town over, Genzano, about
2.5 miles away. This seemed like a simple enough walk. The GPS didn't
that it was 200 feet higher than Albano. It took me up a beautiful but
grueling tiny road that forced most of the elevation in half a mile.
The road was so narrow that I had to turn to the side to let cars
pass. On the way, I discovered humidity inside my watch, so I needed a
new watch, not just a battery. Next to the electronics store was the
closest thing I have seen here to a Super Target. A very refreshing
Coke later, I went to the closest thing to a Best Buy. The cheapest
watch was $50. Everything seems more expensive here.
Strolling through town, I found the closest thing to a Dollar Tree and
got a watch for $5.
That evening I spent a lot of time hanging out of the window on the
roof, trying to set an Internet signal. No luck. I got about 4 pages
loaded and the signal died.
Old Italian man in only boxer shorts on his balcony count: 1
Thankfulness count he was wearing boxers: infinity
Articles of clothing dropped from drying racks attached to windows
onto sidewalk while drying count: 2 (no electric dryer, but lots of
sun, so it works well)
An old lady has sat down
10 feet away from me and is staring me down, so I should go.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
We found a McDonalds for a cheap cold snack and rare free wifi. L is
feeding pidgeons. boo! We've seen lots of ruins/rubble around the
Coliseum and a lot of pretty buildings. It is hot, and cold water at
fountains has been great. We also had a good Italian lunch. Hopefully,
we can post pictures later.
Monday, June 15, 2009
We got here okay by Sunday afternoon and enjoy the city.
Check-in and JFK
We changed airlines in JFK, so we had to shuttle around bags. JFK is huge. I read that some people pay for a taxi to get between terminals, but I didn't believe until today. We arrived at terminal 8 and walked what seemed like a mile to get our bags. We were very fortunate to find a free cart right at the gate. We then went to terminal 1 to hold our carry-on bags while we were in Manhattan . Then it was off to terminal 7 to check our big bags with British Air.
Our check-in agent was like Dieter from Sprockets. "This interaction is cumbersome and bores me. This conversation is terminated," was his attitude.
Then we got back on the airport train to the Long Island Railroad transfer station. Then 20 minutes to Penn Station in Manhattan and another few on the subway to the Port Authority. We walked to the UN and took the M27 bus back. So we enjoyed almost every form of transportation today, from escalators to airplanes to trains(no ferries or rickshaws).
We walked around the UN visitor area for a little while. There were some cool photographs of animals from around the world. Showing my lack of refinement, I was thrilled to see the UN's support of ice cream technology with its ice cream vending machine, which is the kind that uses a vacuum hose to deliver the ice cream, in the basement.
We enjoyed the city, and it gave us a little trial run of navigating a busy city, albeit in English this time.
Back to JFK
Requirements for a good restaurant:
- It has the name McDonalds
- It has cheap chicken McNuggets
- It has free wifi
- It has CNN in high definition playing in the market
- It has free refills
Helpful, but not absolutely essential:
- It has a large table where ten old guys of various ethnicities sit around and argue for hours, in a way that you can hear what they are saying but not understand 90% of it. To be fair, only the Roxboro/I-85 McDonalds meets this requirement.
The JFK McDonalds fails on all but one requirement. Nevertheless, my last American McMeal was tasty and filling.
Flight to London Gattwick
We got an upgrade to World Traveler Plus from economy, right before we boarded the plane. We did not know why or even what it meant. It's one level up from "economy" or "commoners"-we couldn't tell with the accent of the stewardess and all. I quickly walked back to economy to see how much better we had it. We have a little more leg room. We get nicer headphones. I was a little surprised at that quick instinct to feel better than others.
We get a curtain. I've seen the first class curtain before, but I've always been behind it. We still are behind the black first class curtain, but a blue veil separates us from the truly unwashed masses. In reality, it just makes it hard to see when the loo is available.
Speaking of for-n-r speak (no offence meant to for-n-r's) , from the British paper, I deduce we are taking a break, not a vacation. Holiday seems to be okay as well, and it sounds less romanticaly disastrous. "We are taking a break" doesn't sound encouraging for a tenth anniversary trip.
The satellite phone in the seat cost $4 + $0.15/second. PER SECOND. So it might cost $10 to call and say, "Guess WHERE I am calling from? It is actually tempting. In fact, the phone also serves as the TV remote control. So it's always there, tempting you.
When I went to the WC in the economy section, I was afraid to cross the curtain. I went back around before realizing that my seat was beyond the great wall of blue.
Good conversation with my wife made the ride seem shorter!
Listened (accidentally) to Sunday, Bloody Sunday while approaching Ireland and heard Beautiful Day as the sun came up
London Gatwick to Albio Laziale
The 2 hours we spent on the runway waiting to take off at JFK almost led us to miss the connection to Rome. It took a lot of walking without much help from escalators, to do the rail transfers to get to our town, Albio Laziale. We asked some Nuns for their cell phone, when the pay phone wouldn't call. Without speaking their language, we gestured that the pay phone was kaput while they kept pointing us in that direction. They let us and refused a Euro as payment.
Our host picked us up at the train and delivered us to our apartment. We relaxed a little then hunted for food. A nearby pizza place closed when we initially passed. Very friendly people at a pharmacy helped us to find a restaurant after initially thinking we were looking for food in the pharmacy.
It turned out they had pointed us back to the pizza place, which was on siesta and would reopen at 5 pm. In the mean time we followed people to a neighborhood yard sale. Eight track tapes and George Michael records were available, and I was tempted. 100 year old antiques were next to 4 small animatronic feet that danced to "Unchained Melody." They had a lot of Italian books. I should have realized it earlier, really instantly, but the books drove it home that they really do speak a very different language here. Not just for fun between friends, but all the time.
At around 5, we went back for pizza. They were friendly but not in a hurry (it was really opening 5ish). After only snacks all day, we were very hungry and the pizza was good.
I was very tired by 9pm Sunday. From Thurs Noon to Sunday Noon EDT, I had about 6 hours of sleep.You can tell I had a lot of time on the plane with the old pocket PC to write this all. I haven't written this much since writing VB code in 2005
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Friday, June 12, 2009
Tomorrow we leave for Europe. We fly into JFK in the morning and then have about 8 hours to kill in NYC before we take an overnight flight to Rome, with a stopover in London to change planes. We'll be in Castel Gandolfo (about 10 km outside of Rome) until June 27, when we fly to Sevilla, Spain. In Sevilla, we are meeting up with a friend from church, Jenny, and her sister Jane. The four of us are then heading to our beach house in Cartaya! We have a few days to become one with the sand until my sister Dana joins us and we will be doing a whirlwind tour of Granada, Sevilla, Cadiz, Morocco, and Lisbon! Jane leaves for London on the 10th, and then Dana leaves on the 13th. Jenny may stay a bit longer and we'll take in Madrid. After four wonderful weeks in Spain, we fly to Paris on July 26th and stay through August 9th, when we do the whole Paris, London, JFK, Raleigh bit again. We hope to keep you all updated on what we are doing and seeing throughout our trip.