Archive for November, 2008

Home, Really

November 17th, 2008 2:09 pm by ray from here

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

Cannelloni
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.

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November 17th, 2008 11:47 am by ray from here

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.