Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rome Bonus Post -- Never Send a Jew to Buy a Rosary

So, a friend had requested "some Holy Water blessed by the Pope or something like that."  This seemed like a reasonable request.  Heck, the little font thingie near the door of St. Peter's has perfectly good Holy Water in it free for the touching (or doing whatever one does with Holy Water ... Rudy told me to dip my fingers in it and joked that it wouldn't turn me Catholic or anything) -- certainly Pope-blessed Holy Water should be around and available for purchase.


Rudy gave me about 20 minutes ("but take as long as you want") to make my Vatican purchases, and aimed me toward the right shop for all my Vatican needs -- there's the Vatican bookstore (largely limited to books) which is right next to the Vatican post office (which is not limited to postal items, but has all sorts of religious items).  So, I go into the Vatican post office, where lots and lots of people are filling out post cards to mail them from the smallest country in the world.  Stamps are also available for purchase -- many in sets.  I gave some consideration to the set with images of the Popemobile through the years -- but if you were expecting some Holy Water, I'm thinking a stamp of the Popemobile may be a let-down.  So, I approach the cases with religious items.  If there's no holy water, maybe there's a medal of a saint or something.

Saint medals are surprisingly limited.  In fact (and I'm guessing this is largely a result of market demand), there's way more stuff commemorating the beatification of John Paul II.  I do not recall my friend being a huge devotee of the former Pope (not that she had anything against him or anything -- I just don't think she'd get much comfort from a medallion with his face on it).

If we omit the crazy expensive stuff, I'm left with three or so cases of crucifixes, rosaries, and crosses.  It is around now that I realize I'm totally out of my depth.  I haven't experienced this particular feeling since the first time I set foot in an REI (to buy someone a topo map) even though I'd never been on a hike (or camping, or skiing, or kayaking, or anything else that REI sells stuff for).  I was walking around with a look on my face that clearly said, "I have no idea what to do in here," only, in this case, it was compounded by, "and I don't speak Italian, either."

My first problem was that, not having prepared for this shopping experience, and not having had any cause to ever meet a rosary up close, I had no idea as to which of the pretty crosses on beaded chains were rosaries and which were just, y'know, crosses on chains (e.g. bracelets or necklaces).  OK, yes, some were some that I could clearly identify as rosary beads, but others were somewhat ambiguous to me.  And I had no idea if the friend in question even uses (or would use) a rosary -- heck, I know my friends' faiths as a sort of general manner; I rarely get into the details of how they actually pray.  It's sort of personal.

Fifteen minutes have ticked away, and I've walked up and down the cases a couple dozen times, and was no closer to a decision.  Those popemobile stamps were starting to look good.  I was tempted to find someone who spoke English in there and ask for advice, but I couldn't quite figure out the question I would ask ("Hi, what's a good reasonably-priced gift for a not incredibly devout Catholic who had been hoping for something like Holy water?") and didn't want to offend.  I mean, I definitely got the vibe that I was the only non-Christian in the place, and one wants to be respectful.

Ten minutes later, I walked out, tightly clutching a bag with a pretty silver cross in it.

Rome, Day Two

So, as planned, I spent today with Lance, the American dude on his way back from Iraq.

It went really, really well. Actually, a lot better than planned in a lot of ways.

Rudy had driven my be a lot of stuff in Rome – for instance, the ruins and a building that goes by the name of “the wedding cake.” With Lance, I had the opportunity to actually stand next to all this stuff and take pictures (and, bonus, now that Rudy had given me all the background info, I was able to call up bits and pieces of it to share with Lance – it also helped me get a better handle on things when I was seeing them for a second time and trying to repeat some of the info). We started off looking at a bunch of the ruins (there are so many pictures, it will take me hours to go through them all). Lance saw what looked like a really pretty building way up the hill and wanted to get a good look at it. I didn’t quite realize it until we were there, but it was “the wedding cake.”

On the way up the hill, we got an awesome view of the Constantine Arch. I’d seen that the other day from the Colosseum, but that was down on the ground level – seeing it from a staircase gave us a much better view of the frieze on it. Then, once we reached the top of the winding stairs, we were in an open piazza which looked vaguely familiar. Yes! I recognized the statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback in the center. Rudy had driven me by this piazza – we were on a road at the bottom of the main stairs leading up to it – and told me about the statue. (Basically, someone had lied and said it was a statue of Constantine, the first Roman Emporer to convert to Christianity. For this reason, the Church did not destroy the statue as they’d destroyed other Roman stuff.) The statue is in the center of a plaza with buildings on three sides (the main stairs are on the fourth). Two of those buildings make up a museum. I know this because it said “Museo” on it. The museum had two other words I recognized, on a banner announcing a temporary exhibit: “Michelangelo” and “Leonardo.” These were good words to see on a museum. I made a note of the name of the place, and Lance and I made our way down the main stairs and around the corner to the “wedding cake” building.

Am still not entirely clear what the wedding cake is – it’s labelled as something like the ministry of history and culture, but that isn’t the name it goes by now. We went up the stairs on the front of this thing (there were a lot of stairs today – I happily report no knee issues at all), at which point I remembered Rudy had said there was a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier here. We hit the top just in time to see the changing of the guard. We went inside the building (in Lance’s continuing quest to get to the top of the damn thing for the view) – there were lots of flags inside; they looked like regimental flags, and I guessed we were in a military museum of some sort. There also looked like there was a second Tomb of the Unknown on the inside.

We never quite made it to the top. There was a scenic elevator, for which there was a fee, so we decided to take a pass on it, but we got some lovely pictures from a terrace.

We had a map. Looking at the map, it seemed like we weren’t all that far from the Trevi fountain, so I suggested we walk over there. Walked Lance over to the Trevi fountain and got some more pictures. On our way over, I noticed a sign that said Pantheon, and realized that wasn’t all that far from things either. I wanted to show that to Lance – I’d been talking it up the other day – and, actually, I really wanted to give it a second look. So, after lunch (yummy lasagna), we walked on over to the Pantheon. Way more crowded than it had been yesterday, but still as impressive.
We then decided to head back to the hotel, but first stopped at an internet cafe. While there, I googled the museum in question and discovered it was hosting a temporary exhibition of upwards of 60 drawings by Michelangelo and Leonardo – the largest collection ever exhibited together. I was all over this. Admission was 6 Euro, but admission to the exhibit AND the museum was 12 Euro. I did some further research and decided that, yes, I wanted to see the museum, too.

Now, Lance had arrived her from Iraq with a backpack and the clothes on his back, so he was in need of some clothes shopping. We split up for a few hours – he hit the shops and I hit the museum.

I want to be very clear that, as the whole fate thing goes, I never would have known about this exhibition if I hadn’t spent the day with Lance. I’d looked at a magazine listing museums and exhibitions and it didn’t mention this (it was an October magazine and this exhibition had just started on the 27th). And I would not have walked up to this plaza if Lance hadn’t wanted to walk to the top of the wedding cake. So, totally, even though Lance didn’t end up going to the museum, it’s indirectly due to him that I ended up there.

And the exhibition was awesome. No photos were allowed in there, and the little weasels were not selling a catalog of it. (I checked. For the record, this is the first time in my life that I wanted to buy the catalog for a museum exhibit.) I’ve probably mentioned that, as a general rule, I like artifacts more than art – manuscript rooms are often my favorite parts of museums, and I love seeing drafts written in the hand of famous authors. And this here exhibit was about 66 examples of, basically, the place where art and artifact meet. I was standing with no more than six inches (and some museum glass) between my face and a piece of paper on which Leonardo sketched a design of a machine, or Michelangelo sketched a study of a face. These were terrific from the “I dig manuscripts” point of view, but there was also some impressive art going on in some of them (Michelangelo’s “Cleopatra,” for instance). And it was such a great opportunity to see the difference between the two artists – see them both sketch a man’s profile; Leonardo’s is a perfectly accurate depiction of how the man appears, while Michelangelo’s is idealized and captures the emotion of the moment. See them both sketch a building; Leonardo’s is a mathematically-precise blueprint, Michelangelo’s looks pleasing. (And both were huge fans of the ancient classical ideal.) They were each dancing around perfection, but in completely different ways.

