Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Word About Bathrooms

Flying in, we had that overnight in Rome, and, upon landing in the airport, I found in necessary to use the bathroom in the Rome airport. Report: Icky. Not at all like the restrooms in Heathrow. I thought it was more like a bus station bathroom, and thought that maybe the Italian Airport Authority might want to tidy things up in there, as it doesn’t give the best first impression of their country.

As it turns out, though, it gives an accurate impression of the public bathrooms in their country, which are – and I’m pretty glad I’m using the word in only a metaphorical sense – shitty.

Contrast this with the bathrooms in our hotel rooms, all of which were quite spiffy and (even in the lesser hotels) all had bidets. Seriously. The hotel bathrooms give you the impression that the Italian people are concerned enough with cleanliness that they supply bidets for regular usage, but the bathrooms you encounter in airports, cafes, restaurants, and tourist attractions (even those you have to pay to use) give a very different impression. You find yourself a public bathroom someplace in Sicily with: toilet paper, soap, paper towels, and a seat on the toilet, you’ve hit the mother lode, my friend. In most cases, you’re pretty lucky to have three out of four. In some places, you only got one. (“Oh please, let it be toilet paper.” Anti-bacterial hand gel can cover a multitude of sins, but there’s only so far you can get with no bog roll.)

Flying home, I had a stopover in the Zurich airport. (More sippin’ chocolate!) The Swiss airport bathrooms were a welcome change from those in Italy – tidy, efficient, and sparkling clean. They’ve even got an antibacterial liquid dispenser in each stall, with a note suggesting you use some of the (plentiful) toilet paper with it to wipe down the seat before use. (Have never been to Switzerland before. My impression of the Swiss, based solely on the layover in the airport, is: all the efficiency of the Germans, without all that uncomfortable Master Race history. And I do believe this is the first time I’ve been called “Fraulein.”)

Oh, speaking of WWII, I should probably mention it in the context of, y’know, Italy. I mean, we saw lots of WWII monuments (and after-effects) in places like Vienna and Budapest in the Central European tour, but here we were in one of the Axis countries and WWII was kinda not really mentioned. (A local guide pointed out the location of the only memorial to Mussolini’s brother, and he had to point it out because it was hidden by some bushes.) We saw a couple war memorials in our travels in Sicily – but they were all memorials to the local fallen soldiers (of both World Wars, which seems a good save). I was a bit taken aback at the idea of WWII memorials in Italy – I mean, should you really have a memorial commemorating a war in which you were on, for lack of a better term, the wrong side? (And I remembered that bit about history being written by the winners, and thought it was particularly apt here.) But then I thought, no, a soldier is a soldier, and if your local boys died fighting in a war, you really should remember them. Perhaps particularly so when it was a war you were on the wrong side of – history should remember the lives lost in vain. You shouldn’t brush these deaths under a carpet and pretend they didn’t happen; remembering them may make you think twice the next time you’re going to war for the wrong reasons.

A Word About My Fellow Guests

There are 32 people on this tour, most of them married couples, most of them older than me. (There was one pair of travellers who may have been gay and may have been my age, but I didn’t think either question was any of my damn business. Of course, depending on where they live, being married and being gay aren’t mutually exclusive propositions, but I didn’t see wedding rings on these guys, so that wasn’t likely the case.)

In any event, most were older couples. When I went to check in with the tour director, I said, “Guess who I am,” figuring I was the only one who booked solo (although I was travelling with my parents). Tour director said that there were actually several people travelling solo on this trip. Including, she said pointedly, several men.

Now, I’m not really sure if she thought I was on this tour to get all hooked up, but I should note at this point that what she did not know (and what we did not figure out for several days) is that two of the men travelling solo were actually priests. (One Roman Catholic; one Episcopal.) They didn’t know it either – we were sitting together at a long table for lunch, and after the Episcopal priest told us what he did for a living, my mother said, “You’ll never guess who you’re sitting next to.” They were both pretty nice guys and it was actually helpful having them around on the trip – they were good with the Latin inscriptions. :)

I’d contemplated arranging dinner with the Roman Catholic priest and the probably-gay couple, to just watch the sparks fly. Because I’m all playfully difficult like that. We weren’t able to arrange it and, actually, if we’d ever managed it, I doubt there would have been any sparks. The Roman Catholic priest (“George,” to most of us, although I noticed a couple of Catholics did call him “Father George”) was a pretty laid back guy, not preachy at all, and not really what you’d call “on duty.” I expect he would have been “live and let live” about any sort of social issue.

Indeed, most of us on the trip were (wisely) being “live and let live” about pretty much everything. I mean, we’re nearing the election, and most of us went out of our way to avoid political discussions or arguments. There was the occasional exception. This was a pretty pricey trip and, perhaps because of it, some folks assumed we were all one-percenters and therefore voting for Romney – but this wasn’t the case. (We know that the guy whom Marzipan Lady said looked like Romney was actually an Obama supporter. He was not at all happy with the comparison.) Despite my being “playfully difficult” when it came to setting up dinner tables, I was actually on my best non-controversial behavior. When we were at breakfast with a nice lady who said she was “voting with Israel” (which is code for both “I’m Jewish” and “I’m voting for Romney”) and couldn’t understand people (Jewish people, I assume) who weren’t voting the same way, I was sorely tempted to say “I’m voting with the gay community” and go off on something about how, as a Jewish person, I feel it’s my duty to be extra vigilant in the fight for equal rights for all oppressed groups, (or say that I’m voting with women and can’t understand why any female would vote for Romney) but I figured it’d be a conversation killer and I wouldn’t change anyone’s mind anyway, so I let it go. And seethed a bit. Quietly. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not actually saying that all people of any particular demographic group ought to vote for Obama. I think everyone’s got different priorities and different perspectives and a reasonable argument could be made for voting for either guy. What annoyed the crap out of me was that this woman was so absolutely certain that she was voting for the right guy she actually could not understand how anyone else would vote the other way. Way to encourage rational discussion, lady. People like you are what’s wrong with political discourse in this country.

