30 December 2009

Goodbye, info overload; hello, willful ignorance

Willful ignorance: the new hot trend in travel? If so, I'd like to think I was on the cutting edge.

The January issue of Travel + Leisure features an excellent essay by Peter Jon Lindberg about the benefits and pitfalls of using social networking while traveling. There's lots to like, he notes, including the fact that we can find out pretty much anything we want to know--"With minimal effort, in the comfort of a hotel lobby, I can plot a route to a restaurant I’m considering, download tonight’s menu, translate it instantly from the Catalan, read 47 detailed customer reviews, call up TwitPics of the razor clams, even take some guy’s virtual tour of the dining room."

But Lindberg concludes, as many of us (travelers and otherwise) have, that maybe technology is robbing us of some of the joy, serendipity, and human interaction that are rather key, if intangible, components of a happy life.
Part of the thrill of travel is in the mystery it entails, the buzz that comes from trying to imagine what this strange new place will even look like. The gap between our expectations and harsh reality is diminishing, but so, too, I can’t help but think, is our excitement.
It’s true that information-age tools enable us to have easier, safer, more reliable vacations. But sometimes we have better vacations in spite of them. The danger is in using these conveniences simply because we can. Especially when we travel—which, after all, is supposed to entail stepping outside of ourselves and our little mobile cubicles. Take a look around you right now and count the number of people on the phone; I’ll bet they outnumber those who aren’t. The more we connect with the world above and beyond us, the harder it is to be present wherever we actually are.
I really don't think this point can be overstated. In fact, it's one of the main reasons for the nutty project documented in this blog. Using an outdated guidebook might be an extreme (perhaps even borderline ridiculous/stupid) reaction to information overload, but, well, that was the point: to be a bit extreme, to fight back and show that willful ignorance can have its benefits.

(And if you're new to this blog, this would be a great time to read the FAQs or to hop over to World Hum and watch the two-minute audio slideshow about my willfully-ignorant, information-underloaded experiences in Paris.)

04 November 2009

Sushi and the modern, skittish tourist

From back in Berlin in early September.

I believe that I am on the record as being a bit squeamish, food-wise--by which I mean, of course, that I am incredibly paranoid and neurotic, particularly when it comes to German food.  "Picky eater" would probably be too nice--it makes me sound discerning and knowledgeable, a bit elitist. Nope. I'm just a wimp with a fragile gut who doesn't like to take any risks with said gut. And right then, I was already feeling preemptively food-poisoned.

Arthur seems to understand that not everyone enjoys weird foods, or at least he understands in concept. (Perhaps not, though, in reality, considering his rhapsodic praise of the previously-mentioned leberkaas, the mere thought of which still makes me slightly nauseated).

Here's what he says in the intro to his Menu Translations chapter in E5D: 
Somehow, there are few words to describe the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach caused by a Barcelona menu that lists "alcachofas, angulas y lletados con acelgas" as the choice you face for supper. Absent a translation of these exotic phrases, dinner becomes The Big Surprise. You stab blindly at the bill of fare, hope for the best, and usually end up with Octopus Soup or some similar delicacy. 
It's interesting to me that this is what Arthur chooses as his prime example of scary food. OMG, octopus! Sea monster!

To the typical modern eater--particularly this one--octopus is way less off-putting than some of the other items Arthur lists in his German Menu Items, like turtle soup (Schildkrotensuppe) or pig's knuckles (Eisbein) or pigeon (Taube) or, most of all, BRAINS (Hirn).

Forced to choose between octopus soup and Hirn, I would . . . well, first I'd wimper and pull an energy bar from my bag and just settle for that, thanks. But if you stole it from me and I actually had to choose between those two offerings, I'd go with the octopus soup. No question.

Of course, cultural tastes change over time, and maybe it's just that German foods were more common in the US in Arthur's era than, say, octopus.  The world is more seafood-friendly than it was 45 years ago; today, when sushi is available on every urban street corner and calamari is on the menu even at dive bars, octopus just doesn't sound very scary.  Does your nearest Whole Foods or similarly upscale grocery store have a sushi counter? Yes. Does it have a Bavarian cuisine section? I'm guessing not.

(In fact, sushi has spread far and wide, becoming a symbol of globalization, not just because of the ease with which its necessarily-fresh ingredients can now be transported around the world but because of the spread of culture that its prevalence represents. Sasha Issenberg has written a whole book about it, The Sushi Economy. Go read it. I'll wait.)

Lee and I hadn't really intended to eat sushi our first night in Berlin--though to tell the truth, I hadn't really intended to face down my German food phobia right away, either.

We sat down at the restaurant, a few doors down from our hostel, thinking it was Thai. That's what the sign promised: "Thai and Chinese cuisine." Some panang curry sounded like a good Last Supper before I poisoned myself with Teutonic toxins. But when the friendly server handed us the menus, we saw only sushi, sushi, sushi.  (We later figured out that all "Thai" restaurants in Berlin are apparently actually sushi restaurants; no curries or pad thai in sight.)

This might be a good time for a confession, one that will probably come as no surprise: up to this point, I had only had about two kinds of sushi, both from take-out counters of Twin Cities grocery stores, both purchased by other people, both consumed by me after much assurance that the ingredients consisted of normal fish and maybe some avocado and rice--nothing I hadn't heard of; nothing bizarre.

This was probably a better option than spaetzel or sauerkraut, I supposed. Probably. Maybe.

"Yeah, um, I don't know," I said Lee. "Do you really trust German sushi?"

Lee shrugged. "I trust it enough. It's here. I'm hungry."

I let out a small whimper--I thought it would be imperceptible, but apparently it wasn't, because Lee then added, with an evil, impish grin, "Spirit of adventure, my friend."

Right. That. Adventure. That's why I was here: to become a more worldly person, more bold, more swaggering, more open to new experiences, more awesome.

I gulped. "Okay. But you do the ordering."

"Great. Do you like eel?" Lee asked.

"Um, well . . ."

"Have you ever had eel?"

"Of course not."

"You'll like it."

The server arrived to take our orders. I ordered a large, strong beer. It seemed prudent. The server didn't speak any English, but the menu was basically a multi-page collage of photographs, so Lee used the point-and-pray method of ordering.

And now, here's our food. The method worked: there's the eel. Also tuna and tempura shrimp, plus a large dollop of wasabi, which I mistake for avocado, a confusion that is quickly cleared up, along with my sinuses, when I take a large sample.

After I've determined that the other items won't kill me--in fact, they taste halfway good--it's time to put the eel to the test.

"Adventure. New horizons," Lee says. His grin has grown even more evil. His eyebrows are arched, his posture upright with anticipation or maybe just in preparation to laugh heartily and maniacally.

I take a good, long look at the sushi. Much to my relief, it does not move.

"Chicken of the sea," Lee says. "Therefore you'll love it."

"That's tuna," I say. "You can't fool me. But I appreciate the effort."

I pick up the roll with my chopsticks and examine it warily, not unlike a scientist examining a specimen in a lab. Lee's been stuffing these suckers into his mouth in one go, his cheeks bulging, sidekick as chipmunk.

I picture the headline in tomorrow's Der Spiegel: TOURIST CHOKES TO DEATH ON SUSHI.

"You know the Heimlich Maneuver, yes?" I ask Lee. "They taught it in Sidekick Training?"

"Of course," he says. "I know all the moves. They taught me well."

Annoyed that I have one less excuse to get out of this, I bid the world auf wiedersehen and open wide.

And . . . damn, it's good! The avocado, the spice I can't identify--even the eel. Not exactly my favorite food ever, but more than decent, reassuringly Not Bad At All.

I mumble my approval and chase the eel down with a long pull on my beer.

Lee's posture has become more relaxed again, the evil grin softened into a look of relief and glee.

"I'm glad you liked it," he says. "And I don't know the Heimlich Maneuver."

21 October 2009

Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Places: fancy scaffolding that misses the point

Fact: European cities have historic buildings.
Fact: Historic buildings sometimes need some preservation work, particularly on their lovely crumbling/dirty/pigeon-nest-filled facades.
Fact: It is generally agreed that scaffolding is kind of ugly. Certainly uglier than said lovely facades.
So when work is required on their landmark buildings, cities often put massive, life-size drawings or photos of said buildings on the outside of the scaffolding, which gives the appearance that the building is unblemished, if oddly two-dimensional.
The fancy scaffolding covering must cost a fortune. I realize that. They need sponsors to defray costs. Sponsors like to have something in it for them, though, and they typically demand something more than a nice handwritten card or a fruit basket.
Like a nice billboard--that would be a great way to thank them. Please don't notice that it is HUGE and takes up more space than the actual illustration/photo of the building. Please don't comment that the very presence of the billboard completely misses the point of the fancy scaffolding. Please?
I saw tons of examples. Here are two: Berlin's Bebelplatz and Vienna's Votive Church.

18 October 2009

G'day, Aussies

A quick hello to the Australians in the audience--I know there are a decent number of you (don't ask how I know; I just do).

