Thursday, May 17, 2007

Of The Truly Most Righteous Bud

Location: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Prostitute Hotness: Smokin’

April 25

We’re up and out of Bruges at our traditional early hour. So early, in fact, that the 24-hour reception desk has yet to open. Yeah, wrap your head around that one. I’ll wait. It’s a bit of a thing about ‘can we check out and get our key deposit back in time to get to the train,’ which is solved when the receptionist shows up for a job that by definition he must never leave. And so it goes.

Training to Amsterdam involves staring at a countryside that’s irrepressibly cute in that “little girl with blond pigtails singing on top of a windmill” kind of way. As befit’s a country that’s largely below sea level, it’s flat as a freakin’ pancake and green enough to make a leprauchaun scream in ecstatic pain, oh the pain. Pretty, yeah.

I think the best way I can describe the appearance of Amsterdam is to say that it’s halfway between Paris and Bruges, which is kind of like saying that it’s halfway between New York and the lair of Lolth, Spider Queen of the Underdark. That is to say, the comparison may not make the most sense at all times. The fact of the matter remains, though, that Amsterdam has all the infrastructure and economic schtick of a major metropolis, including a frightfully efficient though unfortunately staffed tram line, yet I don’t think I laid eyes on one building that looked even remotely like another. It almost appears as if they took all the rejected set models from the movie “Casanova” and stuck them together out of order, then exclaimed with great salivating fervor, “Look, it’s a city!”

Our first hit upon rolling into town is quite naturally the hostel, which is conveniently served by three of the Cossack-spirited tramlines that spider-web there way through the city (coincidentally, I think the motto of their tram service actually is, “the greatest battle lies within.”). The Rembrandt Square Hotel is everything you’d expect from a budget hotel in Amsterdam, right down to the strangely buzzed, aging proprietor and the fact that it is literally built upon a hash bar (or “coffee house,” in the lingo of the town). Outside is an interesting piece of artwork that deserves mention: a larger-than-life-sized sculpture rendering of Rembrandt’s “The Nightwatch,” erected by a couple of Rembrandt fan boys with way too much time on their hands. It looks pretty neat, though, to just have a bunch of Renaissance-era soldiers standing in the middle of the square for apparently no reason while a giant gold Rembrandt himself gazes down on them with malice aforethought.

Mom’s got this hankering to see the Anne Frank House, and I indulge her because she’s paying for the whole damn thing and because it’s literally been months since I’ve walked through a monument to mankind’s greatest tragedy. To do so, however, we have to secure tickets in advance, as we had been forewarned us by bloody, raving madmen who had at one time been tourists like ourselves until they attempted to just show up to the Anne Frank House and were confronted not only by winged demons and the spiritual reliving of their darkest regrets, but by very long lines, such terrible long lines.

Thus we walk to Leidesplein, dodging fruit vendors and impeccably-muscled homosexual couples along the way and effortlessly acquire tickets for that evening. While there we need food, and plop down at an Irish pub for sandwiches that, while delicious, don’t really fill us up. There was a truly bangin’ accordian player there working his way through Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” which helped a lot with the atmosphere. In wake of the continuing hunger we saunter down the street to an Argentinian steak house (ok, we place bets right now… who thinks that The Netherlands is a good place to get your Argentinian food on?). The food there is quite good, but once again, pathetic portions are presented.

Here I must offer a bit of Mom’s infinite wisdom, with which I concur completely. It’s no secret that American restaurants often go balls-nuts with portions, creating what politically correct folk label an “obesity problem,” and what I label a “horde of fatasses.” In this light, the European standard of offering less food is commendable, but for one very gaping problem: the prices. This seems very simple to me; if you’re going to give less food, charge less money. On the contrary, though. To get even the most meager helping of decent restaurant food, one must pay through the nose so forcefully that even keeping one’s septum becomes an issue in gravest doubt. This is a problem that must be dealt with. Offer less food for less money and let people build up to how much they want. This business of either shoving wagonloads of food at a person - that they then feel obliged to eat - for a decent price or giving them the correct amount of food in exchange for three vital organs must stop. Or all is lost.

So, now somewhat satiated, we find that we have just enough time to walk at a leisurely pace and arrive at the Anne Frank House in time for our tickets, or perhaps a little early. And God knows we want to get there early to avoid the mongrel swarm of Frankophiles that is sure to be clustered there in mute anticipation. We stop twice along the way, once to duck into an English-language bookstore so that I could stock up on sci-fi travel entertainment (David Weber rocks my world), and the second so that Mom could trip while dodging a tram and take a header onto the sidewalk. She ended up with only a mangled pinky finger, though (which I now understand has healed completely), so we move on with more tram-related caution.

The Anne Frank House was, predictably… well, I don’t want to say ‘deserted,’ but, ok, let’s just say that the aforementioned mongrel swarm was nowhere in sight. We waltzed in there easily, continually emphasizing our lack of jack boots so as not to frighten the locals, and proceed through the museum in good order.

As the name suggests, the Anne Frank House is the house - the actual physical structure - in which the Frank family et al huddled in secret against the scourge of the Nazi regime, and its effect as a grim testament to how messed up things were surround that whole Holocaust thing is naturally quite potent. It’s a strange thing to be able to say, “Look, there is where an innocent 16-year-old girl slept immediately before being betrayed, hauled off into the night, and sent to her death… and check it, there’s her picture on the wall.” It’s much as you would expect it to be, really. At Mom’s request I refrain from voicing the majority of my terrible, terrible Holocaust jokes or from talking about how Anne Frank has a dumb face that I just want to smack, and we more or less slide through without incident. I did have to give the finger to the Diary, though.

After that we’re hungry AGAIN (this will make three meals in the last 5 hours), so we pop across the street for some Indian food. Now that’s the ticket, Indian food never fails to disappoint, and this was no different. The food was delicious, plentiful, and barely overpriced at all, served by a very cheerful staff in a pleasant, vermillion setting. That’ll do us for the night, I think, and we head home to sleep off the travel and prepare for our main day of exploring tomorrow.

April 26

We’ve got a late start today, mainly due to travel fatigue and general laziness. First stop is the hotel breakfast, which is not contained within the hotel itself, but rather in its partnership bar/restaurant downstairs (bearing the ever-classy name “Smokey’s”). There’s a bit of a mix-up at first since the place is actually split in two halves. First, the part that serves booze and food, and second, the place that serves organic juices, coffee, and weed. This is fairly common practice across Amsterdam, as it turns out. I’m not sure what ancient blood curse would be invoked if an establishment sold both alcohol and marijuana, but I’m certain I’d rather not find out.

Breakfast is delicious and we leave full well satisfied. There’s not a whole lot on the agenda for today since Amsterdam’s main attractions are its museums (which we’ve about had enough of lately) and its hedonism (which is a night time activity, even assuming that Mom wanted to take part in any). As such we head for the Vondelpark, which is the greatest of Amsterdam’s green spaces and, I’m led to believe, the largest park in The Netherlands.

Ok, I can’t ignore this any more…. This place is called “The Netherlands.” What in the hell. Honestly. Yes, Holland, too, but The Netherlands is just as common if not more so. This has got to be the only country in the world that could have gotten its name from the pages of a C-grade fantasy novel. “You, Agrath, must travel over the Swordspine Mountains, outwit the Dragons of Eternity, and journey deep into the heart of the Netherlands. There you shall find your brother’s soul, clad in wooden shoes. Only there can he be restored to his former blitzed self.” No part of this sounds more out of place than any other, I think. On that note, is there actually a place on this earth housing the Spear of a Million Unsung Warriors? If so, that’s where my next excursion must lead me.

By the time that we hike halfway across town towards the park - a lovely walk in the Dutchy sunshine - we’re getting kind of hungry again, which has the added beast of financial burden thanks to our multitude of meals yesterday. The problem, we reason, is that one never knows if the food is going to be tasty or plentiful in proportion with the price one pays. Or does one? This is when we spy a Hard Rock café and realize that they operate on a standard that we know to be favorable. And, would you look at that, there are still spots open on their canal side patio. An hour and a couple of delicious burger/sandwiches later, we’re moving on.

