Sunday, July 22, 2007

11/7/07: Tuscany, Italy - Last Day

Montagne ItalianiOur last day was pretty uneventful. We packed. We sat and read in the garden. We took pictures of the hills. We played 40-40 with one of the family nieces. We practiced our Italian in context for last time.

Cath's "ciao" and general pronunciation was praised a couple of occasions. Mine was not praised. "Ciao," as everybody knows is a general greeting meaning hello and goodbye. What less people know is it literally means "(I'm your) slave." This came as a mild surprise. I checked, and there seem to be no more surprises. For example "Buonasera" does not mean "beat me like the unworthy slime that I am," and "Arrivederci" does not mean "Arrange my vital organs in a dirty pile in the corner for you own me."

Keean says goodbye the only way he knows how by eating a leaf. And, yes, his shirt does say 'are we nearly there yet?'Then it was time to go to the airport. We said our farewells (or "flay me well" as it possibly meant) and thank yous ("thrust a plank up my behind for being unworthy of you") and allowed ourselves to be driven to the little airport that services the mostly upright city of Pisa.

We were early enough to have time to scan the duty free to find a pricier Limoncello which seemed to be free of additives. The flight was initially delayed for an hour, but the delay mysteriously disappeared and we headed off pretty much on time. It being midweek, the flight was reasonably empty, but both of us would have happily suffered a full flight for a few extra days in the glorious Tuscan environment.

It had been great to spend so much time with my brother. We hadn't spent this much time together since we were teenagers and the conversation back them was a lot more antagonistic.

One thing is certain from this trip. Having spent one week in the company of a small child, two cats are a piece of cake, no matter how needy one of them is. And if you lock a cat in a box, nobody is horrified at you the same way they are if it's a child. I think there's a lesson there for us all.

Your Detestable Slave,

Saturday, July 21, 2007

10/7/07: Marina di Pisa, etc, Italy - Squids In

Another hot, quiet day. Because only mad dogs, Englishmen and their American girlfriends go out in the midday sun, Cath and I borrowed the bikes lying around the beach flat garden and cycled along the coast to Marina di Pisa. The bikes were a little small, slightly aged and mine had a wobbly wheel. They were just like Amsterdam, in fact.

We got to see all the various beach resorts along the coast. Ours looked the most select. After a while, they stopped and there were public beaches. Most of these did not have sand but rocks. But hey, they're free. Marina di Pisa was rather quiet at this time of day. The supermarket (a Co-op) was open, as foretold, and we chained up our bikes with tiny locks that would have got laughed at in Amsterdam, but were probably superfluous in this quiet seaside town.

In the supermarket we stocked up on a few things to take back including orzo (hot barley drink). We also looked at the sheep's cheese as there are some great ones in Italy. We tried to find Limoncello that was free of "natural flavours" but to no avail. We did, however, see huge whole, frozen squids in the freezer department, but decided it was impractical to bring them back. Plus, they would defrost en route and run amuck like on that film, "Motherf***ing Squids on a Plane." (Or was it called "From Here to Calamari"?)

In the evening we were back at the family house and drove out to an awesome pizza restaurant with about 30,000 pizza choices on the menu, all of them great. At the meal were myself, my girlfriend, my brother, his girlfriend, their son, my brother's girlfriend's sister, my brother's girlfriend's sister's boyfriend and my brother's girlfriend's sister's boyfriend's cousin. Got that?

Friday, July 20, 2007

9/7/07: Pisa, Italy - part 3: Every Church has its Thorn

nubi lanuginose bianche (White, fluffy clouds)Back out in the heat, we walked through the throngs and throngs of tourists that gorm around such tourist webs as this. We wandered down the main street away from the square to find somewhere off the tourist path to eat. We thought we found somewhere, but when we read the small-print of the menu, we realised we were definitely on the tourist path. A one euro cover charge and a 20% service charge. This in a country where tipping seems not very common and in a place that had 2% worth of service if I was being generous. We had some passable attempts at Italian food and coffee. I guess we were paying for the shady bushes around their terrace, which admittedly were pleasant.

Pisa street sceneWe had a bit more of a look through the guidebook and its stoner's history of the area. Catherine commented on how often fascism plays a part in Italian history, and sometime later I wondered if there was any relation between fascism and fashion. Fashion is actually a form of fascism, or at least dictatorial pressure from a self-appointed few. They sound like they should have the same verbal root, but it seems they don't.

We did some more wandering after this, taking in the town and avoiding the sun. We stopped and bought a pocket dictionary and a book of local recipes, including cecina (see earlier entry), in the local language to help us with our new fascination with Italian that we hoped to continue. Even then we knew, fascinations with languages of travel destinations are like holiday romances. They seldom continue for long after the trip is over. However, I still say this one is different.

River Arno yet again. It's a nice river, leave me alone.On our way back out to the station, we went past La Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina (the church of Mary of the Spine). I guess the translation is more like thorn than spine. The story is the church was built to house a thorn brought back from the holy land. This thorn was supposedly one of those from the crown that Jesus wore on his last day. (Well, the last day not including the bit where he came back.) It was obvious that this happened in the Holy Land and not Italy, otherwise the Bible would recall some Mary or other coming up to Jesus and saying "Do you really think that's fashionable?" Perhaps even adding, "That so 5 BC."

The Thorn(y) issue caused an animated discussion (by our standards) about belief in those days and whether people really thought this was one of the real thorns or whether it was hedging their bets, building a church because you didn't want to be disrespectful if it really was one of Jesus' thorns. I personally believed that everyone up the line believed it was true, but do wonder if the stall keeper in the Jerusalem market might have had a wry smile on his face during the transaction.

