Travelogue - Home - Photographs

Date:  Oct 10,11th; 21st 2004
Subject: Around the World in 30 Days

Instant ramen, grilled cheese, beer, and Spagetti Westerns.   Bookends for my trip: A Fist Full of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More plus The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.    Its 4:34 AM...  I`m stalling.

Lets start over.

It all began with my mother.  She, for all her life, has wanted to go to China--but this is old news.  As plans for that trip were coming to fructification, dad, started to feel a tinge of jealousy.  So he started plans of his own to take a photography workshop in Italy.  Naturally, I volunteered to accompany him as well.  Thus, I made the sacrifice to remain employed for six months longer before embarking on what will be my next epic, To India and Beyond  (working title ;-).  

Now, the catch was, Dad insisted upon a package tour.  Despite the similitude my immediate family sees between he and I, he does not find his thrills by walking into a strange city at ten pm without a guidebook and searching for a place to sleep.  Nor does he find the stress of arranging train tickets to unknown destinations in foreign languages intriguing.  No, he comes from a more conventional school of travel, wherein travel ought be fun and relaxing.  But for I, for me, travel is not supposed to be fun.  In fact, if I find myself enjoying myself, I do whatever it takes to turn up the volume, increase the anxiety, accentuate the stress until I am having a thoroughly miserable time, yet am in the midst of adventure.  To submit to a package tour was one of the kinkiest things I`ve done since Boy Scouts.  Sorta like a dominatrix doing the missionary... oh there I go again, I must remember to consider my international, multigenerational audience. 

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.

There I go stalling again. 

So.  There I was.  Rolling suitcase in hand, laden by backpack,  the autumn leaves of Japan falling to Charlotte weighing in at 33 kilos.  Betwixt my Kyoto apartment and my parent`s house in Charlotte,  lay adventure.  As I took a shower at some ludicrously early hour, it occurred to me that I hadn`t even made definite contact with Sheila.  The first leg of my journey, by happenstance was to take me to Brooklyn.  Initially, I wasn`t planning on going to Charlotte, but my grandmother taking a turn for the worse caused me to change my plans.  However, changing a ticket already purchased somewhat narrows one`s options; in this case, I was forced into a minimum 6 hour layover in New York.  However having four friends in The City that Never Sleeps, I figured one of them would be up, so I went ahead and made it 12.  Thus, After a fourteen or sixteen hour flight, which involved landing in Anchorage, Alaska, I made the transition from Japan, the land of courtesy and platitude,  almost directly to a New York City cab at 11:00 at night.  I went from a year of speaking broken English directly into the ghetto slang necessary for survival in NYC.

But the unexpected landing in Alaska was a boon.  I awoke to snowpeaks out my window at sunrise.  Shocked into realizing where I was, I checked my atlas and took bearings to confirm that I was, for the first time in my life, to lay eyes on Denali, a.k.a. Mount McKinley.  I realized this lifelong dream in the delerium of waking up in transit, but as soon as I realized what I was seeing, I was shocked into full consciousness.  I began noting the routes leading up to the mountains, the surrounding terrain, and began snapping photos for future reference.  Like a cartographer I map everything, for future reference, in this case for when I go back to Alaska... 

When it got cloudy over the Yukon, I slept, to rest up for what was to come.  I figured Shiela, an actress and bartender would be most likely to be up, so I called her first.   She had sent me an email which I recieved at the airport leaving Japan with her phone number.  Instead of meeting at her house, she had me go to her friend`s house, where, by accident, a party occurred.  From midnight till five thirty AM, I found myself surrounded by artists: dancers, actors, ex-location directors, musicians.  In fact, I was the least artistic person in the room.    Also, there were warring factions of BMX freestyle riders and skateboarders (Being a poseur at both, I walked the fence, keeping my mouth shut).   There we were on a roof in Williamsburg, overlooking a skyline where the WTC should have been, and discussing the politics of skateparks, the difficutly of shooting film in the City, the cost of living, etc.  Eventually those of us left at the party at 4AM went to a bar for some reason to find that (clearly) nobody could pay.  So once again in my life, I found myself the sole gainfully employed person, and bought the round.   Another complication was that as we were leaving the party, Sheila discovered she`d lost her keys.  Or perhaps some drunken prankster had stolen them.  So at 5:30AM, faced with crashing at a friend of a friend`s for a mere hour, I decided instead to just head for the airport. 

I wandered through Brooklyn at daybreak looking for the subway station.  When I found my way in, I discovered that this station only sold prepaid cards, starting at 5 bucks.  Which would have been inconvinient.  But there was an attendant on duty.  "Hey" I said.  "I just need a ticket to midtown."  The rubenesque black lady behind bulletproof glass said, "Sorry, but I can`t sell individual tickets.  However, if you have a prepaid card I can add value to that for a single ride."  Glancing down, on my side of the divider, there happened to be just such a card.  "You mean a card like this?"  She said, "Yah.  Lucky you."    This sorta set the tone for my trip, everything that could go wrong, for no good reason, didn`t.  I pride myself on being the most pessimistic of travellers,  and am always amazed when things like this work out.  So I found my way to Penn Station, found a real American Diner and had breakfast (my first diner breakfast in over a year... for 15 dollars, of course), and then boarded the New Jersey Railway for Newark.  At the airport checkin, I went to check my huge rolling suitcase, which I`d been dragging around all night, the lady told me,not surprisingly, it was twelve pounds over the limit for a domestic flight.   But, being a pessimist, I had anticipated this, and had packed a bag within my suitcase just in case the airline balked at its weight, which I dutifully checked seperately.  Like the nova usagi, "Arn`t I smart?"

Really, considering that this was the most complicated trip I`ve ever planned,  emotionally and logistically, it is amazing that EVERYTHING came off as planned.  Even the three or four windows for adventure turned out adventurous, but not too much so.  But we`ll come to that in time...  too much time.  We`re not even to Charlotte yet.  Oh wait.  We just landed.  right. So, off of the plane, no time to waste, My mother and I went straight to visit my dying grandmother.  It was now two P.M. local time, and I had lost all sense of personal time (I beat jet lag by just pushing myself past the point of total exhaustion, and then going to bed at a locally reasonable hour).   We wheeled my grammy, who`s been in a wheelchair for several years, out into the overly white courtyard of the nursing home.  We sat under a stunning Carolina blue sky in the fairest weather imaginable.  We talked, and I started telling her about my trip, about Brooklyn, about Alaska, about living in Japan.  Her memory has been gone for a number of years as well, so the fact that I was living in Japan was only hazily remembered.  She was, however, overjoyed to see me, and my mother kept mentioning what a tonic I was for her (...adding to my guilt for seeing her so infrequently). Grammy`s side of conversation kept coming back to "Isn`t it a beautiful day," "Isn`t it a beautiful day," "Isn`t it a beautiful day," execpt once when she turned to me in the midst of conversation with my mother and said, "sometimes it seems like it all isn`t real." 

Yes grammy, it took you 91 years to get there, but you got there.    I wonder as well what they had her on and where I might get some.   Another time at another visit,  I was showing grammy my digital camera.  I showed it to her and she said, "hmmm."  I took her picture, she said, "hmmm."  I pulled the memory card out and said, "this is the film" to which she responded, "hmmm."   I put the card in my laptop and opened the picture on the screen, to which she responded, "that`s not a very good picture."   So much of her world being incomprehensible now, this technological feat washed up on the rocks of her vanity, seeing her withered 91 year old visage.  I guess that`s the last thing to go. 

I had been showing Grammy photos from Japan.  I ran her through them pretty fast with token explanations that I knew were not sticking in her mind, but was just sorta music to accompany images of a world so distant from her own and anything she`d ever seen, that they may as well have been of extra-terrestrial living.  After half an hour, my mom said that perhaps it was enough and asked grammy if she was getting tired.  Grammy turned to my mom and said, "yes, that`s enough... is that the right answer?"  God bless my mom.  Watching her watch her mother die, slowly, slowly, slowly breaks my heart.  But hearing my grandmother get petulent with my mother who, at her wit`s end, at the end of her rope, crying herself to sleep at night for the anguish of having to go through this alone as an only child, and with no one who can really hold her or help her through this... hearing my grandmother get sassy with my mom, breaking my 30 year`s experience of knowing her in her role as The Selfless Martyr, sorta, for this leg of the journey, "made it all worth while."  Her shell is beginning to crack.    She no longer says "behave yourself" when I leave, but instead began to say, "Don`t worry about being good.  Just have a good time" a few years back.    Every time I see her I`m telling her, "I live in Colorado," or, "I live in Seattle," or, "I just got back from India,"  or "I live in Japan."  And she simply responds by turning to my mom and saying, "The things these kids get to do these days." 