The Vondelpark is what the handy-dandy Lonely Planet guide describes as “an English-style garden.” I’m not sure how that’s true, though, in light of the utter lack of croquet games in progress and the fact that the sun was allowed to shine. Nevertheless we enjoy it immensely, walking along tree-lined ponds and watching storks hunting in the rushes (by the way, watching a stork grab and devour whole a fish is pretty badass, even if it is a freakin’ stork). There are a few people chucking a Frisbee around (Americans, as it happens), and they graciously allow me to join in while Mom sits and reads. I toss around with them for about half an hour or so, long enough for me to determine hat I’m the best player there (mmmm, ego stroke), but not long enough for Mom to get too bored, then we move on.

After the park it’s shopping time. I need new socks, Mom wants new sandals, it’s this whole consumer thing. The socks shopping goes well, not so much for the sandals. At the shoe store they have a bowl of foam rubber armadillos near the cash register, which the clerk says are kind of seat belt cozies to get kids to buckle up. They’re free if you give them your name and email address, which I gleefully do because, hey, free armadillo.

On the way out of the shoe store we cross the street right in front of a van full of clowns, who I jovially exchange waves with. I don’t know what the deal is with this town, but I kind of like it.

After dropping our purchases (there was some food shopping as well), I decide that it’s time for a little hedonism. After all, what’s a trip to Amsterdam without getting a little wrecked. Fortunately there is a coffee house right downstairs, and I pop in for a couple glasses of juice and some weed. Oh, and if you’re the kind of person who is shocked that I would partake in legal weed when it was available, maybe you shouldn’t be fucking reading this blog. That said, I waltzed up to the counter and ordered a couple joints, one of White Widow and the other of some type of hash I can’t pronounce (judging by the names of everything else around here, I’m gonna go with “Hash of Giant Strength +7) then sat down with a few people to smoke them. And yes, there is something strange about buying weed straight over the counter of a bar. It’s a little like the first time you order a legal beer after turning 21, but much more sticky. After two of these fatty bad boys I’m pretty lit up, so I part ways with my company and head to the Red Light District.

The Red Light District of Amsterdam has reached such storied acclaim that it is actually a recognized zoning district of town now; no longer is it defined by the hazy area that streetwalkers tend to frequent, but rather it can be looked up in one - nay, many - volumes of city ordnance, as though proscribing the exact boundaries of purchased poontang is a natural part of the day for any municipal paper pusher. Thus, it’s not hard to find. It’s very strange. No, I need to emphasize that more.

The Red Light District of Amsterdam is one of the single most bizarre things I have ever encountered. Period.

First off, it’s not like a dark, twisty catacomb of alleys preyed upon by cutthroats and women of loose virtue. It’s like a fucking carnival. Or Carnavale, more like. For the most part it involves wide streets, at least once with a canal running down the center, brightly lit up by neon signs and wrapped in the blanket of really good bar music, feeding the eyes and ears of hundreds of people traipsing up and down gawking at the scenery, if the word can apply to such mangled meat husks that were once, but once, human. Most of the people wandering around want nothing to do with the whores or the drugs or any of it… they’re just there because it’s a part of Amsterdam you need to see, and it is not at all unheard of to see a married couple in their seventies pointing at a window and cooing, “Look, honey, I think that one wants you to stick it to her… Yes, she definitely needs to ride you like an animal. How quaint!”

The ladies themselves are not out on the street hawking their wares. Rather, they rent out floor-to-ceiling windows in the buildings that line the street, which they pose in, illuminated by strips of red neon lighting that frame the window (at this point, teacher asks the class if they know there the name “Red Light District” came from). If you see something you like, you merely approach, they open up the window and let you in. Bing, bang, boom.

It’s a very odd thing to walk amongst the working ladies. In the kind of cultures that we run around in, the vast majority of women play their sexual cards very close to the chest and, though they may not want to admit it, they are very keen about the fact that they hold the sexual power and are thus quite judicious about how they muscle it around. Hence the complicated game of cat and mouse that is modern courtship, or dating, or cock teasing, or whatever you want to call it. These women, however, are the exact opposite. They pose, wearing the absolute bare minimum of clothing, and entice all comers (pun) with the knowledge that, yes, they are only objects and, yes, they exist only to please your genitalia. Naturally this represents a complete reversal from the conventional wisdom in which we operate (though it might be seen as a slightly more pure exercise in “You ordered the lobster, now you owe me this,” with which we are so familiar) and is thus more than a little amusing to see.

I do question how happy they are. I know there’s this whole believe that no woman could possibly be happy in that line of work, which there is a valid argument for, but if that’s true, the Amsterdam whores contain some of the finest actors in our modern world (bear in mind, this is coming from a guy who’s not actually partaking, so I think I can avoid most of the ‘see what you want to believe’ bias). I don’t mean to suggest that these girls wake up every morning (afternoon?) and say “Hooray, I get to sell my body today!” I just mean to say that it would be an interesting study to see, in a therapeutic context, how they felt about their vocation. It is my hypothesis that you would get much the same response as you do from modern office workers asked the same question.

Fun prostitute fact: contrary to the image one has of old, broken down, world weary whores with syphilis sores riddling their shattered bodies like bullet holes in John Dillinger, the majority of these women are hot. I don’t know why it feels a little dirty even to admit that Dutch whores are attractive, but the fact of the matter is that they looked good, which is not unfathomable that sexual attraction is their stock in trade. Though it makes sense, I was a bit floored by it, as well as by my own instinctual desire that bubbled to the surface. I wouldn’t go for a prostitute (I share the common distaste for the practice) even if I wasn’t in a loving committed relationship, and yet as I walked along I found myself musing, “Hey, it wouldn’t be that bad,” as though my Y-chromosome was leaping forward at this very clear opportunity to spread my seed and insisting to the brain to move over, it’s my turn, pal.

I didn’t, though. I swear I didn’t. Ask anybody.

Ok, that’s all I’ve got on prostitutes. And all I've got on Amsterdam.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Dark Travails: In the Chocolatiers Guild

Location: Bruges, Belgium
Duck Organization: Maverick Warlords

April 23

Dawn sees us up and at the proverbial “em,” at least to the degree that the shambling dead could be described as such. We have a two-stage train to Bruges leaving from Gare du Nord, and it would surely disappoint the Gods of Punctuality if we were, you know, late. That fantastical metaphor works both ways, really.

Train #1 to Brussels is just peachy, though due to a slight delay our platform-hopping changeover in Brussels is a bit more hurried than we would like. To make matters less bon, our InterCity train to Bruges has been severely overbooked. You know the kind of overcrowding when you start praying for a new Black Plague? I mean, I would say that I was so frustrated that I pantomimed punting a four-year old child off the train, gleefully chortling as he went spinning into a chocolate windmill or something (which I did, indeed, mime), but honestly it doesn’t take a whole hell of a lot to drive me to that point. Anyway, we are forced to stand for most of the hour-long ride that we (and by “we” I mean “Mom”) paid through the nose for in a train car brimming with snot-nosed, apple-throwing toddlers and teetering old ladies in equal measure, designed with such sublime disdain that baggage storage is a children’s prank gone awry, leaving me to straggle my backpack the entire way. This city had damned well better be worth it.