Special shout-out to:

  • The many Aussies I met during my trip (you're everywhere!) and who I insisted take my business card. I hope you're glad I did.
  • Anyone who got here via Australian Traveller's e-mail newsletter, which named this blog one of its best travel links.  (And you have no idea how gleeful that made me or how tempted I was to end the previous sentence with like five or ten exclamation points.)

Trying really hard to like Venice

Your mental image of Venice, like everyone else's, is probably precisely the sort of scene that Arthur paints in his opening paragraph of the Venice chapter:
Venice is a fantastic dream. To feel its full impact, try to arrive at night, when the wonders of the city can steal upon you, piecemeal and slow. At the foot of the Venice railway station, there is a landing from which a city launch embarks for the trip up the Grand Canal. As you chug along, little clusters of candy-striped mooring poles emerge from the dark; a gondola approaches with a lighted lantern hung from its prow; the reflection of a slate-gray church, bathed in a blue spotlight, shimmers in the water as you pass by.
Lyrical, no? Evocative, enchanting, etc. Much more captivating writing than you'll find in most modern guidebooks. Well, I'm here to tell you that it is--or at least has become--false advertising. This place kinda sucks. Oh, I know what you're thinking: I would love to be in Venice right now. I would sell body parts to be in Venice.  My spleen, for example. And this guy is going to complain about being there, in the charm capital of the world?

That's right.

Oh, it's nice enough, I suppose. The canals are heartbreakingly lovely and pictureseque. . . . For approximately six hours and forty-three minutes. And then, in an instant, you're over them. They suddenly become mere nuisances, obstacles blocking your path, forcing you to walk two miles instead of twenty feet, when all you want to do is go to that restaurant RIGHT OVER THERE, FOR GOODNESS SAKE.

Thing is, Venice is a one-trick town. To be sure, it's a hell of a trick. One of the best in the world, as tricks go. But really: six hours and forty-three minutes. I defy you to remain interested longer than that.

Part of the problem is that you can't actually walk along most of the canals. You walk across them and then back into the graffiti-strewn labyrinth of waterless, narrow streets. You can peer down them and take a gazillion postcard-worthy photos of the sun-dappled, charmingly-deteriorated buildings on either side. But you actually get kind of tired of the beauty, immune to it.

Amsterdam: now those were some captivating canals. They were wide enough that you could actually appreciate the scene across the way. The houseboats added a level of layering and visual interest that Venice lacks. There was some breathing room. And though they were plentiful, the canals weren't freaking everywhere, like they are here. They were the spots of calm and respite, all the more enchanting because of the contrast to the rest of the city. Here, in Venice, they are the city.

Also, Amsterdam, though crowded, had its quiet spots, areas where you could be reasonably certain that if you coralled the next passerby, he or she would not be a tourist. Here, they (okay, WE) are a constant, crowded presence. I can't even imagine what it must have been like a month ago, in the high season. You probably couldn't walk more than three feet in an hour. Note to self: if you must go to Venice in August, pack a snorkel so that you can swim to your destination. 

In Amsterdam, you also could be fairly confident that if you went into a given restaurant, you would not immediately be handed a piece of paper reading "tourist menu" and listing exhorbitant prices for manifestly inferior food.

Not so here. I might go through my entire supply of Pepto-Bismol tablets. Every restaurant has the same menu, a sort of greatest-hits-of-Italy, with the So-So Seafood on page one and the Pedestrian Pizza at the back. I spent a lot of time looking at menus today--all for purposes of research; all for you, dear reader. There were variations in price but, two Chinese restaurants aside, the offerings were entirely uniform. From my quick glances at various diners' plates, I have to say the general quality looked middling at best. Below Olive Garden-level.

This evening, I went to a restaurant recommended by Arthur. You'd think that if it's been open for at least forty-some years, they're probably doing something right and the food's probably fairly authentic and semi-tasty. But my lasagne bore the distinctive pockmarks of microwave reheating. They didn't even bother to remove it from the Lexan glass bowl before serving it. As for the roast chicken, I strongly suspect it was neither roast nor chicken but one of the semi-domesticated pigeons from the Piazza San Marco, boiled in fetid canal water.

Even the gondolas have let me down. Recall that evocative paragraph from Arthur.

I made a truly valiant effort to like this place: I spent an hour or so this evening looking for an after-dark gondola, confident that the mere sight would change my mind (and also hopeful at that same moment, a ravishing, mysterious contessa would emerge from the shadows like a stealth siren, taking me by the hand and leading me into said gondola, which would take us to her opulent villa, etc., etc.).

But I did not see a single gondola after dark. Not with a lantern or otherwise. Not by the Rialto Bridge, not by the bridge by the train station, not in the big gondola-gathering spot by the Hard Rock Cafe. Niente.

What I did see--or rather, hear--was a party boat. It passed by just outside my window a few moments ago--and the canal my apartment overlooks is about 15-20 feet wide, so when I say "just outside," I mean that I could have reached out and smacked one of the boaters.

I'm wishing I had, actually, because now they're going back in the other direction, and they're singing--ruining--one of my favorite songs. "Volare." Gipsy Kings.

I love that song. Or rather, I did until a few seconds ago. I listed it as my number one travel song of all time in the World Hum poll last year. It's soaring, it's hummable, it makes whatever you're doing seem epic and triumphant--wash the dishes to it and you'll start to think you're saving the world with each scrub.

But now they've ruined it for me. Forget triumph: "Volare" will forever conjure memories of drunken boaters singing off-key. They don't all know all the lyrics, so they just kind of yell roughly in time to the music until it gets to the chorus, at which point they all burst out--and I want you to imagine a boat load of Venetian frat boy types, plastered on cheap Chianti, on a boat in a narrow canal flanked by an echo chamber of brick buildings, singing at the top of their lungs--"Voooooo-laaare!"

"O Sole Mio" it ain't.

Charm capital of the world, this place. Get me out of here.

Note: I wrote this my second (?) night in Venice, by which point the city's charms had worn off. I didn't post it because I thought it was too mean and figured I'd change my mind. Nope. Not really. Those jaded American students I met were right: it's like a theme park, with all the tourists and crappy, expensive food you'd expect in such a place.

12 October 2009

Raiders of the lost liver-cheese

From back in Munich:

There are some things Arthur gets so, so wrong. Take this section of E5D as an example:

I envy anyone their first trip to Munich. Even now, the memory of Bavarian cooking lingers in both my mind and taste-buds. . . . I urge you, strenuously, to taste the "Leberkas" (literally, "liver-cheese") at the Imbiss Cafe in the railroad station--for what may turn out to be the most delicious snack of your life.

This is wrong for two reasons:

(1) Please read that last sentence again. He's gotta be messing with us, right? Liver-cheese? Most delicious snack ever? Did he skip Italy and France and Belgium (mmm . . . waffles) and hire someone else to write those chapters? Mind you, I wasn't a big fan of German food to begin with, and that hasn't changed. The memory of Bavarian cooking will indeed linger in both my mind and taste buds, but not for the right reasons.

Nonetheless, I felt obligated to find this cafe and--oy--try the damn leberkas.

Which leads me to the second reason that quote is wrong.

(2) It's also incorrect in a more objective sense.

Any German speakers out there? Anyone know what "Imbiss" means, as in "Imbiss Cafe"?

There were several listed on the map at the train station, much to my dismay.

"Craaaaap," I muttered softly. "Of all the places to still be open. . . ."

"Spirit of adventure, my friend," Lee said, although his tone betrayed a tangible sense of frustration and dread.

Seriously: liver-freaking-cheese. Arthur has got to be the only person on the planet to find that delightful.

We walked to one location and couldn't find the cafe--not an Imbiss sign in sight. Nothing at the next supposed location, either, or a third. Baffled but not altogether disappointed, we found a more detailed map, which we scanned for the word Imbiss.

There it was, next to a Subway logo, and again by the Golden Arches. So what the hell did that word . . .

Oh! Lee and I figured it out at the same time and burst out in relieved laughter: "Imbiss" means . . . take-away. Food to go. As at the Miller Lite Restaurant in Berlin, Arthur had apparently misinterpreted the sign.

May I just mention, once again, my relief?

Still, it was possible that there was still liver-cheese to be had, and we are nothing if not bold, determined adventurers. Yeah, I said it: Bold. Determined. Adventurers. In that spirit, Lee and I split up, resolving to each go to a nearby imbiss restaurant to scout out the liver-cheese situation and, if available, to--oy, again--buy some.

We re-grouped, each holding a small package of food.

Doug: How's your liver-cheese?

Lee (slurping on what the unsophisticated observer might mistake for a banana-strawberry smoothie): Excellent. Yours?

Doug (brushing croissa--er, liver-cheese crumbs from my mouth): Delicious, as promised.

07 October 2009

Sidekick and statue: separated at birth?

Lee, modeling the attire available for sale at the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam:

And a similarly-chilly trompe l'oeil faux-statue at the Vatican:

04 October 2009

What is this "English" you people are speaking?