SUMMARY: One night in Brooklyn, two nights in  Charlotte, two nights in Charleston; the time is now 5:42, switching from beer to coffee as day breaks... [editing on 21st, 1:16 am, drinking wine, typing to the accompaniment of a typhoon {editing again during an empty voice lesson at work Nov 26th... lord how I procrastinate; Howard, Gary, y`all didn`t hear that}]

Another important reason I was in Charlotte was to visit my sister`s new house.  She and I kinda took different paths in life.  My parents like to say they got one Normal kid and one Alternative.  Suzanne graduated from law school, got married, started working, and moved into a HUGE house, which she bought when I moved to Japan.  Now, she`s lived there for a year and the crown moulding still hasn`t been put up in the dining room.   The house is in, and will continue to be in "Project mode" for some time.  I look forward to visiting, with power tools, for a month, and touching the place up.  She`s working for one of the larger and more prestigious law firms in Charlotte, and bought her house in a neighborhood surrounded by million dollar homes.  Hers comes in far under the average for her area, but its on an impressive acre and a half of land, and backs up to a creek.  By normal people`s standards, its a 4 bedroom house; by hippie standards its about a nine bedroom.   I could easily see living there with 20+ people and five dogs, and nobody getting in anybody else`s way.   Its impressive.  But there are some critical flaws.  The rock garden is in sad shape, the floodplain needs to be graded for drainage (or a rice paddy), and the trees are shaggy and in need of some grooming.  Oh, and the big ole` tree in the back yard lacks a tree fort.   I should also mention that they have deer, owls and hawks, and racoons hunting in the backyard.

Anywho, Next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Europe.  The rolling suitcase stayed in Charlotte, along with several heavy things returned to storage for a time.  It was time to refocus.  Entering upon phase two.  Italy.  My flight was cancelled when I arrived at the airport, but I was automatically rescheduled on a later flight.  No problem.  It was the flight I`d initially booked on anyway.  Right as that flight was about to board, they announced that due to excessive traffic in the Newark area, that flight was bumped, too.  Now it would be impossible for me to make my connecting flight to Rome.  Hence, I was rerouted onto a USAir/Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.  Mental note:  never fly US Air internationally.  They charge for booze and headphones.  The bastards.   Mulitple bankrupcy filings or not, some things are sacred.  And if, like me, you get forced onto their international flights bitch and moan for an upgrade to first class, citing the aforesaid conditions.  Also, mention that your special meal will not be available on the resceduled flight...  And another travel tip:  always ask for a special meal.  I asked for Hindu Vegetarian, but got hindu.  Which meant, in effect, that I ate indian food on all my flights.  Korean Air serves some pretty good Korean food usually, but otherwise, you can dodge some dodgy food on other airlines this way.  And besides, special meals are always served first

I arrived in Frankfurt in time for the sunrise, and a fabulous sunrise it was... The a connecting flight flew to Rome across Austria, Venice, and the lakes that shortly I was to visit.  It was sorta like seeing the table of contents for the trip I embarking upon.  Landing in Rome, after god knows how many hours in transit (I try not to count), I got off the plane, sorted out the metro and train system (really simple) and next thing I knew was on a train for Florence (Firenze, not South Carolina).  Stepping out of the station at about 4 pm, it suddenly occurred to me that I had neglected to note any of the youth hostels or pensiones in town, and as it was Sunday, the Tourist Information booths were closed.  Shit.  So,  commence plan B.

How to find a cheap hotel:  Walk from the [mode of transportation] to the [Main Tourist Destination] in this case, the train station to Il Duomo, or the Cathedral.  Then, failing to find anyplace between A and B, start walking in concentric ovals radiating out from the dual foci of the train station and the tourist attraction.   Start sampling prices at the hotels, begin to identify price-points.   Italy`s a no-brainer.  All the hotels have stars on the front sign.  1-star = 35 euro, 2-star = 60 euro, etc.   Next, begin to identify concentrations of cheaper hotels, and then, with a little map-work, its pretty simple to identify the entire zone where cheap hotels are kept...  Don`t have a map?  Use your digital camera to photograph the map at the bus stand or train station.  Start looking for grafffiti; that also is a good sign (i.e. walk toward graffitti) .  In my case, I was getting pretty loopy about 6pm, so when I found a room with a balcony overlooking a central courtyard on the first floor with a shared bathroom for 40 euro which I talked down to 35, I said fuck it.  It is Florence, after all, and its just expensive. Never did find the youth hostel...     I think the very first right turn I took (toward Il Duomo... hmmm... rules...) leaving the train station was wrong.  If I had gone left I think it was just on the left...  Hence, my left turn rule...  Another travel tip.  When exploring a strange city,  to avoid getting hopelessly lost, just make only left turns.    You`ll end up crossing your own tracks... most of the time.  This doesn`t always work in cities laid out in the middle ages which were specifically designed swallow foriegners, but in 19th and 20th century cities, it works (almost) every time...

So, I only had time to spend one full day in Firenze, and, wouldn`t you know it, the Museum which houses Michaelangelo`s David was closed, what with it being Monday and all...  Firenze has all the trappings of a Tourist errr trap... hmm...  Let`s try that again... Florence has all the markings of a Tourist Town.  Its small, easily traversed on foot, unrepentantly picturesque, with two or three must-sees and several beautiful piazzas with cafe`s serving overpriced food which only tourists eat.  All the menues in the center of town are in English, and all the wait staff has an attitude.  There are lots of street musicians and street vendors pedalling things only tourists would want to buy plus the standard array of knock-offs that you find from Thailand to New York.   That said, for what it is, its an incredibly beautiful city.  Or so I`m told.   But for a backpacker, a couple days is enough to see everything, unless you`re me, and you refuse to use a guidebook to find out what those places are, at which point you miss everything cause its all closed by the time you get there.   So it goes... Cause if you`re me, you know these places are the places you`ll be back to many times in your life despite your best intentions, so its not important to see everything the first time... In fact, its better that you miss it. 

So moving on.  The whole reason I was in Italy when I was is that, as I said before, I am an exceptionally paranoid traveller.  I manage to walk the fence between the total paranoid who expects everything that could possibly go wrong to go wrong and the perfect optimist who believes that everything that does go wrong is just the gateway to adventure and is thus the best possible circumstance.  However, since I cultivate misadventure by never booking ahead, never carrying a guidebook, and rarely even reading up on a place before I arrive, I always plan in a buffer of a few days should I need to meet someone or do something specific at a specific time.  And this trip was planned hair-raisingly tight.  Nevertheless, I managed to allow myself three days to make it from Rome to Milan to meet my father.   Its a four hour train trip, but, you never know what could happen.  The trains could go on strike, there could be an outbreak of cholera, terrorists could blow up the train/plane/bus infrastructure, my suitcase could get lost, I could meet a beautiful woman who insists on taking me away with her to Sicily... you know, anything... So its good to have a few extra days to play with... However, at this stage, nothing went wrong, so I ended up in Florence, and had a nice time; then met my dad at our hotel an hour or so after he arrived, and about fifteen minutes before he and Jeff, his friend, were about to set out exploring without me.  Now, as I had already spent an hour in Milan, getting from the train station to the hotel, and three days in Italy, I was an expert on Italy and fell into the role of tourguide.  I took them to Milan`s Duomo, and forewarned them that it was covered in scaffolding.   Then I told them what could be expected from every menu at every restaurant (that they would be 1. overpriced, and 2. identical to every other menu in town).  

One night of this, and we were then safely within the confines of a tour group, the tourguide mantle so abruptly thrust upon me was immediately stripped, and I could forget everything except when next to get on the bus.  Package tours are a strange and beautiful thing.  This was my first since I travelled with the Boy Scouts.  My first organized tour at all outside the United States, and my first with a perponderance of middle aged people.  It was just bizarre enough to be really fun.  Besides, this was no ordinary package tour.  Where your average tourbus unloads on a picturesque destination and those thence disgourged engage in rampant photography, this tourbus was loaded with professional photographers, each with the latest in digital equipment.   When this bus unloaded you could practically piece the still images together at 15 frames a second and make a movie.  When this bus unloaded there was not a patch of light left unexplored, no edgy camera angle unedged.  Of course I exagerate as is my wont, but still, it must have been surreal for the locals, accustomed to the run-of-the-mill tourbusses.  This bus came with a designated leggy blonde model and paparazzi.   And this tour group lurked in alleys photographing along walls blurring the picturesque scenery out of focus, treating pealing paint and exposed brick through cracked plaster as if it were the Mona Lisa, insteead of the local Duomo, or scenic lake.  This was a tour group charged to forego the postcard images and to hunt out specific lighing effects.  It was definitely a package tour with a twist, and it made me smile.

So a little background.  My father is in fact a professional photographer, he shoots studio portraits;  Jeff, his friend, is also a professional, concentrating more on weddings.  Together, portraits and weddings are the bread and butter of the professional photographer while those who for whatever reason can do without bread and butter make up the bulk of photojournalists, sports photographers, and architectural photographers.  And then there are one or two who are exceptionally talented, unbelievably lucky, or independantly wealthy.  The rest starve, or shoot weddings.  At least that`s the stereotype.  Our photography workshop was dedicated to taking sellable portraits using only natural light.  And this is alot harder and more counterintuitive than you might think.   The ideal natural lighting situation does not involve direct light, nor does it involve flat light, but somewhere in between.   The ideal scenario is a strong directional light diffused either through clouds (sunrise and sunset) or bounced off a big bright wall (midday).   And the lighting effects come from anomalous rays of light penetrating a tree canopy or reflecting off mirrored glass or bouncing off a sidewalk, etc.  Its natural, but finding the right spot is not about finding a sexy backdrop, but finding the right ambient light source. 