Relics from the crucifixion was one of the big industries in Palestine in the early part of the first millennium. It's been estimated that if all the bits of wood sold as official parts from The Cross were put back together, you could build a crucifix that could deal with Godzilla or any of his disciples.

Chiesa di Santa Maria della SpinaAnyway the church was shut so we have nothing more to go on. The guide book gave no indication if the thorn was still in the church. Thorns don't tent to last 2000 years. (Editor's note: The interweb is in some doubt as to whether the spine is still in the church, has been moved or was lost down the back of the altar after a particularly heavy sermon.)

We bought our tickets back and waited for the bus. The public transport is remarkably easy here, except that you have to buy your tickets for the bus before hand, usually from tobacco shops. But once you know that...

Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina as seen from over the Ar-Ar-no

9/7/07: Pisa, Italy - part 2: On the Pisa

St. Caterina's - facelift in progressJust over from the park was our first post-brunch port of call. Il Chiesa di St. Caterina was supposed to have a nice interior plus being named after one of Lady Catherine's namesakes. However the building was having its façade worked on and we had to leave it be.

We walked a bit more, past some random ruins, not in the guide, of a former Roman baths. It was one of those things where if there hadn't been a plan and description with diagrams of what it used to look at, the uneducated in ruins such as ourselves would have just looked at it and said, "looks like a bit of a castle."

Heroes of Prog RockAfter a short bit we saw the crooked top of one of the world's most recognisable landmarks peering over the buildings. Within a couple of minutes we were staring at the full drunken glory of the Leaning Tower.

Pretty soon after the tower was completed in 1370, and it was already leaning, I'm certain a poor potter whose work was not good enough to be selected for one of the many churches, made a miniature potted copy of the tower. Nowadays there are factories and factories churning out scores of these every day. And its not just statues any more. Lamps in the shape of the tower are popular. That is popular with the stall holders. I never saw anyone actually buy one. Also common are T-shirts, leaning mugs and I wouldn't be surprised if I saw leaning platform shoes. Stalls selling such prized works of art form the gateway to the Piazza di Duomo and suggest the likelihood of there being a higher than normal concentration of tourists in the following neighbourhood.

Leaning Tower of Pisa Left Side
Leaning Tower of Pisa Right SideIt's quite impressive to see it up close, but it is one of the world's most used images so it somehow doesn't feel new. I was expecting it to be more disorientating. Unfortunately, the wonder of "How does it stay up?" has long since gone. There are explanations everywhere of the procedures that have been put in place to keep it standing but leaning enough to still bring the tourists. In many ways the tourist industry has done very well out of what was basically bad planning and flawed surveying. But what we are often much more interested in the freakish than the beautiful.

someone having picture taken in classic poseWe didn't go in the tower, as it's quite expensive and we would have had to wait until the evening before a slot was free. Plus, I would have only gotten up a few flights in such a twisted building before vertigo kicked in. There is no way I could have appeared at the top and stood there looking down at the leaning world. We didn't even do the classic photo of us holding up the tower. We watched a few people doing it, all duplicating pictures taken since the dawn of photography. My idea was to take one with my having done a karate kick from the other side, but I'm sure this would be duplicating pictures taken since the dawn of kung fu movies.

Pisa Cathedral
Pisa Cathedral doorWe did go in the cathedral near the tower. This is because it was a lot cheaper and Cathedrals are always cool. Cool as in cold. Plus there were no high bits you had to go into.

The cathedral is a big affair thrust full of art and artefacts. To go in, men had to remove their hats, and ladies had to cover their shoulders. This is pretty typical in Italian cathedrals, as I recall. For the purposes of the latter, there were blue coats provided which looked like the sort of thing you have to wear in hospitals. The blue really didn't fit in well with the sombre twilight of the interior. The shoulders of young children were perfectly allowed to be visible as far as we could see. I expect there's a passage in La Bibbia that states this rule exactly. "And upon entering the house of God, all heads shall be laid bare and the shoulders of women of marriageable age shouldst be covered by sheets of the holiest blue."

Pisa Cathedral Emergency Room Blue smocksEven when the theme is religion, there were a great deal of subjects for the pictures that lined the walls of the cathedral. There were ascensions to heaven; martyrdoms, sermons being given. Something Catherine pointed out is something that is common for a great many such pictures. Often when such and such a person is saying or doing something important, the picture has lots of other people in them. However, these people, for the most part, are paying no attention to the main action of the picture and are doing their own thing. It seems odd that something that was an important moment, perhaps one of the plot points in the Bible, instead of everyone looking and heightening the importance of the event, practically everyone else is looking away, and in some cases even looking bored. I'd have burned them all as heretics.

Pisa Cathedral main altarWhat we did not seem to have a photo of was a picture of a rather malevolent looking Jesus being carried by a particularly worried Mary. Maybe we took it and it didn't come out. Anything is possible with a painting like that.

Sculptures are also prevalent. One of the smaller pulpits was surprisingly modern and cubist, depicting Jesus and two other characters, one of them looking highly doubtful. Probably Simon. The main pulpit was a large cage sitting on a forest full of lions killing gazelle. The message here was clear. Listen to what the guy up there says, or be pounced on by the Lions of Satan. The Lions of Satan are Pisa's premier Heavy Metal band. Not to be confused with Leaning Tower, who are definitely Prog Rock.

Pisa Cathedral ceiling
Pisa Cathedral side altar
Pisa Cathedral Saint in a box

9/7/07: Pisa, Italy - part 1: Awesome Area for an Aria

Houses on the Arno in PisaFrom the coast there are far more buses towards Pisa than from the village, so we took the opportunity to sample public transport life. It's a nice ride, along the sea side, through quiet fishing villages and along the grandiose river Arno. The Arno is familiar to Catherine from her days singing Italian opera tunes. Many are the poor lovelorn souls who had proceeded to throw themselves into this stretch of water after a lengthy song on that very subject. Promptly followed by the man or woman who actually loved them after all and then pretty much the rest of the family. My understanding is that if anyone is left standing at the end of an opera, the audience pretty much tears the chairs up and demands their money back.

