Monday, June 15, 2015

The Babe Goes To Amsterdam

Our last weekend in Europe had a cast of six. My darling wife Raquel, the Israeli Ukrainian Alex, the perpetually stoned Dutchmen Eric, his infinitely optimistic Japanese wife Nolico, and our begrudgingly kind tour guide, Eric’s friend Seger. After a night of drinking jaegermister in Utrecht and a morning exploring this picturesque town in the Netherlands we set out for Amsterdam.

We arrived in Amsterdam around the serendipitous time of 4:20, and set out to find a coffee shop. Our brains addled, we set out on what Seger contemptuously described as a time honored tourist tradition of Amsterdam: wandering aimlessly in search of food.

To our credit it wasn’t entirely the fault of the tetrahydrocannibinol, there were factors working against us. The first pizza place we went by had a long line, the middle eastern shop had decent enough falafel for a snack but lacked ambience, the burrito place was sold out of everything except grisly beef, the slew of Italian restaurants we passed didn’t have room for six, and the two signs for Indonesian restaurants were inexplicably hung over either empty boxes or a brick walls with no windows. An hour later, to my delight and Seger’s dismay, we ended up at a restaurant three doors down from the coffeeshop that we’d started at. We dined on mediocre pizza that our munchies made into something amazing.

Fed and thirsty we set out for a bar. Again, indecision is the enemy of the stoned, yet we managed to find a string of bars quick enough. Fearing that we’d end up walking in circles on the sidewalk, I tried to lead the group into a spot boasting craft beers, but Eric intervened.

“We are in Amsterdam! Why do you want to drink Brooklyn Lager?”

I stammered some lame excuse but followed Eric into the place he described as punk-rock with little argument.

Inside, I realized for the umpteenth time how great it is to visit someone instead of somewhere. The bar was called “Ruig,” Dutch for “Raw” and it was amazing. It had exposed wiring on the ceiling, plywood for a front door, old exposed brickwork and 4 hipsters arguing over which funky piece 80’s vinyl they were going to put on next. Bless that Dutchmen’s sense of smell.

“All they need is an old Japanese man and this place would be perfect!” Alex declared.

We ordered Belgian style trippels from the oldest brewery in Amsterdam and proceeded to party. Before too long we found the couch, and half lounged, half danced with skills so hot we lured the whole damn city to come party Ruig-style.

We drank and smoked and drank some more. Laughing and reminiscing and just generally making me realize how important friends are on this great big planet we all call home. Here we were, people from Texas, Isreal, Japan and Utrecht, all laughing and dancing our hearts out because we were with people we loved enough to feel at home.

So comfortable were we that Nolico fell asleep with her arms wrapped around Eric’s belly. Try as he might, Nolico could not be revived from her slumber until he told her it was time to go. We did our best to hide our tears and hugged our goodbyes to the people that only need good music and a couch to make us feel at home anywhere on the planet.

With half of our party departed, Raquel, Alex and I kicked it up a notch.  We kept the beer flowing and the dance moves bumping. So notorious were we with the bartenders that they made a point of putting more of our precious trippels in the fridge for us.

“There’s only two left, don’t worry, we’ll bring ‘em to you once they’re cold,” they said and we felt all warm and cozy.

“Do we need to close the tab before we run across the street to the coffee shop?” Alex asked.

They looked at him as if he’d spoken Japanese.

“You’re coming back right?”

“Yeah! this place is great!”

“You can pay later of course,” the thought of us bailing on the bill never crossed their minds. They must’ve known we liked the music too much.

Across the street we wandered and proceeded to do the exact opposite of what we’d been told to do.

We’d just met a man named Willem, a Scottish Dutchmen, who’d assured us that yes the coffeeshop was open, but that for the love of Bob Marley don’t get that “tourist-hairspray-stoned-off-your-ass-shit” He swore by the stuff mixed with tobacco, and told us that the green stuff would knock us on our ass and end our party.

But when confronted with a menu including the likes of White Widow and Purple Haze, I couldn’t bring myself to make my darling wife imbibe more tobacco, so we got the green stuff, went back to the bar, lit up, and realized Willem had been 100% correct.

“You guys kinda got a going home vibe,” he told us and we shook our heads no and told him that we weren’t going anywhere until he turned his back. We giggled while we paid the tab and got the hell out.

We wandered home through the red light district, lingering just long enough to sense the unmistakable charge of sexuality the ladies of the night exuded, yet not long enough to be nauseated by it.

The next morning we set goodbye to Alex and wiled our day away lounging in the park, going to Van Gogh museum and thinking about our two month adventure through Europe, and our year abroad.

So now’s the time I should say my grand realizations about life, the world, and everything, but alas doing so feels too grand a task for one as ignorant as I, so instead I’ll quote that woman of infinite wisdom, that muse of magic and lover of life, my darling Raquel.

Raquel loves travelling and hates to travel. She says there’s no better feeling than running for a train or the moment when she first sits down on a plane and knows that she’ll soon be somewhere she’s never been and can’t possibly imagine.

But arriving is always a disappointment.

Travelling is expensive, exhausting, and the big stuff’s always a let-down. The monuments are smaller than you thought, less garish than you’d expect. The lines are only worth the wait because there’s nothing else to do. Raquel says that what really matters about a place is the people and the food. If you’re fed the food that they’d feed their mama, life is good, and if they do it with a smile and share a drink with you the meal’s all the better.

I think she’s awfully jaded for such a young beautiful woman, but then again, I can’t really say a thing. My experience is different from hers for every dish I taste, every joke I crack, every monument I photograph is made sweeter by her smile, her laughter, her presence. For me travelling with My Babe is effortless because everywhere we go is an adventure of amazement or the absurd.