And boy-Belgian-howdy, is it ever. To fully understand the Sherlock-Holmes-esque, D&D-riffic nature of Bruges, you have to know its history. Way back in the day, Bruges was the capital of Flanders, and a very powerful trading city dealing with chocolate, fine fabrics, and other luxury goods (they just barely missed out on the slave trade, but I’m sure it would have been all the rage… better luck next time, guys). However, at the peak of its popularity, two disasters struck. First, there was an untimely death in the ruling family. I don’t have information on how exactly it happened, so I choose to believe the royal in question was beaten and hanged by a brutally vengeful and rather politically-active Cheshire cat, who tried to make the whole thing look like a suicide but failed, generally incensing the local populace in the process. Second, the harbor silted up. I’m not sure exactly what this means. I mean, I know it means that the harbor was filled up with sand and shit, making it unusable, but I’m far too poor and oceanographer to understand how that actually happens. Does the harbor just wake up one day and go, “being water sucks, I want to be mud now”? At any rate, usable harbor now becomes screwy harbor. So, people are now both sad and poor (surely two conditions never found side by side anywhere else in human history), and the town goes into ruin.

As such, Bruges never got touched by anything after, say, the 15th century. I mean, not really. The entire place looks almost like it must have then, except for the electric lights, modern plumbing, and automated green-laser defenses (it’s an Imperial city, if you want red Rebel lasers, haul your ass somewhere else). The irrepressible quaintness of the place eventually drew visitors, who showered the locals with bundles of fat cat foreign cash and demands for “authentic” and “historical” crap that everyone was only too happy to provide. Thus, the modern city of Bruges is born.

Say what you will about the touristy-ness, which is, inarguably, intense, this town is gorgeous. Starting about 45 seconds after we walk out of the train station, Mom and I are agape at the sheer pleasantness of the place, all pretty cobblestones and pretty trees and pretty churches and pretty people and pretty horses and PRETTY! PRETTY! In Bruges, if the pretty don’t fit, you lose your shit.

Our hostel, the Lybeer, is really very nice, built high and tight in the local land-is-a-precious-commodity custom. We hang there just long enough for a phone call from Jen and analysis of local sights/eateries, then we’re out, seeking lunch as oh-so-many Americans do. Lunch is an excellent three-course at a local café, sautéed hake washed down by Hoegardden (oh Jake Goldman, oh Jake… the Hoegardden). It’s freakin’ delicious and we enjoy a pleasant hour and a half there.

After that it’s the wandering ticket for us, just kind of soaking things and up and getting the lay of the land. We wander - crossing canal and dell - all the way up to the Markt (not a misspelling), the central square of the city, which is dominated by one huge friggin’ belfry and more of the same. Oh, there was a stop for delicious Belgian chocolate in there, as one might expect. I’m just thrilled with it, one amazing taste sensation after another, although Mom is not (she prefers solid chocolate to all this fancy stuff). Take my word for it, Hershey is just as full of crap as Disney, Sesame Street, and Tinkerbell; this Belgian stuff is good. It melts in your mouth the way a perfectly cooked steak would, if it were made of delicious chocolate.

We’re baffled at one point by a church of awesomeness (another Our Lady church), which all signs assure us it open but to which we are unable to find an open door. Conclusion: try again tomorrow.

By this time we’re worked off lunch and want to try some dinner. Consulting our quite knowledgeable hostel workers, we find a restaurant called The Hobbit, reputed to have excellent ribs. ….ribs. I haven’t had ribs since September. And I have needs. This place is just as good as they say, a wood-sheathed bung-and-barrel type bar and restaurant decorated in light neo-Lord of the Rings. The ribs are all you can eat, peppery and served with several dipping sauces. I go for local beers, Bruges Zot and Kreffe (not sure about the spelling there), which are both excellent, if very different. We’re there until the place starts to close, me having rocked through four and a half servings of ribs, much to the - I suppose - annoyance of our waiter.

After that we’ve got a little walk around, just enjoying the perfect nighttime weather, talking, and such. As a city primarily populated by the elderly segment of tourists, at this time of night it might as well be a ghost town. So much so, in fact, that the most we notice any form of life was a single duck paddling his way down the very center of a large canal, as if to declare himself the alpha duck and challenge all web-footed comers to a mighty, quackish battle royale.

The last episode for the day is a bit of an unusual one. You see, our hostel does not have 24-hour reception, and to ensure that guests can come and go as they please the employees provided us with a 4-digit code to punch into a security panel on the door if we come back too late. This is an important thing, so naturally we forgot about it as soon as we checked in, and certainly did not bring the slip of paper with us when we went walking. So imagine our consternation when we arrive back at the hostel after midnight, happy and exhausted, and discover that we can’t get into our room. The scene that unfolded was pretty hilarious, really. We tried everything from rattling the door to trying various combinations of numbers to throwing rocks at the windows to wake up guests who might be inside, to no avail. I thought that I might have remembered the code from glancing at the sheet once, but it was not to be. After about half an hour we’re starting to wonder if we need to sleep in a park or something, or perhaps vainly try to find another open hotel and pay for that for the night. As often happens, though, we were saved by the college student’s first dictum: When in doubt, trust the person in charge of the booze. In this case, the bartender at the Napoleon Bar, right down the street. When Mom questioned her, she new the code to the hostel right off the top of her head (and probably to other hostels as well). So, never let it be said that bartenders never saved anyone’s ass. It’s just not true.

April 24

Navigating in Bruges is almost painfully easy. As a port city constructed around a system of canals, one might fear that it would suffer the same nightmare-inducing rat-maze effect that Venice does (NOTE: neither Bruges nor Venice employs municipal workers who actually dispense cheese upon successfully leaving… must fix that), but Belgian city planners apparently lack the Venetian love of dead ends. Plus, the city’s normally low skyline is dominated by three enormous spires, two of them belonging to churches and the third being the town belfry, and one is never far from a vantage point in which two, if not all three of these towers are visible, allowing for very simple landmark navigation. It’s the same principal that Orthanc and Barad-dur were going for, but they placed their towers too far apart and substituted cute Belgian canals with rivers of elvish blood, so it didn’t work as well.

This is our only full day in Bruges, so we have to make it count. We’re out relatively early, but not so much to hurt the brain. Our first stop is the “Our Lady” church that had foiled us so handily yesterday. This time around we manage to find the entrance in short order, applying the time-tested heuristic of ‘follow the old people who paid for the guided tour.’ The church is quite neat, especially since it’s been partially turned into a museum. Most European churches end up being museums of a sort by default, but the actual effort to collect stuff there adds a little zip. The piece de resistance is Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child,” his most famous statue that you couldn’t pick out of a line-up. It’s neat, and we go for the accustomed photo-op, though after a bit of internal wrestling I decide not to flip this one off (I’ve already hit 3 or 4 of Michelangelo’s works, and there’s only so much you can give the bird to one guy’s stuff before it just gets trite).

Next stop is the belfry, which is notable both for being tall and having many stairs, two facts that I’m told are linked by something called the laws of physics. This is one of those really cool center-of-town towers built for the local duke or whatever to be able to address his minions in grandeur as they huddle in the town square wondering what basic human rights he’ll be taking from them today. It contains 366 steps to the top, which I tried to reason out into some sort of ‘days of the year’ symbolism, but I’m forced to conclude it’s just happy coincidence, at the summit of which you are greeted with a pretty spectacular three-sixty degree view of Bruges and the surrounding countryside. Our climb was made all the more interesting by hordes - hordes- of terrible, screaming schoolchildren. We’re not sure exactly what the deal was, but this little 11-year old rug rats plagued us from top to bottom, side to side, and other directions throughout the day. Presumably this was the date agreed-upon for all Flemish school field trips. Either that, or the Revolution truly has begun.

Fun fact: Did you know that when you’re in the top of a belfry, right next to the bells, and the bells start ringing, that it’s fucking loud? There’s a reason that sound reaches for miles. We’re talking a couple of dozen bells rocking out “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” or something else about little girls and sheep, with all the style and grace of a 7th grade percussion section. On the plus side, the views are nice, and there is a collection of artifacts like a big treasure chest. And if you know me, you can imagine why I would love a big treasure chest. Mmmm…. Gold pieces.

