June 28th, 2007 12:56 am by Dave

We’re home!

In Europe, it’s 1 in the morning, which might be the normal time of day to write a post. But here, it’s only 5 in the afternoon. I’ll see how long I stay awake: I’ll see what my TiVo recorded while we were gone, and I may fall asleep in the first program I watch.

Yesterday was super-fun — we took the train to Birmingham to hang out with our dear friend June and her husband Joe, on what turned out to be her birthday. Sure, she showed us the “blob”, the new shopping center next to the train, and various pieces of art around the city, and the scenic canals, and we had more Indian food, but the best part is that we got to spend a day with her!

On the way back, there were a couple of drunk guys in the train that were harassing other riders, in particular picking fights with other young guys. One guy got hit in the lip, and moved over to sit next to us. Even then, the fight-picker came back and grabbed his bag just to provoke him — it’s not like he ran away with it or anything. Another rider called the police, who were waiting at the station and arrested the primary culprit.

We told the police what we saw, and got some sleep before our flight home, which was fairly stupid. Don’t fly British Airways!! (except it probably doesn’t matter — all non-premium airlines probably suck equally at this point…)

  1. the computer completely ignored the fact that we were traveling together, and put us in two separate rows. We were able to upgrade Ray to a window, but not to sit together. (Of course, this was because the 747 was completely full.)
  2. the signage at the airport suggested we should get in the line at entrance J. My question “San Francisco” to the British Airways attendant at the beginning of the line was answered by a wave into the line. What we really should have done was to collect boarding passes from kiosks and dropped our bags elsewhere. But nobody told us that, and this line took 45 minutes, leaving us no time to get coffee and water after security.
  3. getting on the plane was on an all-at-once basis: no boarding by rows or anything orderly like that. It took quite a while.
  4. the seats are so close together, in all dimensions. The flight attendant asked the woman in front of me to unrecline her seat so I could eat.
  5. the flight attendant told Ray he couldn’t use the GPS because “UK laws require that no devices which send or receive data” be operated on a flight. How could a device that passively receives data like a GPS cause any problems? (other than the fact that it has a CPU in it, like all the iPods and laptops and video game consoles they do let you use on the flight.) Was this flight crew misinterpreting a poorly written law, or were the British aviation authorities disregarding the laws of physics when they wrote their regulations?
  6. all of the crew seemed rude and crabby. Perhaps it was just a reflection of having to perform an unpleasant task for a very large number of people who were similarly annoyed at being crammed into a tiny uncomfortable space for eleven hours, with several slightly broken seats, one toilet out of order, etc. Or perhaps it was a reflection of what British Airways is like as a company, how they treat their employees and how they make them feel.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading all this. Hopefully we can sort through the gigabytes of photos before too long and share a few of them with you.


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A Day In Provence

June 26th, 2007 10:08 am by Dave

Like I said, the original concept for the trip was to meet some friends from LA in southern France to see Fete de la Musique. After they were unable to come, we discovered that some other friends from Seattle would be staying in a different house in southern France, so we stayed with that part of the original concept as well.

The trip from Barcelona to Provence took us back through Montpellier, where we feverishly walked around the Fabre Museum looking for some painting of Achilles Ray had noticed on the Internet somewhere. There were several large paintings of male nudes all over the museum, and eventually we caught up to that one, which was nice enough. (My favorite was one of the death-of-Abel paintings, but whatever). Ray noticed some sign somewhere trying to explain away the large number of male nudes which said “this was an assignment in his painting class” or something like that. We almost made it through the permanent collection before the museum closed, and had no time for the temporary Impressionism exhibition. As usual, the museum store had almost no post cards showing the men. Typical male-gaze curation.

Our friend in Barcelona had recommended that we eat there at a restaurant called Entrecote, and I got back to the tourist office just in time to ask them where it was. The person there hadn’t heard of it, and looked it up on the computer, and said “It doesn’t exist”. We walked around looking at other places for awhile, decided it was too early for dinner anyway and that we should drive on, and as we neared the parking garage a huge restaurant “Entrecote” practically slapped us in the face, complete with signs “since 1959” and every indication it was a chain. It was still too early, and we headed on to Provence. Also in Montpellier there were gangs of young girls, some in bunny costumes, who wanted donations of pennies or signatures in a book.

We arrived at our charming little bed and breakfast located behind a small industrial park on a “residents only” road, and headed out for dinner nearby to what seemed like a small remote village, Saint-Remy de Provence. It turned out it’s an extremely popular small remote village, down a pretty tree-lined road, where Van Gogh was institutionalized, and Nostradamus predicted that, and where there are some Roman ruins. We weren’t able to get into the place we wanted, but the place across the street was just fine.