Are there places I still want to go? Of course, but as long as she’s with me, it doesn’t have to be any farther than the grocery store. At least until she wants to run for another train. I’ll be racing to keep up.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Desoration Go hit Utrecht

My half Mexican, half Columbian wife Raquel and our Ukrainian Israeli friend from a village in Japan met our Dutch friend and his Japanese wife in a bar on the streets of Ultrecht. Only they didn’t know Raquel and I were coming.

We sat quietly giggling while Alex talked to Eric on the phone.

“Yes… yes… ok got it. Ok We’ll be right there.”

We’ll?Raquel and I gasped, “You’re going to give away the whole surprise!”

The three of us piled into a cab, eager to surprise them yet all quite convinced we’d already ruined the show. We were driving past the bar when I spotted Eric hanging onto a door frame, grinning like a fool.

Stop the car!

We all piled out. We had a plan, and we almost stuck to it. Alex went off first, muscled his way through the crowd, and greeted Eric with a big hug and a bigger exclamation of, “Oh Eric so nice to see you!” We lifted our newspapers up and approached.

Alex still swears we botched the surprise, because Eric and Nolico didn’t actually see our newspapers, but everyone else on the street did. Dutch men and women poked and prodded at the two Americans pushing through the crowded street reading newspapers by the light of a streetlamp. One particularly bold Dutchman even tried to light my newspaper on fire. Hardy-har-har!

Despite the Dutch’s murderous sense of humor, we managed to get next to Eric and Nolico without being seen. Now, the plan was for us to simply wait there, reading our papers at 11:00 at night until Alex said something like, “if only, if only the young Americans were here!” then voila, we’d drop the papers and grin, but adrenaline was coursing through my veins, and I had no patience. So instead of waiting the ten to fifteen seconds it’d take Alex to say the line, I dropped my newspaper to the ground and threw my arm around Eric’s shoulder.

“What the fuck?” he managed to say before his mouth seized up and contorted back into that foolish grin of his.

“Nolico, look what Eric got for his birthday,” Alex said and Raquel dropped her paper and exposed her winning smile.

I once thought that I had experienced joy. Certainly that Christmas when against all odds my dad got me a playstation2, or when my darling wife walked down the aisle into my arms, but after seeing Nolico’s reaction, all of this falls short.

She began with a high pitched scream that silenced not only the patio, but the people inside and at the bar next door, then moved in to an amazingly acrobatic series of jumps and mid-air twists before squeezing Raquel so tight I thought she’d pop. This accomplished she grinned at me and began to repeat “un-fucking-believable” until this overwhelmed her so much she dropped to her knees and we had to drag her back to her feet.

I will remember her reaction to that surprise for the rest of my days, and I’m sure the rest of the bar will too.

They certainly remembered us that night. Indeed, it seemed we’d been marked. We moved on to drinking Dutch beer and Jägermeister, an explosive mix if there ever was one. We got to chatting, we hadn’t seen any of these people in months after all, but the bartender was none too pleased with our excitement.

“No shouting, you can sing, but no shouting,” he said and hid behind the bar.

Alex and I looked at each other as only enraged drunkards can.

“No shouting?” Alex asked.

“No shouting,” I replied.

“But we can sing?” Alex asked.

“But we can sing,” I replied.

“Then we will S-I-I-I-I-I-I-INNNG!” Alex belted and Raquel and I cackled louder than any of our previous shouts.

Each time the bartender came by Alex would ask for further stipulations on this no shouting rule, “What about yelling? Can we yell?”

The bartender was not amused.

So displeased was he in fact that when Nolico ordered the third round of Jägermeister, he brought waters instead. I think Nolico’s hair was about to burst into flame she was so furious.

“Never in my life! Never have I been declined a drink!”

“In Holland anything can happen,” Eric said from behind that foolish grin.

I giggled enough to wake up from my nap, but after all the excitement, I was actually relieved to have a reason to leave the bar. We had a day in the Netherlands to prepare for, and I was going to need my rest.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Wwoofing in a Herd of Goats

Its hard to get past the goats on Glean Gabhra. There were over a hundred of them, a hundred and fifty if you counted the bleating kids who wanted nothing more than to be constantly fed either hay, kibbles or the sweaty end of my shirt.
Our jobs, really all jobs with animals, really only involved two basic concepts: food in, shit out.
Each morning we had to measure out portions of the equivalent of kibbles and bits for goats into planting trays (for the goats would destroy anything else less sturdy), serve the most delicious hay (the stinky silage was for the older goats) and give ‘em all fresh straw. I was amazed at how much the little creatures could eat. We’d feed them at 9:00, and by 10:00 their food all be gone.
I brought this to the attention of Dominic who told me to start ratcheting up their food intake. The sooner they get up to weight, the sooner they can get off milk, the sooner we could put them all in one big pen instead of 8 smaller ones. They were kept in smaller pins for two reasons: one, the slats in the pallets they had for walls could actually contain them, and two, if they were to all stay in the same one, it would be impossible to give them all milk.
We were also especially eager to get them all into one central pen because then we wouldn’t have to water them all by hand. There was no hose nearby, so the only way to get them all water was to fill up two buckets, one for each hand, and carry it to them. This quickly became my least favorite chore.
“Entire cities have risen and fallen because people didn’t have to carry water!” I’d rail on, while Raquel would grunt and fill another bucket for the goats. But I understood why we couldn’t mix them, they were always so voraciously hungry. One pen was so monstrously excitable one of them managed to snag her ear on the handle of the bucket and rip her tag clean off! And the little monster didn’t even mind, she just kept slurping away, her bloody ear painting half of her face like the goat version of Rambo.
My favorite of the little goats though, was one of what Dominic affectionately called the Gremlins. The Gremlins were the free range goats. There were about six of them, and they’d all come to be Gremlins for different reasons, some were born early or late so were too big or small to mix in with the others, some hadn’t been dehorned, but they were all equally adept at escaping their pens.
I spent an entire afternoon rounding up gremlins. Well, not exactly. To concentrate on catching a goat that knows you want to catch it is to concentrate on finding the end of a rainbow. Ain’t gonna happen. So instead, whenever Raquel and I were deep in conversation, or Dominic was asking me to do a new task, I’d lunge out and snag a gremlin. By the afternoon they were all penned up, until the next morning when I discovered that five of the six I’d worked so hard at catching had escaped. One even seemed to like the game. She followed us everywhere, and responded to any grabs by snuggling. We named her Peggy Sue, and we love her.
Another day I had to try my hand at wrangling adult goats. 17 of them were Dominic’s herd, and the other 80 or so were all recently purchased, so he kept them separate because  that was about the size of a milking batch. This all worked great until Tato (His finest and goatiest goat) managed to open her gate and lead her crew to mingle with the goats from Holland.
Dominic asked if I could round them up, and to my credit, I got about a dozen of them. I chased them down, cut them off, cornered them and finally corralled them away from the herd and back to their pen. I was sweating, tired and angry that a bunch of animals whose big questions about the universe can be answered by chewing on it, had managed to out-maneuver me! I simply didn’t have the emotional fortitude or the physical energy to chase the rest down.
So what did Dominic do? He all but looked at the last ones and they walked over.