Having given that exhibit about an hour, I had another hour to spend in the rest of the museum, which also held plenty of treats. I discovered that the statue of Marcus Aurelius we had seen in the courtyard was a copy – the original was inside the museum (having been harmed by years of exposure to the elements), and was much more impressive. (In this case, the copy didn’t compare. Hell, the color alone was amazing on the original.)

Rudy had taught me that most of current Rome is built on top of ancient Rome (the latter having been at the level of the river Tiber). This was conveniently demonstrated by the museum itself – when doing some excavation near the impressive room where Marcus Aurelius is displayed, they discovered that the museum itself is located on the site of an ancient Roman temple, so they just opened the floor for us to get a good look at it. Thus art and architecture happily meet here.

Various other cool things – some unexpected (like a tablet indicating the powers of the emporer – the damn thing contained what I can only call an early “supremacy clause” – my inner lawyer geek was impressed) and some anticipated (the Greek statue – although a Roman copy – known as the “Dying Gaul”... I’d studied it in college and loved seeing it up close; also got a camera angle on it I’ve never seen before)

(Interesting note about Roman copies – Rudy, who is otherwise a 100% awesome tour guide – tried to pass off a Roman copy as an original Greek statue in the Vatican, until I called him on it (in most instances, a Roman copy is crazy easy to spot). He gave an explanation about how when something is this old, you can safely call the Roman copy an “original” artistic piece. This may be legit, although I had specifically asked if this was an original Greek statue. In any event, I pretty much gave notice that I’m not falling for that.) ANYWAY, the Dying Gaul that they have at the museum is a Roman copy – I’ll have to look it up, but this may be one of those statues that we ONLY know through its Roman copies – and the piece was getting a lot of attention in the museum. I’d given Rudy a certain amount of shit for trying to pass off a Roman copy as a Greek original in the Vatican, but now that I was looking at Dying Gaul up close, I didn’t entirely care that it wasn’t the original. In retrospect, I gave Rudy a pass. While I hadn’t appreciated what he was saying at the time, I sort of got it while I was looking at the Dying Gaul. This was the Dying Gaul – even though it was a Roman copy of the Greek original, it was a copy made by someone trying to exactly copy the original, and he’d done a job that convincingly lasted for nearly two centuries. That’s good enough (and may be the only chance I’ll get).

Lance and I met for dinner (I am happy to report that Italian hot chocolate is just as good as nice, thick French hot chocolate) and said our goodbyes. (I have to pack.) I’m very glad I had a friend to share Rome with today.

Early start for the airport tomorrow – I’ll be home soon.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Rome Wasn't Toured in a Day

I’d hired a driver/guide.

I’d argued with myself over this for weeks, trying to find a way to do everything I wanted on a reasonable amount of money. Honestly, there was no way, so I did it on an unreasonable amount, and hired a damn driver/guide.

The ship docked in Civitavecchia (“old city”), which is about an hour outside of Rome. The driver/guide met me outside the ship to drive me into Rome and give me a full day tour of the place. Happily, a nice couple I’d met on the ship, Brian and Judy, needed a ride into town as well, so they joined me for the first half of the tour. It gave me some company, and a bit of a break on the price.

So, Rudy picks us up at about 8:00 a.m. and we’re off to Rome. There will be all sorts of photos. Right now (and, honestly, the room is rocking now, but I can’t say whether that’s the after-effects of the cruise or the more immediate after-effects of the wine), this morning seems like a hell of a long time ago, and I really can’t believe we did all of it.

We started off at the Pantheon, which was mostly empty and largely awesome. One of the themes of this tour was that the Ancient Romans were amazing engineers, and all you have to do is look at the dome on this thing and think, “yeah, they really had their engineering shit together.” The building is also beautiful. No, that’s not the word. I’m not sure what the word is. There may not be a word. Here’s a few sentences: You can look at the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica (and I did, a few hours later), and it’s beautiful in its gradeur. It’s elegant and beautifully decorated, and it reflects the use of all the best decorative materials used by the best artist/architect of the time, all to the end of making you look up at it and marvel at the glory of God. And then you can look at the dome of the Pantheon. And there’s no gold on it at all, and the pattern in the ceiling is pretty much simple, although it’s pleasing to the eye in a very happy symmetrical geometrical sense. But it’s freaking open at the top; they’ve engineered it with a big old hole in the middle. Through which you can see sky. And the sun shines through it brightening a single patch on the wall like Indiana Jones is going to use it to tell him where to dig for the Ark of the Covenant. And they built the damn thing something like 1500 years ago and it’s still so undeniably powerful in its simplistic appearance and truly awe-inspiring design. And I was standing there right under it. I actually wiped away a tear (and hoped my friends didn’t notice).

And then Rudy took us over to the Trevi Fountain (fed by one of three still-functioning aqueducts). We snapped pictures and tasted the water. I reached in my pocket and unobtrusively plinked a small coin in. (I even said “plink” as I tossed it off, and a moment later, it made that exact sound.) We also saw the Spanish Steps.

Then it was over to the Colosseum. There are a bunch of Roman ruins in the area – really, a lot. I’m actually impressed at how much of it is still preserved – but we pretty much did a drive-by here. Guide then left us to walk around the Colosseum ourselves.

There are dudes dressed in Roman gladiator garb posted at various places around the Colosseum. They seem to be there to just pose in your tourist photos. As we happened by a group of them, one came over to us and, from the way we happened to be grouped at the moment, erroneously guessed that I was with Brian and that Judy was the single one. So he goes right up to her and asks if she’s single. No, she explains, she’s with Brian. Gladiator then realizes that he has it wrong. He turns to me and says “Single?” I can’t imagine this interaction is going to end without him trying to pose with me in a stupid photo, but don’t really have a way out of it, so I say, “yes.” He walks over to me, leans in to my ear, and says …


He walks away, and the three of us start laughing.

We finish with the Colosseum, and Rudy takes us to Brian and Judy’s hotel. We say our goodbyes, and then I’m off with Rudy to Palatine Hill, a view of Circus Maximus, and, oh yeah, the Vatican.

There’s a lunch break before the Vatican, at some tiny little restaurant Rudy recommends, where I’m served what is probably the best pasta I’ve ever eaten.

THEN we go to the Vatican. OK, tip: get a guide. Book your reservation for the museums in advance and get a damn guide. They’re pretty informative, can show you what to see in the massive museums, and will save you hours and hours of waiting in line.

Fact I had never really processed: The Vatican has a massive museum. The Church collected tons of ancient art – not just Roman; there’s loads of Greek and Egyptian stuff too.

Fact I had never really known: The leaders of the Church weren’t into religious art. Which is to say, they were quite into it for its value in conveying religious stories to the illiterate masses – but when it came to the art that Popes just liked to look at, they went with the Classical ideal.

Thought I’m Certain The Church Would Never Go For: You know, it would really speed traffic in the Sistene Chapel if they’d just load everyone in those buggies like they have at the Haunted Mansion (at Disneyland). They could lean back so you’d stare at the ceiling without bumping into other people; and they could slowly pass in front of the Final Judgment so folks don’t block it. OK, yeah, they’d have to take the buggies out when the College of Cardinals is meeting in there, but still...