I have to say that on this trip, I came to understand why the teams on “Amazing Race” come up with nicknames for the other teams, rather than just calling them by their names. There was a couple on this trip who most of us referred to as “New Jersey,” twins from Minnesota we called “the sisters” (why nobody came up with “Minnesota twins” until our final dinner, I’ll never know), the priests, and so forth.

Interesting note: there was a doctor in our group. This was not, however, the person who signed up for the trip – and therefore appared in the list of guests – with the title “Dr.” (The doctor went with a straight up “Ms.”) The “Dr.” had a Ph.D., so was entitled, but I thought it really curious that that’s how he identified, and that the actual doctor chose not to. (Also, neither of the priests went with “Fr.”) Still, when a woman wasn’t feeling well, we realized we had a pharmacist, a doctor, and two priests among our group, so she was covered pretty much how bad she got.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


(And not so fast.  There's an "engineering issue" with my flight so they've delayed boarding.  In the middle of boarding.  Having not yet been on the plane, they sent me back to the lounge.  And the wi-fi!)

We had to have our bags packed and ready to go at 7:00 a.m., which meant I was up at 6:00. (I just learned today that some folks in our group have flights out at 7:00 a.m., which I’m pretty sure means they have to leave our hotel around 5:00. Brutal.) In any event, it was a pretty early morning, so I stuffed myself full of eggs, bacon, pastries and tea (lots of tea) before we hit the road out of Siracusa.

First stop was a rest stop, in a totally unmemorable location, excepting the local coffee bar also had sippin’ chocolate so that pretty much made my morning. I also learned that, in contrast to your standard Starbucks, the coffee bars serve you and expect you to pay after you’ve consumed your beverage. So I had some cioccolata on faith, then ponied up my 3 Euro (totally worth it – it was accompanied by a pile of whipped cream (to season to taste) and 4 little chocolate-drizzled cookies) and got back on the bus.

We were driving up to (and up) Mount Etna (or, as our tour guide calls it “the Etna.”) We didn’t actually get to the top of it – apparently, there’s a gondola that takes you up there, but it took longer than our 50-minute stop. Instead, we parked near a random crater (lava flow will do that) – one Crater Silvestri. Big ol’ lava crater. We were permitted to get up and hike around it. Also into it. I was totally prepared for this. Weather on the Etna was a bit dodgy – colder, windy, and, at one point, raining a bit. I was wearing a big sweater and a rain jacket. Zipped my rain jacket over the sweater; plopped my rain hat on my head (tightened the cord so it didn’t go flying off) and went on out toward the crater. I even had my folding walking stick with me, because – as I explained to anyone who asks – “I have no depth perception so I’m unsteady downhill on uneven surfaces.” Most people got it. One woman in our tour seemed to think I was blind. (More on the people in our tour later.) Anyway, walking into a lava crater seems to be the very definition of “downhill on uneven surfaces,” and I’m thrilled to report that the walking stick made me downright quick.

I was the only one – or, at least, the first one – to go down into the crater. At first, I thought perhaps it was too far to walk. (Remember: no depth perception.) However, I saw what was more or less a path marked by a ton of footprints, so I figured that I wasn’t going off into something I’d never get myself out of. (Although, in retrospect, I didn’t see all that many footprints leading out of the crater.) In any event, it was really really cool. Really. Cool. Standing all by myself in the center of the crater reminded me of standing alone in the stone circle in Stonehenge. (Although, you know, totally different.) I took about a billion pictures, because I really dug just being surrounded by all that lava (and seeing people way up there on the rim).

Also, great views from the rim of the crater -- as we were fairly high up the Etna:


After Etna, we went … come to think of it, I think we came to Taormina, which is our very last city, and where I’m typing now. (But won’t be posting for another day or so, because of the internet situation here.) A word on the hotel: Gorgeous. Another word: Monastery. 

We’re staying at a hotel called the San Domenico Palace Hotel, which is a converted monastery/convent. I got a great photo of the row of rooms in which my little room is situated. You can totally envision these as little cells (cells?) for the nuns. 

Of course, it’s a five-star hotel, which means it has been renovated with every modern convenience, and is downright beautiful

  – but it also apparently means that they charge several limbs for internet access. (You can get a password for 30 minutes free wi-fi if you buy a drink in the bar, and water is about seven bucks.) So, yeah, the posting will happen later.


Syracusa is two cities, the old city and the new one. We stayed in the old city, which goes by the name of Ortigia (which may or may not mean Old City). The bad news is that our tour bus couldn’t drive into Ortigia, so we either had to take taxis or walk. The good news is that we were located near a really terrific square – Piazza del... I dunno, Duomo or something. It’s where the Cathedral is. We had a brief orientation walk around the city – to see where to find the square, the restaurant for dinner, and the nearby shopping street (which had lots of tiny little All Things Sicily souvenir shops, and which I ultimately named Street of Crap). Between our hotel and the square was a gelato shop, which I also took note of (and ultimately patronized thrice in our short visit to the city.)

The following morning, we had a walking tour of Ortigia (which, were it not for the hike over to our tour bus in Syracusa, would have again had less walking than our brief orientation tour). We got into the Cathedral, which was seriously awesome. I’d seen a few Greek temples which had been converted into churches (or, in some cases, raided for spare parts with which to make churches), but this one really preserved the colonnades into the church itself, and was quite lovely. My mother called it the most beautiful church she’d ever seen – and since she travels a lot, she’s seen a lot of churches. Photos to be inserted right here.