“Its in the eyes, see.” He tells me.

I guess that means I fall somewhere else on the food chain, but I still think he was messing with me. He’s got those goats trained to show city-kids how to break a sweat, the only ploy I should’ve seen through was Dominic’s.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wwoofing on Glean Gabhra

Between the goats, the cows, the garden, and the liters of sweat, milk and pus, it’s hard to measure time on a farm. To sort time on a farm chronologically is an impossibility because each day is not a day unto itself. The tasks blend together. The time spent in the garden can be condensed into watching the tomatoes grow, while hours passed milking flow together as surely as the milk of Glean Gabhra’s one hundred some odd goats.

I have to sort my memories by subject, for then the two weeks seems a time of growth and learning, of beginnings and middles and never-endings, instead of what it was: a non-stop rollercoaster work, fun and farming.

The first thing I noticed on Glean Ghabra was a cow. She had no name, but her two sons, Hamlet and Henry were strong and healthy. Dominic had the mind to raise them as oxen to pull carts in the movies. The only problem with these two beautiful calves growing fatter by the day was that their mother wasn’t the least bit interested in eating. It takes grass to make milk, and without it her calves had turned her into a skeleton.

I met her shortly after being asked if I would go twist the cow’s tail. Thinking this was some kind of Irish expression for good old-fashioned fun I headed outside with a grin on my face. What I found was Dominic wrestling the cow into a paddock of fresh grass.

“Move!” He bellowed.  

But she didn’t. Not an inch.

Here she was, ribs jutting from sunken flesh, standing in front of a paddock of lush grass, and she wouldn’t go in to eat. So Dominic told me to twist her tail.

I grabbed her thick ropy muscle of a tail, thinly veiled in hair, and gave it a half-hearted tug. I mean, I didn’t want to hurt the poor girl. Dominic frowned and asked if I understood the concept. She wasn’t going to go in for pleasure, so we had to try pain. I stared at this man I had just met as if he’d asked me to throw a box of kittens into a volcano.

“Harder,” he said, and I obeyed. I twisted a bit more then a bit more and before I knew it I’d forgotten all about the cow’s feelings. I just wanted her to move, Move, MOVE! But she wouldn’t. I twisted with both hands, I tried different parts of her tail, but nothing. Finally I drew my hand back, like I’ve seen cowboys do in countless movies, but Dominic stopped me.

“Don’t hit the cow,” his eyes were ice.

Dominic went behind her, grabbed her tail, and bellowed in an angry mixture of Flemish, Irish and English. Whatever it was, it was terrifying, and it got the big girl to move. She did a lap or two around the paddock then stopped and stared at us.

We went in for dinner, and afterwards I watched Dominic sip his cup of coffee and watch the cow.

“Do you understand how bizarre this is? A cow does not stare. A cow is either eating grass or chewing cud.”

I found myself wondering how could this man who’d been so willing to inflict pain on this poor defenseless animal care so much about her. He watched her every move, every twitch of muscle, all the while mumbling under his breath, cursing, begging, and praying that she would eat.

And I realized I had no conception of what a cow is or what a cow does. I didn’t know how much they ate, or how often they drank or why an electric fence is better than barbed wire. I didn’t know how long ago she calved or how a normal cow behaves. All I knew was that this man cared deeply for the health of this animal, and that I had a lot to learn.

But not to worry, livestock have a way of educating even the most urbanized of us brainless humans. For my adventure with Henry and Hamlet’s mother was just beginning. For it was time to put her to bed.

It was 10:00pm, and nearly dark, and Dominic wanted to get her back into the barn for fear she’d break the fence. I, for the second time in an hour, doubted the wisdom of this man who’d been farming for a lifetime. After all, I’d vaulted the fence earlier, and it hadn’t so much as jiggled, but I followed him out to meet the cow.

She wandered around the paddock, away from the door.

“I was afraid of this,” Dominic said and motioned for me to cut her off.

Perhaps too many Nature documentaries of hunts on the saranghetti have duled my brain, for I figured stealth was my best option. I hid behind an old chicken coop while Dominic led her around the far side. Right when the cow was about to round the corner and discover me I popped out and reached for the rope dandling from her face.

She did not like this.

She did not like this at all.

She liked this so little she obliterated the fence that I’d so recently hopped. But obliterated isn’t the right word. One second, there was a fence, the next second, the cow was where the fence was and the fence was no more. I was frozen, my mouth hanging open in stupefied horror at what I’d let happen. Dominic didn’t have time for that though.

“Don’t let her get into the field!”