After the belfry we head to the next natural Belgian attraction: a chocolate museum. And I know what you’re thinking, yeah? “It’s just like Willy Wonka’s, right?” You’d think that, wouldn’t you? But it ain’t. And let me tell you, no amount of arguing will convince these people to give you your money back upon discovering that there’s no chocolate river (and schoolchildren make a terrible substitute for Oompa-Loompas). Even given that disappointment it was pretty neat, mainly for the demonstrations of how to make various chocolate goodies. There is a certain amount of energy here that must be devoted to bemoaning the fate of cocoa bean farmers and their painstaking, unappreciated work, as well as marveling over what a big deal chocolate has been since the beginning of, I don’t know, The Godiva Temple at Manchu Pichu. Did you know, for instance, that chocolate has in the past been prescribed as medicine? I’m not sure what it’s supposed to cure, except maybe anorexia, but it gives me high hopes for other things (cross your fingers for medical Mountain Dew).

About this time we’re starting to get a little hungry, despite bellies full of chocolaty goodness. However, the canals beckons, so we put our hunger on hold for about half an hour as we jump into a little motor boat for a canal tour. It’s a pretty standard tourist trap setup, but quite enjoyable in that regard. There’s not a whole lot that the tour guide regurgitates that’s of surprise or interest, but for sheer cuteness there’s no better way to the see the city. There’s something soothing about being on the water on a bright, hot, sunny day, you know?

After that’s done it’s really time to go for the food. We managed earlier to track down the location of a local fondue restaurant, which I feel sure will be delicious because, hey, it’s fondue. Unfortunately it doesn’t open until the dinner hours, which we’re short of by about two. A bit frustrated, we hit a local sandwich shop for hold-us-over food that ends up being rather delicious despite being simple sandwiches and such. After that we make our last stop on the great Bruges tour of the day, namely the Basilica of the Holy Blood, so named for containing what is supposedly some of the coagulated blood of Jesus Christ. I don’t buy this for a second (the “Holy Blood” was recovered by a crusader in the 12th century… if you can still tell whose blood it is over a thousand years after his death just by scraping around, then I think you’re the right guy to track down all my lost socks and sunglasses), and I don’t think most Christians would either, but the Basilica is undeniably cool, simultaneously crazy-ornate and gilded while keeping a very dark, earthy feel to it. We hang around there for a few minutes before jumping ship.

Back at the hotel, we take a bit to recuperate and get in the mood for dinner, after which time we sally forth in search of fondue yet again. This time the thing is open, and we take a table out on the street where we can enjoy the evening and watch the folk go by. The cheese fondue is nothing short of excellent, and the whole meal is just plain fantastic.

This is a good time to mention that one of the primary sights to see in Bruges are the horses. Not horses on their own, but the overpriced carriage-pulling variety. They’re everywhere, although who is actually silly enough to shell out 35 euros for 15 minutes in a horse carriage, I don’t know. There are many that pass us having dinner, particularly of the larger draft horse variety pulling huge 16-person wagons. If you’ve never enjoyed white cheese fondue and Belgian beer while watching an 1800-pound quadruped slug down a medieval cobblestone street and trading banter with your mom, let me tell you, it’s a real treat.

And that’s our time in Bruges.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Paris, avec the Mama: Part Trois

Location: Paris, France
Marie Antoinette: Still Dead

April 22

Our final day in Paris dawns with chirping birds and the vigorous denial of surrendering without a blasted fight. There's not really a whole lot of huge things left to see in this city, unless one counts the anti-matter Eiffel Tower recently imported from dimension X, but we decide to forgo that as a means of protest.

Our first stop, as good hungry Americans everywhere will support, involved a Mexican restaurant, highly recommended by my handy-dandy Lonely Planet guide. Lured by the promise of beef-filled tortillas and frozen tequila-based concoctions, I was powerless to resist, and Mom in her endless supportive optimism decided to humor me. The food was excellent, the service was passable (by the way, I love the fact that we are Americans in France eating Mexican food served by a British waitress... that's 4 national leaps, not far shy of the record, and more than one normally finds on a Sunday afternoon), but the booze left something to be desired. I'm not sure if you would ever have guessed this, but northern France is not the best place to go if you want full-on, screaming margaritas. Who knew?

Perhaps called to mind by giggly images of Mexican laborers rotting in jail for stealing jobs from honest, hardworking Frenchmen, we decide to make our next stop the famous revolutionary jail: The Conciergie. After experiencing the great disappointment that is Place de la Bastille last time I was in Paris, this has a factor of personal redemption as much as anything else.

The Conciergie began as all great European prisons do: as a French palace. Then the king moved out, and the woe-begotten servants decided that the only way to heal their broken hearts was to find replacement residents with character similar to that of the departed royals; namely, convicts. Its most famous prisony time period was during the French Revolution, when it was the primary prison for the condemned sods of the Reign of Terror. You know all those people who got guillotined for fun? This is where they ate their last savory meal before traveling to that big cheese-tasting in the sky. Cool, I know. Even better is that among their number was Marie Antoinette, fabled Queen of Angry Cake Remarks. Oh, hooray! Let's go see where she spent her last despairing months being watched by Peeping Tom revolutionary soldiers for whom auto-erotic sportsmanship etiquette involved unwritten rules such as 'no peeing on the condemned regent.'

The prison is much as you would expect, awesome barrel-vaulted stone and tiny little cells filled with scarecrows meant to resemble despondent French peasants, which they do in aspect and manner with great mannequined fervor. There's a lot of information, presented in machine-gunned museum style, talking about the French Revolution, which I'm proud to say made even less sense than most capitalized Revolutions. There's a great list, much resembling, say, the Vietnam War Memorial, that contains the names and professions of all 2,780 people sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court, ranging from generals and statesmen to - I am not making this up - hairdressers and cripples. How bad does your life suck that even the monuments built to commemorate your wrongful execution refer to you only as a cripple? There is serious post-mortem therapy needed here.

After the prison, we're in the mood for something slightly lighter, so we head down to the oddly-named Luxembourg Gardens. It's pretty, full of trees and pretty birdies and small children sailing miniature ships upon a giant fountain. Absolutely no flesh-eating ogres. There is, at one point, a statue of some frolicking satyr-like creature that prompts a debate over the object extending from his rear end: tail or turd? This should give you a good idea of the classiness that my mother and I both embody, especially when surrounded by such august attractions. We sit there for a while watching the people and realizing by degrees that we haven't gotten as much sleep the last few nights as we would have liked to.

It is with great relish, then, that we conclude our time in Paris to be successfully rocked-out and make our way back to the hostel, stopping only for ice cream and sandwiches. We hit the sack early in anticipation of our train the next morning to Bruges, and let Paris linger only in the twisted realms of our little dreamy dreams.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Paris, avec the Mama: Part Deux

Location: Paris, France
Culture Status: Jacked

April 20

Up today at the much more accommodating hour of 9:45, followed by a leisurely wake-up process. At almost noon we actually left the hotel, feeling just delightful and ready to tackle the new day.

We've decided that today we shall try to visit the Louvre, knowing full well that the lines may be prohibitive at this time of day, meaning backed up so far out the door of that huge glass pyramid entrance that treading water over the mid-Atlantic ridge becomes a real issue for those of us in heavy shoes. Our attempt thus represents a certain foolish joie de vivre that is normally reserved for retarded gerbils, but we're pretty ok with it.

Miracle of miracles, the line at the entrance is paltry, as is the ticket queue, and we are able to breeze through the whole thing in maybe 5 minutes. We are thus confronted with one of the largest museums in human history and no idea where we want to go in it.

