Home, Really

November 17th, 2008 2:09 pm by ray

The flight to Helsinki arrived close to midnight. The first thing that happened off the plane was that I routed myself somehow to the wrong arrival lounge. Airports are like Pitcher Plants, in that there are barbs preventing you from backtracking, so I had to summon a Person to ask how to get to my suitcase. She took me down the rabbit hole, to mix a biological metaphor, breezing through all the doors that the signs say you can’t go through without a card or tailgate or anything. It seemed very naughty. When America’s TSA reads this, they will classify Helsinki with Lagos and Port-au-Prince and that African airline which has only one plane that is permitted to enter the EU’s airspace.

And so to bed. Finnair has a shuttle to the downtown railroad station and taxis are there to take you to your hotel. The Eurohostel looks like a Hollywood Prison. Steel doors; but the rooms are unrealistically big. Rubber carpets. What?

The flight out of Helsinki was not until the afternoon, so in the morning I did one tourist thing exactly, which was to take the ferry to Suomenlinna and walk around the fortress. It was so interesting, to be cold. I had on the jacket that I had taken all around the world just because I would need it in Finland and Iceland.

Suomenlinna is one of the unused forts of the world. So impregnable, that nobody ever bothered to capture it, they just went around. Singapore comes to mind. Right now it is a World Heritage Site and a Prison. The Prison came as a bit of a surprise. There were signs pointing to the prison and I expected an Antique Prison with the usual wax museum, but after following the signs I came upon a knee-high fence with dormitories behind it, and a small sign about the size of a No Solicitors or Keep Off The Grass sign, that advised, authorized personnel only, and that was when I realized that the upkeep of the Heritage Site was being accomplished by prisoners who had slightly offended the government of Finland. The jail architecture was not nearly as demoralizing as the Eurohostel.

After I came back on the ferry I had a plate of whitefish at Market Square and bought a Santa postcard from a man who looked like Santa. Neither one of us mentioned the Santa aspect. It is a luxury which alike persons have, not to mention it.

I spent two nights in Iceland. Rented a car and drove out to Thingvellir, which is an absolutely fascinating place when you bear in mind what it is: it’s the place where Europe and America are splitting apart. This is the place that’s spreading at the rate that fingernails grow. You walk down into the cleft and shiver because you aren’t in Dubai any longer, although the bus stops there seem kind of chilly too. Only a minority of the landmarks of the world are such dramatic crevasses. Usually when a thing attracts tourists, it’s because it is a giant erection, like the Eiffel Tower.

The roads in Iceland have a tendency to peter out. Hertz would prefer you didn’t go off the pavement, but that’s not really possible. Lava makes a good surface anyway. I started to really understand CKY2K (The predecessor to Jackass, in which that troupe busts up a rental car in Iceland.)

I visited the Geysir, after which geysers are named. I stood in a cold wind and drizzle for an hour waiting for the sun to come out for one second to take a picture of Gullfoss.

I had perhaps the best meal of the trip, too, at the O Restaurant. The Icelandic economy has sort of fallen apart in the month between my visit and the time that I’m writing this, so I really think you should go there before the prices go up:

Shellfish and Cod cheeks
in a dill scented broth with pickled cucumbers, trout roes and a foamy shellfish sauce
1900 kr

with glazed baby back ribs of pork and pumpkin pureé
1600 kr

Icelandic lobster
pan fried with fennel salad, lobster butter, parsley coulis and crouton
4900 kr

Fresh doughnut
covered in cardamom sugar, green apples, caramel cream and milk ice cream
1400 kr

I tipped 15%, not knowing what to do otherwise. If you speak American you should tip American.

The next day I drove on some more bad roads and stood in line about a half hour to return the car. How come Hertz at Keflavik has such a stupid system? I haven’t ever waited that long to return a car before.

By the time I got to Boston I had a cold. It is a luxury I always permit myself on re-entering American jurisprudence. I stayed with Howie and Leanne. I have read that you don’t stay at people’s houses when you are grown up. Is that true? I saw and talked to as many people as I possibly could in one day in Boston, people I had gone to school with and from Opcode. Watched Howie play softball at night.

Howie’s team unfortunately lost 10-8 last night but it was a good game. A couple of people from Intermetrics were there, with whom I had worked in 1976, as well as my boss of that time, Dan, and Dan’s new girlfriend Susanna. These people are of course old. Dan and Susanna met in 8th grade in Ann Arbor and have got together after all these years. She’s an outgoing person. I could hardly keep up with the conversation.

Dan of course is still brilliant. He was recently interviewed for a documentary about the Apollo moon project. I think it was the BBC — the Americans are not interested in looking back to the dim and distant space age, that century flower of scientific civilization. The Chinese and the Indians and the Brazilians and the UAE and North Korea will duly plant their flags upon the moon to say they’ve been, but while you can overwhelm the laws of gravity you can’t change the laws of economics that dictate it makes a lot more sense to live and manufacture and travel at the locations and velocities you have evolved to. America will stop trading with China before we start trading with Mars. It costs less. Not only did hypersonic planes never happen, supersonic ones were abandoned in 2003 and in the last six months even subsonic aircraft are going slower because it costs too much to fly fast. As Ron Bohl pointed out, the first thing that a bird does when it finds itself in a safe place, is lose the ability to fly. Moore’s law is running with a negative constant.

There were not any tourist attractions in Boston, unless you count a flock of genuinely wild turkeys that lives in Newton between Howie’s house and Antoine’s, the pilgrimage site for cannoli. That bakery is wonderful and it was enlightenment to watch morbidly obese families picking out their favorite sweets from the case. You can’t deny anyone anything at Antoine’s. I don’t think that child murder has ever been more deliciously attractive.

The next day I flew to California via Philadelphia, because we still can, on US Air, which does not even supply free water. You have to buy it for $2 a bottle inside the security cordon. In the Philadelphia airport, I had a brief encounter with man at a kiosk who was selling Rosetta Stone language learning software — you know, the one that enables farm boys to get laid by Italian supermodels who have come to Iowa to converse with them.

“Does this run on a Mac?”

[indistinct conversation — is that the phrase they use in captioning?]

“A Macintosh. The [here I shifted gears back to my well practiced China/Korea/Dubai/Greece/Finland/Iceland make-yourself-understood cadence] com – pu – ter.”

[blank stare] “I don’ know.”

My first guess was he didn’t know about Apple, but the truth is, he didn’t speak English. I guess he’s the “before”.

It was cloudy most of the way to San Francisco where Dave met me and drove us straight to Ryan’s rehearsal dinner and now that I’ve explained that, I can get to sorting the ten thousand pictures which will explain it all over again.


November 17th, 2008 11:47 am by ray

I keep thinking I ought to write more for travel services, because in the course of things you learn so much about places that others need to know, but there isn’t ever time to post, unless you’re content to be hurried and ungrammatical. But in Bucharest, I wrote my first Hotel Review for TripAdvisor.

“Coco’s Hotel is good to know. I will come here again. Just remember that you are renting a 35 Euro room across the street from the main train station in a relatively expensive city and don’t expect frills. My room was clean although somebody had smoked tobacco in it long before. The fixtures, a bit flimsy. The shared bathroom shower leaked on the floor and the cold water went away at one point leaving only hot. The elevator is small, but how many 35 Euro hotels even have elevators? My single room is maybe 10 square meters. The shared toilets work and are clean; the sink in the room works; the air conditioning works (it is hot in Bucharest right now); the bed is comfortable; the carpet is clean; and best of all the people are as friendly and helpful as any place I’ve been. They connected my old Powerbook G4 to the Internet even though their WiFi system is only 2 months old and this was the first Macintosh they had seen. Andrei carried my suitcase to the room. Does that happen at Formule1?