So, I, the least experienced photographer in the group, having only shot one wedding solo, and only having shot for 12 years, had the most to learn, and I had the blissful experience of being a sponge.  People whom in most other circumstances I would never have spoken to became friend, mentor, and guru to me.  While I regaled with tales of distant lands, they gave me perspective on the career I`ve come to take for granted.  Suddenly I had a context into which to assess my father`s work, his business, and his relative success among professionals.   The simple fact that he doesn`t shoot weddings puts him in a rarified sphere.  And the fact that he doesn`t do god-awful faux-oil-paint-prints with soft focus and absurdly floral sets sets him squarely in the realm of the tasteful.  In all, I was reminded that he is in fact a good photographer. 

We boarded the tour bus at the Milan trainstation and drove to Lago di Orta, staying in the town of Orta.  I`m going to overuse the word picturesque, because it carries a very cynical edge for the backpacker, but its what tourists generally like about places.   Tourists travel for pleasure, Travellers travel for adventure, or as artists, in answer to an inner need which is rarely pretty to behold, nor is it usually pleasant to experience.  But, it is essential.  There is nothing essential to tourism except picturesque vistas and quaint towns with charming local culture.  Travellers are more likely to... ehhh... lets not go here...  So we arrived in the charming little villiage of Orta wedged between the hillside and the lake, on one of the smaller lakes in Italy`s northern lake district.  I`m sure that could have been said better... moving on...  Orta, sandwiched as it is between the lake and the hills, is a one-road town, a one piazza town, in fact it repressents the essence of Italian urban design.  A central square that defines the heart of the town, a public forum, a promenade where old ladies meet, where children play on sundays with their miniature plastic motorized SUV go-carts and swap trading cards.   In the middle of the lake there is an islet, and on the island on the highest point there is a church and medieval monestary.  Its perfect.  Its the kind of city that can be seen in fifteen minutes in its entirety, leaving the rest of your days free to absorb without feeling like you are missing anything.  You can literally see the whole town from the central square.  And, yet somehow, its so idylic that three months isn`t nearly enough time to take it all in. 

Summary:  one day brooklyn, two days charlotte, two days Charleston, two days charlotte, one day florence, one day milan, three days Orta; 7:40 AM, most of the way through a French-press of coffee. [editing at 5:25am on the 21st {Nov 26th, 10:38pm}]

From Orta we made day trips to Lago di Maggiore: chotto omoshiroi, and a sheep farm in the northern Italian Alps: sugoi okashi.  The former trip took us to the three islands everyone who goes to Magiore visits.  The Fisherman`s Island is your typical tourist trap, which would shrivel up and die were it not for tourism.  The other two are Palazzo`s of dubious merit, and outlandishly grand architecture that will turn the stomach of the most casual Marxist.  Italian architecture does very little for me, and I won`t try to hide that.  In terms of Urban design, they win all the prizes, but for Mansions, they really drop the ball.  I`m speaking mostly of the late renaissance-esque Baroque-ish styles.  Big, unlivable spaces, and dehumanizing surfaces of polished marble, for its own sake, with little context.   Also, gardens that you can`t touch, and absurd stage-set like structures that form surreal backdrops for social mores unimaginable to the proletariate.  However, the bits where they were copying Japanese gardens were rather nice.  There were even one or two trees that would pass muster in Japan.  However, as an aside, after a year and almost a half living over here (Japan), the rest of the gardens of the world look like they were designed by kindergarden children.  Lollipop trees and scribbled paths with no sense of place or purpose, and structures dropped haphazardly atop the highest point for lack any inspiration.   Flower gardens like candy dishes hidden behind hedgerows so you can`t even smell the roses without violation.    The peacocks were nice though.  There were peacocks at both Palazzos.  Oh, and miniaret stages and displays.  Apparently Pinocchio comes from somewhere...  But through the comraderie of the tour group, even these places which were not to my taste were enjoyable.  I was able to sit back and watch others watch, see what others were seeing, and begin to get to know others through the shared trials of catching a boat at a certain time, waiting for stragglers, wondering on the next meal, wondering on the current meal, sorting out minor confusions...  The trip had a subplot, and at times, the Tour Group was what I was visiting, and Italy was merely the context for its storyline.  Sorta like The Real World on MTV.  It was like how I always imagined cruiseships to be, but without the isolation at sea.  Instead, an artificial isolation within the constructs of the bus. 

The trip to the Alps was a good example.  The strangest experience of our trip in fact.  For me, the whole trip was visiting places I can safely say I never would have gone and doing things I would certainly have skipped or would never have occurred to me to do.  Our visit to a sheep farm and the photo session with the shepard are a prime example.  I don`t know how much we paid this guy, but when we arrived, all the sheep were in a group, and when we got off the bus, there was widespread confusion about just what the hell we were doing there.  But, these being professionals, given a subject, they shot it.  Pretty soon we were all tramping through sheep dung, up to our knees in goat feces, being chased by donkeys and frightening the lambs.  To me it seemed to be a psychological test.  My dad didn`t get into the petting zoo experience at all, but the younger members of the group found it (absurd? and) entertaining.  As a hippie, I just enjoyed hanging out with the sheep and goats and donkeys and cows.  I always like to make new friends.  Animals are much more honest than people after all, and that kind of honesty is refreshing.  You look into the eyes of a cow, and you don`t see aspiration or prevarication; you see, "hey, I`m a cow."  Most people look into that mirror and see cows saying, "what the hell do you think you`re doing over there staring at me."  But really, all that`s there is, "hey, I`m a cow."   Sheep, are a little skittish;  I think they know they taste good.  For that reason, you`ll almost never get your hands on a lamb.  But goats are pretty realistic about their self image, look at your clothes and think "lunch..."   Donkey`s are just stupid.  But in a good way.  And unlike cows, they know they are bigger than you.   They love to bully tourists...   Cows just hang around the periphery, watching.  Just taking it all in. 

And then it begins to snow.  (even before lunch I could smell it in the air).  Lunch, was rumoured to be antelope, which is just a fancy goat; but in fact, was probably just the garden variety.   And gnoshi pasta in some brownish sause, and polenta.   But I digress.  (Its now 14:50; I took a nap).  It begins to snow, you see, and nobody was expecting it except the sheep herders...err, yah... shepherds.  Yah, it was fun watching the bus wind up the hairpin switchbacks to the top of the mountain.  I don`t know what the hell they were thinking organizing this whole excursion, but it was right up my alley... Alley.  Haven`t been bowling in over a month...  [My first game back I bowled a 193!]

derailed... not gonna fix it, back on track... gotta get this to press!

We left from Orta for Lago di Como, a little town called Lenno.  Lenno is a little characterless, unquaint, little town; most notably it lacked a piazza.  It was a town focused on the lake and  a short lakeside promenade with three restaurants.  Our hotel room was in the attic of a modern building, and the only windows were skylights offering a glimpse of sky and mountain peaks.  Our first night was nearly a disaster.  We had arrived after a long day on the bus, winding down mountain roads and a short day trip to the city of Como (a perfect recon trip for me, complete with a ride on the funiculare, cable car, to the top of the ridge).  We were then charged with finding dinner on our own, at one of the very slim pickings in town.  Honestly, I don`t think they could have picked a more worthless town than this for a tourgroup.   Even backpackers would never infest a town like this.  But it wasn`t particularly important.  The city`s main charm was its proximity to Bellagio.  And Bellagio`s main charm was sharing a name with a very expensive Las Vegas casino.  Otherwise, Bellagio is a soulless tourist town.  Besides putting a place to a name,   I got nothing from Bellagio, and spent the first half of the day plotting my escape.  Neither of these cities did anything for me, and both are counterindicated for future travellers.  However, the setting is hard to beat, nestled against the lake, with a view of the Italian alps.  The lakes are perfectly designed for bike tours, and we saw many, both on Motorcycles and roadbikes.  We had taken a day trip across the lake to Bellagio, and though initially I was nonplussed, we all met again at 3:00 and had a class.  We wandered up and down the hill (Michael is not old, but is a bit overly heavy, and had a hell of a time climbing up and down the hills of the town.  I wouldn`t have even remembered it as a hilly town if it weren`t for his winge-ing and complaining.  So, gasping up the "vertiginous" streets of Bellagio, our paparazzi swarmed the city in search of light.  Michael showed us how, by placing Laura (the designated model) a few inches forward or back, nearer the wall or farther away, we could alter the light falling on her face significantly.  He showed how most light in the alleyways was horrible, as it was all falling vertically, which is no good giving the subject raccoon eyes.  However when a second alley intersects, or a small courtyard opens up to offer a reflecting surface, it begins to work. 

Working in such a boring little town as Bellagio, we drew a crowd almost immediately.  Everywhere we stopped there were onlookers trying to work out who Laura was.  Eventually Michael named her Britanny saying, "Okay Britanny, that`s great.  Could you turn your head to the left Britanny?  Fantastic Britanny.    Okay Britanny could I have you come forward a a bit?  That`s perfect Britanny!  Are we going to do the swimsuit shots next, Britanny?"   As the sun got low in the sky, we moved to the lakeside and started posing Laura such that we could catch the crowd in the background.   A hapless moped rider stopped nearby to watch, and Michael grabbed him, put Laura on the back of the moped and started shooting.  He, being Italian, it took him about a minute and a half to ask her out.  Every photo in that series, for some reason, features Laura`s wedding band. 