Yes, He Really Was That Good: You’re not allowed to take photos in the Sistene Chapel, and that’s really ok, because no photo I’ve ever seen of it comes close to capturing the 3D effect of that ceiling. I’ve heard about it and seen photos, but the photos always seemed flat. But stand there (or ride by in a buggy), and interact with it, and, damn. Also? The Pieta is, like, beyond art.

After the Vatican, Rudy took me to a spot where there was a nice view of Rome, and then brought me to my hotel.

I was wiped. Let me be clear on this: I’d had four hours of sleep and eight hours of touring; it was a pretty full day.

While checking in, I met another American who was also travelling alone. He was on his way back from Iraq – not a soldier, but an employee of one of the military support contractors. With the military pulling out at the end of the year, it’s time for the support contractors to head home, and this guy had just arrived in Rome from Iraq (via Dubai). We decided to pool our vast combined knowledge of Rome (and the Italian language) and attack this place together tomorrow. The hotel is right by the ruins, so we’re going to give them a closer look.

Our temporary partnership was cemented at dinner tonight. We found a restaurant nearby – open terrace dining (the weather is pretty nice) – and shared some appetizers, a pizza, some nummy desserts, and a decent bottle of chianti. (Actually, it was a quite decent bottle – dude said he would buy me dinner, so I said I’d buy the wine, and I didn’t want to be all cheap.) We didn’t entirely finish it (it had been tasting really good on the second glass, but was going downhill when we got near the bottom).

I have to say that, when thinking back on the cough drop I had in Nice, my first dinner in Italy was substantially better than my first dinner in France.

In Vino Veritas

The amusing thing … the really amusing thing … is that I’ve intended for most of today to post about last night under this title.

And now, I’m pretty darned tipsy myself. I’ve never actually “drunken blogged” before. I’m not entirely certain that this counts as drunken blogging now – although, given the amount of typos in the pre-proofreading version of that sentence, I’m somewhere along the continuum. So take this post with a grain of salt. Or a hair of the dog...

To my great (and pleasant) surprise, there actually WERE people at the party on deck. (Deciding to go up on deck, with my netbook under my arm, was one of those decisions that makes me absolutely certain that humans have free will. Because I really couldn’t decide whether to go. Part of the time, I was certain I would do the rational thing and go back to my cabin, finish packing, and get a good night’s sleep. And the other part of the time, I figured it was my last chance to have some fun time with these folks, and I really should just stop doing the rational thing all the damn time. Irrational won. Although rational decided that, since I’d have to wake up the next morning on very little sleep, no alcohol would be consumed.)

So, I went up on deck and discovered a grand total of two groups of people. One group consisted of two passengers I knew and liked, who were speaking with a third person I’d never met. The other was comprised of crew. So I joined the folks I knew and liked, met the third, and immediately became engaged in a wide-ranging conversation which was partially fueled by alcohol.

If you know me, you know I drink rarely. (Kathy, my Ireland travelling companion, saw me drink a pint of cider, and commented that it was the most she’d ever seen me drink. This was because it was pretty much the most I’d ever drunk.) A friend in Law School advised me that not drinking while with people who were drinking can be quite a lot of fun, if you sort of look at it as a sociological experiment. And that was sort of what I did while up on deck last night – about half of me was participating in the conversation and laughing and joking along with the other three, and the other half of me was really enjoying watching where conversations go when people are somewhat released from social conventions by the freeing effects of being a little buzzed.

Or, to put things a bit more concretely, someone who I’d only known for about a week asked me, very honestly, how one knows what God’s plan is for them.

And my mind started spinning on several tracks at once. I knew enough to know that this particular question would not properly be answered by my saying that, while I personally think that the existence of a Supreme Being is something of an open question, I generally don’t think that said Being has a plan for me any more than it takes an interest in who wins the Super Bowl or the Best New Artist Grammy (i.e., none at all). But I also knew that this was a serious question coming from a serious place. So I took the “God” out of it and tried to provide a suitable answer to “how do I know if I’m doing the right thing with my life?”

It’s nearly a day later and I’m still puzzling over it – not the answer – the fact that the question came at me in those circumstances. A little booze and an interaction with people you know you’ll never see again can put you in a place to feel safe enough to ask something you might not otherwise ask … but really need to.

Eventually, that particular gathering broke up, leaving just two of us and the remnants of the crew party. Conveniently, the crew party now consisted of three people, two of whom were, without a doubt, my two favorite people on the crew. So, even though it was now past 1:00 a.m. and I had to wake up at 6:15, I booked on over there and hung out with them for a little while.

OK, maybe an hour.

I got back to my room in time to get a solid four hours of sleep.

It is somewhat unfortunate that I spend enough of my life in a state of sleep deprivation that I know I can function well enough, if a bit slowly, on four hours of sleep. So, yeah, I was a bit punchy going into today. Which was all kinds of insane, given where today went.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Wrapping up the Cruise

Well, that’s about the end of the cruise. Today, we docked in Porto Vecchio, another port in Corsica, this time, facing Italy. (Still France, though – Corsica is owned by the French in its entirety.) Tour went up to Bonifacio (this wasn’t the tour I’d signed up for, but it was the tour that was going, so I went with it), which was a medieval city built on the top of a hill. Nice views. As per usual, there will be photographs, when the internet is not costing me a dollar a minute.

Other than that, the city was pretty much like every other city in Corsica, which means that it had shops selling All Things Corsican (olive oil, honey, coral, and (for some reason) knives). I actually scored when I found a shop selling stuff made out of cork. Apparently, cork is also big in Corsica, and some enterprising dude handcrafted some stuff out of cork (as opposed to just stoppers for wine bottles) and I picked up another gift there. So, basically, I came out of the shore excursion with photos and gifts.

(We pause for a moment to note my current location. It’s nearing 11:00 p.m. on the last night of the cruise, and I’m in the lounge, alone. There were some people here, talking, and they just bailed. There is, apparently, a party up on deck – or, at least, there was. I am curious as to whether it’s still going. It was scheduled to start at 9:30. Then again, it’s cold, dark, and windy; the sea is fairly choppy; and we have to get up really early tomorrow. If I’m going by the amount of suitcases already lined up in the hallway, outside cabin doors, the party must have ended pretty early. I just finished my packing and decided to come upstairs to the lounge to use my last 14 minutes of internet. I was tempted to go upstairs and join the party for a few minutes first, but I didn’t want to go up and down the stairs again to pick up my netbook … and I’ve already packed my jacket, In any event, the boat just rocked quite nicely on the sea, so I’m wondering if anyone else is still up there drinking and/or attempting to dance. Perhaps I’ll check after I’ve posted, when it’ll be even later!)

In any event, I haven’t said much about my fellow cruisers. Can happily report that (although perhaps not party animals), they don’t appear to include anyone like the crazy racist woman on that last trip. This whole group seems pretty normal, sane and friendly. I even met someone who knows someone I work with. Small world and all that.

(Tee hee. The crew is cleaning up, and doesn’t quite know I’m in here. I hear singing. Enthusiastic, but not particularly good singing. I’m trying to type a little louder to alert him of my presence, but there’s only so hard I can hit the keys without sounding like I’m in a flame war.)