By the way Garmin GPS places this address very wrongly on their map. Coco’s Hotel is at

N 44.44503 E 26.07442

It was a big pain to find WiFi and join TripAdvisor and it took them several days to post it. This is good; it hints to me that some person might have reviewed it. The pages of TripAdvisor are free of Viagra ads, unlike lots of blogs. (We don’t have any space for comments on this page, for precisely this reason. You know where to write to us.) I do most of my trip planning with TripAdvisor open in at least one tab.

There is a word in linguistics — “cheshirization” — that describes a process where a phoneme influences an adjacent phoneme to change, but then itself goes away. All that’s left is the change it influenced.

The China Trip has developed in an organic way. So many constraints have loomed, left their mark, and vanished. That’s sort of how ads for Scientology and Rolfing start, isn’t it? My itineraries need Rolfing, it’s true. In the case of the flight home, the initial question was, what’s the cheapest way to get from Romania to San Francisco? The major players had nothing cheap to offer. RyanAir did not have useful connections. A bit of hand cranking produced a link involving a brief overnight stay at an airport hotel in Dublin.

Dublin, of course, has many connections to Boston. I hadn’t been to Boston in years. Why not go through Boston? But if the idea is to go to Boston, IcelandAir has a very cheap connection from Copenhagen and SAS has a really cheap flight from Bucharest to Copenhagen. And then, Jet Blue to California.

By the time I got around to doing this, the flight to Copenhagen was full, so I ended up reserving on Finnair to Helsinki, then IcelandAir to Reykjavik, and on to Boston, then Jet Blue canceled its flight and I was forced to take USAir from Boston to San Francisco. But that last change didn’t happen until I was in China, which is such an easy place to deal with JetBlue from. idiots. US Air is awful, too. New Rule: Southwest. If you have any choice at all domestically, look at Southwest Airlines first.

It made for an instructive week’s travel, beginning quite early Saturday morning when Andrei’s father drove me to the train station in Iasi. I could easily have walked but the Hritcu family is just too nice for that.

My compartment on the morning train to Bucharest was sorted by age. The student in his Ronin Dojo t-shirt was watching a movie on his Packard Bell; the guy in his mid 20’s was asleep with his MP3 player, I wrote post cards, and an old man was already hitting his Pilsner. The handle on his suitcase was made of a metal pipe. He had much Romanian history to forget.

Saturday night in Bucharest everybody was busy so I wrote postcards and for dinner picked a restaurant out of the guidebook and walked to it: “Casa Doina”.

It seemed pretty classy. When I walked up to the gate (which just said “CD”) there was a guy there who pressed on me a flute of champagne and told me to go see the Maitresse d’Hotel. Only thing is, when I got to the end of the walk, champagne in hand, there wasn’t a Maitresse d’, there was a Bride. I guess the gatekeeper thought I looked just the image of the Romanian Wedding Crasher.

If I had been the guys in the movie, I could have gone in. But I would have to have been somebody else. The restaurant was entirely booked for that event and although the menu looked nice, they don’t serve food to the bar, so I left and went instead to the closest other Lonely Planet restaurant, “Don Taco”, where I ordered apa plata and fresh de portocale (running off the end of my Romanian in the process) and sopa de tortillas and chimichangas in a more familiar Romance language.

“Don Taco” is a worthwhile experience. The Ciorba de Tortillas was a distinctly Romanian take on the dish. I guess they couldn’t get tortilla strips so they used flat thin French fries instead. And it definitely had the pickle juice. The peppers were paprikas of course. With a bit of sour cream the virtual mariachis would have been playing gypsy music.

The chimichangas were three cornered pastries of hamburger with a hint of caraway seeds that never saw Mexico. They came with some of the same basic pepper preparation that flavored the soup. Maybe there aren’t a lot of salsas at the Bucharest CostCo. And refried beans. Pues, it’s not Tacos El Grullense. It tasted good and there was a Mexican sound track which is more than you can say for half the (foreign) ethnic restaurants in the world.

I took the subway back to the train station. The Bucharest subway does not match the Lonely Planet guide map, or their own. If you get on at Piata Victoriei and you want to go toward Gara de Nord, and you follow the large sign that says GARA DE NORD to the indicated platform, the train you are supposed to get on is labeled REPUBLIKA, which is exactly at the other end of the city. The map on the platform does not make it at all clear that line 1 is a giant Q. The map inside the car is much more clear, but by then you are on your way.

On Sunday I visited with Bogdan, a friend from California who is now studying law. He told me that Casa Doina is lousy anyway, fake and expensive.

We walked around a park and met with Ben and Paulina, the parents of our coworker Dan from Opcode. Afterwards we drove toward the airport and met with Andrei at the Starbucks next to the IKEA near the domestic airport. Don’t you love it when I drop these exotic sounding names?

Some guy was conducting a flamboyant demo of race car maintenance in the plaza between Starbucks and IKEA. You, too, can pose with a pneumatic wrench and a wide tire. A demo was also happening at the Starbucks in Xi’An at the Bell Tower. Is this their new scheme, to position themselves near circus sideshows?

Andrei was in Bucharest to shop for Radu and Nicoleta’s baby furniture. His organic trip planning had taken him to Curtea de Arges to deliver some relative home. And as long as he was there, why not swing by IKEA on the way home? No worse than going from Los Angeles to Reno via San Francisco.

Although, the story would be better if it were a tad more jet-setty, as when we had Christmas Eve dinner in Bangkok with our friends from Switzerland, or met the girl at the Wild Food Festival in New Zealand who knew the driver we’d gone to Lufupa with in Zambia. (But that’s not surprising so much; the Southern Hemisphere is not as big as the Northern Hemisphere.)

Bogdan met a friend of his in Starbucks, quite by accident. It was a person he hadn’t seen since he was ten years old. They recognized each other slowly. If it had been anybody else I would have said by their puzzled glances that they were sizing each other up for sex. Bogdan finally said, “Is your name Antonio?”

You may be thinking, there are a lot of changes that happen between the ages of 10 and 23. How many people in your fifth grade would you recognize?

There is a Brad Pitt effect in anonymity. People who are good looking, in a very deep sense, look average. This has been demonstrated in various studies. Bogdan is pretty handsome, and as a result, you wouldn’t recognize him after a dozen years of absence. But Antonio was kind of funny looking. That’s why Bogdan recognized him.

Corollary one: is this the deep reason that the phrenologists convinced themselves criminals were deformed? Good-looking criminals would be hard to identify and hard to convict, so the guys with records are all the ones with noticeable physiological traits. Ugly, even.

Corollary two: What do you say to a guy you knew in fifth grade, when you’re studying International Law and have in this summer interned with attorneys when they were arguing cases before the Supreme Court, and your fifth grade bud is behind the counter at Starbucks?

I read about a fifth grader in the Stockton Record. His name was James Buchanan, just like the President. I was in fifth grade with him in, I guess that was 1961. I remember grades by crisis. Berlin was Mr. Lazzareschi and Mrs. Stanley. Anyway, James Buchanan was in the Stockton Record in the early 1970’s as a down-on-his-luck white guy from North Stockton who was living in temporary downtown hotels. It’s hard to imagine, but homelessness was newsworthy at the time.

I am glad that Bogdan and Andrei get along. That crowd used to have petty disputes in high school.