She was heading for an open pasture that even my city-borne senses knew that if she made it into it she’d be impossible to control. Adrenaline surged and some ancient herdsmen instinct kicked in and I took off to block her. I made it to the entrance, spread my arms, tried not to close my eyes, and prepared to be trampled to death.

Somehow, perhaps realizing she’d have to dirty her hooves, the cow changed direction. She headed off towards the barn, where Dominic was able to corral her back to her two young calves.

She quieted down, and Dominic sent me off to bed.

She got a visit from the vet the next day. The consensus being her rumen wasn’t working, so I was tasked with holding this 1500 pound animal while Dominic squirted, not one, not two, not three, but four batches of the grass-digesting bacteria down her throat while he clamped his fingers in her nose to keep her head up and mouth open. Again I found myself somewhat revolted in this barbaric behavior. Here I was, allowing this man to pour liters of foul-smelling bacteria down her throat. Clearly the cow didn’t like it. You could tell by her face that she thought it was all yucky!

How could he do this to such a poor creature? She was much happier with the hay I gave her once Dominic left. She liked it so much that she spit it up and ate it again. After the previous night’s encounter even the sound of her broad teeth masticating grass sounded powerful to me.

I told this to Dominic, that maybe she just needed to be hand-fed and he looked at me like I’d just spoken Japanese.

“She’s eating?” he managed to ask.

I nodded.

“And you saw her chew her cud?”

I nodded and Dominic almost burst into tears. And for the first time on the farm I felt I understood but a fraction of this enigmatic man.

If she didn’t want to eat, he knew that he’d have to make her or she’d die.

Over the next week I watched in amazement as this skeleton of a cow returned to health.

Dominic later confided in me that the farmer who’d asked him to care for the cow didn’t think she’d last another week. And all I could do was smile and do my damnedest not to let him know how close I had come to opening my fat mouth and telling him not to hurt her or force her to eat and to just leave her be and let her starve, because at least she’d be happy.
City kids. We know nothing.  

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Italy in 5 Days: Venice

Venice is magic. To get into the city of canals we crossed a bridge on an old train half-limping along. Thousands of tourists disembarked with us and headed towards San Marco square, so we headed in the opposite direction. Over canals with singing gondola drivers and between buildings fighting over alley space we walked, desperate to get lost. After three dead ends and two empty canals we found it utterly impossible to find ourselves and stopped for a sandwich. We shared a bench with an old woman feeding pigeons and admired a community garden next to a fountain pumping water into the square. In Rome I understand the fountains, but in Venice? There was no aquaduct next to the train. Are there clean springs that flow hidden in the muddy water?

Hungry only for adventure we decided it was time to become found again. And it’s not hard to find the famous square in Venice. Simply follow the shops. If you start out in the area, as we did, with plumbing stores and children’s dental clinics, you are far, far away from the action. Follow the sound of the accordion. You’ll come to a square with postcards and bottle openers. You are getting closer. Look for masks and marionettes. If you see the shops with men laying papier-mâché you are getting closer to the madness. They will not notice you, nor beckon you to enter, but you should step inside to masquerade as someone else. Step out of the shop and back into yourself and go further, towards the din of the people, the smell of lousy coffee. You’ll come to a bridge filled with more masks and blown glass. This isn’t the handmade stuff you saw just a few twists and turns ago, this is mass-produced bullshit made to sell to the masses  who don’t want to spend the extra ten bucks it costs to get something handmade instead of a stolen forgery made of plastic.

You are close. Follow the hordes, don’t stop for the overpriced pizza or pasta, go on to San Marco square. You won’t miss it. After the twists and turns of Venice back alleys it is sprawling and wide and open. To be sure, compared to getting lost in the streets it’s not as fun, but its worth waiting in the line to go into the cathedral for thirty minutes. While you wait you can watch the first digital clock in existence. It has a twenty-four hour hand that spins through the zodiac while every five minutes the minutes roll over to mark time’s passage. You must watch, for the line moves fast and you wont have many chances to see it move.

Once inside the church, we paid the three euros to see the treasure. Inside we found: St Pete’s leg discovered in 971 (begging the question, where was it kicking around?), a shrunken hand, various ribs, teeth and fingerbones encased in rock crystal or glass and locked away with golden hinges and jeweled locks, and the piece de resistance, a rock. At least, that’s all it appeared to be to me at first inspection. Rather than being encased in rock glass it was mounted in the center of a crucifix. Raquel deduced this could mean only mean it wasn’t any rock, but the rock, that is the most famous rock in Christian history. That’s right. We saw the rock that some dude through at Jesus’s head. Upon closer inspection, I reckon I saw some blood still on it. Chilling.

Legs seen and rocks admired we set back out into Venice to get lost again. We managed to do so quite well, only this time in conversation with an English literature professor and his main squeeze from Denmark near a shimmering pool of beer. We talked of past injuries, my inevitable fame, and the importance of travelling to famous places and keeping the hell away from famous places.  The conversation flowed quite easily we stayed late enough to nearly miss our train, but thankfully we piled upon it with nary a hitch, and were off to Lugano.  