The Arno in Pisa againThe bus drops you at the bus station a little out from the centre, but not quite "the middle of nowhere" as the guide book puts it. Admittedly it's not right underneath the Leaning Tower, but it forces you to study the geography of the town and exercise those legs.

The first thing we did when we got there is had our morning coffee. However, this being Italy and because we didn't specify any further we got espressos. Espressos so strong they gave us twice the recommended daily dose of coffee in a cup the size of a boil. It was tasty coffee, however.

The Famous Upright Building of PisaOnce the coffee had been downed, we moved on. We walked up to the Arno, peered in, looking for fished and drowned tenors, and then wandered up to and over the next bridge. Over the bridge and you are in the city centre. Streets are narrower and tourists wider.

The very outskirts of the town had been horrible in that dirty and dusty, industrialised way a lot of small towns are. The centre is much, much nicer, and bits of it are architecturally wonderful.

narrow shopping streetWe wandered for a bit in the narrow part of town until we found a small park where we had the brunch we had made that morning. There we planned our attack.
Facade of old church
door of old church
Pigeon in tree knot

Thursday, July 19, 2007

8/7/07: Tirrenia, Italy – Frutti Di Bosco

A pretty lazy day due to heat and Keen not feeling 100%. Cath and I went for a walk through the woods just before the heat. There are two parts to the woods. In one part, according to local rumour, escaped Albanian prisoners hide out and attack everyone who enters. In the other part, on the other side of the road, animals scamper freely and birds eat seeds out of your hand. We went into the latter part. We didn't see many animals, especially not the wild boar that the posters promised, and nothing ate out of our hands, but on the other hand, we didn't see any escaped Albanian prisoners and were not robbed, kidnapped, raped or made to sing the Albanian national anthem under pain of death. I'm a bit sceptical as to the truth in these rumours, by the way. But not knowing the Albanian national anthem, it was best to be on the safe side.

In the evening, we walked into Tirrenia town centre. Keean decided he only wanted to be pushed half the way and would have loved to crawl the rest pushing one of his toy cars. As this would have made the journey last an hour, we (that is his parents) carried him.

In the trees, many a cicada (Italian: cicala) chirruped. We don't really have cicadas in the UK. They sound like crickets, but in the US they act more like locusts and every few years descend en masse to carpet the streets with their carcasses.

There was a funfair in Tirrenia. We all went on the kiddie roller coaster. It was about as cramped and bumpy as an easyJet flight, and Keean decided very early on it was not his thing. In a few short months, he'll probably be screaming to get on them, but not just yet. The merry-go-round was more to his liking. We then found one of those nice sedate racing cars they have outside random places that move about for 50 cents. Keean loved just sitting in it, spinning the wheel like a pro, but when we put the money in and the thing started moving, it was a different story. This he didn't like. He's certainly a cheap baby, in this respect. However, after a few more minutes just sitting in the thing, we had to make room for paying customers.

On the way back, we stopped off for a drink and a delicious home-made ice cream. I had fruits of the forest (Frutti Di Bosco, who sounds like one of the girls from the TV show) and pistachio (Pistacchio, who sounds like a little wooden boy with a nut for a nose).

Our evening hot drink of choice in Italy soon became orzo. This is a hot barley drink which tastes remarkably like coffee but with zero caffeine. That's less than decaffeinated coffee, which does have some caffeine still. Obviously during the day we were on the coffee which is great in Italy, of course, but usually served way, way stronger.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

7/7/07: Tuscany, Italy – A Different Fashion

My brother gets by pretty well with his Italian, picked up over the years. Neither Catherine or I had any experience of it before, but were able to understand quite a bit considering. Catherine spent a few years on Spanish which helps; we both studied French which is useful; and Italian has a pretty simple grammar, a frequently familiar vocabulary and pronunciation that is pretty straight-forward and actually related to the spelling compared to say English or French.

It was quite refreshing to be somewhere where people generally only know a couple of words of English. It was remarkable how well we could understand and how well people could understand us. Mind you we only knew a few words which were all pretty basic. Catherine took to it especially well, and I made her official translator. It helped that most of the time, we had my brother and his girlfriend around.

Fashion is a big thing in Italy. That morning a stylish septuagenarian friend of the family wandered into the house. She told my brother's girlfriend that if she was her daughter she would cut off her dreads as they are no longer fashionable. She told her sister that she was to dark to be fashionable, being as she was a sumptuous chocolate colour. Cath and I weren't brought into the conversations, but I doubt we would have come out well. I miss the days of heroin-chic, when I, pale and emaciated, could was in vogue.

Italian RiverTo avoid such human follies, Cath and I went for a walk along the river. It was getting towards midday and the sun was pretty darn relentless. Still nature continues unperturbed by the things that make us weary. We passed several all-black bees and some others that were black except for a sleek, yellow mark. Very stylish. Even the bees are chic here. Although I had expected the neighbour to reappear and tell the bees that all black was so last summer and they should get into the retro craze of orange and black stripes.

Where's the Butterflies?Several butterflies fluttered by gaily and crickets ground their legs musically. But for us the midday sun was getting too much, and we turned back to the shade of the house.

Later, once the sun had eased off, Keean was rested and fed, we drove to the seaside. It's not too far, but Keen hates being confined, so car journeys can be fraught because he has to be strapped in his chair by law (the law applies to all babies, not just Keean). Often they are a battle to keep his attention away from the fact his mother or father is in the front and not next to him and that he is strapped into a chair. It's hard work as babies have the attention spans that make teenagers look like research scientists.