It is worth noting at this point that before showing up we had decided that we would avoid the Mona Lisa like the proverbial plague, do to numerous reports I have received from fellow travelers that it is A) tiny, silly, and unimpressive, and B) surrounded by more rapturous onlookers than the funeral for Princess Diana's oh-so-beloved pet ferret (woe for the end of the People's Ferret). In truth, the scene one finds at the Mona Lisa is not entirely unlike that of the Ewok village post-meeting C-3p0: there are tons of tiny, hairy people whose language is an indecipherable chittering, all of whom are cooing mystically and staring in awe at a dingy, nerdarific idol who keeps insisting "I'm just a freakin' painting, you idiots! You're surrounded by them! I'm not even that good!" Ok, so maybe the analogy breaks down at some point.

You may have gathered by now that, in the clear absence of truly Rolling Stones-esque crowds, we decided to try the Mona Lisa just for fun, and were presented with a deceptively easy journey. The sad thing is that, in a place brimming with the divine spittle of truly great works of art, it's not a very good painting. I understand that there are a plethora of reasons to circle jerk Leonardo da Vinci and all his intellectual/artistic bastard children, but the next time someone tries to genuinely tell me that this little cereal box cartoon of a painting is the greatest thing the artistic community has seen since ninjas invented pencils, I'm going to drag that person to France, Paris, and the Louvre, take him to the Mona Lisa, and try my damndest to ram his bulbous, empty skull through the bullet-proof glass covering the thing. So, yeah, I flipped it off. And it was good.

We find the Mona Lisa, of course, in the Renaissance Italian paintings, meaning that it is surrounded by literally dozens of paintings of Jesus being stabbed in the side with a spear. It's sad to me that in this, one of the greatest flourishing periods of art in the world, when great artists were successfully trained and adequately patronized, there is a veritable Dead Marsh of creative stagnation, forcing all these wonderful hands and minds to paint Stabbity Jesuses and Pissed Off Nursing Marys ad nauseum. Seriously, guys, from now on we have a policy of only one Jesus painting and only one Mary painting per person per year... Go paint some flowers or viking raids or bikini chicks or kids playing Vice City (if you like meta-art). Anything but halo-sporting virgins with their heads cocked uncomfortably to one side.

Next on the list is the Venus de Milo, the only thing I can think of that's world-famous for not having any arms. And no, kids with Gulf War Syndrome don't count (too soon?). It's neat, and made of stone, and clearly the work of people who practiced sculpting more than I do.

You need to understand that my appreciation of art, even works that I really like, comes mostly from making fun of them (allow me here to give Mom some props; she's great on the funny art banter, and really our whole trip to the Louvre was a laugh riot), so it's hard to really recreate my enjoyment of them in the telling. I admit there were a number of penis jokes, gay jokes, fart jokes, and baby eating jokes told, but I don't apologize for it to you and more than I did to the guards who tried to throw me out of the museum for putting my finger in Hercules's butt. That didn't actually happen, but in a way I wish it did.

Our tour was mainly comprised of the "Stabbity Jesus" Italian movement, Northern School naturalists (I insisted on that so I could the work of Peter Paul Reubens, who I do genuinely enjoy sans joking), and the collection of French sculpture, which was Mom's particular bit of interest. There was art, and it was pretty. Woot.

About halfway through, we began to get parched and our tiny unexercised legs were wearing from hauling our bloated American carcasses around, so we made our way to the Cafe Richelieu, which is actually inside the museum, for a brief intermission. We had juice and salad and coffee and a plate of fine cheeses out on the summer terrace, enjoying the perfect weather and gazing down on the entrance courtyard watching the people go by and enjoying the atmosphere. Really it was one of the nicest restaurant snacks I've ever had, and went very well with the subtle flavors of the museum itself. I'm feeling very worldly and cultured by this point, and the urge to speak with a snotty British accent is almost overriding my simply decency.

After about 6 hours in the Louvre we decide that that's about enough for right then, so we head out. There's enough daylight left for a trip through Notre Dame cathedral at sunset, so we trek along the Seine, enjoying multiple bridge crossings at the Ile-de-la-Cite, allowing ourselves a lovely first view of the cathedral, with the suns setting rays lighting up that famous facade in a golden-orange brilliance. It really is a beautiful place, much more stately than most other famous cathedrals, truly conducting itself like a noble lady, holding down the center of Paris with solid stonework rather than the prissy, immature golden domes and pink marble that one finds in so many other places.

Unfortunately, they decided to close the thing before dark, so we're going to have to come back tomorrow to see the inside, but chilling in the square in front of the church for sunset is lovely enough on its own. Before heading home we stop along the quai for a Chinese buffet (shut up, we love Chinese food and this was delicious), then catch the metro back to the hotel. It's pretty late by now and we're exhausted from all the walking, so it's about time for bed.

April 21

With the strength of a night's sleep behind me I'm a lot less respectful and philosophical than I was last night. Notre Dame thwarted us yesterday, but now that bitch is going down. Ok, so it's going down after Mom gets her Starbucks fix and we get sandwiches at a nearby Brioche Doree (my favorite French sandwich joint, excellent tuna and egg baguette sandwiches). Ok, now that bitch is going down.

The inside of Notre Dame matches the outside, beautiful but not insanely ornate. Most of the prettiness comes from the massive number of stained glass windows, particularly the three main rose windows. I do love the fact that this thing has been around for 800 years, yet somehow sports plasma screen TVs extended above every other pew. These architects were way ahead of their time. I try to take confession there, just for a goof, but I can't find a priest who speaks English. Guys, come on, my soul is burdened here!

Leaving Notre Dame we sit for a minute to watch local showboat rollerbladers doing their thing, marveling at the magnificence of their weavy-dodging abilities, and then head down the stairs to the river to the Porte de Montebello to catch a river tour boat. This was Mom's idea, and I have to say it was an excellent one. Essentially the bit here is that we sit on the top of a fifty-foot river boat, enjoying the sun and the breeze, and float past all the great monuments of Paris while a bored-looking gentlemen rattles off what the deal is with them in French, English, and Italian. Really this was just intensely pleasant more than anything else, and by the time the boat slid back into the dock an hour later, I'm ready to tackle the rest of the day.

The rest of the day happens to involve La Basilique de Sacre Coeur, a crazy-cool church situated right on top of Montmartre in the north part of the city. It's a long metro ride to get there, followed by a short, steep walk up Montmartre (involving a stop for ice cream and my reception of a new string bracelet from a nice Gambian scam artist... hey, I need a new one since the one I got in Venice just fell off a couple weeks ago), but the church itself is awesome. Where Notre Dame is gray, square, French, and stately, this thing is bone-white, round, dynamic, and exotic. The steeply sloping parks below the church seem to be a favorite chill-out spot for tons of Parisians, and given the view of the city that you get from the hill, I can't say I'm surprised. The inside of the church is absolutely cavernous, in an unusual way that affords a clear line of sight to almost every part of it from every other part. After a little walk around, we see that in only 20 minutes evening Vespers will start, so we decide to hang around and check it out (I don't know about you, but I've never seen Vespers given in a huge French basilica). As it turns out it consists basically of French Nuns doing sing-song chants. It's beautiful, both by virtue of their skill as singers and the acoustics of the church, which are not entirely unlike those of the Grand freakin' Canyon. Being without babelfish, though, we can't understand a word they're singing, so we get bored after about three songs and vacate. Stymied from climbing the dome for a good view by them closing it early (aren't there any rules against that?), we sit down on the steps leading up to the thing and listen to a pair of guitar-sporting street musicians who have a terrific repertoire of American 70's folk rock songs.

Though it is still short of 7:00 we decide to head home and recuperate in anticipation of going out tonight. That takes about an hour or so (not counting the great expanse of time devoted to buying our tickets to Bruges for Monday), during which I use my powers of dark divination to find what I believe to be promising music venues nearby. As for food, we decide to just find something on the way, and we're off. As it turns out, we are very carefully accosted about halfway there by the most flamingly gay French man I have ever seen (saying something). He is the manager of the Restaurant Selen, which we are just passing, and he gives us one of the world's greatest food service sales pitches, prompting a call of "hell yes," and we've got our spot for dinner. This place is nice. French food in the most classic sense, and we go all out on this one. Frog legs, goat cheese, leg of rabbit, good country wine... it's delicious. We're there for the better part of two hours, lock in candlelit ambiance, excellent food, and good conversation, punctuated by bits where Frank, the manager/waiter, comes to help us out and joke some more. We both had the time of our lives, and by the time we walk out of there at 12:40, we decide to forgo the music option and just hit the sack on a high note.