Thus my tale is completed. Italy: 5 cities in 5 days. I do not advise travelling like this, it is a tiring and smelly but then again, when every day’s an adventure of fresh horizons, with new people to meet and great places to snub its certainly better than a week at the office. Your turn.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Italy in 5 Days: Margherra

After a brief wait in Florence when Raquel offended the locals, we boarded our train and made it to Margherra, a town just outside Venice. We marched thirty minutes, much further than our AirBnB host had promised past buildings with overgrown lawns that had fresh laundry drying on the line. Exhausted and annoyed we arrived to find the cutest AirBnB host the world has ever seen.
She showed us around her place, explained how the busses worked and asked if we were hungry. When we told her we were going to try to go into Venice that night, she gasped.
“But it is 9:30, the busses stop running at midnight, and you look so very tired and hungry.”
Well, maybe we should just eat instead.
“Yes, that is good. Come with me I will take you to a restaurant. It is good.”
So, dressed only in her pajamas and slippers, so led us around a corner, past a prostitute skillfully jiggling her wares and to the best meal we’ve eaten in Italy. But of course we didn’t know that yet. All we knew about Italian food was that it is overpriced and designed to look good on a menu. Taste is unimportant because most people will never return. We had decided days before to eat only while standing up. They may ruin a plate of pasta, but it seems against the Italian nature to serve lousy bread or salami. Yet here we were, about to sit down at a restaurant, throw our money away because we were hungry and tired and out of options.
“It is good, sit down,” our host said, and was gone.
We briefly debated setting out for somewhere else, but seeing as the only other human activity was prostitutes, we decided to go ahead and eat there. We sat down and the waitress began to chatter away in Italian. She obviously recognized me look of bewilderment for she focused her verbiage on Raquel.
“Yadda-yadda-yadda antipasti?”
“Uh…” Raquel replied.
 “Yadda-yadda-yadda primeri spaghetti?”
Even I know that one.
The waitress vanished and Raquel turned pale.
“I have no idea what we just ordered.”
I shrugged. I was hungry enough to eat a horse. How bad could it be?
Twenty minutes later the waitress set before us an enormous silver platter piled high with crawfish, shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops, fish and ricotta cheese, all smothered in tomato sauce on top of spaghetti. it looked amazing, like something Poseidon would have for dinner. It was the most surprising and exciting dish she could have possibly brought us. I was already excited we had this visual feast instead of something like lasagna, where the flavor hides beneath the noodles.

We dug in. The Crawfish were brain-slurpingly good, the shrimp and scallops the perfect texture but the mussels… my gods the mussels. They were succulent and tender and went amazingly well with the tomato sauce. The clams became repositiroes for the ricotta. Each bite was half shellfish have tomato infused cheese. We washed it all down with half a liter of white wine and followed it with tiramisu.
It was utterly divine, or to quote the babe, “That meal was stupid good. Do you think she just saw that we didn’t understand anything and decided to blow our minds?”

I think so, and I think that’s the advantage of escaping the tourist destinations, with their monuments and overpriced everything. To go to Margherra was to see a piece of Italy not in the guidebooks, and to eat at a restaurant that needs people to eat there more than once. If you visit Italy I highly advise seeking out a small town that no one's ever heard of just to eat, and while in the big cities, stick to the street food and cheap bottles of wine from the cold drinks shops.

If you liked this story come visit Florence with us!

Italy in 5 days: Pisa


We arrived in Pisa at night and explored the city armed only with a bottle of wine. We found droves of youth buying booze in tiny alcoves labeled ‘cold drinks.’ We found street performers and falafel shops and a square overflowing with people. We found Italian protestors, their words and their cause indecipherable, their music though, was easily understood and compelled even the homeless to dance. There was an energy in the air that was infectious.

There was still energy the next day, but it had morphed into something far stranger. We found the famous monument and its brethren in a grassy field so large it dwarfed the marble structures. The  tower and the church it accompanies seem like children’s toys, dollhouses built of stone long ago in the time of giants. Maybe its just the lean of the tower, but something about Pisa during the day is terribly whimsical, and compels even the most stone-faced of tourists to shuck away any remaining self-respect and try their best to immortalize themselves holding up the tower, kicking it over, or whatever other perspective-defying hijinks have been done there since the photograph was invented. 
We, of course, tried our hand at this most venerated of tourist pictures, and proceeded to fail miserably. But we still had a great time. I tried to take photos of as many people as possible attempting to hold up the tower in one frame and Raquel searched for Japanese tour groups to parade me through with Kumamon on my back. After a month in Europe, the bear has lost a lot of his charm (A man in Greece asked us, “and this is the best thing to come out of Japan?), yet the Japanese still love him. A Japanese woman who was taking leaning pictures of Pisa, when confronted with the cabbage-loving ball of cuteness could do nothing but gasp, “Kumamon? Kumamon kawaii!” the equivalent of “SpongeBob? I love SpongeBob!”

Pictures taken we boarded a train for Florence to make a transfer to Venice. But that transfer never happened. I spent my time on the train scribbling away while Raquel helped every person aboard get off at the right stop except for us. We disembarked only to find we’d gotten off at the second Florence stop, when we should have gotten off at the first.

Our brains melted into puddles of self-loathing and incompetence while we waited in line to see if we could change our tickets. Italilain train engineers are amazing, for when we showed the woman at the counter our now useless tickets she was able to get us on the next train and even refund us a couple euros.
Chao bella! Te amo!

If you liked this story come to Rome or try out Vienna!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Italy in 5 days: Florence

In Florence, even a simple bridge seems a triumph of the Renaissance. Instead of simply crossing a river, the Medici and the artisans they employed built a structure strong enough to support gold, the shops to house it and the people who flock to buy it.

Don’t worry if you get to Florence without a hotel, we didn’t, and we only had to talk to walk into two hotels before we found a room that after a little bargaining was in our price range. 60 euros a night. Did we get ripped off or get a steal? You tell me.

There's even this painting of a delicious sandwich at the Uffizi
Once checked in we queued up to get into the Uffizi art museum. After an hour wait and three hours exploring its hallowed halls, I will admit, the Uffizi is an amazing museum. In particular Raquel and I found a painting by Botticelli of Madonna and Christ so beautiful it eclipsed Botticelli’s own Birth of Venus only a few paintings over. There’s also a quite scandalous sculpture of a woman in ecstasy, a two sided painting of a dwarf in all of his glory and the first female breast ever painted. Even a man easily bored by stuffy old art museums can spend a few hours there.