BeachThe family has a flat very close to sea side. With five minutes walk you can be on the gorgeous sandy beaches around Tirrenia. This part of the beach is privately owned and you must pay money to have a spot there. So for a couple of thousand Euros a year, you have your own changing closet and a fixed umbrella you can call your own. It seems a lot, but the beach is gorgeous and divided between a large family, it's not much to have a guaranteed spot on a beach that if public would be swamped at the height of summer. It does mean this beach can be a bit snobby, and sitting there amongst the holidaying middling-to-moderately-well-off Italians, I have never felt so pale in my life.

Scene from The Thing that Came out of the Swamp and ate TijuanaThis picture is one of Catherine's favourites. She seems to think it looks like it's from a James Bond movie. It's the sunset that does it. Without that it would look like a scene from The Thing that Came out of the Swamp and ate Tijuana.

We even had a chance to look after Keen today. The parents went shopping and we watched him in the pool. As stated before, the little tike loves all things splashable, and for the first 20 minutes he was as happy as Larry (the merlamb). But with time came the realisation, we were not his parents. Once he realised this, there it was very difficult to stop him screaming. Looking at next door's pool would work for a few seconds, so would kicking a ball up the driveway, but soon he was back to screaming. I felt bad as it was during siesta time and lots of people take them during the day here.

It's not easy to deal with screaming children. Logic states that considering he wasn't really going to stop screaming until his parents arrived because nothing else was going to comfort him, you may as well shut him in a box to keep the sound down. But there seemed to be an unidentified flaw in this and an objection on emotional grounds, so we soon rejected the idea.

For dinner we have various vegetarian dishes, including spelt (an ancient form of wheat), whilst Keen spread his pasta over his face and table. He was perfectly content now he had his folks.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

6/7/07: Lucca, Tuscany, Italy – My Name Is…

After LunchLucca is a walled city not too far from Pisa. To get there we caught a train from a delightful station at San Giuliano Terme. The train was a slow, fullish commuter service, which even the fact it was in Italy didn't make it more exciting. What did make it more exciting was that it leaned really far over on corners.

The core of Lucca is surrounded but a great big wall, thick enough for there to be a very wide path on it and many trees to keep you shaded. In these times, when much of Europe is unbothered by the needs for defence of this sort, it has become the perfect place for joggers to tickle their hearts and dodge between the tourists. Bikes are common in Lucca, especially along the wall. Several gorms (that's the official term) of tourists passed us on our walk. At least one female American stated that this was "like the best bicycle path, ever." I have never seen the best bicycle path ever, but I now know I have seen one like it.

Fruit of DamaclesActually, the wall was the last thing we did. First we wondered around the inner part of the city. We found the main shopping street, wondered up and off it, and eventually, settled for lunch in a café with a small, well foliated garden. The branches and leaves formed a natural roof that kept out most of the harmful sun. Strange fruit hung from them. Many unripe and green, others huge and orange, ready to drop on your head at any moment. None of them fell the whole time we were there. It was later discovered these were called caca or something like that.

Buildings built on an AmphitheatreAfter lunch we went to find the part of town that was built on an amphitheatre. Basically, what this means is that the shape of that square and the streets around it conform to the shape of a Roman amphitheatre that used to be there. If you didn't know, you would not have noticed, except the streets there are called via amphiteatro and things like that. It's really not as exciting as seeing a real amphitheatre.

The town is not so big and doing a full circle of the wall is pretty easy. The trees make it very pleasant even in the heat of the day. It also allows you to look over a small part of the town.

Pfanner residence as seen from wallWhen we got back, we found that we should have taken in one of the churches which was quite splendid inside. I know from a trip to Venice some years back that when Italians want to do up a church, they don't just dash a bit of paint on a brush and have a different coloured skirting for variety, they really go to town. Given that back in the old days, the only place to exhibit your paintings to a wider public was in a church, it's no surprise that not only did all the great Italian artists spend much of their time painting pieces about The Madonna with Child, Saint This Rising to Heaven or Such-and-such of Someplace being Martyred by God-knows-who, but also that churches are chock-full of art. We didn't go in any churches despite here being about 100 within the walled area of Lucca. That seems to be about one church per 20 people.

some tower as seen from the wallAfter the wall, it was well into the start of evening. We caught the train back to San Giuliano Terme and were driven up into the olive-covered hills above the town. Here lives one of the uncles. A long line of trestle tables was laid out and a barbeque was lit. There is another cliché of Italian life: of a large extended family eating a hearty meal in the open air under olive trees. Again, in the one week we were there, we got to witness this as well. It was as wonderful as you would expect. A real slice of the good life. Obviously, much of the conversation passed us by, as very, very few people speak English. But we felt very welcome and it was great to see my brother really welcomed as part of the family.

Monday, July 16, 2007

5/7/07: Tuscany, Italy – All Kinds of Bimbos

Where we are staying is one of those places where everybody knows each other. Actually, as we are staying in one of three villages that have grown and now over lap a little, I should say, where we are staying are three of those places where everybody knows each other, but that's just weird. On the street, in the bars and shops, people greet my brother and girlfriend warmly and make a great fuss of the little one. Along back streets are houses of cousins or aunts. It's a very cosy community. It's so welcoming that people have no problem to come into your garden if they want to speak to you and will turn up on your door and ring only if the door is not open. It's very different to the north of Europe, and in particular the Netherlands, where some families require several weeks notice of a visit, even if you are a son or daughter.

It helps if you have a toddler around. Babies and toddlers are great ice breakers. People who might have just said "hi," and wondered off, stop and inform the young-un how adorable he is, and how big and clever he is going to be. The kid, who on his most fluent days is only at the stage of shouting "car" repeatedly, accepts this with good grace, and will laugh whole-heartedly if he approves.