One of the delights of coming home is finding it oddly foreign. Like, people here speak this weird language that I can actually understand. So odd.

Even more jarring: waking up in the middle of the night and trying to remember where the bathroom is in this hostel ... only to realize, as I start to climb groggily out of bed, that I'm home. I'm still doing this nearly a week after my return.

It's great to be back in familiar territory and, most of all, to see my friends and family.

But it's also frustrating to be back because I was having such a wonderful time, and I felt like I had just begun to build some momentum of sociability and true adventurousness. I had unfinished business--things to do, places to see, people to meet, adventures to have, drinks to ... drink. Madrid was beautiful, cheap(-ish), warm, and full of interesting people. I wanted to stay and soak it all up.

And then, rather than coming home, I wanted to do the tour all over again. Sans Arthur--I no longer needed my quirky prop to make things interesting or to meet people. Oh, and maybe this time I'd add Greece and some islands and definitely Barcelona and, oh yeah, Nice and Prague and ... and ... and ...

Travel had become so easy by Madrid--well, not easy, exactly, but not stressful. Challenging, but enjoyably so, a constant parade of wonders and thrills.

My head is buzzing as I try to find the appropriate words without sounding obnoxiously giddy. But maybe that's all you need to know: my head is buzzing, energized by the memories of the trip, delighted and delirious at thoughts of where I'll go next.

02 October 2009

A supposedly fun thing I'll be doing next week

I'm back home. Well, for a week. Then I'm off to do what is pretty much the exact opposite of backpacking around Europe: going on a cruise with my parents, sister, brother-in-law, and 14-month-old twin nephews.

On board I will be re-reading David Foster Wallace's famous cruise essay, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (fair warning: link is a massive PDF, but it's more than worth the download and reading time). I think DFW would have appreciated the meta-ness of reading it while on a cruise.

Over the coming weeks I'll also be playing catch-up on the blog, adding some Europe posts that I wrote but then forgot to actually publish, including a few Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Landmarks.

28 September 2009

Adios, Europe

Back to the States tomorrow morning. I leave you with images from train station photo booths from 1967 and now.

[Most European photo booths now only give you one photo, although you can get it with all manner of backgrounds, including "High School Musical" or naked women frolicking. I passed on those options.]

Death and funny costumes in the afternoon

So I went to a bullfight.

PETA, hold your complaints. Arthur insisted that I go, so I did.

And really: it's kind of obligatory for the Madrid tourist, no?

No. It shouldn't be. Don't go. I'm a stereotypical tourist so that you don't have to be one, so that you can experience kitsch or, in this case, pageantry-filled brutality vicariously. And then skip it when you actually travel to Europe.

Technically, what I attended was a Novillada con picadores rather than a proper corrida--this featured younger matadors and bulls under four years old; think of it as a minor league bullfight.

Let us first note that you can buy tickets online through a Ticketmaster subsidiary. That's right: Ticketmaster sells bullfight tickets. There's no escape.

The plaza outside the stadium is a teeming mass of bullfight fans, scalpers, and stands selling an impressive variety of souvenirs and food. It's pretty much just like the scene at any professional sporting competition in the US, except that the Red Bull umbrellas at the food stands seem particularly out of place.

Your taste for irony sated, you enter the stadium and find your seat on the granite benches that make up the bleachers of the perfectly-round stadium.

Eventually, the action begins. There's a lot of pomp and circumstance and pageantry. Trumpets blare. Drums beat.

Two guys ride out wearing Pilgrim costumes, with doilies on their necks and towering yellow feather dusters on their hats. Their job is to look ridiculous. They do it well. They are followed by twelve guys in costumes that find the common ground between speed skating outfit and Liberace--uncomfortably tight, impossibly ornate, like Baroque Spandex. Then come six men on horses wearing blinders and padding that looks like a dust ruffle for a bed, only with fewer ruffles and more horse. Bringing up the rear are 15 newspaper vendors from the 1920s (knickers, funny hats). Their outfits have accidentally been washed with other colors, which have run; seven are off-red; eight are off-green. These are the groundskeepers.

Everyone disperses and the guys in the Baroque Spandex take up spots behind walls around the dirt ring, as though they're playing hide-and-go-seek. Which, in a way, they are.

A bull enters. A couple of the Baroque Spandex guys run out into the dirt circle and waves their capes, which are pink one side and yellow on the other. Very 1980s. The crowd cheers. They loved the '80s. Duran Duran was rad. When the bull gets within 50 feet of a Baroque Spandex guy, he squeals and sprints for cover. Scratch the hide-and-go-seek analogy: it's like a game of tag--except that the final "tag" is, of course, fatal.

After a while, a few of the Baroque Spandex guys arm themselves with nightclubs with skewers on the end. The men go to the center of the dirt ring and do the Chicken Dance with their nightclubs to attract the bull's attention. When it charges, they jab the nightclubs into bull's shoulders while in the same instant jumping the hell out of the way. This is actually fairly impressive. If the skewers fall out, though, the crowd boos.

Once six skewers are in the bull and it is good and tired and panting in the exact pathetic, exhausted manner of a cartoon critter--tongue out, posture lowered--another Baroque Spandex guy comes out. His cape is red. He is the matador. His job is to wave his cape dramatically (sometimes behind his back) and try to get the bull to charge lethargically. This works up the crowd, which cheers enthusiastically and sometimes jeers in the exact same tone as an American baseball fan yelling "C'mon, ump, get some glasses--he was safe by a mile!" The difference between actions that merit cheers and jeers is essentially imperceptible.

Eventually, the matador stabs the bull on the top of the neck, just above the head. At this point, it's an act of mercy--it's clearly suffering, it really seems to want to die. The bull falls to the ground. The crowd goes wild. Three horses come out and drag out the carcass, creating a trail of blood in the dirt.

I don't have any jokes to make at this point. It's pretty brutal, pretty grotesque.

It's also just not that interesting. It's not a fair fight; the outcome is never in doubt. And it's not manly, not a convincing expression of power or strength or primal energy. Sorry, Papa Hemingway--it's not. It has all the drama and intrigue of a playground bully shaking down a scrawny kid for milk money. Arm the bulls with lasers on their horns or make the matadors wrestle them with their bare hands, and then we can talk.

Until then, I don't understand the appeal. Again: predetermined outcome, not a fair fight. Even with all the ritual and funny costumes, it's just not compelling or entertaining. And they do it over and over--each night features several "fights," several bulls killed in the name of tradition and contrived Man vs. Beast competition.

Skip it. If you're interested, watch a bullfight on YouTube. But give it a pass when you're in Madrid. Spend the afternoon in Retiro Park instead, or eating paella.

Remember: I'm a tourist so that you don't have to be one. You're welcome.

27 September 2009

Madrid then and now

From the first page of the E5D chapter on Madrid:

In no other land will you feel, so much, that you have stepped through a time-machine into the past. There are plains in Spain where you needn't shut your eyes to imagine that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are riding on the scrubby, bare land that stretches into the distance, unmarred by billboards or electric power lines.

Naturally, this quaintness has its penalty: the economic backwardness of Spain and the poverty of its people. The amazingly low prices of this nation . . . are not the product of progress, but of decline. While we are the lucky beneficiaries of those prices, it is nonetheless the fervent wish of this book that the Spanish people will have a better future, and that Spain, in the years to come, won't be so darn easy to visit on $5 a day.


26 September 2009

By the numbers (part IV)

Days on the road: 36
Days left: 4 (sniff)
Cities visited: 10, including current and final city
Current city: Madrid
Miles walked each day: approx. 6-8
Miles walked total: approx. 250
Number of Old World canals fallen into: 0
Rank of overnight train from Vienna to Venice among most restless, uncomfortable nights of my life (bouts of serious illness excepted): top 5
Thought upon seeing sun rise over Italian hillsides: Okay, well, maybe that was worth it.
Time of day Arthur says you should arrive in Venice: night
Time of day I say you should arrive: morning or later afternoon, when the long shadows make the city feel that much more dramatic and atmospheric.
Gondola rides taken: 0
Photos taken of gondolas: roughly 20
Photos I am probably in, taken by others from gondolas: probably a hundred (really)
Location of best pizza consumed so far: Amsterdam
Location of best meal so far: Madrid, last night
Total cost of said meal, including beer and appetizer: 10.35 euros (that's cheap by European standards)
Pastries consumed: Oh, you know. A lot.
Pastries consumed in Rome: 0 (that's right)
Gelato consumed in Rome: Well, are we talking flavors or times I went to gelaterias?
Uh ... let's start with gelaterias patronized: at least 6
Flavors consumed: let's say 14. That sounds about right.
Favorite flavors: lemon torta and chocolate wine, ordered together, at Gelateria del Teatro (as discussed in an earlier post)
Price of the gelato Arthur says you should eat as your final act in Rome: 9 euros
My opinion of said gelato: low
Price of small-ish serving of aforementioned two flavors at Gelateria del Teatro, which I ate immediately after the inferior gelato, in hopes of rebooting my palate and giving Rome a more appropriate final act: 2.50 euros
Price of a typical medium gelato at a good stand in Rome: 3 euros
Rank of Victor Emmanuel statue in Rome among equestrian statues in the world: first (according to my tour guide)
Size of Signore Emmanuel's moustache on said statue: 1.3 meters long
Primary web site for online ticket sales for Madrid bullfights: Ticketmaster subsidiary (but of course)
Maximum price of a ticket to this evening's bullfight: 63.40 euros
Minimum price: 2.90 euros (!)
Location of cheapest seats: in the nosebleeds, in the sun
Price of my ticket: 8.50 euros
My response to what you just thought: Yes, I went. Arthur insisted. Long story to be told later.
General impression of bullfight: Really? People find this entertaining? It's just not a fair fight. The outcome is never in doubt. It's just ... not very interesting, even with the pageantry and funny costumes.
Times when the Prado Museum in Madrid is free, according to Arthur (i.e. in 1963): Saturday afternoons
Times when it's free now: the hour and a half prior to closing every day; longer on Sundays