Game: Joneses.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Paris, avec the Mama: Part Un

Location: Paris, France
Spring: Bloomy

April 19

Since arriving back from a two-week sojourn to Spain with Jen, I've been crashing on Guillaume's couch, a lovely stay lasting 4 nights and full of every necessary comfort save a delicious Jelly pipe organ from which I might sample to while away the hours. Comfort must go on a temporary hiatus, however, as I must rise this morning at the tender hour of 5 AM in order to march my lanky ass to the train station, bound for Paris. Why such an early departure for such a dedicated couch slacker as myself, you ask? The answer is 5'8'' of loveable goofball named Laura Woolam Jones. She happens to be my mother, and lo, her coming is nigh.

In a spectacular flash of excellent decision making, Mom has decided to come visit me in Europe, for obvious motherly reasons. The original plan was for her to come to Montpellier, but it's cheaper just to fly into Paris, and quite sensibly she insisted that she can't go through Paris without actually going to Paris. Thus, I am to go meet her there for the first leg of a ten-day visitation that will encompass Paris, Bruges, Amsterdam, and finally Montpellier. The rocking shall be awesome, and we shall call it Jones.

My train ride up to Paris is extremely uneventful, marked only by watching half of an illegal copy of "Babel" and being surprised to find fields of canola growing in central France. I arrive at the airport in only mild confusion about where to actually find Mom, since of course the internet just couldn't tell the truth about which terminal Delta flies in to (to be fair, I blame Delta for this, since the Charles de Galle airport has never wronged me, yet Delta has on several occasions expressed it's throat-rending thirst for my unborn children's pure blood). However, I manage to find her outside baggage claim as planned, and there is much rejoicing.

Now linked by a thirst for adventure, we head to our hotel which I have so cunningly booked on this new "internet" thing. Arrival/settling goes splendidly, and we settle in for a well-deserved nap. To be fair, Mom is working off six hours of jet lag and very little sleep, and I am pretty sleep deprived as well. We wake up in an hour or so and set off. First destination: the Arc de Triumph.

I am unsure here as to whether I should describe the Arc (and other things) in this post, or do so in my post about my previous trip to Paris with Jen, which I have not yet written of, but which took place first chronologically. I think that my solution to this dilemma will show not only my own quaint egotism but my utter lack of regard for any of the poor sods who read this stuff: I shall do both.

The Arc de Triumph (one of many French things that I have no idea how to spell) was built in 1806 by Napoleon to commemorate... well, basically how awesome he was and how formidable his cock was. And let me tell you, it must have been both monstrous and durable, for this Arc is mighty. Seriously, it's huge. Bear in mind that I have seen no fewer than 3 other Arc de Triumphs, and this one is the mostest triumphest by far. It is worth noting that the thing rests in the middle of the world's largest traffic roundabout. So if you've got a $50,000 dodgeball tournament coming up, this is a great place to start training. We head across underground, thus bypassing traffic-dodging death, and view the thing for a few minutes. I impress Mom by translating commemorative plaques in French (which I pretty much made up... I think most of them were recipes for apple strudel). Come to think of it, much of our time is spent split between gawking at the thing and trying to decipher what various names, dates, and carvings mean. I don't think we got many of them factually correct, but we sure had a lot of fun coming up with things. Mom in particular thought it was cute that in one two-times-life-sized sculpture of soldiers going into battle, one man appeared to be wearing armor over his entire body, except for a small hole where his genetalia could flap through. Truly a man who believes that his penis is made of steel.

After that we made our way down the Champs Elysees, the street that is famous for, as best I can tell, overpriced clothing and jewelry. Oh, and McDonald's restaurants that are classier than most Red Lobsters. It's pretty and the weather is flawless, so we enjoy just strolling and soaking up the atmosphere. The plan was to walk all the way down to the Louvre, but Mom second-guesses that along the way and we veer right, towards the Seine River, passing beside the great glass buttock that is the Grand Palais. If you don't know, the Grand Palais was the site of the 1900 World's Fair, and is made in large percentage of glass, in a way that you think of snow globes being made of glass, but very rarely buildings. We're off across a bridge (Pont d'Invalides, I believe, but then again I'm just an ignorant American), stopping to marvel at nut-tons of gold gilding and statues, not to mention the insanity that is the Hotel des Invalides, a hospital for retards and cripples that nevertheless sports an incongruously awesome golden dome.

We walk back west along the south bank of the river, making our way to the Eiffel Tower, which has loomed oh-so-pointily in the distance all afternoon. It's a pleasant, sparkly half-hour that takes us there, and then we are beneath one of the great tourist attractions of our age.

You have to understand, there are two basic types of tourist attractions: those that live up to the hype, and those that don't. The Eiffel Tower is one of the first. As famous architectural paraphenalia goes, it marks high on all the important points, such as originality, size, distinction, and pointyness. Yes, pointyness is important; sharp things are just more interesting, in the same way that, say, lesbian ham is more interesting. I just want to see that, and to know what it's about.

We lurk for a time beneath its grandeur, walking the lawns of the Champ de Mars to appreciate it from all angles. Were there hot air balloons taking off nearby, I feel sure that we would have Daring Commando hijacked one of them to appreciate the Tower in more three-dimensional glory. It is at this point that Mom points out that all the trees along the Champ de Mars are shaved flat on the side facing the field, while remaining unpruned on the opposite side. So noticing, I dub them Mullet Trees: business in the front, party in the back.

About this time the sun is setting and we're legitimately tired, so head back, passing through Trocadero Gardens on the way. I stop to flip off the Tower, having sillyly forgotten to do that on my last trip here, and we park ourselves at the top of the Garden stairs to watch the Eiffel Tower go all sparkly on the hour. It does that, you know. Some genius rigged the Tower with hundreds of strobe lights that go off Christmas Tree style every hour on the hour after sunset, turning the whole thing into the world's largest producer of bad mescalin trips. After enjoying, we jump the metro back to the hotel, stopping for an over-priced, though delicious pizza, which we ate in the room while watching "The Office." And bed.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Frenchiness Thus Far

Before engaging in any further repartee regarding my travels in the British Isles, Portugal, or Spain - I believe the proper term for such things would be retroactive - I feel compelled to illustrate briefly the setting in which I now reside.

As of January 4, 2007, I have been living in Montpellier, France. One might say it is my personal Promised Land which lay gleaming and hopeful at the end of my long city-hopping stint, much like Utah must have looked to John Smith. You know, before the untimely death. It would be impractical to provide a detailed, blow-by-blow description of my days as I have been doing, to say nothing of the crippling boredom which would, I feel certain, leap from the words themselves to cudgel my fair readers between the eyes (I am, after all, settled into a more or less routine life here now). Thus, a more general discussion is required.

First and foremost: I am no longer alone on this continent. Yes, I have now by my side the honorable and lovely Jennifer Sirrine, who has arrived to sample the academic offerings of la belle France. She is living in Montpellier under the watchful eyes of a host mother, who we have dubbed "The Enfroi" for no other reason than that is a neat nickname and her actual last name happens to be Enfroi. Try to keep up, here. The living arrangement is less than ideal, 1) because the location is not necessarily central, 2) because we can't live together as is our custom, and 3) because The Enfroi does not live up to the party animal stereotypes that we all have regarding middle-aged French spinsters. We do all right, though. Mainly I'm just fucking thrilled to have her here... I missed her a lot, and experiencing Europe with someone - much like all of life, I would think - is infinitely superior to experiencing it without them.