The Business of Romania is Business

October 23rd, 2008 10:13 am by ray

Butza bought a restaurant. Doina has a little consultancy doing chemistry, and Cristi, as mentioned, has a bar, a hardware store, and builds houses for German people who are hoping to cash in before Romania’s bubble bursts. It would be cool if all the money in the world ended up in Romania because that is the last place whose failure mode is not guaranteed.

When I come to Iasi I usually stay in Andrei’s room and Andrei goes and sleeps with somebody he likes better. This time I felt uncommonly intrusive, because next door to Andrei’s room is his brother Radu’s room, where Radu and his wife Nicoleta are staying, awaiting the imminent arrival of a child.

In I Love Lucy space, a household expecting a baby is in something of a tizzy, but nobody here is acting out of the ordinary at all. Nicoleta is not even waddling. The baby is entirely ready to be born. Could be any day. The baby is positioned on the starting blocks, you know, since the introduction of the Convection feature you don’t even have to turn them any more half way through. Nicoleta could find plenty to be worried about, if it were her nature — her own birth is supposed to have been like one of those collapsed tunnel rescues that occupy the news for days and lead to calls for new mining safety laws. But she hasn’t really curtailed her activities. Radu goes to work at Iuliusmall every day, doing some Father Knows Best job that is never quite specified.

Andrei and his pals are on vacation until the end of September. The morning after I arrived, Andrei and I met Dan and Laura at Andrei’s current favorite cafe and Dan and Laura departed for the painted monasteries of Bucovina. They had actually invited me. I am more of the American traditional notion that honeymoons are for the people most closely involved, and not their friends. Although — the first time I ever hitchhiked in my life was from Long Beach to Isla Vista and one of the rides I got was from a couple who were just setting out from their wedding. Tuxedo and veil and all. It’s so long ago and weird, it seems like a false memory, but why would I start telling myself a story like that? Anyway, Santa Monica in 1969, it wasn’t a big deal to violate traditions.

After visiting a hall at the University with a few Vigeland-esque murals (if Emanuel Vigeland had been making posters for head shops) Dan and Laura drove away to the north, while Andrei and whoever was available to socialize went to get some chemicals for his mother’s laboratory and delivered them to her. Her lab reminded me of Gates Laboratory at Cal Tech, which is kind of too bad since I know Gates laboratory from 1968, and there should be a lot more gleaming advances in evidence, especially in the field of stainless steel and the field of not being lit like an Outer Limits set. (The TV show, of course)

On the way to the lab, there was an extended episode of the Pugnaciousness of the Staircase, involving some driver who had been rude to another member of the chemical delivering party before we encountered him. Not speaking Romanian, and not having been there, I could only tell by the tone of voice what depredations they were planning in an alternate history, of what they should have said and done and how many of their friends should have pummeled him and why he had no reason to be so insulting.

In a foreign country you have lots of time to be reminded of things in your own, and I thought then of my cousin Dan and me at sleepovers when I was about 7, planning what we would do to burglars if they broke in. I think it was nice that we got to fabricate plans on our own rather than receiving them whole from movies such as Home Alone. But I haven’t seen Home Alone. Maybe their plans are better. In any case, our plots were certainly informed by Chuck Jones. (You have to watch out for ignorance nostalgia. Opposition to sex education is the canonical form of it. Nobody ever suggests that kids are better off learning to drive without adult participation.)

If I had been taking notes fastidiously, I could probably divine when it was that Stef and Buta actually worked.

In the evening, The Boys, as Andrei uniformly refers to them, went to play basketball at a park. I played Sports Photographer, something I’ve never been good at though the cameras keep getting better and better. Butza assures me my camera can take multiple shots at once, and I should learn how.

Some time about 200 photos into it, a woman dropped by and asked The Boys in her most tut tut voice, if they were aware of their rights with respect to their pictures being published in magazines. The Boys told her that I was a friend of theirs.

It’s hard to remember, looking at Orthodox churches, that it wasn’t settled until the middle of the 9th century that representing the image was in any way OK with God. Theodora’s victory is still not assured: this tiff is another indication that even in Christendom the iconoclasts will not stop until photography is the exclusive province of the state (there are surveillance cameras all over the park, and nobody lectures them about republication rights.)

It has happened before, that I have been told not to be taking pictures of children — as when I was taking photos of my nephew Johnny at the Palo Alto pool when he was ten or twelve and set off some kind of alarm. This was before 9/11 so it wasn’t that Johnny was suspected as an object of terrorist bombing.

The warning lady’s gut feeling seems to have been, that the act of taking pictures ought not to be occurring; and since it was rather difficult for her to persuade herself that a white haired stranger constituted a threat to 6 athletic men in their mid-twenties with whom sex would in any case be legal, she seized upon the most sinister scenario she could muster and went off to give the lecture she had pre-ordained herself to deliver.

The next day was given over to medicine. Stef had some kind of abscess which he had been ignoring since their vacation on Corfu, and Andrei, being in dental school, seizes on every chance to practice. I am kicking myself for not letting them clean my teeth. I am sure that it would cost less than the copay here, especially since my insurance only pays for two cleanings a year and I get three. People in civilized countries will have no idea what I am talking about.

The Boys had gone to Corfu earlier this summer. Stef narrated the Corfu pictures that were on Buta’s computer and mentioned that two girls in one photo were chatting them up in resort slut dudgeon until they asked where Stef and Butza were from. Romania. Turned their backs, never spoke to them again.

He said this happened more than once.

I got really pissed off at the injustice of this. Stef and Butza started saying they were Finnish. This is a difference between Americans and Eastern Europeans.

The next day Andrei’s dad took me to the tourist places of Iasi. It’s a little crazy to be in such a beautiful town and do nothing but go to coffee houses. No, it’s not. After that, we went to Stef’s girlfriend’s house and Andrei and I watched the others play poker.

On the way to the poker game, Andrei introduced me to the girl who procured girlfriends for him and for Buta. She is a chemist. They were hanging out in the square near Stef’s girlfriend’s apartment. Andrei wanted me to take photos of them and then immediately decided that would make them uncomfortable, and thereby diminish his backup plans in case his current girlfriend doesn’t work out, so I didn’t. I try to please Andrei, even at the cost of my icons.

Andrei says he would become addicted to it if he played poker. My excuse is that I have no idea what people are about so I try not to play games other than Tetris.

When Nicoleta comes home from the hospital, she will return to a new apartment with Radu. Some amount of vacation time was spent moving furniture into the new apartment. If moving furniture were happening in my house to me, it would be an activity to be avoided at all costs. But when you are ten time zones away and with friends, you notice that it’s actually less onerous than, say, seeing the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Butza’s restaurant is pretty great.

One of the evenings here, we briefly watched on CNN as a woman with no discernible qualifications accepted the Republican nomination for Vice President. Eastern Europe is the ideal place to witness such surreal manipulations of the art of government.

And then it was time to go home.

The Real Romania

September 24th, 2008 11:25 am by ray

When we last left our intrepid me, I was barreling across the Beautiful Gray Green Greasy Danube River from Vidin, Bulgaria, to Calafat, Romania, where our friends Dan and Laura were waiting to pick me up. That was nearly a month ago, and from then until the end of the trip I did not have time to write.

Really. Not one minute for one single entry, especially since entries take more than a minute.

It’s more straightforward to review churches and castles than to review your friend’s wedding. That it happens in a culture that I’m not conversant in, which is to say, a culture, stays even more my typing hand. Also, I set myself an additional task of writing post cards to as many of our friends as we can and that takes some time as well.