The next day, I opted out of the tour.  I realized I was hitting the wall and we still had one of the top ten touristy cities in the world.  So, I decided that it was most important that I get my head recalibrated, and there is really only one sure-fire way to do that: to climb a mountain.  All day at Bellagio I had been eyeing the mountain that rose behind Lenno.  I started visualizing routes to the top immediately.  Its the sorta mountain that screams, "climb me."  A bare grassy summit, a long forbidding cliff face promising vertiginous thrills and a challenge to the casual alpinist.  I spent a couple hours staring through binoculars and could find inhabitation dotting the slopes all the way to the top, and figured a trail would be easy to find.  Boy was I wrong.   The next day I set out climbing around 9:30 AM  when the rest of the group boarded a bus for some Palazzo around the other side of the lake.   For some reason nobody thought to take the ferry, and as a consequence, everyone spent more than two hours on the bus.  I however, set out on foot for the top of the mountain; a deceptively complicated prospect.  After looking at a map at the hotel, I concluded that there were trails everywhere, and that the climb should be no problem.  I also concluded that it should be a rather short hike as it was only a 1600 meter peak; a mere baby!  I neglected at the time to realize that the lake was at less than 200 meters.  hence, I started out carelessly, taking the first upward reaching road I happened upon.  As if to confirm my choice, an old man was out for a walk with his dog.  However, now I understand the look on his face as I passed him...

After I had climbed far enough to dissuade me from turning back, the lane I was following abruptly ended beside a meadow.  So I climbed through the meadow, and found the path began again slightly farther up.  This pattern continued for a while until I reached a boarded up farmhouse and there was only a single track trail that seemed to stop as soon as it began.  So i started to look for an alternate route.  Through the meadow I could see a cow path, and followed it to the far end of the pasture, and saw a well blazed deer trail.  The dust and tracks clearly indicated that the trail was in frequent and recent use,  so I followed it upward.  After some time, I came across yet another house, but this one had no immediately obvious means of access, yet appeared to be well maintained.  It, like the first, was well boarded up.  Consulting my memory of the view from the opposite shore, I figured I had successfully avoided the massive, several-kilometer-long cliff face that vivisected the mountain, cutting off 75% of the potential routes to the top, which at that stage was my primary concern.   I had taken note of the powerlines and where they passed benieth the cliff face and figured I was well beyond the risk of being thwarted by that obsticle, so now it was just a matter of making it above the treeline. Treeline. How casually I looked at that treeline. I could see that there was still quite a climb from the treeline to the summit, but didn`t accurately assess how long the climb would be to the treeline. In retrospect, three hours isn`t so long, but a litre of water, two apples and an orange can only go so far, and if I were to have had to subsist on this, I wouldn`t have been a happy camper. I climbed for at least two hours along deer trails, and as I went, the mountain got steeper, as mountains are wont to do. Eventually, I found myself scrambling up ravines of loose dirt, and realized it was time for a new strategy. About this time I came upon an old, fallen down farm house, which judging from the unkempt trees was at least a hundred years old, but had collapsed perhaps fifty years before. Still, no sign of an access road except the deer trail that I had come in on, which did follow the starts and stops of some primeval human trail long since abandoned. Nevertheless, I trusted in the gospel that all paths must eventually lead to the top, and there were no cliffs beyond the one gaping band, so I climbed on.

Fortunately, after hours of increasingly steep, nerve wracking climbing along deer trails, I broke free of the trees. Looking back at the suddenly clear view I had a bout of combined agora-acrophobia, and had to sit down to catch my breath and stave off vertigo. The mountain was so steep it looked as if I could reach my hand out and touch the lake, merely a puddle at my feet. The slope was at least 30-40 degrees, as I had perversely found the mountain`s steepest face. Still, pride would not let me traverse to an easier climb, so I pressed on, stopping every 100 yards to gasp for breath. And still I was following animal tracks, deer most likely from the lightness of the step and cows having more sense than to come over this way. As I found the first false summit and got a look at the real peak, the customary cry of dispair rose from my lips. I gathered my fortitude, and pressed on, seeing for the first time the cowherds barn, and believing that there could possibly be water to refill my bottle. On the front of a run down shack, I saw a sign that said quite clearly three words, the second being frommagio, and from this I deduced the owner must make and sell cheese to... whom?  Thus, I also deduced that if there was a house, there was an access road, if there was a shop, there were other hikers, and, in short, I had found civilization again. I was (dare I say...ah fuckit...) out of the woods.

After a minute calling "Miscusé" at the open door, from the opposite side of the fence with the barking dogs, one of the larger women I`ve ever seen emerged. I said, "fromaggio?" To which she responded "Si, frommagio fresco," and invited me in. She offered me a sample, which to my famished lips tasted like mana, and I bought two blocks, which she salted and wrapped in newsprint. I traded her an orange for roll of bread, and she even filled up my water bottle, although not saving my life, at least resuscitating my faltering spirits. After I left her humble shack, (the house proper presumably under construction, I climbed through the cowpasture to the summit where I met two Swiss hikers. Being Swiss, middle aged, and a couple, I was sure they had a proper hiking map; so after a few pleasantries, I asked for a look. Then, in a burst of inspiration, I photographed it, and realized that yes, I could read the map quite clearly from my camara, thus ringing in the dawn of an era in a new technology`s utilization. I also saw that the trail I started out on and followed to the top did not in any way show up on the map, and in fact I had followed a route in the dead center between two trails. However, more to the point, I found that the ridgeline trail I had intended to follow down did indeed terminate in Lenno and not some neighboring town as I had feared. Finally, finding a spot relatively free of cow dung and flies (hint: sit with your face in the wind and the flies are minor; never sit on the leeward slope of a cow pasture. The factor of warmth from being out of the wind would be offset by the plague of flies even before you opened your lunch). I should mention, that yes, it was finger-numbing cold at the top. A solid ten degrees celcius colder than at the bottom. I had brought a long sleeve shirt which was just barely adequate when the sun hid behind a cloud. Thank goodness I had my hat.

For those who`ve noticed that I always wear a hat, I advise you to note every functionally homeless person you see. Those who are not sick, wear hats. A good hat has the thermal properties of a light sweater, blocks the glare of the sun giving better visibility of things that might get you, keeps the rain off your face, and, well, looks cool.   But a long-brimmed hat, by reducing glare from headlong light sources, clarifies one`s world making everything more beautiful.   One sees more clearly, especially at night, by blocking out streetlights.  A crushible hat is essential, as during times of strenuous activity with the sun coming from behind, said hat becomes an encumbrance, and must be stowed.  But in the end, any brimmed cap will do.  I prefer one that resists a strong headwind.  The one I don now doesn`t even blow off under a typhoon`s squal.    

So, after lunch, I found the trail down with little problem. It was right where sensible trails everywhere are put: along the narrow ridgeline, the geometrically necessarily path of least steepness. After I dropped lower by about 200 meters, it warmed up enough for my to take out my flute and play. And did I ever play. A song of longing, a song of joy, a song of separation from my beloved. My flute, you see, has been with me for a long long time. And we have travelled together across many continents, but I`d never brought her to Asia, and I hadn`t brought her with me when I moved to Japan. She felt betrayed, and in this song, she made me pay for deserting her. But together, we made love, and sang a duet of reunion, and rejoiced at the good fortune of the day, the fortuitious farm, the obsenity of the slope, the victory of achieving the summit. Afterward, I looked to my left and discovered an Ammonite fossil sitting among the detritus of the crumbling shelter I had been playing in. I discovered that it had broken off of the stone above, and proceeded to crush the slate fieldstone by hand and exhume a handful of those ancestors to the Nautilus were that were the dominant life form 200 million years ago... A fun little bonus on the day.  What will be remembered of me 200 million years from today?  Does my exhuming of them make these Ammonites more significant than me?  I feel so... cold...

um...

After a long, long... long descent, among pastureland and meadow, the trail widened into a road, the road became residential and, before I could make it home, I just had to stop and play one more song. I was breathless with joy and scat singing improvised big band tunes (in twelve parts). So I pulled out my lady and we had a quickie; the sun was rapidly setting, and though I was out of danger, I didn`t want to worry my dad too much, nor interfere with his dinner plans. And more selfishly, the hotel had a sauna, which at that moment was both Mecca and Medina of my pilgrimage. So, cautious of my knees, [A significant trekking technique I encourage everyone to master: on steep descents always minimize the bouncing.  Descend mountains as smoothly as possible with as little up and down movement as possible.   It requires a considerable amount more effort in the quads, but results in far less strain on the knees.  The former becomes stronger thereby while the latter becomes weaker.  Judge for thyself].  I made the quickest time I could and arrived at the hotel just after sunset, around six. A beer, oh so delicious and well-earned, with my loving and relieved father, a change of clothes, a shower, a savoury sauna, and then a dinner with the tour group, comparing of notes with what I had missed from the day: another delightfully picturesque, less touristy Bellagio and a palazzo with more formal gardens. This being the last day in Lenno, we all left after dinner to pack our bags for Venice, and submit our ten best photos for the slide show.  Mine were on par.