We walked down the Street of Crap, and also learned that, running parallel to it, was a street of high end shops (henceforth: Snooty Street). At the intersection of Street of Crap and Snooty Street, there were ruins of a temple of Apollo. Very ruined, but (as with Rome last year), I was taken with the way ruins are parked right in the middle of modern life. (Or, rather, modern life parks itself around the ruins.)

After the hike to our bus, we drove out to the Archeological Park proper, and checked out some serious ruins, including a Greek theatre and a Roman amphitheatre. (Our local guide was not fond of the Roman amphitheatre. The Greek theatre was the center of cultural and civic life, while the Roman amphitheatre was for watching brutal gladiatorial competitions. He didn’t care much for what the Romans were up to. There was a cute cat lounging around the amphitheatre, and I figured he was thinking about his lion ancestors, and contemplating how far he’d fallen.)

This pic is my mom contemplating the Greek theatre.  I usually try to avoid getting people in my photos, but sometimes mom looks so very contemplative.  Mom's a theatre geek -- she's the source of my own theatre geekery -- and I think she was really getting in touch with the origins of the art here.

(I regret that I did not get the cat contemplating the Roman amphitheatre.)

Back in Ortigia, we went for lunch at a Baron’s palazzo. The baron had the bestest view in, like, ever – he’s right across the pizza from the Cathedral. The baron was quite friendly, and his palazzo was very impressive (way more than the Principessa’s). He was also more or less what you’d expect from aristocracy – likes to hunt (trophies on walls, skins on the floor) and respectful (and proud) of his family’s history. He showed us a room where he discovered hundreds and hundreds of writings, from the time of the French Revolution, when his family was providing a refuge (for whom I’m not entirely sure, but I’m guessing aristocracy – and there was something in there about the Jesuits, too – he speaks English, but I lost a lot with his accent, and he was somewhat soft spoken), He has a little cantina at the bottom of his palazzo, and we had a yummy lunch there.

We returned to the hotel and had some free time (well, after the near-mandatory gelato). I thought I’d do some shopping, so wandered around the Street of Crap for a bit, and couldn’t find anything worth buying. I crossed over to Snooty Street and found that all of the shops were closed – this has been an annoyance for the entire trip. Shops close after lunch and stay closed until about 5:00ish. This does us no good. I realized I wasn’t going to buy anything, so wandered my way back over to the water (not hard to do on an island) and got myself a little boat ride.

(You know me, I’m all about the boat rides and the carriage rides and pretty much any sort of ride where I get to sit on my ass in the open air and someone points out sights. (No, my ass isn’t in the open air. Shut up.))

A nice man who speaks all sorts of languages (we’ll call him the hawker) told me (in English) how much the ride would cost and where it goes (in this case, pretty much around Ortigia). I asked him when the boat leaves. He said, “Whenever you want to go.” Since I had to be back to the hotel in about an hour, and the ride was 45 minutes, I thought “now” would be a good time. So he points me over to a guy in a boat (we’ll call him Luigi – the guy, not the boat). (We’re calling him Luigi because I think that was actually his name. Something Italian with an “L.” Maybe Leonardo?) So, Luigi helps me into the boat. It’s a, er, boat. Standard boat shape, benches running down either side, controls in the center for him to drive it. There’s a metal frame holding up a canvas roof over the top of it. I sit down for what promises to be my private tour of the coast of Ortigia.

We get about five minutes out and Luigi’s cell phone rings. The hawker has gotten more customers, so we’re going back for them. A family piles on the boat (mom, dad, cute blonde child, another woman – I’ve no idea how she fits in). They say “hi” to me but they’re not English-speakers. I can’t place the language – it has that edge like German, but I can make out some French words. Barring anything better, I decide to think of them as Belgian. There’s also a young American couple who joins us.

Sicily is an island. Syracusa is a city on the island. Ortigia is another island, damn near it. Really near it. You can walk across the bridge from Syracusa to Ortigia. In about a minute. Hopping on one foot. Our little boat has to go under a couple of bridges (connecting Ortigia to Syracusa) in order to circle Ortigia. One bridge is pretty low. Luigi says something to all of us in Italian. Or French. (I heard the word “tĂȘte” go by.) While he’s saying this, he’s pushing on the metal frame and lowering the canvas down on top of us. We duck our heads and the canvas keeps going down. It dawns on us (more or less simultaneously) that he’s dropping the top to the point where it is against the top of the boat, in order to clear the low bridge. We all sit on the floor of the boat with the top against our heads, giggling. The probably-not-Belgian mother says something to her kid about Harry Potter, which makes us all smile.

The ride around Ortigia is interesting. At the tip of Ortigia, not reachable by anything but boat, is a castle. Luigi told us about it, but since Luigi speaks Italian (and I don’t) I couldn’t tell you what he said. (He told us when it was built, but all I caught was “mille,” which, you know, narrows things down to about 1000 years.) I’d call it medieval. It had battlements and stuff. (You may or may not get photos of this eventually. I hadn’t thought I’d be seeing sights that afternoon, so didn’t bring a camera. I took a few snaps with my phone, though, and I’ll upload them when technology permits.) (It does!)

At one point, it got a bit breezy out on the water. The mother (Swiss? Perhaps they were Swiss) reaches into her backpack and starts handing out jackets to her husband and son. The other woman just sits there shivering. Luigi, in a bi-cultural act of chivalry, takes off his jacket and hands it to her. Totally sweet.

After the boat tour, we met back at the hotel for what our tour director promised was “a surprise.” This turned out to be a puppet show. Sicilian puppets are pretty nifty – ornate marionettes, controlled by three … things. (Two metal sticks – one on the top of the head, and one on one arm – and one string – on the other arm.) After the puppet show (also in Italian, but with lots of action, so we could follow it anyway), we met with the puppeteers and learned a bit about their craft. (They said that if you practice for about a month, you can make the puppet walk – much longer to make it expressive.) Very nifty.