Esperanto, or maybe cheeseburgers, will save us all

Thanks to Bill for commenting on the Notes on language post and reminding me about Esperanto, which merits a mention in any discussion of languages. Most people (including yours truly) seem to think of Esperanto mostly as a punchline, a signal of misguided, hopeless optimism and utter dorkiness. But it's really pretty frickin' cool, the more you think about it. Check out the Esperanto web site.

That said, I have to agree with Marjane Satrapi, Iranian/French graphic novelist and director (of "Persepolis" fame). In an interview with the now-defunct Rake magazine, she said:

In Iran if we speak a second language it’s English, not French anymore. English is the new Esperanto, which I really like. Some people complain “Oh, this is English culture,” but this is Esperanto. Everyone can speak this language, what does it matter. It’s a good thing whether it’s English or German or Japanese, if we all speak the same language it’s a good thing.

I'm all for Esperanto in theory: easy to learn, logical, etc. Sounds good. But the thing about English is, way more people already speak it. The groundwork is already set--it's easier to find other people who speak it, which makes it easier to learn. It's, well, useful. In many places even necessary. As discussed in that previous post, it's the world's relay language.

That's not to say we should expect or even encourage everyone to speak it. I worry about the culture-flattening effects of the rise of English, especially since it likely comes at the expense of other languages (and therefore cultures). But as Ms. Satrapi says, having some way for people around the world to communicate is a good thing. If that happens to be English, well, okay.

I'd also like to note that Ms. Satrapi--a worldly, cosmopolitan individual if ever there was one--is a big fan of Minneapolis's contribution to world cuisine, the Jucy Lucy (yes, that's how it's spelled). If you don't know, it's a cheeseburger with the cheese inside. Simple in concept, complex in execution, delicious in every way.

From this article in MinnPost:

"The first time I came here, the [cab driver] told me, 'Oh, I will bring you to a French restaurant.' And I was like, 'No, I'm here to eat what you eat. So what do you eat?' And he was like, 'Well, there's something here, it's kind of greasy, but [it's] the Jucy Lucy burger.' I was here three days. For three days, lunch and dinner, I had the Jucy Lucy burger. I tried to make one in France. All my friends in France know the Jucy Lucy burger of Minneapolis.

I'm so proud of my city.

25 September 2009

How to cross the street in Rome

Rookie (first time ever): Stare slack-jawed at automotive mayhem, then decide to take a different route or maybe, you know, just stay on this block.

Amateur: Cross in furtive, Frogger-style bursts, then collapse in nervous wreck on other side.

Almost intermediate: Wait for a group of Italians to cross, let them block for you ... until one Vespa driver singles you out for Tourist Bowling.

Intermediate: Cross with nuns.

Advanced-Intermediate: Wait to cross when there's a gap and then feel smug about how you crossed alone, confidently, suavely, just like an Italian. Do not mention to your friends that said gap was roughly the size of the Colosseum.

Advanced: Have faith. Stride confidently into traffic, trusting that the cars will buzz around you and giving a small prayer to the patron saint of pedestrians. (Is there one? There should be. Let's call him Mort.)

Black belt: Same as above, but with YOU blocking for Italians. Or nuns. I'm proud to say I reached this level this morning, on my way to the train station.

Notes on language

(1) From Arthur:

The most famous last words of the American tourist are: "They speak English everywhere."

Well, they don't. You can, with luck, be stranded in a European town among people who will simply shrug their shoulders to an English-uttered request.

(2) That's still true, but if you go to pretty much any restaurant, snack bar, or souvenir shop in a tourist area, and it's a good bet that all of the employees know enough English to communicate with you. Even at, say, McDonald's (where I don't spend money but do--God bless America--use the free bathrooms). If the employees are immigrants--and as in the US, many service industry workers are from other places--then they're at least tri-lingual: native language, language of country they've moved to, English.

(3) Many panhandlers in tourist areas are also at least bilingual. Ditto street performers.

(4) In other words, nearly all tourist-area fast food employees, and a large portion of the street performers and panhandlers, know more languages than most college graduates in the US.

(5) At the EU headquarters in Brussels, we learned that there are 23 official EU languages (for 27 countries); all documents and proceedings have to be translated into each. But they do not always go straight from A to B--not a lot of people who can speak both Greek and Finnish, or Latvian and Irish. Instead, they have "relay" languages, meaning, for example, the Greek speech is translated into English, French, and Spanish, and then the Finnish translator takes it from there. This makes sense, of course, but it must lead to a fair amount of confusion and mistranslation. Every additional step gives room for more error.

(6) According to the EU, 28 percent of Europeans know two other languages in addition to their mother tongue. As a second language, English is the most-spoken, with 38 percent (of non-native European English speakers) knowing enough to carry on a conversation. Fourteen percent speak conversational German or French as a second language.

(7) English is, therefore, Europe's everyday relay language. All the European tourists talk to the European locals in English.

(8) On the train from Venice to Rome, four backpackers seated near me were passing around a little electronic translator, having a conversation in German, Italian, and English. Very slowly. But it seemed to work.

(9) American pop culture is a big resource for English learners abroad. In Denmark, I watched some basketball players--big, blond, Nordic guys. They spoke only in Danish except for the phrases "shoooot!," "three!," "FUCK!," "on fire," and, alas (and I'm not making this up), "yeeeeah, n*gga!!"

(10) It's always clear when menus and exhibit text and such have been translated using the internet, not a real person. Favorite example: at Ciro Pizza in Rome, the Caprese Salad is translated as "Capricious Salad." Don't order that.

(11) The annual European Day of Languages is tomorrow (September 26).

(12) I am in Madrid, where I kind of sort of speak the language. It's like I have water in my ears--I can discern most words, but it's all kind of garbled. Still, that's a step up from all the other places I've been in the last five-plus weeks. One problem, though, is that while my vocabulary is limited, my accent is pretty good, so after I say my initial question or greeting, everyone assumes I speak fluently. At which point they start talking at roughly 2,500 words per minute and my comprehension drops to zero.

24 September 2009

How breakfast explains the world

Back in Venice, near the train station, there was cafe with the following sign out front:

Breakfast 8 euros
Italian: Cappuccino/tea + orange juice + croissant with jam
American: Cappuccino/tea + OJ + ham and cheese omelet
British: Cappuccino/tea + OJ + ham and cheese on toast
French: Cappuccino/tea + OJ + bread with butter and jam

There's a doctoral thesis in there. Or at least a chapter in a book.

Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Places: The Vatican


Roman Holiday report

Yesterday's guided-by-you-not-by-Arthur experiment was a great success--delicious and educational. And food-wise, actually a bit cheaper than a typical Frommer-filled day.

Thanks very much to everyone who offered tips. Here's what I did:

Lunch, per Scott and Elaine: Ciro Pizza kind of near the Spanish Steps. It happens to be very close to my hotel, which was convenient. I had a pizza margherita for lunch, and it was excellent. One of the greatest (of several) gripes I had about Venice was the food--it was, in general, basically Stouffer's Tuscan Treats re-heated. The pizza was especially disappointing. For starters: bland crust with no char. Char is important. Ciro's had char. And fresh mozzarella (another thing lacking in Venice). 8.50 euros for pizza, soda, cover charge.

Gelato, per TripAdvisor: Gelateria della Palma and Gelateria del Teatro, both in the general vicinity of Piazza Navona. Della Palma seemed very Baskin-Robbins: tons of flavors, none of them actually very good. There was a long line, with one guy serving everyone. I got the medium serving, which usually means two decent-sized scoops, but here is apparently four very small ones. I asked the harried gelato-slinger for recommendations, and he gave me caramel-vanilla, cherry-vanilla, pistachio, and hazelnut. Only the hazelnut did not taste like cheap cake frosting. Honestly, give this place a pass, no matter what they say on Trip Advisor. Gelateria del Teatro, though: that's the good stuff. Quieter place, quirkier flavors, obviously made with a lot of care. Near the counter, there's a giant flat-screen TV showing them making gelato in the back. I got a scoop of the lemon pie, which had really nice, mellow flavor, kind of Meyer lemon-y; and a scoop of chocolate wine, which is made with pure chocolate (no milk) and a surprisingly potent red wine. It was rich but not overwhelming, and paired perfectly, sublimely, with the lemon pie. The first bite of the swirled-together combination was transcendent; the last ineffably sad. I think I need to arrange for the Goddess Serendipity to take me by there again tomorrow. If you're in Rome, GO TO GELATERIA DEL TEATRO. 6.50 euros total for two cups of gelato.