Where was I? Oh, yeah, the peeps. Was seated at dinner last night with an interesting couple. He’s Swiss; she’s (originally) Polish. They met, and then corresponded by mail for 8 years, while she lived under the Communist regime and was unable to leave the country. (I’m not even entirely sure that she ever received letters back from him. English is not their first language. Or second, for that matter.) Still, it’s a great romantic story that they ultimately got married, raised a family, and seem very happy now. VERY happy. I don’t think you could scrub the smile off her face if you tried. They had a real “carpe diem” thing going on. Every night at dinner, the menu includes various courses, and, always, the “Chef’s Recommendation” – in which the chef recommends one item in each course. And every night of the cruise, they each order the Chef’s Recommendation in its entirety. I mean, that’s what he’s recommending, right? So they’re going to order it, and enjoy every bite. Over dinner, I got a lot of philosophical tidbits from them, mostly about living life to the fullest while you can, but also about how having your health is more important than money, and that you should judge a person by the thoughts in his head and not the suit that he wears. It’s all stuff I’ve heard countless times before, but it somehow resonates when you’re hearing it from someone who has really lived it, and knows whereof she speaks.

Singing crewman just came in. I just typed that he’d stopped, but he was just changing songs. Came walking in the lounge singing fairly loud. Saw me, and I sorta bit my lip, as I was typing about him. I thought he muttered “sorry” as he passed by, but he kept right on singing. More power to you, dude.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Able was I...

Oops. Didn’t post yesterday as I’d been promised an internet cafe today. This did not materialize. (While I will happily blame the crew for the fiasco that has been my internet usage this past week – long story there – I’m not entirely certain the fact the internet cafe was closed today can be blamed on them. This was our first day in Italy, and I’ve just come face to face with the Italian practice of closing stores at noon, only to reopen at 4 … or whenever they feel like it. Dudes, I’m not trying to tell you how to run your businesses, but when your port is teeming with tourists ready to dump Euros in your laps, maybe you’ll want to be open when they’re there. Just saying.)

ANYWAY, we were at sea yesterday – hauling ass from France all the way around Corsica to the (Italian) island of Elba. It was a largely fun day – the sun was shining, so it was a great day to sit out on the deck; there was something resembling wind, so we were able to turn off the engine and sail for a few hours (which I greatly enjoy, even though it makes some of my fellow passengers run for the barf bags); I took the engine room tour with the very entertaining Chief Engineer; I had a lovely dinner out on the deck; and was up past midnight hanging out with some fun folks in the lounge. All good.

Today (as previously mentioned), we arrived at Elba. About all I knew about Elba is that Napoleon was exiled here, and it shows up in a famous palindrome. Took a shore excursion in which I saw Napoleon’s country home (not palatial by any means, but, y’know, if I was in exile, I could probably get by there) and learned that Napoleon was here for only ten months. You’d think it was longer, given all the Napoleon stuff that pretty much covers the island. I would have thought making this place Napoleon Central was something of a calculated ploy to increase the tourist trade, but, apparently, the population of Elba genuinely liked the guy. Seems that, although he was only here for ten months, he did tons of stuff for the people of Elba – like increase industry and open schools. So they’re pretty cool with the association. (Also, learned this fun fact: You know the Rosetta Stone? Was discovered on a Napoleonic campaign in Egypt. Did not know this; would have thought it was discovered substantially earlier.)

(I can accept the fact that every souvenir stand is going to be plastered in Napoleon-related items. Am still trying to figure out the rationale behind the Mussolini apron.)

So, yes, country home; Napoleon souvenirs everywhere … (I used to play this game with a friend where we’d buy each other the tackiest souvenirs we could find. But it couldn’t just be a useless piece of kitsch – it had to be something that purported to have some sort of utilitarian purpose. Today I saw a Napoleon shoehorn. That’s the stuff.) … internet cafe closed; nice view of Monte Cristo (yay!); shops closed; back on ship. Somewhere in there, I managed a quick half hour of shopping. (Er... some earrings for me. Elba is also all about mining, so the shops were full of local hematite, pyrite, and various other -ites.) I am most proud of myself for not yet succombing to the gelato. I am certain, however, that it is only a matter of time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I like days like today.

Well, I didn’t really dig it at the start, but it turned out great.

Problem One: My shore excursion got cancelled. (No surprise there. So far on this cruise, I think only two shore excursions have actually gone out – and one of them was that tour of Calvi that they did even though there were only five of us.)

Problem Two: It was raining. I’m actually surprised we got this far without rain. This cruise was really inexpensive for a reason – it’s the end of the season – so you sorta have to expect rain.

Result: A rainy day in Villefranche-sur-Mer, with nothing to do.

Villefranche is a small little village (“fishing village,” we were told). Given the season and the rain, most of the little shops in Villefranche didn’t even bother opening. Hell, local traffic wouldn’t keep them open, and there were only 98 of us. Tendering over every half hour. Only if we weren’t feeling too wet. So: A rainy day in a largely closed village.

Here’s the upside: Villefranche-sur-Mer is pretty near other cities. Indeed – our cruise started in Nice and was just in Monaco last night – Villefranche is actually between the two – about a ten minute train ride from Nice, and (I’m guessing here) maybe 20 or so from Monaco. So, a bunch of people from the cruise ship planned to take busses or trains to other cities.

I figured I’d just wander around Villefranche and see if I couldn’t find an internet cafe. (Actually, I’d planned to ask for an internet cafe at the tourist information desk – but the tourist information desk was closed by the time I tendered over. So, aimless wandering it was.)

I figured the best shot would be one of the shops along the street fronting on the water. So my plan was to walk all the way down the street to the end (not a particularly large village), and if I didn’t find internet by then, I’d turn around and walk back. At least I’d have gone for a little walk in Villefranche. (Update on various aches and pains: knees and thighs still sore. I can walk all I want … as long as it’s flat.) So, I started off down the street.

I reached the end of the street, having come up empty on the internet front. I’m about to turn around when I see the sign saying “gare.”

I nearly laugh because I know what a “gare” is. It’s funny, because when, on the second day of French class, they teach you stuff like “bibliotheque,” you think, “when am I ever going to need to ask someone in French where to find the library?” (Because, hell, my French will never be good enough to read a French book.) But, at the same time you’re learning “bibliotheque,” you’re learning “gare.” And while I’d thought, at the time, that I’d never really need to know the French word for “train station,” it turned out to be pretty useful here.

There was an arrow pointing up a flight of steps. Fate brought me to the train station. I’m not doing anything today – let’s take a train someplace! I go up the steps and see I’m dealing with two platforms. Monaco in one direction; Nice and beyond in the other. I just got back from Monaco. Sure, I could go back there again for the chocolate shop I’d missed … but I had a hell of a time navigating there when it wasn’t pouring down rain, it seemed silly to go back there now.

And I didn’t want to go back to Nice either. How about someplace new? Where else does this thing go? Apparently, the train to Nice continued on to Antibes, Cannes, and Grasse.

I considered Grasse. That’s the place where you go to the perfume factory. (It had been on my cancelled shore excursion.) But, although the train to Grasse was leaving fairly soon, it only ran every hour and a half or so, and I didn’t want to be stranded in Grasse waiting that long for the train back.

Antibes was possible, too. I’d read something about Antibes (when waiting at the tourist information center for someone to show up and tell me where the internet was) – but I couldn’t quite remember what it was.

Cannes it is, then. I know stuff about Cannes. (I’ve heard of it and everything.) And the folks on the ship had recommended it as a really good shopping place (both for high end stuff and artsy stuff). I tried it on: “Let’s go to Cannes, today.” Felt good.

Through a combination of charades and bad French, I purchased my ticket (and got directed to the correct platform). Actually, I could have figured out the platform thing myself. You don’t need much French to figure out the train station. There was a map of the line – I could figure out the final destination of the train to Cannes, so I’d know what to look for. I could even read the board enough to understand when my train was delayed 25 minutes. (The monitor went red and said “retard” under the train number.) I like trains. I’m much better at trains than busses, when it comes to figuring out what you need. I can do trains.