Had dinner with my folks at a pizza place on the piazza, followed up with gelato, and went back to pack, for a very early morning the next day.

(And I've pretty much used up my time in the British Air lounge, so the rest of these posts will have to go up from America.)

Nothin' Wrong with Chocolate

Posting was delayed again, thanks to a hotel which overcharged for Wi-Fi. And me being freakin’ exhausted. Whenever we leave a hotel, it’s pretty early in the morning (and we have to have our luggage ready to go even earlier), so travel days are a bit tough on us.

So, where were we? No, literally, where were we? I don’t remember much just now.

I believe we left the story in the hotel where I was watching The Simpsons – that was in Ragusa. (Many in our group were complaining because the accommodations weren’t exactly 5-star, but I overlook a lot for English-language TV. Besides, the bed was comfy; the shower worked – I’m cool with it.)

We went to a little town called Modica, to stop in a little chocolate factory. I’m all for little chocolate factories. They showed us how chocolate is made – we had to put on little paper gowns and hats (I felt like a Lunch Lady) to go back into the area where the chocolate was prepared. (Compare this with Maria, the marzipan lady. She let us into her kitchen no matter what we were wearing. And there were flies all over the place. I kept calling the flies her “secret ingredients.”) There followed, of course, chocolate tasting – which, for many, was followed by chocolate buying. (I quite liked it – it was super dark, I tasted 70%, 80%, 90%, and “with salt.” The with salt was seriously yummy. Like a chocolate covered pretzel, but without the interference of all that wheat.) The chocolate shop was very small, however, so they were only able to take half of us in there at once. So, while the other half of the group was tasting the chocolate, we wandered the little town. I sent my folks off in search of an ATM, while I found myself a cioccolateria.

Our tour guide has spoken quite a bit about coffee, espresso, and cappucino, but she hasn’t mentioned anything about the sippin’ chocolate. But I saw a cioccolateria across the street from the chocolate shop, and zeroed in on it. Armed with a menu and a truly minimal knowledge of Italian, I managed to order myself a small cup of cold sippin’ chocolate. Sat there reading a book, sippin’ my chocolate. Felt very European.

(Subsequently, I asked the guide about cioccolata. She said Italians only have coffee before 11:30, and there’s some time restriction on gelato, too, so I asked when you drink cioccolata. She replied, “All the time.” I am totally down with that.)

Back on the bus, we headed to a little town called Noto. Stopped for lunch (a pasta with salmon bits) and then had a walking tour. (We’ve had a few “walking tours” this trip, which we’ve actually deemed “standing tours,” as they are comprised largely of standing around being lectured to, interspersed with minimal bits of walking.) The Noto walking tour was pretty minimal – indeed, the high point of it was supposed to be a tour of the Noto Cathedral, but it wasn’t open, so we stood around in front of it getting lectured to. Here’s the takeaway from Noto: It was a baroque-style town. It was seriously hit by an earthquake (let’s say late 17th Century) and the whole thing was rebuilt in the baroque style. It’s pretty. I have some photos. Mostly of the underside of balconies, because that was a really cool way the wealthy showed off their wealth.

We got an interesting story about the Noto Cathedral. It was hit by another earthquake in, let’s say, not very long ago. (15-20 years.) Apparently, the genius scientists said that the cathedral was fine – don’t worry about the cracks. People in the cathedral would complain about the ominous settling noises, but everyone said it was fine. Yeah, you see this coming, right? Damn thing fell down. They were pretty lucky that it happened overnight, so nobody was injured. I found this to be a rather interesting factoid, because by the time we got to our hotel for the evening, the news told me that Italy had just convicted some seismologists of manslaughter for failing to predict a recent severe earthquake. While the scientific community is up in arms about this (as earthquake prediction is nowhere near an exact science), having this happen the day we saw the Noto Cathedral – a building on which the scientists clearly dropped the ball – made for an interesting illustration of the competing point of view.

From Noto, we continued on to Syracusa – home of the hotel which overcharges for internet.

Bonus pic:  an old city on a hill we passed when driving -- after the chocolate shop and before Noto.  I want to say it was the Old City of Ragusa -- as opposed to the newer one where we were staying -- but I'm not positive.  Still, it does have a great look to it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Valley of the Temples

Another day, another hotel. Breakfast and my no-charge disposable swimsuit from hell seem like ages ago. The really major selling point of the hotel in which I am currently sitting is that they have Sky TV which has numerous channels in English. (Or, more precisely, a bunch of channels dubbed into Italian, on which you can change the “Lingua” to “Originale.”) To this point, in each hotel, we’ve had one or, at most, two news stations in English. (Man, CNN really has it in for Lance Armstrong.) I am so excited to have something other than news on in the background. I’ve just enjoyed me some Simpsons while working on the journalling. It’s the (very) little things in life that make me happy.

Today, after departing the hotel/spa, we went to Agrigento, which was a pretty big ancient Greek city back in the day. (The day being ballpark 450 B.C.) We had a two-hour tour through the Valley of the Temples, so named because, well, we saw three Greek temples in varying states of preservation. Our local guide through the sights was a teensy bit annoying; she normally teaches English to kids as young as 7, and I think she hadn’t had a tour of adults in a while, as she was talking to us as if we were about 8. (She also may not have been entirely accurate. She told us the first temple we saw was a Temple of Hera; a sign next to the temple, however, said that it was “wrongly attributed to Hera.”)

So, our photos are of the Temple of Probably Not Hera....

followed by the Temple of Concord (called that because some writing about Concord was found nearby, and they don’t know who the temple was originally intended for either)

and, lastly, a Temple of Hercules. (Again, I question the name. The Greeks would have called it a Temple of Herakles, not Hercules. But I can see that this is too fine a distinction for my Elementary School tour guide.)