This might be the Real Romania that the guidebooks are chiding us for not seeing and the tour leaders are trying to simulate with their happy native shows under the grape arbors of Xinjiang. But it might not be Romania at all. It is Dan and Laura and their families, and Andrei’s friends, and other individual people and I can’t say whether they represent Romania any more than they represent Dubai. Nobody among them acts like the opening scene of Borat, that’s for sure.

Sometime recently Dan and his brother Cristi both seem to have decided that working 60 hours a week to stay in the same place was not cutting it, and what they really need to be doing is working 120 hours a week to get ahead. That is what they are doing now, and the wedding seemed only to be a bump in the family road. Dan was working out a house he was designing as he left on their honeymoon, and Cristi was making deals practically the whole time.

I hope it works. It is possible to work arbitrarily hard and have it all come to nothing due to currency speculators and war profiteers 7 time zones away.

The time in Craiova was mostly spent at parties or preparing for them. I arrived Thursday; Friday was spent preparing for the wedding and the party afterwards. Laura was buying the food for the restaurant to serve. They were not in a position to be throwing money around like some other wedding people. We went to a Farmer’s Market/Costco amalgam outside of town to buy fruit. When we pulled up to the back of the Restaurant Doljana at lunch time, one of the restaurant workers was out the back door killing a chicken. This is a good sign at a restaurant.

I only lately realized the cultural or more properly temporal centrism of the history I learned in America. Don’t you remember learning that there was a big demand for spices to preserve meat or disguise the taste of bad meat in the Middle Ages, because of the lack of refrigeration? I suppose it must be true, but the real way people live who don’t have refrigeration is that they don’t kill more meat than they can eat. Chickens on an average night, fatted calves for the big celebrations.

In the afternoon we went to Cristi’s new hardware store and construction company and bar in Blatovoiesti. I told you he was busy. None of them drink so I didn’t either. I don’t know what the instance of teetotaling bar owners is. Sheik Abdelaziz al-Brahim (of the Cairo Hyatt) would not approve of his inverse hypocrisy. (Hypocrisy is signed, a fact which is seldom mentioned in culture-centric rhetorical discussions.)

That night about ten he remembered he had to buy dress shoes so off to the mall.

The day of the wedding was grueling like all weddings. There is a great tendency to stand up in Orthodox services. I’m not sure what the survival value is of that. Afterwards the photographer wanted a detour to the park for photos. There were certain marigold beds that were much in demand and Dan and Laura had to wait in line behind other brides and grooms in order to pose where they were instructed. Dan was not happy with all this. Cristi was on his cell phone most of the time practicing the Art of the Deal.

And so to eating.

At about 9:30 PM the wedding reception was brought to a standstill when the game between Craiova and Dinamo came on the big screen TV on the terrace. Every man in the room walked outside to watch, and didn’t come back until it was over. Craiova unfortunately lost 1-0. Craiova does not have the money to bid against Dinamo for the best players, is the explanation I was given.

On Sunday we all went out to the Vintage Rose in Blatovoiesti (That’s Cristi’s bar) to eat more of the leftover food and I watched them again berate the very old drunk lady who comes around demanding things.

And on Monday, Dan and Laura drove to Iasi, with me in the back seat. It took about 16 hours. The road, via Curtea de Arges, winds up past a large dam and over a very high pass with a glacial lake at the summit. That is the fast part. Curtea de Arges has a cute little monastery in it where you can pay to take pictures inside. It is also the first instance I have seen, of knock-off World Heritage Sites. Apparently the monastery did not make the cut for the UNESCO imprimatur, rather like French Cooking in that respect (there is a considerable movement to get French Cooking declared a cultural heritage which must be preserved by all the world. No more of these Basque upstarts. Does anyone else see the problem with cultural heritages, when contrasted with Ruins? When you declare that you are going to preserve a cultural artifact, like basket weaving or marriage, you are condemning actual living human beings to spend their lives that way. The janitors and structural engineers who service World Heritage Sites at least get paid. It would be one thing to say that all the drama students who didn’t get the roles they wanted in Summer Stock would take jobs in Colonial Williamsburg to say “thou” for three months. But ox-herding in Costa Rica requires a bit more commitment. (That’s one of the UNESCO cultural artifacts.) What if the ox guys decide they want to watch Reality TV and drink Red Bull? Does the World Bank keep them in line behind the oxen?

Where were we? Curtea de Arges. They have designed themselves a logo which at a glance looks like the square peg in a round hole that is UNESCO. There are snow globes of the Crucifixion for sale there but since Scott doesn’t collect Madonnas any longer I had nobody to give one to. They’ll still be there.

If you drove across America in the early 1960’s, you know what it is like to spend the whole day in a construction project single file behind trucks while a freeway gets built. If you didn’t, go to Romania or China. That’s what the road from Urumqi to Turpan, and the road from anywhere to Brasov is like. The Americans I think ultimately figured out the Art of the Detour and it is a Cultural Heritage which I wish we would pass on to the world because other people don’t understand, you build your freeway off somewhere, like Highway 5, and when it’s done, you turn it on like a tap. Dam builders and canal builders have known this for centuries.

When we descended from Balea Lac, we hit a traffic jam that extended most of the way to Iasi.  What a way for Dan to start his honeymoon. But he is driven, so he drives. Also the restaurant at Balea Lac is where (as I mentioned) he plugged in his computer to design the house he was working on at the time.

Our friend Andrei had found Dan and Laura a hotel so when we pulled in at close to midnight, he didn’t have search for one.

In the morning, Dan and Laura drove on to have a proper honeymoon and not one with hitchhikers, and I spent the rest of the week hanging out with Andrei and the gang who would be our best friends if we didn’t have our own gang and if they wouldn’t be half our age until Sarah Palin’s second term. (That image is two days anachronistic, a sign that I am writing this much later. I watched Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech, to the extent one watches shows like that, from Andrei’s living room on CNN.)

Beauty is not truth

September 5th, 2008 2:43 am by ray

And whoever said otherwise, if that’s all he knows on earth or thinks he needs to know, then he needs to take a refresher course in something. I don’t know what.

The continual lesson I take from all the museum and cathedral hopping, is that the most elegant structures in the world are produced by persons laboring under false impressions.

Don’t take my word for it, I’m just a liberal atheist without nearly the conviction in the nonexistence of Your God to scratch out the eyes of an icon, let alone kill millions of children. Ask the beauty-makers about each other. The builders of the splendid mosques destroyed the splendid monasteries of the Orthodox and the favor was returned and furthermore they are still doing it.

It simply cannot be true that both the world model which produced the Taoist ornamentation north of Xining and the world model which produced the flying-running-kneeling angels who surround the frescoes in Ohrid are valid. One at least has to be false, or both of them if the Buddhist model is true. (There is a lay belief in America from the 1960’s that Buddhism is all mellow and accepting and everything, well that’s just because they aren’t in power, like pre-1948 Jews. Buddhists aren’t cosmic at all. If you lived in a Buddhist theocracy and your unattachment was 2 jiggers different from the prescribed unattachment of Bodhisattva Uno, they would cut off your feet.)

But what do realists produce, spreadsheets?

When you are alone and don’t speak the language, you have a lot of time for open loop thinking.

Ohrid is easy for an English speaker, though. All the signs are in English. Good English. Better English than you speak, as I will describe. Not because many English speaking tourists go there: mostly it’s folks from the Balkan countries who drive their cars. A fair number of Germans. But in the Balkans, as in India, English is a relatively non-sectarian language, and if you write in English, people won’t ask why you have Albanian but not Serbian, or Greek but not Croatian on your menu, and some of those people have guns.