Rome(ing) Walking Tour, per Chris (@iKangaroo on Twitter). A four-hour history lesson on foot, led by one Justin from Toronto. The guy was genuinely hilarious--and that's not something I say lightly. He related some 3,000 years of Roman history in detail but with an endearingly droll tone, sometimes verging into sarcasm and, when appropriate (I'm looking at you, Nero), outright mockery. We finished near the Forum, where we learned the stories behind the various ruins. Justin concluded with, "So you might say it's just a bunch of rocks. And it is. But they are fucking sweet rocks. And they are very old." You'll just have to trust me that the way he said it, after such an erudite discourse on Roman history, was flat-out hilarious. 20 euros for a four-hour walking tour.

Dinner, per Lee's mom: Pizzeria Sacro e Profano, near the Trevi Fountain. Yes, another pizzeria. One might note, preferably in the passive voice, that much pizza and gelato was consumed yesterday. This was even better than Ciro Pizza. More char. Spicy sausage topping. Mozzarella di bufala. Pretty damn good.* 13.50 euros for a pizza, glass of house wine, and service charge.

Beer, per James L.: Lowenhaus Birreria Bavarese near the Piazza del Popolo. Small glass of unfiltered Hellerbrau. A fine way to end the evening: a light (not Lite) beer with a refreshing, subtle tang, kind of reminiscent of fresh apple cider. Fairly yeasty, which I like. Lee would have been in heaven here--their list of brews was small but well-curated, with several incredibly obscure offerings. The decor was spot-on Munich beer hall. The music, alas, was the iPod playlist from hell. It began with what sounded like an ABBA cover of a fake mariachi number, which I thought might be the worst song I'd ever heard. And then "The Macarena" started. My guess is that they hoped that the soundtrack would drive people to drink more. But it drove me away, back to the hotel, to sleep perchance to . . . HAVE THAT STUPID SONG STUCK IN MY HEAD ALL NIGHT! 4.50 euros for a small beer and unbearable music.

And now I'm off to meet with the Pope (per my mother . . . and Arthur).


* Honestly, though, none of the pizza I've had in Italy, this year or last, has measured up to my two favorite Neapolitan pizza places in Minneapolis. A generation ago, there's no way that would have been true, but since then the US has started paying attention to food. The techniques and ingredients are more refined; we've also simply become more discerning and knowledgeable and worldly consumers. And in all likelihood, as big tourist areas in Italy have gotten even more overcrowded, the food quality has decreased. The result: I can get better, more authentically Neapolitan pizza in a four-minute walk from my apartment than I can in a tourist area in Italy. That's pretty jarring.

23 September 2009

Greatest hits

I know you're busy.

I know I write long posts that sometimes take the scenic route to get to the point (but there always is one!).

And I know, or at least strongly suspect, that there are some new readers out there who don't really want to slog through everything, who'd prefer to skip to the good stuff.

I'd rather have you read a few full posts than skim them all.

So to make your life easier, dear impatient reader, I'm adding to the sidebar a list of my favorite posts, the "keepers" that I think are particularly insightful, interesting, or otherwise noteworthy.

Obviously, start with the FAQ
Getting sloshed with celebrities
Anne Frank House (Amsterdam)
Berlin's split personality
The frustrations of European trains
How tourism will save the world (sort of)
Discovering the path no longer beaten in Munich
On becoming a more confident traveler
Going native in the tourist culture
Willful ignorance: the next hot travel trend?
... And finally, be sure to visit the gallery of Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Landmarks

Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Places: Piazza San Marco

Piazza San Marco / Palazzo Ducale
Venice, Italy

22 September 2009

The best-laid plans

I was going to go to Madrid truly without a clue. Just get off the plane, get to the city, start wandering around looking for Arthur's recommended hotels.

It was going to be the perfect kicker. I'd finally do what I'd intended all along: arrive in a city with truly no information or reservations or a single clue other than the yellowed pages of my book. Of course, I've been almost doing that this whole time, with the rather glaring exception of hotels. I prefer not to spend the night under a bridge, thanks, so it has seemed prudent to try to get the accommodation situation squared away at least a day before arrival.

But I think that my kicker is being vetoed by my dwindling bank account. I just checked it online and I nearly cried, no lie. I might actually have to limit myself to five dollars a day for the remaining week. This could be . . . interesting.

I'm a budget traveler, but the nature of this journey is such that I'm in the tourist (read: pricey) areas and I'm eating at restaurants that have been around for a while (again: pricey). Arriving in Madrid without any kind of plan or clue seems like a recipe for me (a) breaking my back lugging my backpack all over town, guided only by a crappy hand-drawn, outdated map, and (b) finally giving in at midnight and booking a room in someplace way too expensive.

Quirkiness has its limits.

Eau de Backpacker

As soon as I get home, I'm starting a line of fragrances: Eau de Backpacker.

A complex, bright mildewy scent with undertones of sweat and week-old pastry crumbs, and a subtle lingering finish of an unnameable yet exotic Old World train station. Perfect for those moments when you're just too comfortable at home and yearn for the spirit--and smell--of life on the road. Because "you reek" is just your friends' way of saying "I'm jealous of your far-flung journeys and general adventurous spirit."

And coming soon:

The Wandering Sole Pedicure Salon. Are your feet too pampered and healthy? Do you long for the blisters, calluses, funghi, and general grime that accumulate during long periods of travel? Come in to Wandering Sole and let us un-pamper you! By the time you leave, all of your comfort will be washed and bashed away, leaving you as achy as if you'd just climbed Kilimanjaro.

Walk in, hobble out! ... We'll even stamp and mangle your passport!*

*Extra fee applies; payable only in zloty.

The tourist as modern artist

The Goddess Serendipity arranged for me to be in Venice during the Biennale, that famous modern art exhibition that takes over the entire city for a few months every, well, two years.

I spent a few hours each day crashing different venues with my walking installation "The Tourist: Transcending and Transgressing Fronteras, Obfuscating and Obliterating Identity: a Work in Postcards, Photos, and Gelato-Stained Khakis." It got rave reviews--the critics didn't understand it at all, so of course they loved it.

On Sunday, I took my show to the main Biennale venue, way down at the southeastern tip of Venice, in the bucolic Giardini section of town. I shelled out an entrance fee of 18 euros--cultural learnin' ain't cheap--and strode in, holding my book prominently but casually at my side, careful to keep the brightly-colored title visible to passersby,

I visited several different countries' pavilions--Israel, Canada, Australia, Denmark, and various others--and learned that the hot new themes in art, the subjects on the cutting edge of cultural commentary, are (brace yourself):
  • the search for meaning in life
  • the futility of same
  • the transience of identity
  • despair
  • contrasts
The artists' techniques were every bit as groundbreaking as their ideas.* The most popular medium? Competing videos.

What you do, see, is have multiple screens in the same room, each one showing something related to but--and this is key--different from the others. For example: show the same scene, but in different languages and with the timing offset by a few seconds (Singapore Pavilion). Or have four stacked screens, each with people spinning in some way--on stilts, on a bike, while holding a large object, breakdancing (Australia Pavilion).

Get it? Life is complex! And nuanced! And full of weird juxtapositions, contrasts that add up to something vibrant and interesting!

The most pretentious and dull of the videos was also the most hyped one. It was at the Great Britain pavilion, where there was a sign out front warning that large crowds were expected and seating was limited.

The filmmaker was one Steve McQueen, whom you may know from his acting roles in such movies as ... no, no, wrong Steve McQueen. This one, alas, is a brash young Brit who won the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 2008. His latest work, the one that we were all so eager to see, is titled "Giardini," which you may recall is the name of the area where the Biennale grounds are located.

The film took up two screens, side-by-side. It opened with several minutes of a close-up of rocks on the right screen and, on the left, a static view down a Giardini street. The only soundtrack was water dripping onto the aforementioned rocks, distorted and amped up for maximum obnoxiousness.

Eventually, the images changed: dogs foraging around the shuttered pavilions, streetlights switching on, leafless trees swaying in a winter wind. That was it. I suppose the effect was supposed to be mesmerizing; instead, it was monotonous and mercilessly mind-numbing. Snickers of disbelief started rippling through the audience.

In most cases, the two screens showed contrasting images that I'm sure were supposed to be Deeply Profound. For example, a brown spider poised on a tree trunk AND a red bug crawling on a leaf. Hidden vs. obvious! Predator vs. prey! Static vs. active! Eight legs vs. six! So much meaning!