The train arrived and I realized my first mistake – the train did not have the line map inside it, so I couldn’t follow along and figure how far I was from Cannes. (You should always count how many stops you have to go before you get on the train.) I had a vague idea (Cannes is the next big station after Antibes), most of the stations were labelled, and the woman over the loudspeaker would say something involving the words “prochain” (“next,” said my memory) and, at some point, “Cannes.”

I should not have worried. I actually knew that we were approaching Cannes before she even announced it. All of a sudden, the scenery looked very Cannes-like – which was surprising to me, because if you’d asked me what Cannes looked like, I would have said I had no idea. But I saw some buildings and trees in a familiar color scheme that just screamed “a snooty film festival belongs here” and, sure enough, it was Cannes.

Got off the train and realized my second mistake. Having come to Cannes on an impulse, I had no map of the place, and no real idea what to do once I got there. And there weren’t any maps in the train station. Having spent about an hour on the train, though, I knew one thing – the Mediterranean is that way. (And, having spent some time in Nice and in Villefranche, I knew that there is going to be good stuff near the beach.) I prepared to go in that general direction, but first walked a block or so on the street fronting on the train station, until I found …

the internet cafe! OK, sure, I’d spent an hour (and about 14 Euro) on the train to get to Cannes, but this was a totally awesome internet cafe. Three lousy Euro for a whole hour AND, when I began by asking the man behind the counter if he parlez-ed Anglais, he immediately directed me to one of his terminals with an English keyboard! Yes! “A” and “Q” where were they belonged! Victory!

Spent about 20 minutes getting caught up on my e-mail, took care of booking my Vatican ticket for when I get to Rome, and then pulled up the ol’ Cannes Gare on Google Maps to find out where the hell I was.

Once I’d solved that little mystery, I realized that I had to figure out what I wanted to do in Cannes. I remembered that I’d had unfinished business with the chocolate shop in Monaco, and figured there’d have to be a good French chocolate shop in Cannes. There were several. I picked out one that also served French hot chocolate (the good thick stuff that tastes like a melted dark chocolate bar). One was on “Rue D’Antibes.” Said rue (thank you again, google maps) was parallel to, and two blocks away from, my current rue. And the chocolate shop wasn’t too far down. Now, I had a plan.

I somewhat reluctantly said goodbye to my nice, cheap, internet, but since I was aiming for French hot chocolate, I had a serious incentive to get a move on. Easily found my way to Rue D’Antibes, which is, as it turns out, one of your main shopping streets in Cannes. All sorts of snooty high end boutiques … and a Claire’s Accessories, for some reason. I did a bunch of window shopping, and found me the chocolate shop.

Very snooty Parisien chocolate shop. I bought some very snooty Parisien chocolate to bring home for presents (packs flat!) and got me a hot chocolate to go. (Actually, the very snooty lady comped me the hot chocolate, so perhaps wasn’t all that snooty after all.) Hot chocolately lava warmed me nicely from the inside, and I continued on down Rue D’Antibes, checking out shops. I even stumbled upon a perfume shop (yay – saved me a trip to Grasse!) and acquired a few more gifts (they pack flat, too) for people back home.

At some point, I figured it was time to turn back – I wanted to get back to Villefranche before dark, as, with the rain and all, it was already pretty darned cold, and the dark would make it downright unpleasant. So, I found my way back to the Cannes gare and picked up the train back.

On the way back, I started thinking that I had a great start on a perfect gift for my Catholic friends – Parisien chocolate, French perfume, and a little something from the Vatican would make a great little “sin and salvation” package!

I chuckled all the way back to the boat.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Lost in Monaco

Famous Last Words: It’s only a square mile, how lost can I get?

(Thought, shortly thereafter: It fits in Central Park. I’ve gotten pretty lost in Central Park.)

The problem, navigationally speaking, is that the place is on a hill. Well, several hills. And the maps they provide are not (yet) in three dimensions. (Some folks from the cruise reckoned that, in a few years, they’d have a “holographic map of Monaco” iPhone app. This would totally rock.) Because I look at the map, and it looks like I need to cross three streets to get from Point B to Point C. Seriously, the destination in question is directly across three streets. You do not simply cross three streets to get there. In fact, you can’t get there – not without a bus that circles half of Monte Carlo. Because those streets are on three different levels. When there’s a cliff between you and the next street over, the map loses usefulness. So, yes, lost. Pretty darn lost.

Overall impression of Monaco: OK, you know how people in the States are talking about being part of the “99 percent” (and wanting to tax “the one percent”)? Monaco is the “0.1 percent.” Maybe the “0.01 percent” or less. These are the crazy super rich, and this is their playground. You’ve got the yachts (which, apparently, are what all the men here have “mine is bigger than yours” arguments about), the casinos, the ultra-high-end shops, and the extremely conspicuous consumption. (Someone reported seeing a pair of shoes for over 2000 Euro (so multiply by about 1.3) – SHOES, people.)

(I saw a homeless guy sleeping on the street in Nice. I assume Monte Carlo exports their homeless to France. They certainly import their working class. Nobody working in Monaco could actually afford to live there. Saw a real estate shop advertising a ROOM – not an apartment, a room, a 40 square meter room, for 345,000 Euro. Can the guy parking cars in the casino afford that? I’m thinking not.)

My first impression of Monaco, though, was none of this. (Well, my very first impression was getting lost – I’ve decided the Tourist Information lady was not nearly as useful as she appeared, as I ran into several other folks from the cruise aimlessly wandering around the area looking for the elevator she told us existed.) My real first impression was the Oceanographic Museum/Aquarium.

Said museum was started by Prince Albert I in something like 1906. Cousteau was involved with the place for years. It’s all about conserving the environment (particularly the Mediterranean); getting people involved; and displaying the fish in a manner in which they are quite beautifully displayed and also appear to be pretty happy. The jellyfish who looked almost neon in a blacklight were stunning. (There will be photos, but they didn’t do it justice.) There is no doubt that a ton of cash went into this place, but this was cash spent for something good – preservation and education. Full marks for Albert and the Oceanography Museum. (OK, take away a half a point for the restaurant in the museum having fish on the menu – but I’d be willing to bet they are from sustainable populations.)

The other place I really wanted to see in Monaco (only got slightly lost finding this – conveniently, I hooked up with another couple from the cruise in the museum, and we found it together) was the automobile collection. “Collection” is the key word here – as a friendly sign on the wall explains, this is not an automotive museum, just a private collection of cars. (A private collection of cars owned by a dude with a crazy amount of money.)

Actually “cars” might not be the right word either, as the historical collection begins with carriages. (They even display some of the harnesses for the horses.) Then the collection works its way into the automobile era, with plenty of very early cars from the early 20th century and (eventually) beyond. By the time you’ve hit the 1960’s, you head downstairs to another floor, where, around the corner (behind the Mercedes McLaren) is all the speed cars – up to and including rally cars and a Formula 1 racer. All (well, except for a well-worn rally car) in absolutely perfect, shiny, I-wouldn’t-even-want-to-breathe-on-it condition. On the way out was an electric car that looked like a luscious aerodynamic machine built for speed. About the furthest thing from a Prius I’ve ever seen. Very spiffy collection (and, again, there will be photos).

Those were the first and best things I saw in Monaco (also passed a “Chocolate Shop and Tea House” which had great potential...). I mean, sure, there was tremendous cash on display in both of them, but even with the 100+ car collection, it seemed like the money was put to a decent (or, at least, understandable) purpose.

I will never understand the 2000 Euro shoes.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Victory is Mine!


Now that’s better.

I’ve been on cruises alone several other times. On most of those cruises, I somehow managed to get everyone to know who I am. I like things that way. (Get invited to share many other tables at dinner.)