The next morning we met up with our friends from Seattle, and had a wonderful day driving around from one village to the next (it reminded me of cruising the tapas bars in San Sebastian). Provence is just packed with charming hillside villages, most fairly deserted, and every so often one that was quite crowded. Pimientos de Padron. Barbara called the plane trees “paint-by-number” trees because their bark looks like a painting which was painted by number, so Lily wrote some numbers on one of them. I hope somebody figures it out. After a small lunch, we were too tired for dinner, so we just relaxed around the pool behind the house they were renting, watched the clouds, and listened to the frogs.

Yesterday was another RyanAir day — we returned the car to the Marseille airport, shuffled even more stuff around between luggage to make the scale people happy, waited in a minimal new airport next to a bunch of loud floor sanders for an hour or so, boarded a completely full plane, flew to Stansted, and took the Stansted express to London. Our hotel was two blocks from the subway, but we had to carry our heavy bags up five flights of slanted little stairs. They’re making us change rooms today since we booked so late, but they insist they’ll carry our heavy bags down those flights of stairs — at least the new room is on the ground floor.

You know something, RyanAir is just not worth it. London barely is, and only because of friends of long standing who are living here now.

Today we’re going to visit some old friends who are staying in Birmingham. Hopefully when we get back tonight our bags will be in the new room, and then we’ll get them to the airport tomorrow morning for the stupidly long flight home.

Festa de la Musica!

June 23rd, 2007 1:55 am by Dave

It’s too bad we had to cancel the third rock-drawing tour in Portugal, because the weather looked pretty nice. But it did take twelve hours to drive to Barcelona, and we got there in time to have dinner which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. We arrived at our hotel, Hotel Bertran, which is a lovely little place whose rooms are actually apartments with small kitchens, not that we’re cooking. Its Internet access is cheap, but we’ve discovered someone else’s network in our room, so now it’s free.

On our drive we saw another truck hauling three windmill blades. And we saw hundreds of windmills on the drive. Europe, or Spain and Portugal, at least, is definitely moving very expeditiously to find alternative forms of energy, and this is very impressive. The part of Spain we drove through looked very much like California, and since we were listening to recordings of KFJC on my iPod, at times we almost thought we were in California.

The original concept for this entire trip was to meet some friends from LA in southern France to see Fete de la Musique, a Europe-wide day of free concerts in many cities. As it turned out, they couldn’t make it to France, and we ended up rescheduling the trip to be in Barcelona that day. They had a Festa de la Musica here. We ended up attending two events at a very nice symphony hall called Auditori: a half-hour concert for flute and piano with Messiaen and similar works by Catalan composers; and a 90-minute concert of a Catalan cobla band.

In-between the concerts we walked around the Museu de la Musica, which had a fascinating collection of musical instruments from all over the world, from several centuries. They just don’t make them like they used to.

The rest of the evening was spent with a friend from our previous visit to Barcelona 10 years earlier, who was at that time the Opcode distributor for Spain, and still is a partner in the primary distribution company for music software in the country. His company was celebrating its 20-year anniversary, and after a delicious meal of tapas, we went to the huge party in a large warehouse with a live band and a separate DJ, had a drink, and went home.

Up until yesterday, our original plan was to leave Barcelona today, and to spend two days in southern France to rendezvous with yet another friend staying in yet another house. But we were having so much fun in Barcelona, and our schedule in France entailed two separate hotels, so we decided to cancel the first French hotel, and stay here one more night. Today we took some paper souvenirs and guidebooks for places we’ve already been on this trip to our friend’s office to send home to ourselves, making room for some heavier souvenirs we bought (the port, for example) in our RyanAir baggage allowance. This office visit was preceded by going out for coffee, and followed by going out for a light lunch at a French restaurant: salads, cheese, and paté. After a few hours on our own seeing some art exhibits at a nearby museum, and walking around the main tourist area, we went to another French restaurant for a nice dinner. So even though we’re still here, it’s as if we went to France today anyway. Our friend here loves France, has several French friends here, and plans to go to Paris for his vacation this year.

I’m staying up pretty late writing all this — it’s 3 AM. I stayed up pretty late last night looking for a hotel in London for less than 400 dollars a night. Hopefully I found one: had a horrible bait and switch in which you use the Internet to search for available rooms but then have to actually book the reservation over the phone very slowly with people that can’t understand you. One theory is that their phone number is like a 900 number that charges you by the minute, so it’s to their advantage to ask for lots and lots of information, and to not hear you clearly. I didn’t see any confirmation e-mail, so I hope we don’t arrive in London with no place to stay.