The snickers eventually turned into a tidal wave of laughter--and bear in mind, this was a room full of people who had paid a decent amount of money to be there and who presumably had at least a passing interest in modern art.

Within ten minutes, I counted fourteen people walking out, presumably to track down Steve McQueen and throw him into a canal. By the twenty-minute mark, of a thirty-minute movie, another eleven people had given up. I'm sure more followed, but I was that eleventh person, the twenty-fifth total. I've never walked out of a movie before.

Guess what, Steve (et al.)? Idea A plus Idea B does not inherently equal Deep Thought C. Sometimes it just gives one the sensation of being kicked in the face AND the crotch simultaneously.

I can do the contrast thing, too. The Venice Biennale makes you think AND wince! You'll find both the sublime AND the moronic, the French AND the German AND the American AND the Venezuelan AND the Korean! In mediums as varied as sculpture AND video! There are disembodied heads AND crashing motorcycles AND cave paintings AND trying-too-hard-to-be-meta videos of gardens--and not just any gardens, but the very gardens that hold all these postmodern juxtapositions! Golly!

If there's one area of culture that can compete with modern art in contrast-obsession, it is, alas, travel writing. Just as in modern art, it can work. Sometimes. But usually it comes off as pseudo-intellectual hack work--there's no nuanced, analytical thought, just superficial observations paired in hopes that together they will sound insightful. See if these sound at all familiar:

- Nevada has gambling and recreation--vice and virtue!

- France has imposing, overcrowded landmarks and quiet, undiscovered bistros! It's a land of contrasts!

In the foreward to one of the recent Best American Travel Writing anthologies, series editor Jason Wilson offers a fine take-down of the "land of contrasts" trope. Alas, my book is at home, and I can't find the full text online, but I did manage to track down this bit about articles on Iceland:

The original composition of the line “Iceland is a land of fire and ice” has proved to be a seminal moment in the travel literature of Iceland. From that time on, the description has proved irresistible to travel writers — it has found its way into countless articles, guidebooks, and television documentaries.

Wilson was writing primarily about short-length travel writing--magazine and newspaper articles of the variety included in his anthology. But the criticisms can be applied just as well to travel books--not just guidebooks, which Wilson mentions, but travel memoirs as well.

Here, see if this formula sounds familiar: "I left my corporate job in the big city and moved to an idyllic [sun-dappled village/timeless mountain town]. The local people were sometimes charming, sometimes cold, always eccentric, and the whole region was a mesmerizing land of contrasts, both surprisingly modern and refreshingly traditional. The vineyard has a cell phone tower!"

Where did "land of contrasts" start? I don't know. But I can tell you that if you open your copy of E5D to page 291, the start of the Zurich chapter, you will read the following:

Imagine a boulevard lined at one end with banks and squat department stores, which suddenly opens into a lake of the brightest blue, covered with sailboats and swans. Consider a city of enormous commercial fame, where stock markets and brokers' houses stand a five-minute walk from brooding forests and mountain chateaus. ...

Zurich, the locale of these contrasts, is the city I'd choose for a first introduction to the land of contrasts, Switzerland. [Emphasis added.]

Birth of a cliché?


* To be fair, there were some genuinely compelling installations. And one of those multiple-video things, by an Icelandic artist with the delightfully-Viking-sounding name of Ragnar Kjartansson, was one of the most captivating and evocative pieces of art I've ever seen: five screens, each with him and another man playing music in various places in the Canadian Rockies. In each film, they play different instruments; together, it's a cohesive piece of music that sounds like otherworldy bluegrass, what a jam band on Venus might play.

20 September 2009

Roman Holiday From Arthur

On Wednesday, I am going to cheat all day--I'm not going to use Arthur at all.

I'll be in Rome. Tell me where to go! You will be my substitute guidebook.

Up to now, I have been guided only by Arthur, my wits, and the Goddess Serendipity (as Lee puts it), with assists from the irresistible twin devils Kitsch and Irony. But I desperately need a mental health break (as Lee noted, this really is work . . .), and I could really go for some actually tasty Italian food; the places in my book have been, er, lackluster.

  • Wednesday
  • Rome
  • Tell me where to go, what to eat, what to see, what to do.
I'll be relying only on comments/e-mails from friends and family, plus user-generated internet content (i.e. the 21st century version of the guidebook) such as TripAdvisor.

Leave your tips in the comments or e-mail them to me at doug@douglasmack.net. Let's see how you measure up to Arthur.


19 September 2009

Postcards from my mom

(Not to be confused with Postcards From Yo Momma.)

From her 1967 trip. Note the first line: It's real! It looks like Venice is supposed to look.

Or, as some jaded American students I met last night put it, "This city is like that Disney place, with the pavilions for the different countries."


"Yeah, Epcot. It's like Epcot."

Going native in the Tourist Culture

Tiny confession: That first night in Vienna, when I was feeling exhausted and coming down with a cold, and headed out into the city in hopes that Discovery and Childlike Wonder At Each New Sight and Spirit of Adventure would be my cure . . . I did not go to an authentic Austrian restaurant, as Arthur would have wanted. I did not discover at that moment that I love Germanic food but just haven't been giving it a shot.

That would be overdetermined and overdramatic and completely false.

Oh, I put in the effort. I examined the menus at several such restaurants and realized that in spite of the personal growth and growing confidence, Germanic food still scares the jeebers out of me. Culinarily speaking, I'm still a coward.

Instead, I opted to go native for the Tourist Culture. Yeah, Tourist Culture--there is one. It's a diverse society that encompasses people of all ethnicities, but only when they're away from home. They--er, we--go to the same places (Eiffel Tower, Venice), eat the same foods (kebabs, pizza), have the same rituals ("Scusi, could you ... photo, me, take? Por favor?"), the same native dress (cargo shorts, walking shoes).

It is indeed a unique culture, but one to which we belong only temporarily. It's a culture of transience and halfway points, located somewhere between our actual, native cultures and those in which we have booked ourselves for a stay and a look-see.

So I went to the Tourist Culture native hang-out: an Irish Pub (run by guys from England).

Much has been written elsewhere about the rise of the Irish pub around the world. World Hum had a great summary when it included the pubs among its signs of a Shrinking Planet; read it here. See also this Slate article about the company responsible for the phenomenon.  It's called--wait for it--the Irish Pub Company, and it's as formulaic as McDonald's. When I stepped off the plane in Copenhagen, the first restaurant I saw was a place called O'Leary's. I've seen more in every city. They really are everywhere.

For my dinner, I ordered, from the English bartender in that Irish pub in Vienna, the most authentic of German--er, Irish--er, Tourist Culture meals: nachos. It seemed appropriate.

They weren't very good. Which also seemed appropriate.

15 September 2009

Midnight train to Venice

On to Venice tomorrow, via the late-night train. While battling a cold. Fun times. Apologies to the person sitting next to me for the orchestra of sickly noises I will be emitting--I'll at least try to moan and cough in 3/4 time, in keeping with the musical spirit of Vienna.

Here's how Arthur ends the Vienna chapter:

By this time, you've had enough of the Germanic countries. The train for Italy leaves from the Sudbanhof.


Auf Wiedersehen, schnitzel and sauerkraut and hirn (you don't want to know).*

Buon giorno, gelato and pizza and everything delicious.

* Okay, fine: brains. What am I, a zombie?

How to say "Welcome Back" in American

Blame any typing errors in the shakes. My withdraw from our pseudo-grand tour is causing serious issues for me. I did, however, get to experience once again my very favorite part of returning from a trip overseas.

In the parts of Europe where Doug and I were, everyone speaks English. What they don't speak is American. It makes me beam with joy when I fly into JFK (which is the perfect airport for this experience) and walk up to customs and hear a caustic American accent, that potent blend of too many cultures, speaking a language only tangentially related to the English spoken abroad.

"How you doin'?"
"I'm good." I reply, "Thanks."
"Cool." The customs officer hands back my passport, "Aight, take care, buddy."

Figuring it out: the personal journey

I noticed a few days ago that I've become a more confident traveler. Zurich was a tipping point.

Three weeks ago, in Copenhagen, I didn't eat a single meal in a restaurant; it was all either take-out or street food. Dining alone kind of frightened me. If I'd found a Frommer-recommended place that was still open (which I didn’t, aside from the really expensive one in the Tivoli Gardens), I would have gone in and eaten alone, miserably, pretending to write or read the whole time, dreading contact with the server.

That's basically what happened last year in Florence and Paris. If not for Arthur and this project, I probably would have survived on gelato in Italy and crepes in France. But you have to eat, and when you play by certain oddball rules, you have to put yourself out of your comfort zone and eat in historic restaurants with sometimes-historic, sometimes-grouchy employees. Eventually, inevitably, you learn that the waiters and bartenders can be interesting people, certainly more interesting than the company of pigeons in the park or Eurovision on television. Even introverts need to socialize. Sometimes it just takes a bit—okay, a lot—of effort. I started to learn that lesson last year, but the trip was short enough that I never fully adjusted.