But my favorite sight to see was the Domo. Pictures certainly speak more than words, but with the Domo even those fall short. It is a massive structure of white, green and red marble that is so big one cannot ever appreciate it in its entirety, because, unlike the structures of Pisa which sprawl languidly on a wide expanse of green grass, the Domo is hemmed in by six story apartment buildings. One cannot ever get far enough away from it, so it always feels like it is constantly on the verge of swallowing up the viewer. I had to move in close, but this is no less mend boggling, for every inch of this massive marble structure is carved. The walls, the pillars, the windows, the doorframes, even the doors themselves are carved into popes and prophets, sigils and spirals, flowers and finery the likes of which I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world.

To leave it behind is to lower one’s expectations, but it must be done, for we had other cities to see.

Yet this did not prove to be as easy as we’d hoped. After Florence we spent a day in Pisa but had to stop back in Florence to catch a train to Venice via Milan, but alas we misread our tickets and got off a stop too late. A new ticket (at no cost to us, they must be used to incompetent tourists) and fifteen agonizing minutes later Raquel made the grave mistake of ordering a—gasp—iced coffee!

No sooner did the words leave her mouth than the cashier, an older woman undoubtedly married to the man manning the espresso machine sneered and told her husband in heavily accented English, “she wants an iced… coffee...

The man could have prepared the milk for my cappuccino with the steam coming out of his ears. For a full minute be banged pots, smashed pans and furiously paced back and forth, stopping only to glare at this less-than-human who’d dared order a coffee at a temperature any less than scalding. Not wanting him to knock the place down or attempt to decapitate my wife with a sugar spoon I quickly changed the order to a frappe instead. He visibly relaxed, and by the time he brought us our drinks, “here is your frappe and a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, hot cappuccino,” he seemed downright pleasant.

Caffeinated and terrified we made for our train to Venice, happy to escape with our heads, and a train to put them on.
If you liked this story check out Rome Part I or Part II go visit Greece with me!

Italy in Five Days: Rome Part II

After the amazing exhaustion that is the Sistine chapel, we still had the rest of an ancient city to explore. We hopped on a train (frighteningly off-schedule and claustrophobic after living in Japan) and headed to the old town. Our first stop was to recharge outside the church of Cappucin with a cappuccino. With this dose of meta-caffeination we were ready to see Rome.

And see it we did. We walked into Basilicas to find catholic masses underway or just other tourists
marveling at their splendor. In a toy shop a magician performed a private show in which he transfigured cards back into themselves and severely tested the material limits of a silver chain. In a tiny shop no bigger than bedroom an Italian watchmaker replaced Raquel’s watch’s battery with a smile and in a bookstore behind a cathedral we perused esoteric tomes containing knowledge of everything from astral projection to the origin of the tarot.

We explored the Pantheon. Its altars for Zeus and Athena long ago replaced with effigies of Jesus and Mary. The sun from the hole in the roof cast an unusually equal light upon the saints and martyrs, lifting them to the status of the pair supposed to be their betters. Catholicism has 
Sun worship at its finest at the Pantheon
whitewashed much of the world with its version of history, but this was one place where the pagan predecessors could still be felt. 

We ate gelato and a crappy overpriced meal and explored The Coliseum. It looks like the progenitor of every arena ever built. It is marvelous, and proves mankind’s obsession with the distraction of fun and games goes back much farther than all but the most diehard sports fans would care to admit.
But the most powerful moment of the day was stepping into an empty cathedral to find a lonely priest practicing on a magnificent pipe organ. It was hauntingly beautiful. After a sitting in the pews for a few minutes it began to overwhelm my atheist sensibilities.
In these hallowed halls, built centuries ago, I could feel Christ suffering, because for the first time in my life, I felt I had suffered if but a fraction of what any other person on this earth has endured. There are things worse than testicular cancer, to be sure, but not in my privileged life. Confronted with the beauty of this place of worship and the music it inspired from this man, I fell to my knees and begged God for health and a family. After surviving the first battle with testicular cancer, nothing else seems as important to me. And to be there, to see Christ’s pain, and what it inspires in people, to hear what it inspired this lonely man to play, brought me to tears and moved me to beg God for mercy.

If you liked this story check out Rome Part I. 

Italy in Five Days: Rome part I

Our time in Italy was a whirlwind of trains and sightseeing. We spent two nights in Rome, a day in Florence, a day Pisa, a night in Margherra outside of Venice, a day in Venice, then caught a train to Lugano via Milan. I do not recommend travelling like this. It tends to leave beard hairs frizzled and wifeys frazzled, but we had five days to kill before we had a free place to stay with a relative (the sister of the husband of my wife’s aunt) so what else could we do but see everything there is to see? So without any further ado, I give you 5 Italian cities in five days.


We arrived late in Rome, too tired to do anything but walk beneath an aqueduct to get pizza and beer and vow to set out early the next day.

10:00 am is the hour of the tourist. It is the time most people (yours truly included) can manage to get anywhere and still feel early, so it the time with the longest lines and the most obnoxious guides trying to sell you tours to skip them.

We opted for a cappuccino and wifi instead. Our weekend booked (except for Florence, more on that later) we set out after overhearing an Italian tell three young Americans about the market across the street.

“They put a roof over it but it’s still great! You should walk in just for the smell!”

Inside I found the most delicious sandwich in Italy, slow roasted porcetta and a crispy pork product that was something between bacon and chicharon. The textures of the noble pig juxtaposed on a fresh roll. For three Euros, there is no better food in Italy. 
Marble Selfie of the Beard
Our bellies full and our brains caffeinated we returned to the Vatican at about 1:30 to find the lines much more agreeable. Twenty minutes later we were perusing the popes’ collection of sculptures of the Greek and Roman Gods. You gotta love the Catholics. They renounce all the other religions but they take damn good care of their idols.