The first time this happened quite by accident (these things usually do). The cruise ship was only about one-third full. We were out cruising the Great Barrier Reef, and I was the only one SCUBA certified. So, every time we’d get a weather report for the next day, the activities guy would tell everyone about snorkelling, and then say, “Hey, Sharon, diving looks good,” and everyone would turn around and look at me. I was “that SCUBA girl.”

I like this. I might not know everyone else, but they all have a general idea who I am. Much easier to make friends.

So, second night of this cruise, I am now officially known as (my mom will be so proud) the one who kicked everyone’s ass at “Name That Tune.”

Seriously. Pianist Guy passes out answer sheets – everyone else is all teamed up. I have no one who wants to join my team, so I figure I’ll play alone. Pianist comments that people usually come late, so they can join me. Whatever. He tells us that it’s not just “Name That Tune,” but “TV Theme Song Name That Tune.” I figure I’ve actually got a shot at this by myself.

Two games – 20 songs each. First game, we’re about 7 songs in when another couple comes in and joins me. (I have 6 of them right, at this point.) The woman doesn’t watch much TV, but the guy helps. (He gives me two I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, and confirmed me on a couple I wasn’t sure of.) We end up with 17 out of 20 – a decisive victory. The couple says it was mostly me. Pianist Guy points out to the crowd that I was the one who was going to play alone, which sort of seals everyone’s impression of me as knowing Way Too Many TV Theme Songs.

Pianist guy says the second round is easier than the first. We only get 13 on that one, so I figure we’re well and truly beat. Nope … turns out we won that one too.

For winning, they gave us a bottle of champagne, in which I had very little interest, so my new teammates suggested we get a bunch of glasses and offer to share with whomever wants. A brilliant idea.

So, now I’m the one that kicked everyone’s ass at Name That Tune and shared the winnings with the other teams.

(Pianist is doing it again with Movie Theme Songs later in the week. I have been requested to attempt to defend my title.)


So … Corsica.

Bookwise, my timing could not be better for this cruise. I’m reading The Count of Monte Cristo, and the damn thing takes place in this particular area of the planet. Just last night, I read a passage in which someone (from Corsica) recounts the story of when he threatened to kill a man, and told him that there is a “vendetta” between them. The person hearing this story asks if the threatened man understood that word, as it is a Corsican word. So then, today, I’m on a bus tour (somewhat extravagently called “Corsican Panorama”) and our tour guide starts talking about Corsican history and talks about how Corsicans are famous for their vendettas and I thought, “Dude, I so totally just read that!”

(The bus also stopped and our driver chatted with a few locals out on a wild boar hunt. The tour guide told us this was a great opportunity for us to hear the Corsican language. It is apparently a cross between French, Italian, and Latin. To my ear, it sounded a lot like someone speaking French with an Italian accent. Which makes a sort of sense, I guess.)

The cruise itself is at about 2/3rds capacity. There is an upside and a downside to this. The upside is that the “Corsican Panorama” tour, which went off in a 50-person tour bus, had only five of us on it – so it was really like a private tour. The downside is that my tour tomorrow in Monte Carlo got cancelled, because there were only about 3 of us on it. Ah well – shit happens.

So, anyway, five of us on the ol’ Corsican Panorama bus. The ship is at anchor a short ways out from Calvi, a city on the western coast of Corsica (facing France – yeah, I needed a map for that). We pile into the bus for a drive up to a church – Notre Dame de (or de la, I forget) Serra. ANYWAY, this isn’t a church you go to for sightseeing. Actually, it’s pretty much a room and a statue of the Virgin Mary. (And when I say “room,” I’m overstating things, as one generally expects a room to have a ceiling. I’m just saying.) But the church is located at the top of a hill, with a terrific view down on the town of Calvi and a lot of, well, Corsican outdoors. There will be pictures. 

There’s also a picture of the cemetery. This because, when I looked over at the cemetery, a certain distance away, I totally underestimated the size of the gravestones. I mean, I thought they were all, y’know, gravestone sized. And then I saw some people walking around them, and realized that I was seriously mistaken – the gravestones were a bit taller than the people. (“Family graves,” we were told.)

The church was the high point (literally and figuratively) of the Corsican Panorama tour. The rest of it was just riding around on the bus while the tour guide told us about Corsican life (historical and present day). I confess I may have dozed off slightly. (And, as there were five of us, the guide probably noticed.)

After the tour, I can back to the ship … and ultimately went back to Calvi to do a little shopping (bought a great little linen jacket) and hunt down an internet cafe.

Internet on the ship is crazy expensive. It’s under a buck a minute, but not by much. On the other hand, internet in Calvi is no picnic. It’s 4 Euro for 30 minutes (more like 20 cents a minute), but you’re working on a French keyboard, which definitely slows you down. I mean, you need to hit “shift” to get to the numbers; the “a” and the “q” are switched, and the “m” has relocated. Typing took much longer than usual, and proofreading was mandatory. (I ended up getting cut off when my 30 minutes ran out while I was trying to type in my damn password.) Was not expecting the keyboard to be different – I guess I’d just expected that everyone who uses the same alphabet as we do would have had the keyboard set up in the same way. That’s a surprise. (The things we learn travelling the world.)

I am pretty wiped out. I can now honestly say I completely overdid things with the whole walk-to-the-ancient-castle thing in Nice. So I’m all sore and stiff and feeling like an idiot. My tour for Monte Carlo isn’t the only one they’ve cancelled – indeed; they’ve cancelled three of the four tour options, due to lack of interest. The only one they’re running has an “activity level” designation of “Strenuous” because of “numerous steep inclines.” My knees have vetoed any idea of going on this tour. I’m yielding to them on this one, as that wasn’t a tour I’d wanted to sign up for anyway. On the plus side, I’m told most of Monte Carlo can just be seen independently (and on foot … at one’s own pace), so that’s going to be Plan B.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Where was I? Ah, yes, enjoying the fine French cuisine of a berry-flavored cough drop.

My cheap-ass hotel redeemed itself with a comfy bed, a television with at least one English speaking channel (news – all Ghadaffi, all the time), and the free breakfast (which included chocolate croissants, edible yogurt with fruit in it, and many tea selections).

I headed off for a walk at around 10:00.

I pause for a moment to note that, when I’m on vacation, going for a morning walk – even an uphill one – seems like a generally good idea. I contrast this with myself on a daily basis, when any sort of exercise is largely frowned upon (and is only tolerated because the elliptical machine is planted directly in front of my TV). No idea why this is. I mean, I know why I don’t like walking in general – what I don’t get is why I’m actually eager to do it on vacation.

Also not clear on why I was eager to do it today. I slept well, but there may be some residual jet lag. And there’s the annoying pulled muscle thing (in the general neighborhood of my upper thigh – I don’t know what muscle it is, exactly, but the soreness returns whenever I put my cell phone in my front pants pocket). I’d been taking it easy because of said injury, and even put a heaty-wrap on it while on the plane, but today I thought, “OK, let’s hike up a hill in Nice.”

It’s quite lovely, actually. An old castle (largely destroyed) with a lovely view of the bay. There were pictures. (You’ll get them later – probably when I get back. Internet on the ship is spotty at best – the lady at reception actually tried to talk me out of purchasing it – so I’m looking at quick logins to post and check e-mail.)

I’m ahead of myself. I went for a morning walk down to the port. Was easy to spot the ship I’d be on, as it was the largest thing anywhere near the port. Usually Windstar ships are the tiniest thing in a port – but this was a teeny port and the Wind Spirit outclassed everything else.

Then I spotted the signs for the “Ancien chateau.” I was pretty sure that was what I was aiming for. Mostly because it was roughly where I thought it would be. Also because the signs were pointing upward.