In Copenhagen, I was still greeting each new day with trepidation, rather hoping that my efforts to find restaurants and sights Arthur recommends (to coin a verb, my “Frommering” efforts) would be unsuccessful so that I could retreat to a quiet park with a bag of pastries.

Of course, a major point of this project, or at least the self-centered point of it, is indeed to get out of my comfort zone and embark on a Personal Journey--to become smarter, savvier, suaver, sophisticated-er, sweeter-smelling, etc. Enlightenment and Self-Improvement and all that treacle. The profound epiphanies are still in short supply--and I'm okay with that; I was pretty happy with life beforehand, thanks very much. (And believe me, if I do figure out the Meaning of Life, I’ll let you know.)

In the abstract, though, in some ineffable way, I have become savvier, more confident, more competent. Certainly in terms of travel.

The change has come in part from the simple act of getting used to life on the road, life in an ever-changing, ever-unfamiliar environment. When you have to figure things out the hard way over and over, day after day, eventually even the hard way becomes slightly easier. You start to learn just enough words to get by, the rhythms of life, the subway systems, all the little markers of becoming at ease with a place . . . and, by extension, yourself.

Much of the credit, though, goes directly to Lee. Before he got here, I never set foot in a bar (on this trip, I mean), and it never would have occurred to me to sit at the bar and talk to the bartender. Our second night together, in Amsterdam, Lee did a shot of some exotic alcohol that was green and evil-looking and, according to the ads posted all over the bar, extremely potent. I looked on squeamishly, nursing my Heineken--the one drink I had that night, I believe--and worrying that, this being Amsterdam and all, someone might slip roofies into my beer, take my passport, and dump me into a canal.

By our last night together, in Zurich, I was demanding to Lee that we go bar-hopping. In one spot, I noticed on the shelf a bottle of Havana Club rum, a liquor that Lee, a bartender when not a sidekick, had never seen before. I presumed it was illegal in the States (Havana means Cuba means embargo), which made it all the more appealing. I informed Lee, in no uncertain terms, that we were doing shots. People who know me just did a double-take when reading that sentence, so perhaps I should confirm: that's correct, I ordered semi-illicit shots of alcohol. With glee.

I'd never ordered a shot in a bar--not Europe, not in the US. It's just not something that would have every occurred to me, to be honest. I'm happy to report that it was delicious: smooth with a nice little kick. A great complement to the various . . . actually, I'm not going to finish that sentence, for fear that you'll think I've become a huge lush. I have not. Promise. I have no desire to be like those women we met in Amsterdam, the ones who traveled specifically to get hammered.

I'm not sure everyone would see an uptick in bar-hopping as progress on my part, but believe me, it is. Or rather, it's a sign of progress, a symptom of it. I'm going out more and over-analyzing less. I've loosened up . . . a bit. Don't worry, I'm still charmingly neurotic and endearingly awkward and amusingly paranoid. There's still plenty where that came from. But the fears are a bit less absurd and a bit more fleeting, and they're tempered by some newfound confidence, a confidence whose very presence I frankly find amusing and astonishing. I have greater faith that things will work out in the end and, more to the point, in my own ability to make that happen.

Thank you, Lee, thank you, Arthur, for guiding me to this point:

Yesterday (Monday), after less than 24 hours in Vienna, I felt like I knew how to navigate the city, not just geographically but culturally. I'd already adjusted, at least to a large degree. I can't tell you how many times I had an internal dialog that went like this:

"Okay, so take the U3 three stops, then look for the big church, take a left, walk three blocks, go over the canal, and the place will be just past the park, on the right."

"Shouldn't you check the map a few more times? Or at least keep it out?"

"Nope. Not necessary."

"Are you sure you know what you're doing? Really?"

"As a matter of fact . . . yes."

"Oh. Well . . . all right, then. Carry on."

Of course, I also had the following thought, as my tram was going past the glorious neo-Classical parliament building, with its grand columns and statues of noblemen on horses: "Man, I have seen this building so many times in Europe. All these damn cities look the same! I am so over columns and horse statues."

So maybe I'm coming down with a minor case of Grand Tour Fatigue Syndrome, too, which is not exactly good news. . . .

Salute to a sidekick

Lee's gone home to Baltimore, leaving me sidekick-less.

I'll be glad to not spend so much time and ink writing down his witty remarks, but that's about the only benefit of him leaving.

Lee, my friend, danke. The Not-So-Grand Tour came alarmingly close to becoming genuinely grand. I look forward to traveling with you again--you can be my sidekick any time, or I'll be yours. Better yet: equals.

Remember: I'm Brad Pitt, you're George Clooney. We're famous.


14 September 2009

Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Places

I'm behind in my not-so-flattering views posts, so today you get two: Mozart statue in Vienna (look between the two stands) and Bavaria statue watching over the Oktoberfest grounds in Munich.

Switzerland: now at twice the cost and half the efficiency!

Arthur says that it's "strange to be in a country where (a) everything works, (b) everyone seems well-off, (c) all appliances, machinery, telephones and gadgets are more modern than ours."

Switzerland definitely has the reputation of being a land of precision, function, and efficiency. Think Swiss watches, Swiss banks, Swiss Army Knives.

But have you ever actually used a Swiss Army Knife? Trick question. No one has EVER used one. They make great gifts, but if you want actual function, use a Leatherman. Swiss Army Knife blades are laughably small and dull; the other tools are basically useless. I'm sure there might be some situation in which I need a tiny, crappy awl, but it can't imagine what it would be.

The knife is the perfect metaphor Switzerland, at least in our experience: superficially well put-together, efficient, precise. But in reality, not so much.

Case in point: the transit maps. They're a disaster. In other cities (Berlin and Paris, for example), the maps have a relative scale--the distances between the stations are all the same, but the cardinal directions of everything are more or less correct. The maps kind of sprawl in a linear fashion, according to how the city itself is laid out. They make sense.

The Swiss have tried to cram the Zurich transit map into a square, orderly grid. In theory, it's great: it fits in a small space, and if you check the index of stations and see that your desired station is in sector B3, you just find that square on the map. But by trying to force a logical grid on a sprawling, disorderly system, they've ended up with a map that looks like a plate of pasta studded with tiny meatballs.

The pricing of things here also completely defies logic. Most foods are jaw-droppingly expensive. A Big Mac Value Meal costs 11 CHF (their currency is nearly even with the dollar, so that would be about $11). A Whopper, sans fries and drink, costs 7 CHF. A vastly inferior curry in a dive of a restaurant in a dreary neighborhood costs 19.50 CHF.

But go to a swank restaurant in a hip section of the center city and order fondue. It'll be 22 CHF per person--about what you'd pay in the US, but the quality here is better. (Yes, you'll look like a tourist. Deal with it. Arthur insists you have this exotic "food specialty of Switzerland," and it is damn delicious.)

Or head to the bustling lunch stand on the Limmatquai and order up half a rotisserie chicken and a huge, rustic roll. Cost: 9.50 CHF. That sounds about right, maybe even a little cheap, given the quality and quantity. Just don't order a beverage: Lee's 20 oz bottle of Coke, at the same place was 5 CHF.

Totally baffling--as Lee put it, they don't seem to have any idea what to charge for things (although, as I said, for the most part they seem to have decided that prices should be absurdly, whimper-inducingly high).

The city just isn't as orderly and efficient as you've been led to believe. The trains run on time, but good luck figuring out the layout of the central train station and getting to your train in the first place. And please ignore all the graffiti. Oh, and how many dapper accountants did we see? ONE. You think this whole city is full of them. Not so.

Lee and I figured it out, though: the reason everything here is so freaking expensive is that they spend gobs of money on PR consultants to convince the rest of the world that this place is as modern, orderly, and efficient as Arthur claims. Kudos to those consultants; they've done a fine job. I was convinced. Until I came here.