Even the house we're staying in is a big friendly place, where several parts of the family live on different floors. We were kindly put up in the room of an elderly relative who spends part of the summer upstairs with another relative. The room is full of pictures of Himself, as he is called in Father Ted. That is Jesus. A few are of him with his mum, the Virgin Mary. It's interesting that in many pictures we have seen of the two of them together, how big and grown up Jesus looks. It's presumably to give him some gravitas, but it does make it look like he is being carried around and breast-fed well into his teens.

We had never before experienced home Italian cooking. The stereotype is that there is lots of it, it's delicious, one portion is pasta and that as a guest you are encouraged to eat and eat. This all is fact.

Italian TV show like the one we saw

The only stereotype I have for Italian TV is game shows with very hot women wearing very little. Again, the little we saw seemed to confirm this. One show that was on every night had two such women whose job was to smile at all times and wear negligible amounts. In between the bits where they presented things like prizes and doors to be opened, there were variety-style musical acts such as one-man bands, women who danced in an old style or tenors. There was also a confusing man in a Muppet-style suit who gallivanted around Mr Blobby style. Because he is not human (externally) he is allowed to molest the women, where as they are off limits to everyone else except the odd flirty peck on the cheek from the host. This law whereby Muppets are allowed to molest the womenfolk only applies in Italy, as those of us who remember the case of the State of California vs Mr Snuffalopogus will know.

It was interesting to note that in the UK, we would call the girls on that show, with the big smile, large chest and vacant expression, bimbos. It’s a word we heard a lot in Italy as it means baby or small child. In English, it wasn't always a derogatory expression towards women, it originally meant a bloke. By coincidence it came up in this context at this time as Catherine's holiday reading was a couple of PG Wodehouse novels. It's quite alarming how many words start off harmless enough but end up as derogatory expressions for women.

After dinner, we were introduced to a local lemon liqueur called Limoncello. Its a sweet after-dinner drink and is a wonderful way to wind up dinner and the rest of the evening. Ours was made by someone in the village so was pretty darn authentic.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

4/7/07: Tuscany, Italy – Looking Good

We arrived at Pisa airport to a good heat and were picked up by my brother and his mother-in-common-law. On the way back, we stopped off to buy several slices of pizza and two smells of cecina, thanks to a mix up in vocabulary. Cecina (pronounced checheena) is a flat Tuscan flan made of chick-pea and olive oil.

small car under blue flowersThere are many stereotypes about Italy. One is that they drive small cars like crazy people on narrow streets. This is actually very true. The older people are, apparently, the more crazily they drive. The opposite to how it is elsewhere. We were told how recently a friend of the family was knocked down (but fortunately not too badly hurt) by an 83-year-old woman. The woman didn't even stop, or at least she wouldn't have if she hadn't hit another car. Fortunately the octogenooligan has since had her licence removed.

In the UK, it is the youngsters who drive likes bats out Surbiton and people get slower with respectability, perhaps with a brief fluctuation for some guys in their 40s. In Italy, young people too busy looking good to drive fast. It is the old folk, still vital due to good diet, who speed around like bats out of Livorno.

Another stereotype is that everyone is very stylish. Again, this is fact. Even in a small village, outside of a small town, people are stylish. Out for a walk on our first day we bump into a friend of my brother's girlfriend out walking her dog. She was better dressed than the average northern European girl on a night out. We later pass a jogger, perfectly colour-coordinated in black and white.


I should mention that the trip to Italy is not random. It was in part to visit my brother who's staying there a month with his Italian girlfriend and their one-year-old son. Being half Italian, the kid usually looks pretty stylish, and even wears his nappies (diapers) in a jaunty, modish fashion.

Keean LookingOver the last couple of years, we have managed to just miss my brother several times when visiting the UK, and in fact had only managed to see the young-un once, shortly after he was born and merely a machine for turning milk into chemical weapons. Catherine had indicated it would be nice to see the little tyke before he starts college.

Keean is one. He loves animals, especially dogs, toy cars, digging and water. He also enjoys tasting local vegetation such as leaves and moss. He enjoys water so much that the lady next door calls him il pescino (the little fish). If there is a pool he can sit in, scoop stuff out of and pour elsewhere or lean in and simply splash, there you'll find little Keean.

4/7/07: Schiphol – How They Turned a Storm into a Tea Cup

Accurate depiction of a stormOver night were some of the brightest and loudest thunder storms we've had for a while. At least one burst was slap-bang overhead. Suddenly, sleeping on the top floor didn't seem so cool. But the storm passed and did not disturb too much of the short night.

In the morning, a light blue sky peered through a benetton of black, white and grey clouds. The streets, although puddled, were pretty dry. The storm had, however, left her mark. Due to a direct hit somewhere important, the metro was not running on our little stretch. It scuppered plans 1 through 8 for getting to the airport. We moved on to plan 9, which involved reviving the recently deceased using cosmic radiation. It was soon rejected as being too complicated for the time we had and we jumped in a taxi.

Our friendly taxi driver dropped us off at the heart of one of Europe's busiest airports on a pretty busy day. A melee of travelling souls, many resembling the recent deceased revived using cosmic radiation, stood in front of the Transavia counters. We were able to avoid the first throng because we had checked in online. I haven't quite understood the purpose of this for the airlines, but it can save you some time at the airport. Obviously we only missed the queue for the check-in area, but still had to queue at the luggage drop-off desks, which is in an identical area to the check-in area, but the queues are smaller. In theory the processing is quicker, but not by so much that you could do anything useful with the time saved.

This time there was extra processing because the flight was delayed. Somehow this meant that the seats we had selected online had been reset. We weren't able to change them at the luggage-drop desk we could have at the check-in desk, even though the girl presumably had the same computer system in front of her. Instead we had to go round the corner and petition another woman. Fortunately, we had to go and see this woman anyway as she had to give us a voucher to compensate for the fact our flight would be nearly 3 hours late.