My own living arrangements have been... interesting. Interesting in the way that a spectacular fireworks display might be, or perhaps the Battle of El Alemein.

Upon arriving in Montpellier with Jen, I was dismayed to find that the local youth hostel is closed until the 13th of January. Why, you ask? Solely to inconvenience me, I feel sure. This means that I must, tonight, either pay 50 euros for an actual hotel room or sleep in the train station. Finding both of those options to be sub-optimal, I resorted to my old friend, Couchsurfing (which you may remember from my adventures in Italy). Over the course of 3 hours, using my guerilla warrior skills to hijack a computer at Jen's university orientation, I sent out roughly 60 emails to people all around Montpellier, begging for a place to stay. Wonder of wonders, Hanna and Mihaela responded. Pleased as a skunk in... something skunk-like, I hiked into the city center to find them.

Hanna and Mihaela are German girls (ok, so Mihaela is Croatian-born, but whatever) who happen to be about the nicest, friendliest people this side of a Care Bear Stare. They welcomed me into their home on 2 hours' notice and let me stay there for a full 10 days, first on their absent roommate's bed, then on the couch after that roommate (Barbara, also a rock-awesome girl, Italian this time) returned from vacation. My days there were spent mainly looking for an apartment of my own... no mean feat when you don't speak the local language. In between bouts of apartment hunting, we ate and chatted and generally had a wonderful time. Here I learned the value of the French local bakery, taking it upon myself to soldier forth early most mornings to obtain fresh-baked baguettes and other yeasty treats.

Through them I met a bunch of other locals who have since become my friends, among them Guillaume, Cristof, and Laura (very important for later on). The apartment where these three live is a constant source of hilarity... more than one evening there has been spent trying on ridiculous wigs and old costume clothes from a box of such apparel inexplicably left in the apartment, all fueled by copious alcohol consumption, of course. It's one of those apartments where random people are constantly filtering in and out... in fact, I don't think I ever visited the place without meeting at least one new person each time.

As regards Montpellier: I had been worried before coming here by things that fellow travelers had said about the city, such as it being dirty, unsafe, unclean, dangerous, filthy, violent, and similar unvaried accusations. As it turns out, Montpellier is a lovely place, due to what I suspect has been a Herculean efforts over the last several years to revitalize its spirit. It's simply charming, if somewhat indistinct, like all 300,000 of its inhabitants are merely an un-touristy sub-center in another, larger city. One might imagine it to be the metropolitan Pleasantville of France, were it not for the inordinately large student population that insists on tearing it up Bonaparte style, yo every friggin' night of the week.

Trip #1: Guillaume, Hanna, Mihaela and I made a day trip to St. Guilhem-le-Desert, a tiny little village set in the mountains about an hour or so from Montpellier. It was gorgeous, the quintessential Poor Provincial Town out of myth (yes, I did do some Beauty and the Beast singing). We attempted to hike up into the mountains, but sadly none of us thought to bring a water bottle, so that got cut short after a little over an hour. At one point when we were all doubled over with hunger, there was an incident with me attempting to bring down a free-range chicken with rocks and my bare hands, but as it turns out those things are really fast. On the plus side, the apple juice we bought from the farmer by the side of the road was delicious.

With Barbara's aid - and by that I mean to present her speaking on the phone with potential roommates for me - I manage to secure an apartment near Jen's university. It was spacious, if a bit clinical, reasonably priced, and with an excellent location. Everything about it was great. Except, of course, that I was rooming with The Devil.

I will not detail overmuch the 31 days I lived there, for it is a narrative that I am still only fully comfortable relating in person. However, I will say the following. I was living with a married couple, each 28 years of age. At first they seemed like lovely people, if a bit frightened-rabbit-ish. Then, gradually, they began turn into horrible, horrible people. Truth be told, I have to give the man, Aurelian, some credit, for he appears to be merely been a puppet to Anca's (his wife's) dark summons. Anca, on the other hand, turns anal-looney-territorial-OCD-freak-of-nature into an entirely new context. As an example, I was once censured for boiling pasta because the steam from the pot condensed on the wall next to the stove. This meaningless occurrence turned into an actual attack on my character as a human being, much like a normal person might react had I, say, raped their only daughter, killed her, and used her corpse to fuel a magic ritual that caused blood to rain from the skies. Needless to say, I had to get out of there.

Trip #2: Jen and I made a weekend excursion to Paris, but that deserves its own separate blog entry, so look for that in the coming days.

During this time I secured a job as a professional soccer commentator, working for a company called Running Ball, Inc. Essentially, I am paid to attend soccer matches in Montpellier and give live commentary via my cell phone to clients who, I am given to understand, reside primarily in east Asia. The job is fun and pays extremely well, but unfortunately the company seems to be having some difficulty, so the frequency with which I am given matches to cover leaves much to be desired.

Ok, so this bare bones account takes us up to February 15 (Valentines Day will also get its own post), which begins my trip with Jen into Germany and the Czech Republic, which is where I will pick up next time.

I'm back, baby, and don't you forget it.

Less Often that Anticipated

Um... wow. Yeah. It's been a while. My bad. I had carpel tunnel there for a while. And the entire European internet collapsed. And my eyesight was stolen by the dark sorcerer Dak'nath. And I lost my short-term memory in an 8-car pileup with an orange juice tanker and seven decoy Popemobiles. And other excuses.

But we're back now. I can't promise things will be perfect, but the effort is on the return. If you want to bug me or encourage me about the blogging, I highly encourage these things. They help.

Oh, and if I didn't already say so: thanks for reading this stuff. It's nice that you care.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Legend of England: A Link to the Past

Location: Norwich, England
Ego Status: Under Siege

November 24

Colleen and I have been caught in the whirling maelstrom of the London Tube system, or as I shall refer to it from here on out, Charybdis. We managed to get tickets up to Norwich for a reasonably cheap price (all Colleen's doing; these tickets were available only to people who have the mental capacity to plan things). However, we first have to train from Ravenscourt Park to Paddington Station, get off the Tube, and pick up our tickets before we can train to Liverpool Street, where we will actually grab our overland train out of the city. I can actually hear the trustees of London's public transit system laughing as they twist their oily mustaches and choke bunnies for fun.

However, we're off without incident, and the two hour train ride to Norwich is really quite pleasant. We devour the remains of the turkey and much of the pumpkin pie in a classic backpacker's lunch a la Americaine, and it is good. Upon arriving at the station, we are greated by the reason for our trek up to this god-forsaken corner of England: Tessa and Tonje.

These two lovelies are mutual friends from Australia, again whom I haven't seen for two years, whom leaving in the first place was cause for no small amount of tears. Seeing their little blonde heads bobbing at us over the rows of cars is a simple joy quite beyond words, and there are immediate hugs exchanged of a ferocious quality.

Tessa, who has been gracious enough to open her house to us for the weekend, is my opposite number in virtually every way that you can put on paper. Whereas I am bold, harsh, and arrogant, she is selfless, accomodating, and genial. I embody most of the international stereotypes of Americans, whereas she is quintessentially British. I, carnivorous, she, vegetarian. On the face of it, it seems that we shouldn't get along at all, but there is an intense love and friendship here that I find quite unique. She is irrepressibly full of joy and zest, which I admire about her almost as much as her unfailing loyalty and decency.

Tonje is, quite simply, the cutest human being alive. And yes, I'm including babies. She's that cute. Kittens eating candy canes kind of cute. I can't be around her for more than 10 seconds without wanting to just pick her up and spin her around. It's a ubiquitous quality, though. You have to be ready for it, or you might miss it. She is quiet in groups, which could be wrongly taken for lack of interest or something ridiculous like that, but when she does decide to pipe up, she invariably makes you smile. I have seldom met anyone so easy to get along with, who so consistently brings a contented smirk to my face.