By the numbers (part III)

Days on the road: 25
Days left: 15
Cities visited: 6
Current city: Vienna (Wien)
Cities left: 4
Trains taken (not counting subways, trams, and other local transit): 11
Maximum number of trains in one day: 5
Trains we should have taken that day, if the info desk woman in Munich hadn't given us completely erroneous information: 1
Countries Lee visited semi-illegally on that day: 1 (the detoured route took us through Austria, which wasn't included on his Eurail pass)
Comment by Lee as we slipped into Switzerland without event: "This is just like 'The Sound of Music'--I have evaded the authorities and fled Austria!"
Travel days used up on my Eurail pass: 5
Travel days left: 3
Didgeridoo-playing street performers seen: 3
City with best street performers overall: Copenhagen (no contest)
City with worst: Amsterdam
Pastries consumed: lost count. Probably 50-ish.
Panang curries consumed: 3
Way that Panang curry at dive-y restaurant in depressed neighborhood in outer Zurich was probably prepared: from a can
Price of said curry: 19.50 CHF (Swiss francs)
Price of presumably-authentic fondue in fancy restaurant in hip neighborhood in central Zurich: 22.00 CHF
Current exchange rate of CHF to dollars: about 1.05 CHF to $1.00 (that is, nearly even)
Price of a Big Mac value meal in Zurich (not that I had one): 11.40 CHF
Price of a single Whopper in Zurich (ditto): 7.00 CHF
Price of a really good rotisserie chicken lunch, with rustic roll, in the very heart of Zurich: 9.50 CHF
Price of a 20 oz. bottle of Coke at same restaurant: 5.00 CHF
As you will have surmised, amount that Swiss pricing is consistent or seems to conform to any logic: apparently none
Price of a room at the Sternon Oerlikon in Zurich, circa 1963: $3, including breakfast
Price of a room in 2009: 145 CHF, not including breakfast (apparently)
Adjectives Arthur uses to describe said hotel: rustic, quiet, old-fashioned
Adjectives I'd use: loud, ugly, clearly geared toward business travelers with expense accounts and a high tolerance for the greatest interior design hits of 1986
Highest price of a watch seen displayed in a Zurich shop window: 94,700 CHF
Weirdest item seen on a menu: foal
Europe's most popular food, and the most readily-available in every city I've visited: doner kebab
Favorite kebab-stand name: Kebabistan (in Copenhagen)
Second-favorite: Ali Kebab . . . or maybe it was Ali Kebaba (Zurich)
Favorite typo on English sign in restaurant: "menü's" (the rare misplaced-umlaut AND apostrophe double whammy!)
Historic Munich beer halls/gardens patronized: 4
Drinks consumed, aside from beer, that I had not had before: 4 (Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Sazerac, Havana Club rum)
Status of my mother's eyebrows after reading those last two items: arched in alarm
Number of said drinks that were consumed mostly because of the intrigue of imbibing something that is probably illegal in my homeland: 1 (Havana Club, presumably from Cuba; Lee, a bartender, had not heard of it.)
Minimum number of one-line in-jokes that Lee and I established, and which are Very Funny if you know the full context and back history: 4
List of said in-jokes: "the contessa"; "African click language"; "narrative!"; "yeah, we're famous."
Minimum number of instant crushes developed on women on bikes: 138
Number of said women who have spotted me, swooned, and nearly plowed into a canal/windmill/castle/Rodin statue, only to be saved by yours truly at the last minute: ... zero
Number of said women who have even made eye contact: zero
Eccentric pink-fluffy-bathrobe-wearing women approached by in Zurich park, with request for a kiss: 1
Headwear of said woman: plush flower pot hat
Minimum number of cats we were guessing she owned when we first spotted her: 20
Our reaction as she approached us: "It's about a 20-foot drop down this cliff. We can probably make it with minimal injury."
Level of our relief when we discovered that she was basically normal, that the outfit and kiss request were part of a bachelorette party hazing ritual, and that she did not reek of cat urine: palpable
Kisses granted: 4 (2 per cheek from each of us)
Comment to her friends for picking outfit that was just weird enough to be humiliating but plausible (and therefore more embarassing than, say, a tutu): Well done.
Swiss celebrities I can name: Roger Federer (the tennis player)
His native language, to the best of my knowledge: French
Language I assumed they spoke in Zurich, based in this information and Arthur's lack of comments to the contrary: French
Language they actually speak: German with random French and English touches, just to confuse you

12 September 2009

The neighborhood that tourists forgot

Arthur divides the entertainment section of the Munich chapter into three sections: "for dancing," "for Bohemianism," and "for theatre."

The dance hall, which Arthur recommends "for shy bachelors," was closed, alas--it's now a furniture store. The bar next door, though, offered something for shy bachelors of a type the "girl-watching"-obsessed Mr. Frommer probably didn't have in mind. It's a bondage bar. I'm sure it would have been a cultural experience in all kinds of ways ... but I decided to give it a pass and move on to see what the Bohemians were up to.

These spots were all clustered in the northern part of town, away from the tourist center. The neighborhood is called Schwabing, and Arthur describes it as "the Greenwich Village are a of Munich ... in some respects, it's zanier and more colorful than anything New York offers."

I'll have to research this further, but my hunch is that post-E5D, Schwabing became a bit touristy. It's near the university--always a draw for young travelers--and about a 20 minute walk from the town center. And if Arthur sent the tourists there, they probably went.

Now, though, Schwabing is that rarest of finds: the place that was likely more touristy in Arthur's day, relative to other parts of the city, than it is today. I walked for blocks and blocks, on side streets and the main drag, and didn't hear English spoken once. There were bistros and hip record stores, guys on skateboards, teenagers doing parkour stunts in a plaza by the U-bahn station, and a cluster of old men playing chess on a massive board, with three-foot-high pieces, in an agreeably overgrown park. No t-shirt stores. No guitarists mangling pop songs in hopes of a few tips. It was utterly beguiling.

On Occam Strasse, I searched for restaurants Arthur recommends, and found none. But the street and the neighborhood were just as he'd promised: quiet, funky, hip, Greenwich Village-like.

I sat on a bench in a lush pocket park and pondered how it is that Schwabing retained--or reclaimed--its charm since the 1960s, avoiding being overrun with tourists and the attendant kitsch. I think I figured it out.

One word, a word that is major tourist bait: Oktoberfest.

Maybe you've heard of it. Little festival involving beer and drinking songs and men in lederhosen and women in drindls and beer and pretzels and schnitzel. And beer. As mentioned in the last post, this is why people come to Munich: for beer with a history chaser.

We'll be missing it by a few days, but the shops are filled with t-shirts and beer steins; the beer gardens and roller coasters (!) are being set up a few blocks from our hostel; the air is filled with the buzz of frantic preparation. They get six to seven million tourists every year for this thing. It's huge.

My theory is that Oktoberfest has permanently shifted Munich's tourism center of gravity to the areas around the train station and just to the south.

Oktoberfest started in 1818, so I know it was going on in the 1950s, but Arthur doesn't mention it. My guess (which I'll have to fact-check) is that it just wasn't a touristy thing back then. Probably only locals, or at least only Germans. At some point in the last 45-plus years, though, foreigners started deciding that passing out in gutters was a fun thing to do in one's leisure time, and Oktoberfest became what it is today: Germany by way of Disney by way of Vegas.

Tourists now stick to the south part of town, where there's plenty of beer to keep them occupied. Schwabing remains, or has become again, a placid-but-funky neighborhood.

So thank you, Arthur, for leading me away from the crowds. That's exactly the sort of unexpected delight that I hoped to find by using your outdated information.

11 September 2009

How tourism will save the world (sort of)

Eighty-five percent of Munich was destroyed during WWII, but the city still looks old, full of imposing Gothic buildings. How is that possible? Because they rebuilt it to appear pretty much as it had before the way. It's fake historic architecture.

And why would you do that? Tourists. You don't go to Munich to gamble or to sit in the sun, you go to Munich to pretend to appreciate German culture, or at least their beer. You go to sit in massive historic (or faux-historic) beer halls. You go because here you can get drunk and call it a culturally authentic, history-enriched experience.

Yes, there were other reasons to re-build the city as it was--pride, for one. But according to our tour guide, tourism was indeed a major factor.

A lot of the historic sites and restaurants here seem to serve tourists almost exclusively. For starters, there's no way the ridiculous Glockenspiel in City Hall would still be here if tourists didn't love the crazy thing.

So tourists help preserve history and culture! Hooray for tourists! We're saving the world!

... Or maybe not. Obviously, tourism often promotes a particular variety of preservation, an exaggerated, theme park-ish one. Like a frog preserved with formaldehyde, it's kinda deformed and distorted (and foul-smelling). Superficially like the real thing, but not quite 100 percent authentic.

So here's a question for discussion:

Without tourists, would Munich beer halls be:

(A) replaced by modern office buildings or malls, or at least converted to sprawling department stores?
(B) packed, per tradition, with thousands of old men wearing lederhosen and singing drinking songs without the slightest trace of irony or snickering in their voices?

Zurich on ... a lot of money a day

Lee: Maybe I can do a post about what you can get in Zurich for $5 a day now.

Doug: Nothing?

Lee: Absolutely fucking nothing. They would give you a haughty Franco-German laugh, in whatever language they speak here. They'd laugh at you in three languages, all of them official.

Seriously, Zurich: $6 for a Carlsburg? $15 for a Manhattan? (That's right, we drink classy drinks. We're classy men. Citizens of the world and all.)

* * *

Special bonus quote from Lee, as he's preparing for bed:
L: Aw, sweet!

D: What?

L: Want a free stay in this hotel?

D: Sure.

L: Here, drink from this glass. It's got a chip in the rim. Drink right here. [Points to chip.]

D: Um . . .

L: You can sue them. You'll be able to stay free whenever you want. That's the only way you could afford to stay here.

D: Um . . .

L: It's the American way: affordability through litigation. It might be the only way we get out of here without going bankrupt.