Starting with the room of maps, The Vatican is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. The ceilings are painted to look like marble reliefs. Angels and cherubs bordered in gold smile down on ancient frescoes depicting the world in incredible detail. After the maps comes a hallway filled with tapestries depicting amazing events more or less related to Jesus. The ones with JC are the best. He’s got a goofy smile and is flashing the peace sign.  
The Triumph of Christianity
Next comes Raphael’s rooms. My favorite piece is “Triumph of Christianity” which shows a golden crucifix standing over a broken marble statue of Hermes. In with the new out with the old! A room over is the “School of Athens” an eternal reminder of the greatness of those long-gone idol worshippers that the painters of the Renaissance was so obsessed with reviving.

But after all that, after kilometers of paint, tons of marble, and thousands of tourists, postcards, and priests we were upon it, the Sistine chapel.
The Sistine chapel is the most beautiful thing made by one man. It is as awe-inspiring as the Sequoias, as powerful as Niagara Falls. It is worth going to Rome, waiting in line, paying 20 Euros and wearing out your feet.

It is one man’s amazing vision of his faith, hopes and dreams. I don’t know much about the bible, only the basics of Genesis through Noah’s Ark, but perhaps that’s all anyone bothers to learn anymore because that’s what is depicted by Michelangelo and to have some sense of the stories in this masterpiece so important to us as a species that we learn these stories to better appreciate its splendor.

It is beautiful, breath-taking, and a little funny. Why are God’s buttcheeks painted so prominently? Why, amidst all this splendor, is there a scene of Noah drunk off his gourd? I think Michelangelo knew the power of emotion, and for anything to have beauty it must invoke laughter or tears.

And below it, behind the altar is the Final Judgment, which is as dark and frightening as the ceiling is bright and uplifting. Michelangelo painted it as a grim reminder of the price of sin. It is beautiful, but horrifying. To have the two visions of a Master, one of hope painted early in life and another of despair painted much later, is nothing short of miraculous. Go there. Listen to Rick Steves when you do.

This is not marble, nor is it the Sistine Chapel.
I was to overwhelmed by the place to rebel enough to snap a photo of the real deal.
 If you liked this post check out Part II or check out Greece!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ancient Karthea

Kea is home to Karthea, a city that was first settled in the 9th century b.c. All you must do to find it is drive an hour up a mountain and hike an hour down into a lush valley.

So we rented a scooter and embarked on an adventure through time. Up the mountain we drove, past tiny white-washed churches and up above the capital city and its prehistoric carved lion. Wind battered us and threatened to knock us from the plateau. Sand blew in our eyes to hide the way but we would not be deterred. We drove past stubborn mules and fought herds of cows for space on the road.  Finally we found an old half-dirt road that led to the trailhead.

We walked by stone walls built three thousand years ago to separate the tame from the wild. We walked under trees heavy with figs, pomegranates and lemons. We walked past skittish horses and their homes made of stacked stones. We walked past thirsty bees and scrubby bushes flush with pink flowers. We walked past secret caves and sacred springs. On and on we walked. The wild and the time didn’t seem so different after three thousand years.

An hour later we emerged on a beach. Three men labored to repair an ancient theater and a long-dry water cistern despite the sun and the wind. To our left we saw two temples on a thrust of land that stuck out into the sea like a stone battleship. We climbed the twisting marble steps to the temples at the top, as men and women did 2,500 years ago to worship their gods. 

We reached the temple at the top of the hill and entered the Propylon. The archeologists have replaced only a few marble slabs so it has its original shape: a box of fluted pillars, made to cage only wind and shade. We approached the temple of Athena and its wall of pillars that have crumbled to waist height. The archeologists rebuilt a few of them to help less imaginative minds marvel at what 2,500 hundred years of rain and wind can do to stone.

From there we could see the Aegean foaming with waves interrupted by distant islands. They say tragedy was invented in Greece. And with islands on the horizon, I felt compelled to swim out into the sea and explore but to do so would be to lose myself to the sea, and add another page to Poseidon’s book of tragedy.

We descended from Athena’s domain to worship at Apollo’s temple. They say it was the most important place in Karthea. It was set on a point of the landmass that felt like it was stretching out over the ocean, the prow of the ship. The temple collapsed long ago, and Christians, surely overwhelmed with the power of the place buried their dead with the marble bricks that once housed Apollo.

Further we descended until we reached the beach, desolate save for us and the seagulls hiding from the wind. There was no one around save my beautiful wife and Apollo and Athena, watching us from their ancient temples built upon this thrust of rock that separated the twin beaches, so I threw my clothes to the beach and walked into the Aegean to feel the ocean upon my naked flesh.

It was cold. Powerful. Marvelous. A sea nymph in the body of a fish beckoned me to join her with a tailfin waving lazily above the ocean waves, so in I dove. As I surfaced from the cold sea my lungs burned and I reveled in just being alive. Perhaps I would have followed that fish into the sea and joined the watery domain of the Poseidon’s sirens, but a beautiful goddess beckoned me back to land with a towel and a sandwich. She convinced me to put my clothes back on and return to civilization with her. She’s with me now, sitting across the table, and has cast a powerful spell on me. I love this woman, who makes me food and keeps me warm, and will continue to so long as my lungs draw air. Such is the power of the spell she has cast upon my heart, a spell strong enough to pull me halfway ‘round the world and out of the ocean.

I still surrender to her magic every time I look upon her.

If you liked this post check out more in Greece, or come to Rome or Vienna with us!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Feeling like a tourist in Kea

Don’t go to a tourist town in the off season. It ain’t worth it. There’s plenty to be said for visiting places during times besides the high season, but not if the low-season is a no-season. We’re currently in Kea, an island that is apparently famous for being close to Athens. I say this because whenever we’re asked why are we visiting Kea and we shrug and smile, the local undoubtedly says, “well I guess it’s close to Athens,” before overcharging us.