So that's the crew for the time being. We make our way back to Tessa's house, made somewhat difficult because Tessa has to go back to work at the end of her lunch break and we have to navigate without her. Her directions are more or less good, though, and Tonje (who got here yesterday) is able to guide us on the last leg. Upon settling, the three of us decide to use our remaining daylight hours to do some sightseeing.

Sightseeing is a problem in Norwich because there really aren't many sights to see. It's a little bit out of the way as far as English towns go... in the States, we would call it a poo-hole. However, there is a cathedral of some reknown, so without any better ideas we head there, having to exercise some authority to keep Tonje off of the ice skating rink we find on the way. The cathedral is large and very English (yes, I've gotten where I can tell with reasonable certainty the nationality that created a cathedral just by looking at it... the Italians particularly have a certain flair that the British seem to have missed out on), and I wouldn't have thought much good about it except for the fact that it was yet another bit of international exploring with friends. You have to understand, this is what I do with these people. Surely, we eat and drink and joke and shmooze, but bear in mind that I have never seen any of them in the country of my birth. Everything we do is supported on a foundation of adventure that colors even the most mundane of activities. As such, we're really good at it, and I am able to enjoy the cathedral on that basis.

After that we wander on back to the Forum, a garish collection of shops and cafes clustering orphan-style around the town library. Colleen and Tonje grab drinks and snacks for a mere $19 a pop while I, having a small amount of money that has to last me as long as possible, abstain from drinking these most precious of beverages.

After a while Tessa gets off work and comes to join us. We talk and laugh and sing merry carols about fluffy bunnies for a few minutes, then it's dinner time. I, being a headstrong man surrounded by polite females, play decision maker, and off to the store it is to purchase things for a nice home-cooked curry (curry is English slang for "meal of Indian food"). There is a bit of a row as Tessa is vegetarian and I require hardcore meat to stay upright, but we eventually get the mechanics of the thing settled and have a nice time cooking together (and, in the case of the beef, separately) and generally having a good time.

After dinner it's time to crazy-go-nuts, so we walk down to a local watering hole with one of Tessa's flatmates in tow. The bar is quite neat. Most of the tables are in a small pavilion outside, and a trapeze-chain of Barbie dolls hangs above the bar in the Plastic World's most impressive daisy chain. As it turns out, a couple of our other old mates from Australia are currently living in Norwich and will also be there tonight. First, however, is the business of meeting Jamie, Tessa's boyfriend. He's a capoeira fiend and a general 'zest for life' type, and earns approval all around. Then come the old friends. Anna and Barnaby are a couple, just as they were when I knew them in Australia. Anna is really a wonderful person, sweet and full of good nature. My first real experience with her was when she was my toilet-side caretaker at my 20th birthday party. We'd only known each other for about 24 hours, but she was as good a friend already as anyone could hope for. It's good to see that she's still as chipper and fun as always. Barnaby, by contrast, is a walking testament to douchebaggery, partly because of his anarcho-nihilist hatred for all humanity (self-declared, by the way), and the fact that he treats Anna worse than I treat most stray dogs. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I don't like it when one member of a relationship makes it their goal to make their partner feel worthless and dehumanized. It upsets me.

However, we all have just a dandy time at the bar, doing bar things, then pack it in at the wee hours of the morning. Tomorrow, we dance.

November 25

Ok, maybe dance is the wrong word. After a brief trip to the library for my morning Jen-email, we're off to Tessa's capoiera class. For those of you paying attention, yes, this is where she met her boy.

If you are among the uneducated, huddled masses, let me explain capoiera. Capoiera is a form of Brazilian martial arts, often called "dance fighting." Way back in the day, there was this whole thing with the European oppressors of Brazil (damned Portugese!) forbidding their enslaved native charges from learning how to fight. So, said natives invented a form of martial art that looked would look like dancing to their heathen masters. Thus, capoiera was born. Ever played Tekkan? Yeah, this is Eddie Gordo. It's what breakdancing was derived from. That should give you an idea.

Like the idiot that I am, I have taken Tessa up on her offer to actually participate in the beginner's class today. Colleen and Tonje, much wiser, have elected to simply watch. For about an hour I am forced to jump, jive, and wail in ways that I'm sure I was never intended to do. Tessa claims that I did very well, but the soreness in my ass and the gigantic blood blister on my left foot beg to differ. It was fun, though. I so rarely get to kick imaginary foes while jungle people chant on a nearby boombox. I'll count it a victory.

The weather is absolutely pissing down, and by the time we get out of there none of us are particularly energetic. We grab cheap sandwiches on the way home, just in time to shower and plan out a real dinner. It's spaghetti tonight, and even though I acquiesce to the vegetarianism, it's quite good.

After dinner we meet up with Jamie and make a beeline for James Bond the Most Awesomest Guy Ever in "Casino Royale." The badassery is just as badass as I could have hoped, and the gunshots are both numerous and poorly aimed, as tradition demands. Of course, it just wouldn't have been me had I not dropped a piece of chocolate on the seat and unknowingly ground it into the crotch of my jeans so it looked like I crapped myself. Great.

Norwich is really quite lovely this time of year (when it's not pissing down rain), and they're just starting to break out the Christmas decorations hardcore, so things are bordering on downright festive. It's everything you could ever want from a medium-sized, quaint British town, right down to the windy streets and market full of questionable Chinese food vendors.

Back home and it's off to bed. Tonje has to leave in the morning (some crap about "final exams" or something), so there's a bit of pre-emptive sadness, but just getting to see her has been everything I hoped, so I can't be totally broken up about it. At least now I know it's possible.

November 26

Awakening early for a final goodbye to Tonje, then a move from the air mattress of doom to the bed that she has recently vacated. More sleep. Very good.

It's a lazy morning around Norwich. About lunchtime we decide that we'd like to head over a see the sea, so we pile into Tessa's car (a gray beast named Nellie that apparently doesn't like to start all the time), pick up some lunchtime snacks from the nearby store, and head off. It's about a 45 minute drive to the town of Cromer, a tiny little town right on the North Sea. We walk around for a bit, just taking in the atmosphere. On the shore we tentatively touch the water to confirm that yes, it is cold. Colleen and I grab some chips at a local fish and chips place, reputedly the best in England, while Tessa abstains because they apparently do all their cooking in beef drippings. They are, indeed, delicious, and by the time we finish them off it's time to go home, what with it being dark and all.

Back in Norwich we pop by Jamie's place for a bit, just to say hi, and end up watching an episode of a strange British TV show that Tessa assures us is hilarious and which Jamie happens to have on DVD. It's called "The Mighty Boosh," and follows 2 zany zookeepers through their various misadventures. Excellent line: "Apes respond to all kinds of music, but mainly 70's rock."

After departing Jamie's, it's off to Anna's place for dinner. There are six of us (Tessa, Colleen, Anna, Barnaby, myself, and Anna's flatmate whose name I forget) for a delicious homemade vegetable curry and some cheap wine. The dinner is fantastic. This is exactly the kind of thing that I love about backpacking, just chilling in some random apartment in some random city with good friends and strangers alike, debating philosophy over a hot meal. God bless it all. Truly, I'm sorry to see the evening end.

It's strange to write about this sort of weekend on my travels, framed as it is by so many dynamic places and foreign adventures. When contrasted with Rome, perhaps, or Budapest, a weekend in Norwich might seem uneventful, even dull. This could not be farther from the truth. If anything, the lonely wanderings of a sightseeing backpacker throw into sharp relief how good it can be just to hang around in a house, a bar, a movie theatre, a cafe, with good friends. I have missed these girls immensely over the last couple of years, and though it is hard to summarize our time spent in a blow-by-blow narrative, it has been everything I hoped it to be.

And now, we must part ways once again.

Progress Thus Far:
Countries Visited: 10
Stupid Tourist Moments: 88
Monuments Flipped Off: 70
Free Food Ganked: 15
Free Booze Ganked: 35

circus life, under this big top world
we all need the clowns to make us smile