The voucher was for the value of EUR 2.50, and next to a picture of a cup of something warm into which you could mutter. The following three boxes (for more money and depicting food items) were all unchecked to show you how concerned they were. I shouldn't complain. If you want to be treated like royalty, you shouldn't pay budget-airline prices.

Our mistake with the vouchers was to redeem them at Whorebucks where no coffee is as cheap as EUR 2.50.


Airports may once have been filled with happy, smiling travellers the way they are on the adverts for duty free (i.e. airport inflated) shopping, but not these days. Too many queues, too many delays, too many unforeseeable threats. Plus the glamour and rarity of it has long since gone. There is one group of people who do gad about with bright grins and playful demeanour. These are the ground crews who drive the carts that ferry around the old and handicapped. These buggies are basically golf carts, and always speed around the airport at a jaunty pace. There's no reason they should speed. Old or handicapped people don't need to be there any quicker, they just need to be there before the gate opens. No, the reason these carts speed around is because they can. Because they have license to speed through the crowds and through the spindly spider-arms that almost reach the planes like a royal chauffeur.

Almost as cheerful are the guys that go around on Segways, these space-age pogo-stick things on wheels. I think because there is some balance required and the fact they still look odd to most people, the drivers don't yet have as much fun as the buggy drivers. Its hard to be inconspicuous on them. In fact they conspick quite a lot.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


In case people think I have lost touch with the youth, I have not. I'm right behind them. I have my myspace space, I have my Hyves account, and I even have an avatar on Second Life.

For those of you who don't know hyves, it's a social networking thing like myspace, except without the spam and the sex. It's quite popular in the Netherlands, possibly more so than myspace. One difference is that in myspace most of your 'friends' are people you don't know: bands who want to look popular, hot chicks who want to sell you t-shirts and hot chicks who want you to sign up to their web site to see their titties. On Hyves pretty much all of your 'friends' are people you know. Consequently I have very few friends on Hyves compared to myspace. I always feel relatively popular on myspace. Although not compared to the hot chicks with t-shirts or tittie-sites who have thousands and thousands of friends: alot of whom are other hot chicks with tittie-sites.

Second Life AvatarIt is on Second Life that I feel I have achieved more. Second Life for those of you still very much concerned with the first one is a 3D-representation of the real world where you control an 'avatar' or human graphic and explore the world. It's very much like the real modern world in that it's chock full of advertising, most of the places seem to be concerned with getting money from you and when you really want to go and do something it's frustratingly slow. I am, however, proud that in my short time in this alternative advertising reality I have managed to make money. Real money, because there is an exchange rate between First Life US Dollars and Second Life Linden Dollars that you spend on things like face-lifts and property in Second Life. (It is currently 250 Linden Dollars to 1 US Dollar.) I have earned, for ten minutes dancing, 3 Linden Dollars. It may not sound like much, but it's a lot of money to be paid for dancing when you're a short, over-weight man with a beard.

The trouble now is to find something that costs as little as 3 Linden Dollars to spend it on.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Brief summary: UK trip 8-11 September 2006

Arriving at Gatwick Airport late Friday evening, I was filled with one impression. We Brits have gotten fat. Everywhere I looked there were obese bodies blocking the way and waddling from MacDonalds to Häagen Grozs and back again. Maybe I'd happened to land at the same time as a flight from Chocohocoland, because it seemed to be even more noticeable that it had been a few months before. But I listened to the accents and they were not Chocoholic, but all very British in all its flavours. The whole population does seem to have broadened.

Of course I'd read the newspapers and seen the TV programmes that have been saying everyone was getting bigger around the middle (not to mention heard the rants of one Jamie Oliver, school nosh critic) but had not been convinced. After all, on TV, everyone was still as skinny as all hell. Even the fat ones on TV are really just slightly podgy and far from obese. But here was proof, larger than lithe. Still, I'm hardly as thin as I used to be. Although perhaps a while yet away from being called a porker.

My understanding is that in the UK the government is fully prepared to listen to nutritionists (and even more so to celebrity chefs) but none of these have their ear in quite the same way as the junk-food people. Plus the current government favours outside companies doing things like the cooking, the owning of the school buildings, selling of the school land and employing of the unvetted maintenance staff. This is mainly to help fiddle their Enron-style accounting but also to be further removed from the blame for anything that goes wrong.

What it also means is that where as in the old days you would have had "school dinner ladies" – grotesque, aging women who would serve up huge vats of slop, with most of the nutrition boiled away - you will now get some underpaid kid, who is probably playing truant from the next school, serving up pre-deep-fried shapes with the nutrition clearly and confusingly labelled on the box, and ensuring more than the recommended weekly intake of vitamin Cholesterol.

This is not the full picture, because it's not just the kids, as I'd been lead to expect, but their parents also whose hips seem to be reaching a size that in Italy they would call "Fiat." That I don't have a theory for. Yet. But am considering blaming Big Brother or Myspace.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

26/04/07 New York – Packing Meat

StreetAfter a brief hunt to find unoccupied showers in Hotel 17, we wondered out into the streets. We broke fast on the covered terrace of a café on a corner not far from the hotel. I enjoyed the "typical American breakfast" of two eggs how you like, crispy toast, great, light-fried potatoes and a flat, round "sausage." All served with coffee in a mug the size of a house.

Inside someone with the mouth of Marlon Brando in The Godfather munched and mumbled through his own breakfast. Outside, in the corner of our narrow terrace, sat two guys who could have been Al Pacino characters. "What da fuck?" this, "why da fuck?" that. The guys were moaning "dat nowafuckendays it's too fucken expensive to fucken spend all night in a fucken jazz club." Possibly referring to the one that Woody Allen is reportedly to make unannounced appearances at and join in with the band.