And the next morning, after a sentimental sojourn traipsing through collective memories soon to become nostalgic, we were back onto the bus.  We continued on to Milan to see off a few members not continuing on, and then to Venice, arriving at a glorious sunset.   A grumpy tour group after five hours on the bus, was not pleased neither at having to wait for the chartered boat nor to carry monstrous suitcases up and down flights of stairs crossing three canals to reach our hotels, upon reaching which to then need wait to check in to.   I, with my backpack and backpackers tolerance for adversity, endevoured with some success to be helpful and not smug, enlivening but not condescending.  My father, actually was among the lightest packed, and had no trouble keeping up, however some of the more inveterate shoppers were suddenly rueful of their purchases.  Eventually we found our way to our hotel and had the misfortune to deal with one of the surliest desk clerks I`ve ever met.  In  midwestern America, he would have been dragged out back and beaten, if not shot.   But this was Venice, and he was just an above-average prick.  Anyone who has to deal with fifteen million tourists a year is going to be a bit abrupt, rude, and short-tempered, but there was no excuse for this asshole.  He hated his job and wanted everyone to know it.  But that aside, our hotel had an unattended internet connection into which I could plug my laptop for the first time since Florence (Ah, to be connected is such bliss).  The day`s travel lightened my mood where others were laden thereby.   And at the end of the day, I had free internet.  What more does a geek need?  

Venice is predictable for one accustomed to the travails of travel.  Its unusual and eulogized beauty is not, however, overrated; San Marcos is probably among the most beautiful Christian churches I`ve ever seen.   To die without having visited San Marcos and San Pietro in Rome would be a terrible waste.   But if you visit San Marcos visit on the full moon in October or November, when it floods.  Then it is at its best.  I didn`t appreciate the fortuitious timing of our arrival (it being the full moon in October), but as I rounded a corner at high tide, the piazza was in fact flooded, pidgeons roosting on the islands of marginally higher stones.    And later going inside, the mosaics of  the portico and foyer were all damp with seawater brine.  The church, begun around 600AD is one of the greatest surviving structures in the pre-medieval Byzantine style, which is the precursor design for mosques of the later Ottoman empire.  (The cathedrals came first, stealing their design in turn from Roman temples such as the Pantheon in Rome).  The floorplan is a cross with even arms, five copulae, the central being of course considerably larger than the four branchs.   Structurally this keeps the central dome from spreading, much as the flying buttresses of later Gothic design,  but aesthetically, it is exquisitely balanced.  The most shocking part to absorb was how the sacrarium was screened from the congregation, if ever there was one, and the proceedings of the clergy were veiled behind yet another screen within the enclosure.  Hence, there was a procession of sacred spaces, from the holiest of holies out to the proletariate.  An amazing design, very mystical, which I have never seen elseware.  Definitely ripe for further exploration.

Venice is at once an easy and difficult city to visit.  Its easy if you are comfortable being a tourist,  and there is no escaping that fact.   It is not easy if you like to blend into crowds of locals.  You are always outcaste in Venice.  Add to this that everything is gratuitously expensive, and, well... you should just keep all this in mind when you go and get beyond it as quickly as possible.  I recommend Venice in the latter fall and winter when its overcast, cold, and drizzly.  That`s when I think the city would be most beautiful.   Then you could pretend everyone`s surliness was directed  toward the weather, and you could pretend to be bitter about it as well, and share a common bond with the bartender you are trying to chat up.  As it were, my standard icebreaker, `[Venice] is nice, but there are too many fucking tourists,` fell flat whereas usually, I at least get an ironic smile.    I feel that if instead, I could use, `beautiful weather` on a drizzly day, then I would have something to go on.  We, however, were in Venice at PEAK season.  Beautiful weather, but...

Outside Venice in the lagoon there are a series of islands.  One contains the oldest church in Venice and about five houses, is pleasant if you happen to find yourself there, but can be skipped.  The second, Burano, contains gaudily pastel-painted houses, and while pretty in a kitchy way, can be skipped as well as it is a soulless place.  I asked a barista if she spoke English and she said no.  I asked if she lived on this island and she said yes.  I asked if she liked it here, and without hesitation, she said an emphatic no.  Not a place to live, worth maybe 30 minutes of your life, but if you could get a disney-like "Its-a-small-world canal tour without having to set foot on the island, it would be better.  Finally, the third island popular with toursits is Murano.  Now, Murano is special.  Murano is world renouned for their glasswork.   When you hear `Venetian Glass` you are actually hearing `Murano Glass`.  This is where all the pioneers of glassblowing art from the United States in the 50`s and 60`s went to study.  This is where multiple generations have been producing the highest quality glass in the world for hundreds of years.  Murano is special. 

We spent precious little time in Murano.  Architecturally Murano and Boreno are special in that they are much lower than Venice.  Where Venice is comprisesd of three to five story structures on average, These two latter islands usually are two and three stories.   This gives the islands a distinct feeling of openness.  The alleys are not oppressive or enclosing like Venice, and the people are slightly more open as well.  Murano, which has a unique identity of its own and a fraction of the tourists of Venice would make a much more hospitible base from which to explore Venice.  Water busses connect all the islands, linking them together rather efficiently.   For a more pleasant holiday, I`d recommend booking ahead in Murano, and visiting Venice for the day, returning to the more open, quieter island by night.  The prices drop slightly as well.   As a last note, there is a glass museum on Murano that we didn`t have the oportunity to visit as we arrived too late.  Next time.

Finally, after a whirlwind tour of North Italy, our tour was over.  The following morning our long-suffering tourguide Sara met each group of departures individually, beginning at 6 am with my father and his contingent.   I helped dad get his bags to the water taxi, saw him off, and then returned to my hotel room.  I considered sleeping, but it didn`t happen.  I had avoided making any detailed plans, but had a schematic.  I wanted to visit my friend Jen wherever she might happen to be, and my friend Mark in Utrecht, Holland.  Jen is notoriously difficult to peg down, even to the extent of which country she would be in.  But I knew she`d be somewhere between Madrid, Spain and Bienne/Biel, Switzerland; possibly Paris.  After arriving in Europe, via email I learned she was going to be in Lausanne, Switzerland on the days I had available to meet her.  So after my father departed, I made my way to the train station to find my way to Lausanne.  Step one; purchase the ticket.  Step two, find a place to stay for the night.  I have compromised my backpacker`s creed of no prior plans on several occasions, and this was one.  As I hadn`t so much as a sleeping bag, much less camping equipment, I lacked margin for error this trip.  To spend a night outside, in Switzerland, in early autumn would have involved dropping to survival mode, hence, I had previously obtained phone numbers for two hostels in Lausanne.  I called my preferred accomodation, and they were booked for the current night (a friday night due to unavoidable timing) but had availability for the following three.  I went ahead and made reservations.  That left me with a train ticket valid for two months, and no place to stay for the night.  I verified that I could in fact get on and off the train at my leisure, and then set out in search of a hostel in Venice.  Tourist information gave me a list, but the two I called were booked for the night and curt about telling me so.  Having had enough of Venice`s attitude, I implored myself to think outside of the box.  I realized that I didn`t need to find a place in Lausanne or Venice per se, but someplace, prehaps in between.  [in relating this story to Jen, she anticipated this last line, which is why I love her, like, 愛してる -love]  Since I changed trains in Milan, that was my first thought.  But as its a big city, its not really conducive to one night stands.  I looked at my train to Milan, and on the board it said "via Verona."  Verona. Now there`s a familiar name, but at the time I couldn`t think, nor could I be bothered to think of why.  Without further consideration, I boarded the train to Verona.  I think one of my principle reasons for travelling is to make places out of names.  You don`t have to be very well read to have a long list of places in the world, places where stories with which you are familiar have occured, that however are devoid of any reality.  Verona was some such place.   Shakespeare wrote something about it once I suspected... So as the train got underway, Romeo and Juliet began to seep in through the cracks; a text search of The Complete Works on my laptop verified that supposition, and off I was to see, with what further memory then enlightened, Juliet`s Balcony. 

A short train ride later, I stepped out into the station of Verona.  I stopped by the tourist office for a list of youth hostels only to overhear that most places were booked solid for reasons I couldn`t quite catch.  With a bit of panic, I started calling hostel after hostel; most of the numbers on the list were bunk, the phone answered by non-english speaking people who sounded like they`d been through this before; very curt, very abrupt.  Finally, one hostel answered, spoke English, and had availability.  Holding my panic in check, I set out at a brisk pace in the direction of the hostel.  I had a simple map, and then by consulting three different versions of maps at kiosks, bus stops and tourist booths, none with a scale, I navigated myself to the far end of town, and to the hostel, in under an hour, stopping to ask directions only once.  The event in question turned out to be the World Cycling Championships, of which I saw a single rider along the closed off route, with very limited crossings.   Overhead, helicopters circled all day.   But Verona is certainly a bite-sized city, and by the time I found the hostel, I had seen the bulk of the city. 

