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.