In two days in Ohrid I made a fair dent in the UNESCO-listed churches and other ones I happened by. I bought a guidebook. There are handouts in many of the churches, telling you what you ought to be seeing when you stow your camera and walk inside.

First of all it’s dark in there, you have to wait quite a while before the murals show up, and when your eyes are adapted enough to tell St. Clement from St. Naum, you squint at the handout, or the guidebook, and read:

“The 10th century basilica had difoil toves and a perverse napster with inscriptions in Old Hemolytic. It was reconstructed by Glandelinian in 14c and assumed its current form after being leveled 8 times. Behind the iconosepsis are fine frescoes of Christ Vasodilator and the Reminding of John Penstemon. The coppice is transceived by St. Mordant’s Cross, and three hypospadiades intimidate the forex, upon which traces of paint may still be seen. No evidence of an ossuary remains upon the grounds, but we like using the word ‘ossuary’.”

You don’t speak English.

The Turks defaced a lot of the murals, to varying degrees. I got into an argument with a German lady in Turpan. I won’t say argument; we just lobbed a few unsupported assertions at each other. Anyway, she was convinced that Islam only forbids drinking during the day time. I don’t have that impression, and since neither one of us is an Islamic scholar I can only assume that her Muslim friends drink in the evening, and my Muslim friends don’t drink. And from that we extrapolate to a billion and a half people: this is the prerogative of inductive logic.

I think of the moment that some individual person was charged with bringing a Buddha Cave or a repurposed Orthodox church into line with the proscription against worshipping graven images. What did that person decide to do, and why did he decide to do it? In Afghanistan, he used artillery. In Dunhuang, he obliterated faces. In Ohrid, he scratched out the eyes of some saints. Perhaps he was impressed by the beauty of the fresco. Or he thought his boss might be. Or he was lazy. Or he had Christian friends who worshipped there.

That anything should survive is a miracle, which is being addressed.

The food in Ohrid was good overall, even at the hotel on the first night. Especially there. Trout soup. Then I read that the Lake Ohrid trout was endangered and you shouldn’t eat it, just like you shouldn’t eat shark’s fin. It’s a lot easier to not eat something that costs $200 a bowl than something that costs $1.

I was a little disappointed by Antica, which got good reviews but seemed a little S. E. Rykoff now.

Best was Momir, right on the lake front: Macedonian Salad (tomatoes primarily; grilled peppers, garlic); 100 g of ham on a plate; squid stuffed with ham and cheese, potatoes carrots and shredded lettuce on the side. I never had room for dessert. It’s not much fun without Dave.

Hotel Lebed is a good place. You should stay there. My 40 Euro room was big and had a balcony and looked directly out onto the lake. There is a boardwalk along the lake and people promenade all day and night and especially in the evening, which since I was thinking about iconoclasm caused this other spasm of self-referent rumination:

Walking along the shore at sunset. Everyone all orange and fabulous, the kids fishing and the old women in their scarves and the old men playing cards and chess every wrinkle redolent of a lifetime of sun, tobacco, and Slavic fractiousness; but although half the population of the town in August is tourists and they all have cameras, nobody was taking pictures. I felt really conspicuous and a bit uncomfortable using mine.

I surmise that this is because cameras in the modern construct are not for making pictures, they are for performing certain rituals at bars and in front of the Eiffel Tower; just as computers, or what are now called computers, are not at all optimized for computation, their original function, but instead are used for various ritual trivial subsets of their capability, i.e. games and email and blogs.

The number of people using computers for computation has not increased so much since the 1960’s, and the number of people using cameras to make pictures has not increased so much since the 1860’s.

That’s not really true, but it’s a talking point with myself. If touring doesn’t make you think there’s really no reason to go.

Travel in the Balkans is harder than it should be.

September 5th, 2008 12:55 am by ray

Consider these three all-day travel segments:

Train from Athens to Plati, 0650-1155
Train from Platí to Florina, 1550-1810
Taxi from Florina-Bitola, 1813-1920
taxi from Bitola-Ohrid, 1925-2020

Bus from Ohrid-Skopje, 0730-1030
Bus from Skopje-Sofia, 1500-2130 including one hour time change

Train from Skopje-Vidin 0705-1230 about
Taxi to ferry and waiting for ferry at Vidin about two hours
FINALLY meeting up with Dan and Laura in Calafat at what, 3 PM?
And then the drive to Craiova.

The distances are small. From Ohrid to Sofia is maybe 400 km and none of it is terrible and some of it is freeway.

If it were possible to rent a car that could cross borders — but it isn’t — it would be 5 hours, not 15. If there were any buses leaving Skopje for Sofia between 0830 and 1500 — but there aren’t.

Or any trains from Platí to Florina between 1139 and 1537, which is particularly frustrating since the Athens train is scheduled to arrive at Plati at 1134 but it was late, and I suspect it is often late. There is a 0530 bus from Ohrid to Skopje but that would arrive just as the Sofia bus is pulling away, even if it were on time, an abstract concept since the schedules don’t mention arrival times.

I could imagine a world in which the Greek trains scheduled a connection in Thessaloniki and allowed a certain amount of time to accomplish it. They used to run a train all the way to Bitola until the Macedonia domain name tiff.

Another thing you need to know about Greek trains which I haven’t seen stated in so many words: you can only buy a ticket for days other than today at the downtown office of the rail system on Sina 6 (37.98002,23.73466), about 100 meters from the Panepistimio metro station. If there is an Internet way, I haven’t seen it. At the Larissa station you can only buy tickets for travel the same day.

I had to buy a first class ticket since they were sold out of second class, so it wasn’t cheap the way Greek trains have a reputation for being; it was 58 Euros to Florina and then 40 to Bitola and then 30 to Ohrid, driving through a forest fire on the way. We really did. I have a snapshot of a fire truck parked on the road directing a stream of water at fire. There are a lot of things to worry about in the Ex-Yugoslavian Republics, and as long as the flames are not so large as to ignite your gas tank, a mere forest fire isn’t one of them. I think that liability insurance companies in California would suggest that the road be closed in that situation.

Maybe it’s just that Ohrid is hard to get to. I just got a letter from a fellow I met in Belgrade in 2005, describing how he had walked across the border from Albania.

But when Ohrid airport can handle Airbus 380’s, maybe it won’t be such a nice little town. Right now, it’s lovely. It’s packed with tourists, but not more than it can hold since virtually every building with walls has a sign out front offering rooms. August is a high period for Ohrid though not the highest; they have festivals for that. Its attraction is a pretty lake, Lake Ohrid, which the brochures group with Lake Baikal and Lake Tanganyika as being ancient Rift Valley lakes. Local people and tourists fish and swim in the lake. In addition, there is a large collection of medieval churches and monasteries — 365, say the tourist brochures but they count at least one ruin that would be called a vacant lot in most towns. There are restaurants and bars and souvenir shops and an entire street of bounce houses and bungee trampolines.

I’m sorry Dave’s camera broke because I saw a great movie at the bungee trampoline. The — what is it, a ride? a toy? It isn’t powered. Imagine 4 big poles in the ground, about 5 meters high. Between each pair of poles is a child’s seat with belts and straps, fastened by two bungee cords to the poles, and on the ground a trampoline. Maybe they have these in America. Liability insurance companies might have words about that, too. Trampolines disappeared from America for a while. There was a big fad in the 1960’s. Trampoline centers were popping up like miniature golf courses. Then they all disappeared at once. I heard it was the insurance companies that did it.

After the Assumption of Risk doctrine became more widespread they started creeping back into the culture.