The hostel, deserves special note.  Its an exemplar of hostelry, built in an 150 year old palace, with about an acre of gardens laid out in a naturalistic manner.  Benches and tables welcome the guest, however the rooms remain locked during the day.  The hostel was delightfully rundown, staffed by super-friendly people, and truly grandiose in proportions.  They were not even close to capacity.  By the time I got there it was two or three, so I sat down in the garden and practiced my flute for an hour, while a bicyclist did yoga in the distance to my accompanyment.  In the end, nearly everyone I met was in town for the bike races, Bicycle Geeks one and all, and though I could hold my own in conversation on the topic, I have to admit I`m short on material.   All the store windows thoughout town however had encorperated stunning bicycles into their displays.  A few classics, but most were sophisticated design.  Some made me drool outright.   A couple looked faster than motorcycles...  So, I wandered from the Hostel into town and first to the Roman colleseum.  Verona has a colleseum dating from 0-ish AD.  Its outer shell seems to have fallen away, but the inner core is still very much in tact and is used to host Operas.  The stage set I saw was all Egyptian, which was odd, but somehow ironic and poetic.  But the stones.  Climbing the marble stones and seeing the pitting and weatherng of 2000 years never ceases to amaze me.  To consider that it started flat, smooth, levelled, and that this is what rain alone can do...  Not to mention abrasion from untold buttocks...

After the colleseum, which took me to the center of town, I was now duty bound to visit Juliet`s balcony.  I braced myself for a tourist trap of the worst variety, only to be unexpectedly blown away by one of the most intense spectacles of this trip.  Whilst clearly there was no Juliet, nor was there ever a Romeo (present company excluded), her balcony has been the lodestar of lovers for generations.  This is attested to by love notes papering the walls of the intimate courtyard, attached thereby with bubblegum.  Yes Bubblegum.  I shit you not, the walls were coated in graffiti, bubblegum and paper lovenotes.  How highschool can you get.  It was touchingly romantic, tearfully sweet, and totally highschool.   And for a fourteen year old girl who killed herself with her sixteen year old lover, bubblegum seemed to be the most appropriately poignant image of the whole affair.  Stars crossed under layer upon layer of spearmint scented love.  Words cannot do it justice, certainly not mine at this stage.

Summary: 1 night brooklyn, 2 nights charlotte, 2 nights charleston, 2 nights charlotte, 2 nights florence, 1 night milan, 3 nights orta, 3 nights lenno, 3 nights venice, 1 night verona.

That night, I went out with an Aussie whom I met at the hostel.   We wandered streets which at this point I had wandered three times (its a small city) and found ourselves at an Irish pub.  (its bound to happen once in every trip).  I discovered the 10% beer, and three apiece later, we damn near didn`t make curfew coming home.  First he got lost, and I told him fuckoff I know where I`m going, then I missed a turn and he told me to fuckoff.  Finally we both missed a turn but ended up following cyclists back to the hostel ten minutes under the wire for curfew.   I guess I went to bed at that point.   The next morning, I awoke, navigated through confused streets (the street I had in mind to follow to the station, the race committee had in mind to close off and baricade from public ingress), and found my way to the station.  Boarded the next train to Milan, and then due to a lack of prior planning and interogation, missed the transfer to the train to Geneva.   After a two hour wait involving lunch and changing shirts from the one that was starting to smell, I boarded the train to Geneva.   For the record, Switzerland still has border guards and a seperate currency.  So while the prices look bad initially, they are about 2/3rds when converted to Euro and 3/4 converted to the US dollar these days.  But, um, yes, don`t be caught off-guard by border guards...

So the next thing I knew I was speaking French.  Well, in need of French at least. And after a couple days in French speaking lands, I could speak about as much french as I can after a year in Japan.  However I forgot about their bizarre system for counting to a hundred.  But that`s another story.   So, I had a reservation for a bed in the hostel, which turns out to be BEAUTIFUL.  The Lausanne guest house.  Remember.  If you travel hostels in Europe, bring your own lightweight bedsheets or sleeping bag.  I could have saved fifteen dollars if I had... alas.  But the location was perfect; right behind the Station.  signs point to it directly from the back exit from the station (downhill side).  But, there`s not much reason for being a tourist in Lausanne, other than it being a beautiful city.   Its not quite on Lake Geneva, but up the hill a bit.  Its not quite in the Alps but you can see them from there.  Yes, this trip was almost exclusively to places I never would have gone had it been up to me...

And yet, if you keep your eyes open, adventure always awaits.  After checking in, around 5pm, I went in search of... uh... you know whatever.  I decided I should get a phone card to call Jen, though she hadn`t exactly provided me with a current phone number.  But it was a mission, so I stuck to it.  That, or an internet cafe` to check my email.    So with this two pronged mission in mind, I set out to the front of the station, toward the center of town.  Almost immediately I saw four hippies pushing a shopping cart and carrying boxes of bread, pastries, and cakes.  I sensed family, but I really wasn`t on that page at the time, nor was I dressed right.  And I felt self-conscious having my laptop in my backpack.  Nevertheless, as I ended up walking the same direction as them for four blocks, I finally broke down and approached the most approachable one, the obvious college student wearing glasses and so forth, and asked where I might find a phone card (English being one of four studied languages in Switzerland, I knew I`d be understood, but made a casual inquest before proceeding).  It was difficult, newstands being not nearly as prevalent as Italy; I had walked more than a kilometer without seeing anything.  Hardly a store was open, what with it being Saturday night after 5 pm, and all...  He eventually ended up taking me to one.  But I asked the obvious question with the obvious answer, in a way of inviting myself along ("where are y`all going with all that food?").  As it turns out, they were all squatters.  They`d just occupied a building, and the food came from a bakery at which a friend worked (clearly) where it would otherwise have been thrown away.  I asked if I might visit the squat, and then I tagged along to a second where they were delivering a box of salads and breads;  In this way I got the briefest of introductions to the squatter scene in Europe.  And an idea for a killer book...  It turns out that in Switzerland, if you squat a building, and the owner doesn`t have any truly pressing reason to remove you from the premise (i.e. the building contains valuable items still, or has been condemned)  then they actually have to SUE to remove you.  Can you imagine?  They have to file court proceedings to evict trespassers.  How bizarre.  In the case of our friends here, they are squatting a building owned by the Canton, and hence, since it is government owned, are entering into negotiations to maintain the building free of charge, and pay utilities, to keep the whole thing above-board.  Meanwhile, for the last two weeks they are occupying the building and have declared as much.  Its a strange system, but its a product of the old world, where empty buildings are considered a blight upon the urban landscape... perhaps.  But squatters with their anarchist banners?

In the end, they invited me to dinner, and I dined with them on rice, brocolli and greens, with a bernaise sauce.  It was great.   Eventually, trying to establish my credibility, despite not speaking French and having a job, I showed some pictures of my campsite in Berkeley, and pictures from the San Francisco protests at the outset of the war.  One girl (why did all the names fly away) played a DVD talking about the orginization of the Geneva WTO protests.  It was from the perspective of the artists, and the main lecture was by a couple Americans, whose names also escape me.  But they were pointing out the need to find a new, more vital aesthetic outside of the Private Gallery Scene, a more authentic, spontaneous and vital aesthetic.  They also talked about a protest as a mock coup d`etat.  Interesting material.  There was also footage of the smashing and looting of a Lacoste store, you know those shirst with the alligator on them.  And then some night footage of anarchists throwing molotov cocktails at storefronts.  Graffiti on the boarded up windows of shops at the eve of the protests...  You can see why the WTO and G8 are meeting on remote islands these days.  But aside from registering some vague discontent with things, I`m not sure what these protests prove or achieve.   Sure you get 100,000 people to march for whatever ambiguous reason, be it to Free Palistine or Tibet, or to save the Loggerheads, but really, what does the WTO see?  What does the G8 hear?  And what could they possibly do to assuage the situation such that mass protests would not in the future occur?   And at what stage does a protest movement evolve into a revolt or a real coup d`etat?   Too many questions... no good answers...  The Left lacks focus lately.  Sadly, Dubya is providing it. 

After I left, not having the energy to form lasting relationships after all I`d been through to get to that point, and still without any clear idea how I was going to meet Jen on the morrow, I wandered back to the Hostel sniffing for wireless access points.   Which is my hobby.   I found that for subscriber services nearly the entire downtown was covered; but within 24 hours I had uncovered three convenient APs that gave me access, an IP address, and allowed for send/recieve.   But Jen had not access so I didn`t hear from her, hence I was consigned to loiter around the youth hostel waiting for her to call or show up... And around 5 she did show up.  She took me to the performance for which her Boyfriend was running the lights.   A little background.  Jen  and I met in San Francisco at the Green Tortoise Youth Hostel.  One of the best hostels around.  (I had wifi access from my bunk there :-).  I proposed to her after about 30 minutes of conversation.  Not only was she beautiful, busty, blonde, but also she could discuss 3D graphics design and Derrida in the same sentence.  I planned to stay three days and ended up spending 3 weeks, discussing linguistics, contemporary art, multimedia, computers,  Deconstruction, dance and so forth.  Though I could never get her into the sauna with me...  The Green Tortoise, SF has a sauna. How cool is that.  So now, years later, we were reunited in Switzerland.  I finally got to meet Fred, her S/O of seven years.  And he`s really 格好いい- kakkoi; and unlike me, he`s perfect for Jen.  It was adorable watching them together.  I pined a bit that such was not my fate.   Rarely do they live in the same city; he`s been in Lausanne working on this project for a month or more, She`s been in Bienne/Biel working on films, doing post-production sound work.   She recently got a lead on a project in London, and they`re looking for an apartment in Paris.   Did I mention she speaks English and Swedish as mother tongues, plus French, and Spanish? 