Perhaps if we were wealthier visiting Kea in May wouldn’t be so bad. The other night a group of maybe twenty old rich white people from the world over all dressed in togas had dark-skinned Greeks serving them tapas on the beach before they all retired to their private yachts, carrying their $200 high heels to spare their poor feet. That sounds like fun, what we’ve been dealing with is anything but.

Two days ago the wind picked up and all the rich people sailed away with their yachts. This dropped the population of Kea down to triple digits. I think Raquel and I currently make up around 25% of this island’s source of income. Anywhere we go hungry eyes watch us pass. I feel like a dog that just walked into a flea circus. Waiters sniff us from restaurants and bartenders waft coffee in our direction. The food is good, at least at the nicer places, and fortunately the two of us can eat drink and be merry for around 30 euros a meal. Not terrible for a roast chicken, fresh potatoes, tabouli and wine but to pay that for fried eggs, white bread and a coffee? Fortunately our AirBnB has a kitchen.

What’s really getting to me though is the little things. Like the other day we went somewhere that had wifi, and ordered a glass of juice, for 6.50! I can get a half a bottle of wine at a nice restaurant for 4 euros. Why is it that if we go anywhere but the nicest places we are considered nothing more than a source of income. It’s happened with coffee, with bars, with a taxi ride. Even the postcards are overpriced! This wasn’t the case on the island of Syros.

Ah… Syros. Where people smiled when they saw us and had menus with English and Greek. Here all the prices are written in pencil. I understand if I’m buying a ribeye steak or a fresh swordfish but a cup of coffee? Why is that because we’ve come to this island outside the regular time, we are being forced to pay extra? They’d all be starving without us! They make it seem that anyway.

Sorry about the rant, but I had to share. Maybe Kea is nice in July and August, when its swarming with tourists and the vultures have plenty to choose from, but in May, go to Syros, the bustling capital of the Cyclades, for in Kea there are no wallets to be emptied but yours.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Scooter on Syros

The Babe on the beach.

In a day on Syros you can see lost mountains, explore ancient villages, lounge in a funky beach town, and sip pineapple juice as you watch the sunset. And all you need is 15 Euros for a scooter, and a phone to call George. That was who I was currently talking to.

“I pick you and we drive to get scooter. Your hotel?” George said. I trusted this proposition because he’d paid for a signboard in town. I assume human traffickers don’t advertise.

The Beard on his beast, Flytrap
Er… we’re staying at someone’s house, not a hotel.
“I don’t understand. Your hotel name?”
Can you just meet us at the Express Mart in Finikas?
“I don’t understand. Your hotel?”
Express Mart! Finikas.
“I don’t understand. Express Mart? Finikas? Thirty minutes?”
Yes! Express Mart! Finikas! Thirty minutes is great!
“I drive red car.”
Thirty minutes later and I’m pacing back and forth in front of the Express Mart. Is that his car? What about that one? Do you think that’s him?

“That car’s blue. That’s a bus. That’s a cat.” Raquel is nothing if not patient.

Finally George pulled up in—as promised—a red car. We piled in and drove off to rent a scooter. Raquel chose a blue one, and named it Fly-trap after what it would turn our mouths into, and we were off, albeit briefly. It seems 15 euros doesn’t exactly cover gasoline. But there’s not much better in life than a full tank of gas and nothing to but explore, so we paid the seven euroes it cost to fill Flytrap’s tank and vowed to discover every nook of the island.

Aloe in Anos Syros
The island of Syros is beautiful in May. Daisies and lavender bushes fight for the attention of honeybees. Goats and sheep lost in a maze of meter-tall rock walls munch on lush grass already starting to turn yellow. Blocky houses with funky arches and courtyards shaded by grape vines crowd together in the valleys and a whitewashed church trimmed in blue sits on top of almost every hill. It’s breathtaking and wonderful and feels very much alive. 
Our first stop was Anos Syros, a town atop a hill built in the 13th century by the Phoenicians. It overlooks the city of Hermopolis, and doted on by the locals. They all insisted that to not go and wander the streets was to not experience Syros.
So we parked Fly-trap near a marble staircase and looked towards the top of the town. A sandy colored church poked out of a mess of houses, laundry lines and gardens. With no clear way to the top, we meandered in. Up and up we climbed, through a labyrinth of courtyards, potted flowers and hidden tavernas. We smelled women cooking, heard children practicing the violin, and saw men painting and repairing mortar, readying the town for summer. We climbed past them all, under tiny arches, up crooked staircases, and over sleeping cats until we arrived at the church at the top of the hill.

The Babe got us lost
We caught our breath, let our grins tire themselves out and started our descent back down.
Wait, did we go this way, or that way?

“Ooh look a kitty!”

Wow that’s a beautiful view!

“Look another cat!”

We emerged from Anos Syros completely disoriented and a good hundred vertical meters below where we had left Flytrap. To take the obvious path would be easily a kilometer of snaking, highly trafficked road, so we braved the labrynth again to try to find our way out. After a painfully long climb up a staircase that meandered through wildflowers and brick ruins, we were back in the medieval hilltop town. Like  and the minotaur, I kept my hand on the right wall, and we found our way out.

Feeling foolishly accomplished, there was nothing left to do but explore the rest of the island.

So on we drove, around blind turns and cliff-hugging bumpy roads until we reached the church of St. Michalis on the far end of the island. There was nothing but a big black rock, fields of flowers and a farm with perhaps two dozen beehives. Our curiosity quenched we headed south to the town of Kini, where we did nothing but swim, nap on the beach, and eat fresh anchovies from the Aegean Sea. We watched the silhouette of a lone fisherman cast his line against the sun set of a perfect day.

In you enjoyed this post, there's more! Click for the people of Greece or here for the cats of Syros!