I learned two things about the chateau last night (thank you, people of the internet) – first, that there is an elevator, but it’s on the other side and very hard to find; second, that there are many paths but they all eventually rejoin each other. So, the signs pointed toward both a gently sloping road and some stairs. I went with the road. After passing two more sets of steps, I finally went with the third (it looked friendly), and climbed my way up the hill. The path branched off a few times, but I’d randomly pick a direction (always “up”) and, with the exception of path that led to a clearing and nowhere else, made it to my destination – a very lovely lookout. I took some pictures (and helped a nice family with theirs), rested a bit, and headed back down. (Hotel checkout was at noon. They wouldn’t give me another hour, even though I asked nicely. I idly wondered if I would’ve gotten the extra hour if I had asked in French. Given that I couldn’t figure out how to phrase it, I doubt it would have helped.)

So. Went back down the hill, at which point the injury in my upper thigh said, “Why did we walk all the way up here?” At which point I changed my stride somewhat to make it easier on the injury, and my knee said, “Fuck that,” and decided to hurt every time I bent it and put weight on it. Which is, when you think about it, a fairly common occurrence when walking down a couple hundred steps. It was fine as long as I didn’t do the bending/weight-supporting combo, though, so I made it down the steps keeping the leg straight. (Why did I not accept my friend’s offer of her hiking stick? Or even bring my own (foldable) hiking stick? This is exactly why I WANTED the damn thing in the first place. Idiot.)

So, down the hill a little slower than intended, but no real harm done. Went back over to the dock – I could see the ship from where I was standing, but the entrance was down below. I wondered how to get down there from where I was – could not easily see a way down. Behind me were some stairs, though, so I thought I’d give them a shot.

To my happy surprise, they did not lead to the dock, but the beach. A very quiet section of rocky beach, right on the ol’ Mediterranean. There was a couple eating lunch on the rocks, and another couple people thinking about swimming – but, other than that, it was mostly deserted. I sat on a big cement block which seemed to be there for the sole purpose of sitting on it and looking out on the water, so I went with that, and had myself a nice little contemplation (there will be another photo) before heading back to the hotel in time to check out.

Not much else to report. Got a taxi (driver knew how to get down to the ship’s entrance); got my room; got unpacked; met some folks on the cruise; had some tasty meals … the usual. I am (also as per usual) currently the only person sitting in the lounge (it’s me and the bartender). There was a “sailing off” party up on deck after dinner, but it’s a bit cold and windy and I’m wearing a skirt. No idea how long anyone stayed out there, but it certainly isn’t skirt weather. If this is anything like my previous cruising experiences, everyone is asleep now, anyway. (I saw a foursome playing cards in the library and one guy in the casino. But unless there’s a big ol’ dance party outside in the wind – which I sorta doubt – I’m not here with a bunch of night owls.) I like journalling in public spaces, rather than sitting in my room – I’m happy to chat with anyone if they come by, but I don’t think anyone is coming by.

Come to think of it, I bet they’ll shut down the lounge as soon as I leave. They’ve turned off the lights in the casino, and I hear vacuuming.

Tomorrow, we arrive in Corsica.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Nice -- First Impressions

I intended to accomplish two things:  first, find some food; and second, find out how far the port is.

I was only partially successful.  I learned quite a bit, though.  I learned that my hotel is within walking distance of the port -- but not walking distance while dragging my luggage.  I also learned that most of the restaurants around the port serve pizza and fish (although perhaps not simultaneously); their kitchens close at 10:00; and nobody really wants to seat someone who comes walking up at 9:45, speaking English, and wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt that look suspiciously like she slept in them.  I could have gotten something from the take away sushi place, but I'm not a big fan of sushi to begin with, and I'm not at all certain that words like "French" and "take away" should be in the same sentence with "sushi."

The port, though, is really beautiful.  Indeed, one of the top tourist attractions in these parts is walking to the top of a nearby hill and taking in the view.  I may do this tomorrow; will have to see how early I get up (and whether my vending-machine-restaurant hotel can store my luggage if I go off investigating after check-out).  But the whole place was lovely at night; I quite liked it.

(Did I feel safe aimlessly wandering the streets of Nice searching for food at 9:45 at night?  Yes, although I did idly wonder what the gun control situation is in these parts.  My hotel is near the port, in an antique shop area of town -- and all the antique shops were closed, so there weren't a whole lot of people out on my street.  When I first walked out of the hotel, I saw a dude getting off a motorcycle holding what looked like a club.  And I thought, "you know, maybe I shouldn't be walking alone here."  And I got closer, and saw it was a baguette.  I shit you not, people.  Dude drove up with a baguette in his hand.  Welcome to France.)

Things I saw in Nice I haven't seen anywhere before:  motorcycles with refrigerated boxes on the back for delivering the take-away sushi; and ... a condom machine on the street corner.  I was actually using it as a landmark -- when trying to remember the way back to the hotel, it was, "walk to Northwest edge of the port; make a left at the condom machine...."

Didn't get dinner, though.  (Ate my complimentary Ricola.  Seriously, they gave me a free bottle of water and a little packet with a single ricola in it.  At least it was berry flavored.)  But in the hunger/tired continuum, tired is winning out over hungry, so perhaps I can manage a good night's sleep, and wake up nice and early for my free breakfast (allegedly NOT out of the vending machine) and hike up the hill.  

On the Road Again

Yeah. Haven’t been posting much (sorry, loyal reader), but things have been a bit hectic. Somewhere shortly after that last vacation, plans were made for the next vacation. I got an e-mail for a crazy good deal on another cruise from the nice Windstar people, and have spent the last month or so getting all my ducks in a row – both FOR the trip, and so that I could LEAVE on the trip. (Oh, hey, also, I’ll be co-producing an Awards show again this spring, so that’ll be another light-posting season.)

ANYWAY, though, the Adventure Began this morning. Well, no, the adventure began last night, when I was packing. Here’s the thing: I wear jeans all the time. And I hate getting into dirty jeans. Hate it. (I dunno – maybe I like wearing my jeans kinda tight, so it feels gross sliding into legs I’ve already lived in for a day.) ANYWAY, avoiding the re-using jeans problem would require packing 9 pairs of jeans. (Yes. I HAVE 9 pairs of jeans. And a few leftover, too.) I managed to do accomplish this.

Certain sacrifices were made. I’d have to wear my heavy boots on the plane. I’d have to use the carryon which is 1/2 inch too big (in one dimension) for 2 of the airlines I’m flying, and may therefore end up getting checked if someone looks too close. And I don’t have much room to carry anything I may acquire over there. (Expect flat gifts.)

About 11:00 last night, I decide to follow up on a question a friend at work asked me yesterday (when I was anticipating the packing problem) – I checked whether Windstar has laundry on board.

Turns out that they do. And, compared to hotel laundries, it’s CHEAP. They have a plan where you can do all the laundry you want (well, they’ll DO it) during your trip, turning it around within 24 hours, for the low low price of $50. Well, sign me the hell up.

This would, however, require RE-packing. (As if packing wasn’t enough fun the first time.) I was too tired to commence the repacking at the time, but I made a list of what would go (6 of the 9 pairs of jeans, for starters) and, in some cases, what I’d replace it with. That done, I went to bed.

Woke up this morning, went to get my nails done (the ol’ pre-trip manicure – brush-on gel totally rocks, but that’s another story). While at the salon, I realized I needed to stop off at Target to pick up a few last-minute things for the trip. While at Target, I saw a little $20 cassette-to-mp3 converter. I like this idea. I have a box of cassettes I haven’t unpacked (why? what the hell am I going to do with them?) and there’s a lot of music there that I’d like to save. So I throw the thing in my shopping basket. I check out. (I think they’ve overcharged me. They charged me $10 for the cheap headphones I bought, and I’d swear the sign said $5. I look around at how busy the checkstands are, and the lack of a readily-available employee. I do a mental calculation on how much time it will take me to find someone who will make the correction and give me my $5 back (assuming I’m right about it). Given how much time I’ve got before the airport shuttle picks me up, it doesn’t seem worth the risk. Still, I am annoyed by this. I hope I get $10 of use out of the damn headphones.)