Underpass scene, New York, Meat Packing DistrictWe went back to the hotel, checked out and did more walking. New York is a city where you can walk, which is not so common or possible in many US cities. We wandered all over the place finding ourselves pretty soon in the Meat Packing District where they used to, er, pack meat. Nowadays they are doing a lot of building there and it is a very up-and-coming area. In between the run-down bits, old-warehouses and rat-infested building sites, there are tiny exclusive designer boutiques of the likes of Stella McCartney, etc.

We then wandered down to Chinatown, which was great. In some places you really feel like you are in Shanghai or Beijing rather than New York. We had a fortifying lunch at Joe's Ginger and then picked up some tasty Chinese pastries from a bakery to have later on. It was odd to go all the way to one different country and find yourself missing a completely different third country.

Chinese American Bank, New YorkWe wandered back to the hotel after that, skirting Little Italy and traversing Soho. We stopped for yet more kwarfee and a vegan molasses cookie. There we listened in on the conversation between a writer and his agent. She was all high-powered yadda-yadda-yadda and he was a bit more "well, er, okay." Agents and writers are the opposite ends of the spectrum and in many ways should never meet. However, they need each other like no other relationship does.

We grabbed our bags and had the concierge call us a taxi. The hotel has a deal with a taxi company that turned out to be a con. Or at the very least involves some poor communication. Basically the hotel tells you the fee up front, which is a little more than the standard fee to the airport, but you think what the hell it will come straight to the door. They even tell you it is all-inclusive. Then when you get there, the shifty guy in the taxi says that it is not at all inclusive. A few calls between the driver and the hotel later and we still refused to pay for the toll. Nobody was happy, but at least we were at the airport.

The journey there was terrible in another way. The whole journey we were subjected to "Smooth Jazz CD 101.9" an easy listening radio station playing songs so bland and inoffensive they give you road rage.

We arrived at the airport very early. US airports are much less secure than European ones. In Europe the shopping is on both sides of security and so you can shop knowing those people around you are fellow passengers. In the US, before going to the gates you are wandering around people who have just walked in from pick-pocket school or terrorist training camp. Basically, you go into a standard mall and then after a while, go through the security check to your gate. You would have thought that perhaps now, security would be allowed to interfere with business.

The other thing whereby European airports win is that there they provide free trolleys. In the US, you have to pay for them. Trolleys are part of the fun of the world of airports and to make you pay for them is just wrong. Morally wrong.

The flight back was uneventful as all good flights should be. I diverted myself with Happy Feet for a while, but I had been hoping there were things to be enjoyed in there for semi-adults to enjoy, but it was only for young kids. But fortunately we were able to sleep and soon found ourselves starting a new day, weary and happy, in home sweet home, surprisingly sunny Amsterdam. Stay safe.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

25/04/07 New York - Kwarfee

The showers in Hotel 17 are tiny. Good water pressure, but if you were to throw your arms out during a rendition of the 3rd aria in Verdi's Stagliatelli, you'd find both broken at the shoulder. There are still no signs of the hotel's resident drag queen we were promised by a previous tenant.

We went into Stealbucks Coffee because it seemed to imply we could use the internet there. We could, but only if you pay T-mobile too much money, so we didn't. After that we strolled and took in a large Virgin. Finally we rested in a small, empty snack bar run by (Asian) Indians selling (Asian) Indian-style food disguised as American-friendly wraps.

We finally got our internet fix – Cath had work to do – in a public library where we got to observe daytime library users, who somehow don't differ from country to country.

Our next snack was at Amy's Bread where we popped in partly to avoid the rain. Here we had coffee and sticky buns and I was introduced to Devil's food cake which is rich, gooey and in parts probably made by Satan himself it's so tasty. Here we got to see some examples of pudding, plus what American's call scones, which are almost the same thing as we call them, but not quite.

There seems to be a lot of people walking around whilst reading here. It seems dangerous, but shows how comfortable people feel. For Catherine it feels safer on the streets in New York where traffic is more orderly and less diverse than in Amsterdam. I have seen people cross the street whilst reading a book, which seems madness, but probably makes you smarter. The other thing I saw that I couldn't do is people walking around carrying a plastic bag that said "Stop using plastic bags." Too much irony in one disposable item.

For dinner we sought out a Vietnamese restaurant, but were disappointed. We found the one we were after, but it seemed to cater more for students (cheap and you get lots) than for those who like food to do wonderful things to your taste buds. It was a bit bland. But filling.

For culture we went back to UCB and watched a show of try-outs of sketch and improv groups. The host couldn't describe anything without using half a dozen superlatives, which the audience seemed to not mind, but bothered myself and Lady Catherine. The shows was a pretty mixed bag. There were a few improv groups of varying degrees of experience. Highlights included a double-act featuring two builders on a lunch break which had great fast dialogue, part of which at least was improvised about random stories picked from the paper and about the bizarre things they had in their lunch box. The best were the team of four girls "from the admin department" who were putting on an improv show. It was sublime to watch these characters talk about every suggestion and comment to each other during their deliberately terrible scenes. Hilarious.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

24/04/07 Maryland; Virginia; Washington, DC; New Jersey; New York – Altered States

The drive to the Ronald Reagan National Airport (usually the Ronald Regan is dropped) took us past such important spy-novel locations as Langley, Virginia (headquarters of the CIA) and The Pentagon (headquarters of The League of Satan, judging by the design). Most of the people who go on to become enemies of the US are trained by people from these places.