The performance was almost tragically European, and datedly Beatnik.  There were three performers, a poet, reading a very erotic poem about an older man`s love of a beautiful, much younger woman, represented by the young beautiful dancer.  Then there was the `free jazz` musician playing eccentric instruments like Soprano Saxophone, Baritone Saxophone, and Bass Clarinet.  It was all done professionally, but yes, in the end, the dancer got naked and smeared herself in black soot.   Everyone on stage wore black.  I felt like snapping my fingers, but I was a guest...  The gimick that set this piece apart was the stage set.  A cube with a translucent trampoline set in the middle.  the Dancer mostly performed on this trampoline; but the really cool part was when they raised a mirror at 45 degrees benieth the trampoline; then it was her reflection which was dancing.  she appeared to levitate, to hang from the top, only to suddenly retract and then if she stood up, to retract to a point.  The illusion of defying gravity was very impressive.  The effect was liquid, a silloutte of emptiness and shadow, a void, a facade, a shadow.  A story of fictional love, of love-play, of usury.  It spoke of hollowness and lust run aground on the reality which was fleeting ephemeral and unreal.  And dirty.

After the performance, we went to a party with the people from the circus next door to the performance hall.  The caravan was parked nearby, and we were all invited; however due to a schism in the caste, only half came to hang out at the Caravan.  Clearly my friends opted to hang out with the circus people.  We stayed there for a while drinking hemp beer, and eating snackfood, then went back to the apartment of a friend of a friend and sat on his fourth floor balcony while his wife and child slept, drinking wine.  The dancer was there, the apartment owner, Fred and Jen and myself.  We talked , they talked, occasionally Jen and I would fly off on fully fluent English, which between us loses even the unprepared native speaker, such is our bond.  But in the end, as all good things must come to, we left.  And the next day Jen and I had an hour alone to talk shop before catching back up with Fred, and then, I said goodbye to her again; the pain of parting from a soulmate...

After three days in Lausanne, I was off to the final destination of my trip.  To connect with Mark in Utrecht.  I had learned though that he was to be busy the Tuesday night I was arriving, so instead I took the train all the way to Amsterdam.   Now, seven years ago (shit.  I`m getting old... and dying; what is the meaning of life?) I was in Amsterdam and stayed at a hostel recommended to me by my sister.  The Flying Pig.  I reasoned that if it was popular seven years ago, and was still in business today, it`d be crazy.  So, once again compromising my principles, I booked ahead.  Luckily.  As I pushed my way to the front door, four backpack laden travellers were being led away to another youth hostel by a tout as the hostel full, and I walked in.  Once the desk clerk found my reservation, she told me to go in, have a beer and wait a bit `cause she had a problem with someone else to work out first.  I was mostly impressed that she told me to go have a beer instead of just to wait or to have a seat.  This is why I love Amsterdam.   It wasn`t even a sales pitch for the bar; just an honest assessment that that`s what would be best in this situation.  So I grabbed a beer, walked over to the floor seating area whence shoes ought be off, and began to take in my surroundings.  The very first thing I took in was Raja.  That`s RrrraYa for you english speakers.  She introduces herself as Ray.   The way she was looking at me was shocking.  In the dimness of the night, through the haze of the hash smoke that was about to find its way to my lungs, I could see a family resemblance.  However, there was a man sitting close to her side, so I played it cool.  But when she didn`t break eye contact, I moved over beside her and started talking.  Introducing myself first to the guy sitting beside her (survival skills hard learned).  (okay, that needs follow up.  See, the thing is, he won`t always be with her; but neither will you never be should you cross him up front).  Anyway, he sat there in the dumb stoned stupor, whilst I chatted up the beautiful lady sitting beside him.  I couldn`t figure it out.  Chalk it up to Amateur Night in Amsterdam.  I sat there for a while drinking my beer while the deskclerk got caught up, and the whole time my backpack was sitting right in front of  the exit.  This earned her respect, as she saw me as `trusting.`   In fact my eye didn`t stray from my pack the whole time.   Trusting my ass.   This is Amsterdam, where the theives are lazy, becuase the prey is stoned senseless.   Anyway, I know how to watch my own back.  So I took it all in, drank my beer, checked in then invited the lady away from this den of debauchery.  An offer she accepted.  What was happening?  I was falling in love. 

So Ray.  Her smile was unmistakable.  It was the guileless smile which, if it survives to 23, will continue in the heart of a woman to her grave.  It truly was love at first sight. Yet the circumstances couldn`t be more restrictive.  I have my own obligations, and she has her boyfriend; she is young and I am old enough to know better; and its late, we`re both leaving in the morning, and staying in a youth hostel that night.  Clearly nothing could become of that night.  But there are still many nights between that and the grave.  So, hard learned lessons won, I didn`t try to play her, I befriended her.  How odd to find in True Love, Love at First Sight love, the love of a gentleman.  And a gentleman I was, we  went out for some drinks, bought some hash, I smoked, she had a taste; then we went in search of wine.  Raya was born outside a tiny town high in the Swiss alps and has that aura of high alps about her.  She`s going back to school now to get her degree, and is living in some city for a time.  She`s in Amsterdam on her last holiday before getting back to school.  But those eyes.  She could be telling me anything.  When love reaches out between two hearts, when two thirsty souls drink from the well, the words are like music, but the meaning lies beyond such coarse material as sound.  I felt as if I had been reconnected with a long lost friend.  So I did not touch her, and made no effort to do so.  Because something so precious should not be squandered on baser emotions.  I prayed that someday our paths would cross again and sacrificed the evening`s love upon the alter...

Horseshit

And the next day, exploring Amsterdam on seven-year-old memories.  I found my way, somehow, away from all the tourists .  Somehow I took all the wrong/right turns, ended up in a coffee shop smoking dope with middle aged women, the sole tourist in the establishment, bought some really good stuff, then off to the Rijks Museum.  Wandered about there (smaller than I imagined) and made my way back to the station.  Stopped in a local bar, still no tourists, for lunch.  Then kept on meandering and somehow inexplicably ended up back in the city center at the Dam before I knew quite what had happened.   boarded the next train to Utrecht, got my bearings, made one phonecall, and Mark showed up ten minutes later.   (Now, that takes a bit of skill; to learn your way around well enough to tell a local where you are.  Main problem is Dutch looks nothing like it should sound to an English speaker.   Sorta like Japanese).     We picked up right where we left off four years ago in India.   He began to fill in some of the gaps in memory, things I`d completely forgotten, like the time we walked by that rotting corpse that had washed up on the shores of the Ganga.   Stuff that`s easy to forget like that.    So, we hung out, talked got high, and such.  He`s no longer the scrawny 19 year old I met years ago, but has filled out to be quite dashing.  No, let`s face it, the boy is hot.  A real lady killer.  Which doesn`t explain the girl he`s with.  Now,  Dutch men are pretty impressive.  Tall, above average for hansomeness, but Dutch women? Not so much.   I think there`s a French influence, but its lost among the Germanic blood.  Its sorta like the polar opposite of Italy, where the women are gorgeous, but the men are just petite, cute, and fashionable.   The Netherlands is in fact fashionably void.  Its a nation of hippies determined to form a functional society based firmly in quality of living.  Case in point.  Walking from Mark`s apartment to the corner stores; now, this is a relatively new  suburb of gridded streets and monotonous facades, however at the corner, not only do they have beer for 15 cents apiece, but there was a corner Greek cafeteria, a corner wine store, and a corner computer store.  I happened to need a network card to fix Mark`s computer (it was bugging me) and there it was.  Few urban landscapes in the world already boast corner computer stores.  But the Netherlands may not have a credible space program, but they are building a subway underwater in Amsterdam to augment the ample bus, train, and light rail network.  Utrecht has wide boulevards and functional neighborhoods, and a boat based-redlight district where girls who want to work can go register.  Everything that exists everywhere is also in the Netherlands, only there its legal and in the open.  What a concept...

That said, its actually a rather conservative country.  In fact they have some of the lowest drug-use statistics in the western world.