Thereafter, we had lunch at a restaurant with a spiffy view of the Temple of Concord, which was a pretty awesome place to eat lunch.

Then, we got back on the bus and drove to Caltagirone and went to a ceramics (majolica) workshop. I’ll be honest with you – this wasn’t my thing. The artisan actually throwing the bowls was really talented and could, in just a few minutes, create a genuinely beautiful structure out of a lump of clay, and that’s pretty awesome. But the traditional patterns of painting them (and in bright colors) just didn’t work for me. So, the stop in the workshop’s shop didn’t have much appeal for me – although several others in our tour dumped quite a few Euros there.

And back into the bus, which gets me to updating the journal while watching the Simpsons in our next hotel.

(Aside: Netbook just crashed for no damn reason. I had gone back and forth over whether to take the netbook on this trip or to try my tablet instead. I may be regretting the “netbook” call.)

Worst Bathing Suit Ever

Yeah, a hotel/spa. Quite lovely – I took a picture of my room, which I almost never do, but they did a really lovely job creating an atmosphere.

The hotel also had all sorts of lovely thermal pools, which I wanted to try out. So I strolled on over there. The problem was that I failed to bring a swimsuit on this trip. I asked at the desk if they had anything, and indeed they did. A “disposable” bathing suit, for the low, low price of $20. The problem, however, was that they only had a large which, conveniently, I’m not. I tried it on and it more or less covered everything it had to cover, so I bought the damn thing.

At which point, I stepped into the shower for a quick hose-down before going into the pools. It was at this point that I was reminded – in fairly embarassing style – that swimsuits stretch when wet. When I turned off the water in the shower, the crotch of the swimsuit was about two inches below my actual crotch, and water continued to pour out the sides. This did not bode well, but I’d ponied up for this damn thing just so I could get in the thermal pools, and I was going to get in those pools, dammit.

The pools were numbered 1 – 4, each one apparently having a different temperature and mineral content. Pool 3 was the closest, so I jumped in there. It was sort of lukewarm, and I was hoping for hot. I figured pool 4 would be warmer, so I hopped out of 3 and ran to 4, water pouring out the crotch of the damn swimsuit. 4 was icy cold; the heat must go in the other direction, so I aimed toward pool 1. On the way, I wrapped a towel around myself, so nobody would see me in this wretched swimsuit. Dropped the towel by the side of pool 1 and jumped in. Warmest of the bunch. I moved more toward the center of the pool.

I did mention mineral content, right? I’m guessing the mineral in this thing was sodium, because, after a few minutes in there, all of a sudden, every cut I ever had started to sting. I thought perhaps this would go away in time, but it did not. I got the hell out of the pool, wrapped myself in the towel again, and proceeded to run like hell – well, as much as anyone can run in a swimsuit with the crotch threatening to drop down to one’s knees – back into the showers. Because the salt was still stinging. Finally hosed the offending minerals off.

The following morning, when I checked out of the hotel, I discovered that they had not, in fact, charged me the $20 for the swimsuit. Normally I’m all honest and would point something like this out. As the swimsuit (and the thermal pools) had turned out to be such a disaster, though, I decided to just let that one go. Hell, maybe the people manning the pools decided to take pity on me and not submit the charge.

Wine Tasting and ... Um... What was that again?

And if this post and the last two make sense, that’ll be impressive. We’ve just been wine tasting. Wheeeeeeeee. I’m pretty sure we did something else this morning, but I can’t remember what it was. Oh, yeah, we want to CIDMA. Which stands for Center Internationale de... something Mafia something. Basically, the internationial headquarters of the Anti-Mafia movement. In the town of Corleone (I’ll remember that.) The CIDMA tour itself wasn’t overly impressive. Which is to say, the stuff they had to look at wasn’t particularly – OK, look, what we’re dealing with here is a story that needs preserving and sharing. We’re not dealing with a museum that wants to collect mafia relics or in any way romanticize the mafia. So it isn’t like they’ve got some enforcer’s gun or anything tangible for us to look at. What they’ve got are a few rooms are historical (and rather artistic) photographs, and a display of numerous volumes of trial record. (And when I say a display of volumes of trial record, I mean just that. A lot of volumes of record, bound up, sitting on shelves. They aren’t open to any good pages and set up for your review. It’s just the mere fact of their existence that makes then worthy of preservation) So there wasn’t much to see. The point was to hear the story. Our tour guide here was a young man named Walter, who is himself from Corleone, which he describes as “my village.” He takes the whole mafia thing in personally, in a sense of “look at what these people did to my village.”

The takeaway, simplified and filtered through my wine-addled brain, goes something like this: In 1986, there was the first trial of numerous mafia figures. (And, really, I mean numerous. There was something like more than 400 defendants.) This was a good thing. And in 1992, the mafia had the two judges who had presided over the trial assassinated. This was not good at all. But it prompted something good: the general public stood up and said “No.” In the past (illustrated by some of the historical photographs), the general public attitude toward the mafia was one of willful blindness. Ignore the dead body on the ground; just keep walking; pay your protection money and don’t see or say anything. And that was all well and good when the only people the mafia killed were other members of the mafia. But when they killed the judges – with indiscriminate bombs – it went too far and people stopped being silent. This was the start of the anti-mafia movement. The movement is still pretty small – in several communities, the vast majority of the businesses still pony up protection money – but there isn’t much mafia left in Corleone, and there haven’t been any more of those assassinations.

Interesting, no? And then we went to a local winery for wine-tasting and lunch. Then back on the bus to a very nice hotel/spa for the night.

The Princess in a Muu-Muu

That night, we were to have dinner with a Principessa at her Palazzo. Total old money. We were directed to dress dressy, because, you know, Princess. So, we all dutifully cleaned up nice and put on our jackets and cocktail dresses.