From the airport, we took a moving walkway, a shuttle bus and a moving walkway to get to the metro, which we rode to Union Station in Washington itself. I'd forgotten how soporific the lighting was on DC metro stations. I'm sure violence on the subway is very low there, although incidents of people falling asleep onto the track must be pretty high. We arrived a good hour early at Union Station, so had a chance to grab food and see the resplendent décor.

We took the Amtrak train to New York Penn Station. A pleasant three hour ride with more space and less panic than on a plane, but for only a tiny little bit more money and much more travel time, but much less faff time.

Front of Hotel 17At New York Penn, we jumped in a taxi and were swerved over to the East Village to the deceptively large Hotel 17. After flooding the toilets, we roamed around the streets hunting down healthy, dairy-free places to eat before settling on a Chipotle's Mexican deli. We walked pretty much the whole day acquainting ourselves with a small part of the world's best-known metropolis.

The evening was rounded off with "Harold Night" at the Upright Citizen's Brigade. UCB are one of the best-known improv groups and is an improv academy in the style of Second City. The show we watched was basically 5 different groups all performing a Harold (short, semi-structured, improvised performance of about 20-30 minutes). The audience was mostly other performers or students of the many classes they give. It was never-the-less practically full.

UCB's theatre is underneath a huge drugstore (chemist). It is quirky, somewhat rock and roll, or rather grunge, and suitably makeshift as befits an improv space. It was as well arranged as the obligatory view-blocking posts would allow.

Friday, June 15, 2007

23/04/07 Bethesda, Maryland – Flimsy Blade Used with Force (5,5)

For the second day running, we went shopping, which is the sort of thing that would put a strain on a lesser relationship. But today we had time to shop for books, which is a different sort of shopping. The sort of difference between a chalk sandwich and a cheese sandwich. We even had time to check out the geeky gadget store.

Pete with light sabrePossible captions: "The price tag is large on this one." The man who put the wan into Obi Wan Kenobi: "If you strike me down I will come back more paler than you can possibly imagine."

Again, however, we struck out (failed to achieve our aim) of finding clothes in Catherine's size that are also not covered in cartoon characters. I think it's time for a range of sexy clothes for the smaller girl. It could be called Lolita or something arty like that. Although we found nothing to buy, we did find a camouflaged bikini that could have slept four marines. I also found that the clothes racks in Seers from above look like swastikas.

In the bookstore (bookshop), I searched amongst the large collection of crossword books to find one that contained cryptic ones. Catherine did warn me that there wouldn't be any, but I didn't believe it. They seem to be a European thing. Hard US crosswords just refer to less well-known synonyms or expect you to remember obscurer facts like who was the 41st president or something. In fact, while we were there (the US, not the bookshop), Professor William J Clinton, former incumbent at the Lewinski Institute, published what appeared to be one of the first semi-cryptic crosswords in the country. It was more of a quiz with obscure-sounding questions, such as "Baby Boomer blown by girl in blue dress. (4,7)"

That night we ate Vietnamese and had my taste buds awed. We also did some late-night book shopping. I realised that although Virginia lags behind Texas in the sheer number of Bibles on the shelves, it does win on the number of Christian Inspiration books. These are books such as "Faith in Your Daily Life," "How I Found God in Clothing Retail," and "Jesus and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

22/04/07 Bethesda, Maryland – Big Fat Zero

The day started with a little of that great divider of the sexes, shopping. We didn't buy much as most stores don't go down to Lady Catherine's size. I expect they do in New York, and certainly in LA, but in Lardula Falls Mall, Virginia, they don't. Even the children's sizes are too big. Or if they are not, they are for very young children and not very sexy. Where do young children get sexy things to wear? Oh yeah, the internet.

In the evening, we had a barbeque with the addition of one of Catherine's cousins and his lady friend and learnt all about hand dancing. It's a kind of shuffling, hand-holding dance which is a kind of localised version of swing dancing in that (a) you don't move too far around and (b) it is only found in the DC area.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

21/04/07 Bethesda, Maryland – Gun Running

Maryland Canal BridgeSaturday saw Catherine, once a marathon-level athlete, reliving glory days with her sister along a bit of the same canal that runs near Harpers Ferry. This ditch was once a source of revenue and vital transportation route, and is now a great place to watch turtles hang out and see the single, odd elderly kayaker ride the stillness.

Adult Genetically-Intact Non-Martial-Arts TurtlesJust over the running path from the canal was the vast, majestic Potomac. However, kayakers are specifically warned here that they should resist that part of the water as it leads towards a large dam with turbines turning the exact speed needed to dice kayaks like fibreglass carrots.

Exclusive Boat ClubOn an island in the river is another boat club. However it is very, very exclusive. More exclusive even than the one on the quayside next to the area where the suited and boated millionaires hang out. Despite looking like a shack on a deserted island, it takes years and years to even get on the list of people who might become members when enough people die. The island had no signs of life and can only be reached by a boat. Which means you have to have a boat already and therefore won't need this place. Although I think there's a little raft you can pull yourself across on. As nobody seems to use it and you cannot join it, I can only think it is some sort of front for something. Drugs, gun-running, government research or some other covert, illegal activity.

The evening was spent visiting more relatives in their large house in an estate of other large houses right next to a national park. It's the place to live if you think deer in your back garden are cool (which I think they are, but I don't have to live with them) and are fond of hornets (which no one is).

The whole basement is given over to a children's play area and has about the same volume as the house I grew up in. And I think the kids have as many toys lying around as I ever owned. This is apparently typical and goes to prove what I've always thought, that American kids are spoilt. Spoiled, plumped up and then shot sometime during their education. It doesn't feel like the best way to raise your kids.

On the way home, we passed a large corporate building that houses the headquarters of the NRA. One of the most important population control organisations in the US. It was closed, possibly because they were mourning the loss of one of their members.

Elderly Railway Bridge Elderly Railway Bridge