That night, we went into town to a bar, then to an Indian restaurant for dinner.  Sorta for old times sake.  The menu was only in Dutch. I think the waiter was from Gujarat.  but wading through it, I decided that we should have the set menu.  I didn`t quite appreciate what it meant when Mark explained that it came with 18 dishes.  I was picturing 18 dishes as they would come in India.  But instead we got 18 dishes where 8 would be ample for two people.  After we went to the second oldest coffee shop in Holland.  (note: Hollland technically refers to the Rotterdam--Den Hague--Amsterdam  lowestlands where the bulk of the population lives.  Nederland refers to everything else.  Its sorta like referring to the "The United States", or just "America").  We had a very interestin experience in the coffee shop.  As we were finishing our spliff, a man walked up and started talking to us about Buddhism.  Now Mark hasn`t studied quite as much as I have, but he`s very knowlegeable on the subject as well.  So we both held our tongues and let him speak.  Eventually he gave us an interesting interpretation of Buddhism.  He said there are eight levels to Buddhism, the fifth being Creativity.  He couldn`t tell us what the other seven were, but it was a fun idea to try to make sense of...  Eventually talk turned to demonic possession and alchemy.   Our friend told us a very interesting story.  One day, he was very stoned (of course), but he was in his house alone when suddenly he felt this hand drop on his shoulder.  He turned around and there was no one there, but he had this sensation of a presence.  He walked forward, but he still felt there was someone there.  It really made him nervous.  He started talking to this spirit.  Eventually, after some time, he made contact and talked with the spirit.  It told him when he was with him he could see this little glimmer of `the light,` and he had been looking for the light for a long time.  So our friend told him, look, I`ll help you.  Before he went to bed, he put a bible beside a bowl of water.  The Bible is The Word, and the bowl of water was the doorway.  That night he went to bed.  As he slept he dreamed he was in a sea of flowers and ultimate softness.  He could see out a window, the view from the window was of a tree, a country side, a most beautiful day, a perfect sky.  As he awoke, the spirit told him thank you for giving him the path to the light.  The key was the water.  Water symbolizes the doorway.

Now, with my trip, I`d become perplexed.  I had talked with Mark about this earlier in the evening.  But Everywhere I have been has been dominated by water.  From the lakes of northern Italy, to Venice canals, to Lake Geneva, to Amsterdam and finally this message came along the canals in Utrecht.  Water water everywhere, but what did it symbolize.  And here, the riddle.  Water is the doorway to the spirit.  But which spirit and why?  It remains a mystery, but we met a Nederlands Shaman, and he set me on the track to the answer.   The moral of the story is never be hasty to judge someone as crazy.  Usually, there`s no better way to be.

The next day was the party.  Well, there was a day of nothing in between.  But the next day there was a party.  Partying Nederlander style.  Beer, being 16 cents apiece, costs nothing, so the hosts of the party can afford to provide.  In the end they spent around a hundred dollars to get their fifty or so guests drunk, and still have money to buy snack foods.  Not bad when you consider how far that will get you in The States.  So, we spent the morning shopping, buying beer, I, photographing the proceedings... And as the night set on, dozens of Dutch descended and I was landed in a position that`s become commonplace to me, a stranger in a strange land, incapable of participating in conversation, as usual, but with the excuse this time of not understanding the language.  So I read hearts all night.  With one near mishap.  Started to flirt with the one cute girl at the party only to realize that she was 15.   Extracting myself from a potentially comprimising situation, I later realized she reminded me so much of Julie when I first met her, fifteen and having no clue how lost she was in the proceedings of the party.  But it was a good party.  Among the dutch, I am quite small.  I realized how tall the door frames wer all the sudden.  I realized how it must feel to be Japanese in the states.   I don`t remember too much about the party except wandering from conversation to conversation, small talk abounding, and eventually five thirty rolling around, my alarm set, but somehow I awoke at 8:30 on the dot, and when next I looked at my clock, it was thrown way out off the correct time.  So somehow I awoke when I should, grabbed my backpack, and made my way to the train駅 station.  To Rotterdam and then to Paris.  When I sat down on the train to Paris, this woman from Liberia was beside me, and though she was interesting, I explained that I had been up all night, and barely had I gotten that out then I was fast asleep.  She woke me twice.  Once when the ticket conductor came by and a second time when we arrived in Paris.  Refreshed, yet dazed, I stumbled out of the train with a singular objective: to see the Mona Lisa.  

So, to the metro.  Easier than it seems.   Paris is about the most English unfriendly city left on the planet.  None of the signage is in English, and the ticket machines for the metro are multifunctional to the extent of being dysfunctional.  There was one human selling tickets in the whole damn place,  and the rest of us were left to sort out the ticket machine in French.  Under the circumstances, that took me twenty minutes.  But in the end, I was strolling along the Seine looking for a place to smoke the last of my herb.  I headed in the general direction of the Louvre, crossed a bridge and found myself unexpectedly at the northern tip of the island thats in the middle of the river.  Smoked my last joint in for god only knows how long, and then, to the museum.  Another ten minutes to figure out how to get IN to the damned museum;  France is legendary for being inhospitable, Paris especially, but this was ridiculous.  Of course I was stoned, but as a die-hard traveller I have a great deductive ability for foreign systems.  Still finding the luggage check apart from the two coat checks was ludicrous.  Nothing was adequately marked.  Stupid fucking museum thats the best fucking museum in the fucking world... But moving on.  The time was 4:00 and I had a flight to catch at nine.  This gave me a comfortable hour to loiter in the Louvre.  But first things first.  I was on a mission to see the Mona Lisa.  I had been plotting this moment for two months since the time I realized I`d be flying out of Paris.  My only agenda in the city was to see this damn painting which everyone makes a big fuss about.  And yes, I looked at it in person, and I can`t see what all the fuss is about.  The Da Vinci Code gave me some insight lately, though, but sure, its a nice portrait.  Its an enigmatic smile.  Moving on.  Wandered through ancient Mesopetamia in a haze, then out onto the street where a sidewalk jazz band put Paris into perspective.  Then again on the train, a gypsy taught me some riffs on the violin while I listened and took notes.  Finally to the airport, caught the wrong shuttle bus (no signage again) but it looped around to where I needed to be, and a Japanese businessman helped me out--okay somethings wrong in the world when only the Japanese can give directions, and then into Charles de Guale, the worst lit airport in the world.  I like to think they were just having technical difficulties, but it was so dim as to be somnambulent.   And to make matters even more comfortable, there was an anouncement about an unattended bag in the bathroom about three times, and then a whistle in the parking lot, and then a loud explosion.  The same thing happened last time I was in Charles de Gaule.   I think the French are just bitter about something...

Finally, without further misadventure, I boarded my plane, flew across central asia and awoke over Mongolia, looking down over the wasteland I wondered what exactly it was that was that was pulling me there.  I thought of Ulzi in Darhan just north of our flight path, and how she could say with a straight face that she loved her country.  I thought of the 2.5 million people in an area three times the size of France.  I thought of the Mongol hordes storming out of those barren steppes, and for good reason.  I thought of Kublai setting up shop in Beijing and thinking it easy living.  Mongolia is a vast expanse of desert punctuated by tundra and salted plains, and historically the people are bitter.  What`s France`s excuse? 

Next thing I knew I was ushered through customs and passport control without a fuss, and I was onto the last bus back to Kyoto, the next to last subway back to Misasagi, and into my apartment where Miyuki awaited me adorned in silk with a refrigerator stocked with wine and beer.  Home at last.  A perfect trip, with very little adventure, every deadline met, every train, plane, bus caught, every  border crossed, every appointment met. 

the end... for now...

 


Hostel List:

Amsterdam:

The Flying Pig, downtown
Nieuwendijk 100 - 1012 MR
+31 (0) 20 420 68 22
www.flyingpig.nl

Lausanne:

Lausanne Guest House
http://www.lausanne-guesthouse.ch
Chemin Des Epinettes 4, Lausanne, Switzerland
+41 (0) 21 601 8000

Verona:

Ostello Villa Francescatti
Salita Fontana de Ferro, 15
045 590 360


Travel Tips

  • When exploring a strange city,  to avoid getting hopelessly lost, just make only left turns
  • Always make a visual check of your passport, tickets, credit cards and valuable items before you leave home, and each hotel
  • Allow an additional 30 minute margin for EACH mode of transportation (subway+bus+walking=1.5 hours), just in case.
  • Always keep a fresh, crisp US$100 bill in the bottom of your backpack, and try to forget its there
  • Always keep passport separate from spending money;
  • keep your creditcards, bank card, and money in three different places wherever possible; at least in different pockets.
  • Understand the concept of mugger money, and know when to use it.
  • Never keep money or passport in your day bag. 
  • When flying, always ask for a special meal.  I prefer hindu vegetarian.
  • Never fly US Air internationally.  They charge for booze and headphones
  • Carry a small pocket atlas instead of a guidebook.  Its much more useful in conversation with other travellers
  • Always carry a ration of dried food, such as peanuts, raisins or tried figs.
  • Don`t eat too many dried figs at one time
  • Always carry a small bottle of water.   But not a Nalgene bottle, unless you`re camping.  Something disposable is better.
  • Never travel with more than you are comfortable carrying for two hours walking
  • Get a list of hostels for each city you`ll be visiting before you go
  • Keep a small notepad handy at all times
  • Carry binoculars, compass, and a length of sturdy rope which can support your weight--just in case.
  • Always carry spare glasses if you need them, and a tiny sewing kit with needle, white and black thread.
  • Duct tape is your friend. 
  • Don`t visit more than one museum, church or temple a day.  Don`t visit more than one ruins a week.
  • Always learn how to say please and thank you from the very first person you talk to in a foreign country
  • Trust everyone, until they start talking about money, and where you should spend it.
  • Never trust anyone who approaches you as you get off a bus, train, or ferry.
  • Always carry a rainjacket/windbreak, and thin sweater.  Even in the desert.
  • Never buy the first one you see.
  • Don`t be afraid to pray to God, even if you don`t believe in him/her.   It really helps.  And sometimes its all you got.
  • Always wear your hat.

 

 

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