The bus could not drop us at the front door of the palazzo. It couldn’t even get close, as the way from the main road to the palazzo involved little alley-like streets you could pretty much only traverse on a Vespa. (I subsequently commented that I would like to see the principessa tooling down there on a Vespa. In retrospect, I think the same effect would be achieved were she on a Segway.)

I can’t tell you exactly how old she is – my guess is somewhere safely on the other side of 70 – but she came off as a kindly grandmother. In a muu-muu. And sandals. Sandals rather amusingly decorated with seashells. So here’s us: 32ish folks in all our finery, meeting a Principessa in an unimpressive muu-nuu and shoes which might have gotten her kicked out of most public buildings in America.

Food was nice (gelato!), Principessa was nice; house was nice, but didn’t ooze money in the way I’d expected. I mean, she said it had 7 or 8 bedrooms. And while, yes, 7 or 8 bedrooms is rather more than I have (and it was a bit disconcerting that she didn’t have an exact count), the bedrooms were all pretty small (as was the fashion) and, honestly, it couldn’t compete with some high end homes I’ve seen in Bel Air. Still, the new Hollywood money can’t compete with the old money for decoration. I mean, none of the snooty private homes I’ve seen contained huge portraits of the previous owners. (One of whom was an extremely large woman, whom the Principessa politely called the Portly Princess.)

Segesta and Erice

Sorry about the radio silence – I didn’t have time to post the next night – we have three early mornings in a row, and I haven’t been able to catch up. So, I wrote some posts on the road, and will upload when I get a chance.

So. Segesta. We piled into the bus (there are about 32 of us on this tour) and drove out to Segesta. You walk up a hill (they say “30 wide steps,” but you should just think “hill”) and there’s a pretty nice specimen of a Doric temple up there. 

Well preserved, too. I mean, ok, sure, you can tell which column has been totally replaced, and you can see some bits of the frieze-level that don’t quite have the age of the rest, but, mostly, it’s in pretty spiffy condition. There’s no art on it, though, and it doesn’t look like there ever was any. (Our local tour guide, one Giorgio, told us something about this. I can’t say I was entirely paying attention. Tours now have a deal where they hand out wireless receivers to everyone, and put the guides on a mic, so you can hear what your guide is saying without him having to shout. The added bonus of these devices is that you don’t have to stand there in a group in front of your guide – you can just walk around the sights as much as you want, as long you stay within wireless range. The downside of the aforesaid added bonus is that you can walk around the sight and pay attention to whatever you want, while pretty much ignoring what your tour guide is saying. That’s what went on here. The guide was rattling on about something I didn’t care about – (telling us all the different parts of a Doric temple, a fact I’m pretty much on top of, so I ignored him. I was only half paying attention when I realized he had moved on to the topic of why there wasn’t any art on this thing.) I think the point was that the city of Segesta was at war with another city at the time, and ran out of money to complete the temple. Austerity measures, I guess.

Then we left the temple, walked back down the hill, and managed to run into the little shop at the bottom for some gelato before getting back into the tour bus, Two factoids related to that sentence: (1) I brought my folding walking stick for this trip, and got to test it out here. I’m happy to report that it definitely helps with my standard problem of being slow going downhill over uneven surfaces. The lack of depth perception makes me very cautious when I don’t know how far down the next step should be, and the stick makes that problem go away. Yay, stick! (2) I’ve had gelato twice a day each day of this trip. Yay, gelato!

We then went off to Erice. It’s a little village on another hill. Actually, the whole damn village is sloped. It’s old – Giorgio said something about it being re-discovered in the 1960s. (I’m not entirely sure what it dates back to – but it’s one of those places with a medieval church built near the site of an old Roman temple.) Erice, as far as I’m concerned, was all about the view. We walked up Erice (really, that’s the best way to describe it – you walk up the streets of the city itself) and could then either hang out for an hour or so shopping (at many places that appeared to sell All Things Sicily) or continue to the castle at the top of Erice for a look at the view. I had my knee brace on and was feeling pretty good, so I joined the trek up to the castle. Here is a photo I got for my trouble. I think it was worth the walk.

We then had lunch in the town square (a tasty little pasta with meat sauce) and then went to Maria’s pastry shop. (Maria has a last name, which I forget, but if you google something like “Maria Sicily Marzipan,” you’ll get it.) She’s apparently world-reknowned for her little almond pastries. We split into two groups (on account of her kitchen not being big enough to hold us all) and half of us got a how-to-make-and-paint-marzipan-fruits demonstration, while the other half got an eat-some-marzipan-fruits-and-almond-pastries session, and then we switched so we each got both. Conclusion: almond pastry thingies are tasty. Interesting aside: Maria spoke only Italian, so our (main) guide was translating for her. At one point, Maria was trying to say something to a guy in our group, and, while speaking in Italian, she was also making signs with her hands. I’m learning ASL, and it looked to me like she signed “friend” and “different” or “not” – our guide told us that Maria commented that she thought this guy in our group looked like Mitt Romney. I figured I must have been wrong in applying American signs to a (hearing) Italian woman, but our guide then said that Maria couldn’t remember the name of Romney, so had instead said that the guy in our group “looked like the man who is not friends with Obama.” So, there it is: American sign language – not exclusively American.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Two Churches

So, today, we piled in our tour bus for a ride out to Monreale (King's Mountain is the translation -- or, more precisely, Mountain Royal -- I figure that's probably the origin of Montreal, too, and wondered why I've never put that one together before).  Anyway, Monreal has itself a very spiffy Norman cathedral, which is what we were there to see.