I don’t like that you can’t do anything in Nanny States, but I don’t like the Assumption of Risk decisions either. Did you ever read the case by which it arrived in California? If you have ever been in a gym, you have signed a release. You probably think that you are agreeing not to hold them responsible if you give yourself a hernia on some machine. Without this, you can certainly imagine that Nautilus and Gold’s would not be able to exist. But the case in which the clause was upheld (it had previously been held a contract against public policy, to agree to hold someone harmless if they injured you), a television set that had been negligently installed by the gym fell on a customer and injured him. This negligence is, since the 1990’s, okey-dokey.

Anyway, back outside the purview of Anglo Saxon Common Law, a lot of boys who are at the maximum stage in life of enjoying acceleration, are launching themselves off trampolines at the point of greatest stretching of the bungee cords, and being propelled way the heck up in the air and then slammed back into the trampoline by the cords.

There is an age limit imposed not by the laws of man but the laws of God. If you’re too small, the bungee cords pretty much won’t let you touch the trampoline, and the funny thing I saw was a baby strapped into the seat, whose resting position was about 4 feet off the ground, and his parents, in order to get their money’s worth, were dribbling him like a basketball to the hilarity of all. Actually it was a lot like the scene in The Absent Minded Professor, now that I think about being 9 years old again.

But I am not 9 years old, and I came to this Macedonian version of Clear Lake where a UNESCO World Heritage Site substitutes for Wave Runners to stare at more pretty things I don’t understand.

Urban Renewal

August 26th, 2008 10:36 am by ray

Athens is pretty much the limiting case in downtown urban decay.  The whole center of town is basically in ruins — the buildings aren’t even in good enough shape to be used as squats, although some of them are perpetually under reconstruction, perhaps because of a residual application of slumlord laws.  The hill Areopagos is all weeds!  used to be nice houses there, churches, now it’s just a bunch of economic refugees with cameras wandering around looking at fallen down rocks.

After a day of concerted hiking around, I can now strike the Parthenon off my to do list.  I loved that Kodak ad campaign: “Turn your dreams into memories.”  Forget about the shrieking children, the comfort-index corresponding to the inside of a hot melt glue gun, the possibility that you might be appreciating what you are seeing or enjoying what you are doing, just keep that old dream-to-memory assembly line racing at NAFTA speed.  Now that the Parthenon is a memory, next up, I suppose, would be “moments on the Hudson River Line”.  Do they even still have a Hudson River Line?  Wouldn’t it all be Amtrak by now, or the tracks torn up to be Stoas and Temples?

I wish that the Archaeological Mavens would decide what they want to do with the Acropolis.  There are many approaches — the mounds of original dirt approach, such as Elba and Hattusas; the complete rebuilding approach as with the sections most touristed of the Great Wall; the partly rebuilt with story poles such as you see in the Colosseum or Machu Picchu — the Acropolis is at the moment aesthetically and intellectually unintelligible.  And it’s not the hordes of tourists, in this case.  It’s just there are cranes and scaffolds everywhere, and heaps of marble blocks (it seems to be a custom in many places to have random pieces that wouldn’t fit in a roped off area.  Maybe they are awaiting suggestions from the passers-by?).  The Temple of Athena Nike is either back in the shop for repairs or so draped in plastic I didn’t notice it.  Athena Nike doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you’d overlook.

And the Museum is closed.

So what are they aiming for here?  The Parthenon in its original form, like the copy in Nashville, Tennessee?  The perpetual work in progress look?  They don’t even have that.  There’s nothing to look at but confusion.  The guests take pictures of each other with their cell phones and leave.  It would be nice to come back here when it’s ready for its close-up.

The Acropolis ticket gets you into a lot of sites.  The Agora is much better.  It has an air conditioned museum.  Some poor little girl was being tended by her parents for the heat.  Eventually an ambulance showed up.  I hope everything is all right.  You really have to remember to drink at the Burning Mans of the world.

The Kerameikos is not to be missed.  It has an air conditioned museum AND a cemetery.  The Themistoclean walls require considerable imagination.  It will be so cool in museums of the future when you have goggles that will reconstruct them for you.  Nobody will have to think at all.  The thing that I thought about in that museum was Sumptuary Laws.  How many of you remember on a daily basis, that there were limits in most civilizations through most of history on how much you could consume?  It’s terribly un-American: not since World War II has there been any effort other than flatly declaring some things illegal.  But the gravestones in Athens got bigger and more elaborate until Demetrios of Phaleron banned elaborate stelai outright.  I wonder how much of his thought process is recorded, how he modeled the situation?  After that there were simple gravestones, which are assembled in serried ranks behind police tape for the all important graveyard desktops.

Furthermore, nobody in Greece calls me Santa, let alone ZZ Top.  It’s different without Dave.  Two of us constitute a tonsorial movement that must be reckoned serious.  I alone am just some weird guy, who is mocking Orthodox priests potentially by appearing partly out of costume.  My black Roland Hedley vest does not help, perceptually.

The Grandeur That Was Greece

August 26th, 2008 10:09 am by ray

I was not impressed by Emirate’s omelet served at 3 AM before we touched down in Dubai. Airlines should just abandon omelets. But the chicken makhani served soon after takeoff on the flight to Athens was really good. I found myself thinking of set and setting; how good would I think that dish really was if I had paid 200 dollars for it (well I did but included was transporting myself back to the Euro Zone from Darkest Southia.)

My first thought on arriving to the continent of chocolate and cognates is, gee, a hundred dollars sure gets you a lot more hotel in Dubai than in Greece. I <em>definitely</em> felt like I was making an extra £15,000 per year in the Arabian Courtyard Resort than in I do at the Hotel Adonis. I think there may be cuter parts of it than my room, which is pretty Spartan, if they will let me say that here. I will venture out in a bit. It is a tiny culture shock being in Europe, even after easing into it via Macau, Hong Kong, and Dubai. I must rest. I wonder if I can drink the water from the tap? Better not. I wonder if there is WiFi?

Not so you would notice. Pan is dead. Angry children glare across borders in defiant virginity. People quit smoking to the extent that dry cleaners would be hurting if dry cleaning were still permitted. Anyone under 40 will not know what I mean when I say that the airport parking lot viewed from the taxiing 777 at Eleftherios Venizeios Airport in the sunny summer afternoon garishly glittered like puddles of mercury as the sun played off the windshields and the chrome. And WiFi networks are a lot more protected than they were last summer. Very few LINKSYS opportunities. KING in Macau was of a dying race.

Eating For Two

August 23rd, 2008 12:04 am by ray

I would never have gone to Al Mahara if I had not met Dave.  And so, even though he is at home in California, I spontaneously booked myself alone for lunch since there is no other way to get into the Burj Al Arab to admire at the most luxurious hotel in the world.  And now I will tell him about it.

I took the bus there.  It’s the high art-low art thing.  The world being essentially uniform by now, most tourism of human-inhabited areas is no longer culture tourism but class tourism.  Dave and I tend toward downward class tourism, unlike the British Tourist straw men of the previous entry who go to Málaga to experience what life would be like if they made £15,000 per year more than they actually do, and are frustrated to discover that it’s still frustrating.  For me, however, the highlight of my eclipse day (after the hoopoe) was zigzagging home through a 100% untouristed mud village with the swaggering confidence that a GPS and the waypoint for the waiting tent can inspire.  You can tell class-downward tourists by their always asking how to find the “real” wherever it is we are.  The real Xinjiang: certainly not Grape Valley.  The real Dubai: Deira.  The real Woodside: well I don’t know that there is one.  Our house, I expect.