I get home around 12:45. I’ve booked SuperShuttle to pick me up at 3:55. Actually, between 3:55 and 4:10, but I am to be ready at 3:55.

OK, 3 hours and change. Do I begin removing stuff from my suitcase to repack it? Do I start to pack my “personal item” (which I still have yet to do)? Do I eat lunch? Do I pay the bills that still have to be paid? Do I go online and book a tour I still need to book?

Or do I go into the big box of cassette tapes looking for the one tape I’d like to try that converter out on?

Yeah, that’d be the one. I must spend 20 minutes trying to find the tape that I want. And while I succeed in finding lots of tapes I’d sorta like, taking a trip down mix-tape memory lane, and totally messing up any order that might previously have prevailed in the box, I do not find the tape I’m looking for. I take the tapes I’d sorta like and go to the computer.

The software that comes with it is on a mini-CD. My computer is a tower. A slim tower. A tower in which the CD-drive is mounted sideways. I put the mini-CD in the drawer (there’s a slot for it), hold it in its slot, and close the drive. The drive closes.

The mini-CD does not load. The computer does not recognize it. I am confused, so I open the drive door.

The mini-CD is gone. It’s in the computer someplace. This is not good. This is SO not good.

I reach around in there trying to grab it with a finger, but no dice. I lean the tower on its side, to see if gravity might drop it into the drawer. No luck.

As with all computer problems, I google it. Surely I cannot be the first moron to lose a mini-CD in a drive. I’m not. In fact, the general consensus is that anyone who puts their software on a mini-CD is a moron. I agree.

I can’t get it out. I can’t even see it still in there.

I have no explanation for what I do next, as it’s all kinds of stupid: I put another disk in the drive (a normal-sized one) to see if whatever I’ve done has put the drive out of commission.

It has. (No real surprise there.) Moreover, now the drawer won’t even eject.

I apply the ol’ paper-clip to open the drive. (I’m frantic now – I know I’m behind on my packing, but I figure I might have broken my brand new computer by losing a mini CD in there, and what kind of idiot sends in a larger disk? What was I hoping it would do? Find the little one and show it the way out?) But, at least I find a paper clip and get the drawer to slightly eject. The drawer is inset, though, so I can’t get my fingers around it to pull it out. I go into my computer tool kit and find a tool that’s grabby (almost like oversized tweezers) and it opens to about the depth of a drive tray. Works perfectly. Have always wondered what that tool was for; I very much doubt it was created to pull out problem drives, but I’m glad I had it for this particular application.

Drawer open, the regular CD comes out (at least it didn’t go after its friend), and I return to the solutions provided by google. The consensus is, “no, really, try gravity.” Rather than using gravity to get the CD to drop back down to the tray, I hold the computer up (with the drive facing the ground) and start shaking it. Gravity indeed takes over and the disk drops right out onto the floor. Hooray!

The drive won’t open and close with the button anymore – apparently, the paperclip killed that. So I reboot the computer. Then I try to open the drive. (It opens! Yay!) Then I try to make it read a normal sized CD. (It reads! Yay!) Then I shut down the system and repack.

No, no, no. That’s what a sane person does.

I put the computer on its side (so the tray is flat) and try the damn mini-CD again. This time, it works!

Well, it works as well as it’s going to. The software loads, but the software interface only opens part of the window. I do not know how to explain this. I can’t get to half of the buttons. I want to hit “maximize” or something, but there is no maximize. I can’t even tab down to the invisible buttons. (Well, I can, but I can’t hit them – my cursor just disappears.) I google this too, and discover I’m not alone. That’s just what this software does in Windows 7. (And XP, apparently.) Lovely.

Well, I can still get at the “record” button. I crank up a cassette, hit record, and THEN go into my bedroom and start taking jeans out of my carryon, and moving the remaining contents into the smaller, international-regulation-friendly carryon. This accomplished, I run back over to the computer, test the file, name the file, and try another cassette.

This goes on for about a half hour, with me running back to the computer just as a song ends (to hit the magic “break the files here” button, so my songs are separate files). I’m doing the sliding-across-the-floor thing, and miss the right moment a few times, but even I know that I don’t have enough time to redo it.

A half hour later and I’ve got THREE WHOLE SONGS as usable mp3 files, a carryon ready to go, and my main suitcase partially repacked. I box up the stupid cassette thing and figure I’ll deal with it later. I transfer the three songs to my cell phone (so I’ll have them for this trip), and search amazon and iTunes for an mp3 of the damn cassette I couldn’t find in the first place. Still doesn’t exist. Someday, I’ve got a date with a big box of cassette tapes.

It is around this time that I get a call from the SuperShuttle guy, who asks me (in heavily-accented, kind-of-hard-to-understand English) if he can pick me up at 3:30. It’s just after 2:00 by now, and after dicking around with the stupid mini-CD and the cassette box, there is no way I can guarantee being ready in 90 minutes. I tell him as much. We have a five minute conversation in which neither one of us understands the other. I know this because the conversation ends with him again asking, “Can I pick you up at 3:30?” This time, I just say, “No.” We hang up. I hope he’s still coming at 3:55.

I make with the repacking, pay all the bills that will come due when I’m away, and do everything else on my “do this before you leave” list. I haven’t yet eaten lunch, and I manage to sit down to my meal at about 3:20. Salad successfully scarfed. At 3:40, the phone rings. It’s the SuperShuttle computer, telling me that my driver is 5 minutes away, and please be ready so as not to make my fellow passengers wait.

(“OK,” I think, “I told you no on 3:30, and that I needed to be picked up at 3:55 as agreed, so you show up at 3:45 anyway. Lovely.”)

I go back into frantic mode. Pet cat; tell her I’m leaving and a friend will take good care of her. Bathroom. Brush teeth. (Well, gargle with watered-down toothpaste.) Run into garage in mad search for luggage tags. One of them has separated, so now I’ve got glue all over my hands. Wash hands. Kiss cat. Set alarm. Open door. Drag luggage outside to see the van pulled up.

And... that’s pretty much it. The other passenger in the van was now the one in frantic mode – she had a flight at 6:00, so needed to get her bags checked by 5:15. She’d scheduled a 3:15 pickup with SuperShuttle so that she’d have plenty of time … and SuperShuttle had (rather than giving us each our own van) tried to make it work by picking me up early – but, with me being (fairly) adamant about my own pick-up time, they just picked her up late AND made her wait. We had about an hour and a half to make it to the airport, and there was a TON of traffic. We eventually made it, but there was certainly a frustrated call to SuperShuttle Customer Service from her end, and there will be an unfavorable email from mine. I mean, it’s all well to let your customers book whatever 15 minute window they want, but it means NOTHING if you’re going to then change times on everyone so that you can combine trips.

Am now cooling my heels in LAX. Plane doesn’t leave for another hour forty-five yet – but internet here is $10 (for a “day pass”), so you’ll either get this once I’ve landed in London (3 hour stopover) or reached my hotel in Nice. (Where I have been promised free Wi-fi. One can but hope.)

ETA:  Yep, Nice.  It's about 9:15 at night here, and somewhere along the line, I missed dinner.  My hotel may be too cheap to have a restaurant ... I see vending machines, though.  I'm sure there's something really wrong with one's first dinner in France coming out of a vending machine, but this may very well be an "any port in a storm" situation.