Here's what you need to know -- or, rather, here's the one factoid which managed to get itself implanted in my still-sleepy brain:  Pretty much every culture parked itself in Sicily at one time or another.  You get a lot of those buildings which were churches or mosques, depending on who was in control at the time.  The cathedral in Monreale is not quite one of those -- it was never a mosque.  However, when constructed (as a church, in the late 12th century) many of the artists and artisans in Sicily at the time were Arabs, and those folks were hired to build the cathedral.  So we've got a cathedral in what wikipedia cheerfully calls the Arab-Norman style -- Western Europe with clear Eastern influences.

The interior looks something like this:
All of that art you see there is glass mosaic.  Biblical scenes (both Old and New Testament).  Here's one:
But we've also got the sort of stuff I saw in Turkey -- the straight up decorative stuff (rather than images of people).  Like this:

 Here's a detail of the mosaic work, which you can see is made of stone:

This also shows that what looks like good in here isn't really gold -- it's glass over something shiny, which (in the dim light of a church) sparkles like gold.

After lunch in Monreale, we went back to Palermo, and see the Palatine Chapel (that would be the Chapel in the Palace), which was, in all honesty, more of the same.  But the mosaics had brighter colors and the overall effect was more impressive (although in a much smaller space).  Photos here:

 We were then supposed to have a walking tour of Palermo, but we were all kind of wiped and it was pretty darned hot.  Really hot.  Hotter than we thought it had any right to be in October.  So our tour guide offered a bus tour instead -- which we gratefully accepted.  No photo breaks there, though, and I have to confess I may have dozed off a minute on the bus, so I don't have much to report -- except that Palermo appears to be a city with no zoning ordinances whatsoever, so there'll be a historical building next to a garden next to a church next to some businesses next to some condos next to some shops with some apartments above.  It's kind of wacky -- and when you combine it with the apparent fact that traffic signs here are simply suggestions -- it all seems a bit chaotic.  But fun!

Oh, wait, one more thing.  Back in Monreale, we went to the cloister right next to the cathedral.  It has many decorative columns around the central courtyard.  I took a shot of these columns here because I loved the idea of running the decoration at an angle.  I mean, I dig all the ancient Greek and Roman stuff, but I'm not sure it ever struck anyone during that time that you could run the decoration like this.  Nifty.


That Better Be Paint

This is a picture of a wall in my hotel room:
This is a close-up of the same wall:
Observe the dark red specks.  They're not just on that wall -- they're on all of the walls of my room.  A fact which I find only slightly troubling.  More troubling is that nothing is painted red in here.

(A fact which readers may find troubling is that, when I first noticed the dark red drips on my wall, my first thought was that the splatter pattern is wrong for it to be blood.  Yes, I know what a blunt force trauma and gunshot splatter patterns look like.  Doesn't everyone?)

I ultimately concluded that it isn't likely to be blood -- on the basis that I'm in Sicily and I would imagine that someone on this island would have mastered the art of cleaning up unfortunate blood spatters.



Thursday, October 18, 2012

Duly Arrived

Man, I'm wiped.

We got to Rome last night, without any major incidents.

The minor incidents included my cell phone going wacky with Verizon's automation sending me about 40 message-less text messages (getting rid of them got rid of my e-mail accounts, with no way to reload them -- so I made the executive decision to switch mail apps from the middle of Heathrow) and our flight to Rome being delayed.

We spent the night at the airport Hilton -- the location of which was a bit exciting, as the key sign is located behind a door, so you can't see it.  The hotel was also crazy overpriced -- they wanted 27 Euro a day for internet access (which is why I didn't blog last night) and my $20 hamburger wasn't all that tasty (but, at that point, I just needed the protein).

At the airport this morning, before heading off to Palermo (Sicily), I found a Swatch store, so scored a new watch battery.  The flight to Palermo was short, but partway through it, my sugar high from the chocolate croissant I'd had for breakfast started to wear off, and I started dozing. 

I'm in the hotel in Palermo, now.  I'd like to say something terribly observant and/or witty, but even after lunch (a salad of rice, julienne carrots, peas, corn, and itty bitty pieces of tuna -- I call it a "carb salad"), my energy is still so low, I can barely sit up.

The tour we're with has a cocktail reception before dinner tonight -- alcohol, yeah, that'll wake me up.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

And, I'm Off Again

Off on another vacation.  Yay!

The plan is to eventually find myself in Sicily.  I've managed leg one of the journey, the appropriately-named "long haul" flight to London.  Am currently cooling my heels for about five hours in Terminal 5 at Heathrow. 

The journey went off fairly well.  I mean, OK, I had some trouble opening the lock box I was supposed to leave my house key in for the cat sitter, but I ultimately managed that.  (Must have looked like an idiot standing in my backyard wearing a pink bathrobe and cursing at an inanimate object, but, hey, it's just one of life's little moments.)  And I also had a huge amount of trouble with the digital download of The Avengers...

... OK, there are something like 4 different DVD versions of The Avengers available, and I bought some 4-disc combo pack with 3D and Blu-Ray (neither of which I have) because it was on super sale on Amazon and came with a "digital download," and I thought it would be nice to put the digital copy on my tablet as Avengers is, as far as I'm concerned, an IDEAL plane movie.  (Something I've already seen, but quite enjoyed, and could watch until such time as I fall asleep, without feeling like I'm missing anything.)  ANYWAY, the digital download of Avengers is such a phenomenal pain in the butt -- and an unsuccessful one at that -- I would have been really pissed off at that Marvel people were it for the fact that it didn't really cost me anything and British Air had the damn thing on the plane anyway.  (If, for some reason, you've stumbled upon this journal entry by googling about problems with the digitial download of Avengers, here's the summary:  If you want to play it on an Android device, you FIRST must upgrade your Windows media player to super-DRM status (which you can't do unless you log into IE as an administrator), and THEN your Android device must be Windows Media Plays For Sure certified, which mine, y'know, isn't.  So, THEN, I thought, OK, I'll put it on my netbook instead.  Only to find that I CAN'T put it on my netbook, because you can only put it on ONE computer and ONE "mobile device" -- and the netbook is a "computer," but I couldn't put it on the netbook directly because you need to load it off a CD, and the netbook has no CD drive... and ... Would it fucking kill you people to just give us a code for a free download of the movie from Google Play?)