Upward tourists read the Emirates Duty Free magazine at the very minimum.  That’s where I am blogging from, 34,000 feet over the Arabia-Iraq border which is quite featureless, as it ought to be since the countries, as forward looking democracies allied to the United States, are indistinguishable, like British Columbia and Washington.  But the coordinates posted will be those of the Burj Al Arab.  The lady next to me reading the Duty Free Guide has a Beijing Olympics badge around her neck and is reading a Romanian book. I TOLD you that Dubai is Memphis, and we are all little FedEx packages.  Since she has a badge she might not even be a tourist, she might be some trainer returning home, annoyed that the Chinese gymnasts are even smaller than Nadia Comaneci.

You can take the 8 or 8A bus from the Real Dubai to Burj al Arab for 2 dirham, which is the real 60 cents US.  There is no reason to go by any other means.  A taxi would get there no faster, would cost at least a hundred each way since it’s about 18 km down the beach from the creek; you would have to bother with getting the taxi, you wouldn’t wait in an air conditioned bus shelter which all the bus stands on Jumeira beach are, and when you got there, well, you would still be pulling up in a mere taxi next to the Rolls Royces and Ferraris at the front gate, with the second string sheikhs posing by the cars they’ll never own and taking pictures of their wives with their cell phones.  On the bus, at least you get to see the resort employees before they start smiling.

Tourists can’t just walk into the hotel.  It’s on an island for a start, and before the bridge there’s a “Welcome Center” with a gate.  Beware Welcome Centers.  I’m sure that’s what the CIA labels its secret prison induction areas.  If you approach the gate, a gurkha springs out at you moving FAST and demands your papers.  You cannot go to the hotel without a reservation.

There is nobody in the world who gets in your face like an Indian defending somebody else’s colonial authority, from the humblest postal clerk to the fiercest rent-a-kshatriya.  His most personable act was to give me a brochure describing my options for obtaining a visa to the island.

I hadn’t at that point decided whether to actually go to the restaurant.  I wanted to read the menu first.  But faced with not actually being able to Get The Photo, I retreated to the air con bus shelter on the boulevard, exchanged the Chinese SIM card with the European SIM card, logged in, called the number in the brochure, and obtained an audience for 12:30 when Al Mahara opens for lunch.  This is why the descriptions say “Reservations essential”, not that it’s impossibly popular (though it’s that, too).

Reservation number in hand, I returned to Checkpoint Chakra.  The subaltern’s new demeanor acknowledged that I had purchased three hours of revocable obsequy.

6 men bowed at me as I walked in the door at the Burj Al Arab.  They don’t do anything but just that.  There are other people to handle baggage and limousines and saying welcome.  These are just the bowers.

Why would one go to this restaurant?  It is famous most unconditionally for its in-house aquarium.  A view restaurant, in other words.  Al Mahara was mentioned a while back on the 50 Best Restaurants In the World list sponsored by Pellegrino restaurant-grade bottled water.  They aren’t on the list any more, which may be connected with my receiving Evian when I asked for still water.

If you look up Al Mahara on the Internet, you’ll find a lot of people who are equivocal about it.  I’m another one.  I have a standing question of Rich People, which is, how do you tell if something is worth it, if you have unbounded money?  If Al Mahara is the best restaurant in Dubai, then its costing three times as much as the nearest runner up becomes insignificant as your credit limit tends toward infinity.  But there is a chance that it’s not the best restaurant in Dubai.

It isn’t perfect.  The bread was tough, compared to Flea Street in Menlo Park (where dinner costs a tenth as much.  Well, an eighth.)  Or Urumqi, where a dinner roll from a street vendor costs 14 and a half US pennies and it’s the best thing you ever ate, period.  Al Mahara’s bread was not crusty, it was tough, like it was made more than two hours before lunch opened.  I could really care about this, but, you know, although Olympic judges hopefully don’t take their work home with them to judge their kid’s soccer performance, when they are on they are on, and this is serious so I have to do serious judgmentalism:

Is this a place I would take Dave to?


The reason Dave might not absolutely have to come here is that he can imagine it.  I would insist on returning with him to an unimaginable place, like Pagan, though I hear they’ve wrecked it.  This is the other thing that you must say about any place, after you’re done saying “The weather is never like this,” which is more true now than traditionally and the first one is true also.

You can’t imagine El Bulli.  You can’t imagine the squid at the Basque stand up bar just south of the Arboretum in Seattle.  You can’t imagine my mother’s recipe for breakfast cereal, which is too bad, because she never wrote it down before she died and my father nor I could never get it right.

But you can imagine Al Mahara and by doing so you can save $300 a head.

Imagine the 4th best restaurant on the Peninsula, somewhere between Viognier and 231 Ellsworth, that you enter through the 4th most garish casino in Macau, no witty suggestions, sorry, as we only bothered to peek into one.  Scaled to 400%.  And when you get inside (the submarine seems to have been dispensed with — google various older blogs mentioning the submarine) you are seated directly next to one of the Big Tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  (also gone are the dress code, the no photos rule, and the no kids rule.  Maybe it is just that I was there at lunch instead of spending 2000 dirham on dinner.)

That’s Al Mahara.

The food is very, very, good.  The ambiance is friggin weird.  I love the aquarium.  Every species has the right to observe its kind being eaten.  They are proud of their aquarium.  They give you a souvenir book, to keep, defining the major fishes.  Unlike in China, you aren’t eating what’s on display; although one of the large fishes is a kind of grouper much consumed in the Persian Gulf.  Most are psychedelic reef fish.

Then there is the muzak, well, the heck with that.

Then there are the mirrored ceilings.  They are about 15 feet up I guess and they do let you see what other people are eating which is a big clue in restaurants.  Unfortunately I was the first seating so that did me no good but I was able to spy and see how the sheikh’s wives eat while wearing a chador.

The woman with the newspapers: In Asturias, Dave and I ate at a rural destination restaurant.  If it hadn’t been a destination nobody would have ever found it.  All the food was done up to way beyond the nines, and we had to take photos of all of it, but there was a gent at another table who sat there reading a newspaper and eating one 20 Euro amuse bouche after another with no more attention than if he were eating Kellogg’s corn flakes out of the box at breakfast.

So imagine my surprise when a, I guess in the old days she would have been called a cigarette girl, came through the house offering me a newspaper to read, in case the delicately fashioned culinary creations and the floor to double height ceiling aquarium with full color reef fish and the Russian mobsters, Saudi princes, Japanese tour group (why didn’t Eclipse City go to such restaurants?), and aging money-is-the-consolation-prize Eurotrash were not enough eye candy to go with the flavor delights.

What ever happened to Cigarette girls?  Not only China is largely non smoking, so is Dubai.  It’s nice but what about the hegemony of it all, to say nothing of the population implications?

I should mention the menu.

5 breads including one with salmon enclosed and one which was lavash coated with nori shreds.

Smoked eel and foie gras terrine under a maroon gel, the plate garnished with radishes that had currants heaped upon them; and a streak of jam defining them visually.  At this point I was still adhering to the no photos rule I had read about, so imagine this.  But other people were flashing with their cell phones.  Maybe the rule was made for taking pictures of desert celebrities and their escorts.  Basically even looking at an unrelated woman in the hard core Bedouin culture is the moral equivalent of Gary Glitter’s up-skirt Flickr page in the Enlightened West.

Fresh green pea gazpacho (blanched to bring out the color) with pomelo cells, red pepper bits, and pink rose petals, croutons glued to the side with creme fraiche or cream cheese.  It was exceptionally mild.  Maybe it is some local milk preparation.