Anyway, tirade over, because I'm in England, and even thought I'm just sitting here in the airport, I'm just naturally happy about it, because I'm in England, and I really have to figure out some way to be here long term (which would be problematic, as my marketable job skills are somewhat California specific) ... but, anyway, me + London = happy.  Basic math.

Regular readers of this blog are aware that I frequently forget to bring my watch on trips.  I own three watches purchased in airports.  (Two because I forgot to bring a watch, so bought one at LAX before leaving; the third purchased in duty free in Fiji because it turned out my waterproof watch wasn't.)  I mention this because I tried very, very hard to remember to wear a watch, and I succeeded!  My nice pretty (airport-purchased) red Swatch was on my wrist when I left the house!  Victory is mine!

Victory is short-lived.  When I put on my watch again (after not-quite-sleeping through Avengers), my watch said it was 7:30 and 42 seconds.  Which seemed a bit odd, as I thought it was actually closer to 9:00.  Upon further examination, my watch confirmed that it was still 7:30 and 42 seconds.  Stupid battery died.  I should have expected this.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Painting is (Half) Done!

Wow, this is embarassing.  I haven't blogged in so long, I forgot if I upload the photos to Picasa Web albums first, or via the blog.  I'm sure I'll figure it out momentarily.

The painters are done -- which is to say, the painters are finished, but my house isn't.  I'd purchased "40 hours of painter" in a deal from Angie's List.  "40 hours of painter" translated into two guys working two very long days.  It also translated into painting: my kitchen, laundry room, itty bitty bathroom, dining room, living room, and family room.  Well, most of it.  There's a huge beam across my family room ceiling that needs another coat (on one side) and quite a bit of the trim didn't get done.  Which is ok, because they guys worked pretty darned hard, and I've got the other half of the house to get painted anyway, so we can just add finishing these details onto that job.

I wanted to show you some before and after pics of painting my walls -- but that would have been easier if I'd taken "before" shots.   The best that I can do is show you the biggest change -- because I have the "before" photo from way back when I bought the house.  Let me introduce you to what has been my least favorite wall ever since that time..  Observe:

(Ooo, better to upload to Picasa first.  Now I know.)

OK, least favorite wall:

OK, you can see that it's pink.  What you might be missing is that it is textured.  There are vertical lines running all through it.  I thought this might be textured wallpaper, but the painter guy confirmed that it's actually in the plaster.  Some genius thought it would be a good idea to texture up this wall forever.  I'd either have to spackle up the whole wall or just deal with it.

I dealt.  I painted it over with a lovely (and rather rmore neutral) cream color.  Now (from a slightly different perspective, and with stuff in the room), the wall looks like this:

Holy crap, it's genuinely pretty.  Look at a detail of the texture:

It looks almost elegant.  (Particularly with the shiny white accent color, rather than the brown which was there before.)  I'm very pleased with this -- it came out much better than I'd anticipated.

Those dark rose colored valances over the windows now look really out of place.  (Yay!)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Still Alive

Anonymous asked if I'm still around.  Indeed, I am, yes.  In fact, there's a vacation in the not-too-distant future, so there will be much blogging then.  (I'm already trying to figure out which tech to take with me, so I can do this properly.)

In the meantime, I fear I'm having too much fun with twitter.  Apparently, it's much easier to just toss off 140 characters and get back to business than actually blogging.

Today was Columbus Day.  (Still is, for a bit.)  I usually spend Columbus Day at the outlet mall, doing as much of my holiday shopping as possible, and then taking a solemn oath to not set foot in a mall again until the new year.  Today was a bit different, though.  Today, the painters came.

I've been in my house for almost four years now, but I hadn't gotten around to painting the interior (largely because I didn't know what colors I wanted -- there have been samples on my walls for months).  Well, I bought myself an Angie's List coupon for 40 hours of painter service (that's two guys for two ten-hour days) and there was actually an expiration date on it.  So, today, the painters came.

And the air conditioner guy.  And the plumber.  And the tree trimmers.  Hell, if I get a day off to do home repairs, I'm going all out.  So far, everything went according to plan.  (Well ... this was a new air conditioner guy -- hired because I'd lost faith in the last air conditioner guy, and thought that the prior operation was padding their bills.  So this new guy comes down off my roof and tells me that, yes, the part the first guy said needed replacing does not, in fact, need replacing.  Then, he told me to turn the a/c on so he could run some tests, and the a/c did not, in fact, go on.  There was a blown transformer.  I was, obviously, skeptical of this -- I mean, the part blows while the guy is on my roof dicking around with the a/c.  What are the odds?  On the other hand, though, it was a pretty cheap part -- the whole bill (inclusive of new transformer) was less than the first a/c guy wanted to charge me to fix the part that didn't need fixing.  So I'll just prefer to believe that the fact that my transformer blew while the repair guy was here was, in fact, a happy accident.)

ANYWAY, trees are trimmed, shower works again, and about a third of my house is painted.  Also:  my furniture has reassembled itself in the middle of my rooms, there's a (mostly) empty paint bucket in the middle of my kitchen, and the cat (for obvious reasons) is locked in the other (paint-free!) side of the house.  She's miffed that I haven't let her out, but between the open paint buckets, the painter's plastic delicately draped over furniture, and the massive dust bunnies discovered behind the furniture, this place is a feline minefield.

There will be photos when it's all done.