Dover sole, a hefty portion broiled under a cheese crust, with sides of mushroom sauce and a kind of duxelles cannolo rolled in a soft crepe.  The fish was perfectly done by restaurant standards but overdone by the standards of sashimi eaters.  At La Ciccia in San Francisco which is a place you MUST GO despite its having no aquarium, we had a discussion about this.  The chef there said he wouldn’t roast the fish so much the next time we came in.

Al Mahara’s cannoli need to be made prettier. Mine looked like the Turkish cigarette-pastry but bigger and softer and when you cut it the filling comes out the end, looking like nothing so much as the output of the gesture a butcher makes when beginning the preparation for use of the intestines of a freshly slaughtered pig, which, even if it weren’t a pig, and this weren’t Islam, still isn’t what you want to think about at dinner.

7 petit fours including one raspberry ball made with champagne which the waiter announced like a wakeup call so that it could be left aside by the most observant, but the champagne left no impression on the taste.  The rest were delicate to indistinct, an opera cake, some caramel flavored things, a truffle glued to a disk of chocolate, another chocolate square under a vacuum formed fruit dust.

Orange juice and two waters.  Billed as three waters.  It’s the desert, water is the luxury item, though, they were less than at the French Laundry, take that, Pellegrino.  I could have ordered wine but didn’t.

I ate everything because one ought to and it was all good and the waiter brought me an additional set of petit fours in case I was hungry but I sent it back.  We were just being polite.  Al Mahara is known for large portions.  The waiter actually suggested I get three courses instead of four.  How many places are classy enough to suggest you purchase less of anything?

Joe Bob says, check it out.

First Impressions of Dubai

August 20th, 2008 9:15 am by ray

I didn’t know anything about Dubai when I came here, other than it was the last place my Uncle Russell was planning to go, before he suddenly declined and died at the age of 99.  Uncle Russ has been a great influence on me.  He went to Spitzbergen before it was big (i.e. before Justin went there and when there was still snow).  He once showed up at our house carrying a tiny suitcase and said he’d just been to Iceland.  Small suitcases as a result are my ideal.  I suspect he cheated, though; considering the souvenirs filling his house, Aunt Hansa must have had some crates stashed away in the hold.

Although, OMG, not as many as the Nigerians at Chep Lap Kok.  There is a special desk in the new Hong Kong International Airport for shipping vast amounts of stuff.  It must be a regular occurrence, the elite from the failed states showing up to purchase the 21st century in Hong Kong and accompany it home since part of being a failed state is that the distribution systems are corrupted.  These guys must have had thirty large size luggage carts all stacked way overhead with appliance cartons wrapped in reddish plastic and addressed to Lagos.

After Dave checked his bags at Kowloon Station and departed on the Airport Express (you don’t need to check your bags at the airport, you can do it downtown) I went back to the hotel and tried to take a nap but that wasn’t any fun so I got up and went to see the Big Buddha on Lantau Island.  I also checked my one remaining suitcase at Kowloon, took the airport express to the airport, and then the S1 bus to Tung Chung, $3.50 HKD.  From there, I took bus 23 up to the Po Lin Monastery.  There are signs everywhere telling you exactly how to go.  The fare is $17.20 if you have exact change but I didn’t on the way back and they don’t give change for a twenty.  There is a cable car as well but it was a bit of a walk from the bus stop and the bus was leaving right then.  On the way back, the cable car stops running at 6 PM so I missed it.

The Big Buddha is big.  I am glad they made it.  One of my standing recommendations to modern society is, you know, earthquakes and Taliban are happening all the time, and Buddhas get used up.  You can’t predicate your culture entirely on preserving cool old stuff, at some point you have to make cool new stuff, and shopping malls and casinos don’t cut it because they don’t make Ozymandian ruins, they just look like eroded plastic if they live long enough to collapse in the desert wind.

Do you know the story of Hitler and the ruins?  One of the things he told Albert Speer is, that even though the Reich was going to last a thousand years, eventually it would fall, and when it fell, he wanted the ruins to look good.  So the imperial Nazi buildings should be designed so that they made good ruins.  Foresight.  I don’t think he was particularly successful.  Nurnberg Stadium has all the appeal of a parking lot.  Maybe it needs to be ruined a little more.  But Hitler’s aesthetic was adopted wholeheartedly by the Modern Movement creeps who made the current Mount Rushmore visitor’s center.  Have you been there recently, baby boomers?  it’s not a cute little cabin any more, it has everything but the fasces in granite hero worship.

So, Dubai.  I really had no notion of the place.  My first clue came at gate 60 where there were people from all over the world waiting for the midnight flight I was booked on and none of them seemed like they were going to Dubai.

Emirates Airways and the Dubai airport have got quite a niche picked out for themselves: they are going to be the Heathrow of the South.  Just as your flight from Kansas City to Sofia is likely to connect through Heathrow, so your flight from Hanoi to Accra is likely to connect through Dubai.  That was what the guy sitting across from me was doing.  I’m going from Hong Kong to Athens.  Just wanted to take a day off to browse.  I hate long flights, bad connections, and long flights.  Not taking long connecting flights is a luxury I choose.  Justin took 30 hours to get to Nairobi.  How fun does that sound?

The flight was uneventful, dodging storms over Thailand and dodging Pakistan.  We flew over the Arabian Sea a couple of hundred kilometers from the shore.  Not a straight line, but given the history of US behavior toward civilian aircraft in the Gulf, I imagine that Emirates stands well clear of anything that George Bush in a fit of mania might decide to blow up.  Bush is more difficult to plan around than Putin because he has no global viewpoint, and hence may not be predicted.  Anything can be destroyed at any time in slasher foreign policy world.

The Dubai airport is suffering terrific growing pains.  A bus took us from the airplane park to Terminal 1, transfers, and Terminal 2, Arrivals.  Three quarters of the people got off at Terminal 1.

About 5 AM I was in the hotel.  They didn’t have a room ready, just like every time you arrive in London from San Francisco.  So I read the newspapers and the hotel TV for 4 hours reported every 90 seconds that Gary Glitter had been released from jail and every five minutes Musharraf resigned and the rest Olympics.  The inability of the race to concentrate on the massive problems looming directly in front of us will be regarded as the fatal psychosis of the Enlightenment/Free Market/Technology perfect storm.

At 9 o’clock a room opened up.  For 300 Dirham a night, I am in a space the size of a floor of my house.  Room 405 overlooks the pool.  An arguably cute enough to notice guy was in the pool and later sunbathing.  I did finally take a nap: it’s now 3:21 PM.  I’ve done my laundry and I’m starting to think it’s cool enough outside to declare my siesta over and HE IS STILL THERE.  Lying on a chair with a white cord in his ear.  What a dreadful life iPod external devices must have.

I think Dubai might secretly be a Spanish beach.  I don’t understand British resorts.  Nobody seems to have any fun at them.  It is a mark of Puritan societies that they compartmentalize their fun into tight little boxes.  In the case of the British, fun is confined to two weeks of being blind drunk on some Greek island when you are 19 years old, and the rest of your life including especially the pleasure is a grim, grim, chore.  None of the Brits here seem to be on the verge of cracking a smile.  Of course it was 35 C at 4:15 AM when we touched down.  But it’s a dry heat.  Travelers don’t smell so bad in a dry heat.

What is the deal with the 120 HKD departure tax?  Nobody ever asked me for it.  I had it folded into my passport just like the book suggested and the passport exit interview made a face at me like I was trying to bribe him and handed it back.