More Ancient Graffiti

June 19th, 2007 10:05 pm by Dave

Yesterday we left Porto and had a lunch stop in Guimarães, another pleasant town with another castle, lots of churches, and a palace functioning as a museum filled with antique home furnishings, including reproductions of several monumental tapestries. It had two very large rooms whose ceilings looked like one of the Viking ships we’d seen earlier upside down; one of them had eleven tables like Ray has (they called them trestle tables) arranged as one very large table. The highlight of the visit was a conversation with four young Mormon missionaries. Ray observed that not only didn’t they know much about other religions (Didn’t know who Santiago de Compostela was, didn’t know that Limbo had just been mothballed, were entirely unconversant about the Cathars, Bogomils, Muslims, and other predecessors in heresy of Joseph Smith), they didn’t know that much about theirs (that Negroes had only been lately admitted to the category of creatures having souls). It was nice to speak English with them at full speed, something we’ve missed.

We meandered back to the Douro river valley and the area where Port grapes are grown (as opposed to Porto, where they’re aged and bottled), arriving in Vila Nova de Foz Coa. The entire area is doing really well — there is a tremendous amount of house-building happening, presumably because sales of port are doing well. Grapevines and olive trees are growing everywhere you look. They trim the olive trees really short, and the grape vines grow naturally close to the ground.

This morning we looked out the window of our hotel and saw two enormous modern windmill blades being individually trucked down the road. Each one must have been 200 feet long — I can’t think of any road I’ve been on which was straight enough to accommodate them. I hope they got where they’re going OK.

Then we went on tours of two rock engraving sites along the Coa river (Foz Coa means mouth of the Coa, where it empties into the Douro). They are said to be most remarkable for having survived for centuries in the open air, as opposed to in a cave. The oldest ones are thought to be 23000 years old. There are many rocks with several superimposed drawings, each thought to be a vastly different age (one might be 23000, another 10000, etc.), directly next to rocks which are entirely untouched. The drawings are mostly outlines of horses, goats, bulls, and deer, some with heads in multiple positions. A book we bought (hardback and in Portuguese, unfortunately) shows some of the engravings at sites or parts of sites which weren’t open, some featuring drawings of humans and various body parts.

We’ve reserved a third tour for tomorrow morning, but I think we’ll blow it off because we have an 11-hour drive to Barcelona, and I don’t want to start it at 1 PM Portugal time, getting there at 1 AM Barcelona time.

Cave Calem

June 17th, 2007 10:15 pm by Dave

We’re in Porto, the place where Port wine is aged and bottled and offered for tasting. We’ve been here a couple of days, and done a variety of things, including looking at churches, Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings, going up and down long flights of steps from the center of the city down to the river, getting totally soaked in some annoying rain showers, driving out to the Serralves contemporary art museum and park, and port tasting. Actually we didn’t have much time left this afternoon to go port tasting, but we did get in one tour at Calem, a place we hadn’t heard of, but which seems fairly major. Of course, the tasting on the tour doesn’t give you the good stuff, but we did buy a glass of it last night at dinner (40-year tawny), and bought a bottle to bring home.

The hotel here is nothing special, but it is cheap and well-located. We’ve also gone to a couple of cheap restaurants and one expensive one. The thing they all have in common is that they serve enormous portions. Tonight a cheap restaurant’s roast goat and cod Barga style were offered as half-portions, which turned out to be exactly the right size. (Maybe a little too cheap: the goat and the soup weren’t very warm — my mother would not have approved.)

Last night, we ate at Dom Tonho, an expensive restaurant on the river, which has the interesting behavior of plunking down 50 euros worth of starters before you even order anything. Of course, you can send any of them back — we sent back the cocktail prawns but got some ham instead. Another one of the starters was the assorted cheese plate, which we repurposed as a dessert. One nice thing about having all those starters on the table from the beginning was that we didn’t fill up on bread, which left room for enormous portions of Ray’s Porto specialty of tripe cooked with white beans and rice, and my duck casserole.

Tomorrow we leave Porto and drive up the Douro river valley (where grapes for Port wine are grown in a climate featuring a very warm summer).

Pilgrim’s Progress

June 14th, 2007 3:19 pm by Dave

The drive from San Sebastian to Santiago de Compostela wasn’t as arduous and rainy as I feared, but it was still a long day (Ray thinks I’m being exceptionally generous). We visited the Museum of the Altamira Cave. The cave has prehistoric paintings on the ceiling which were discovered in the late 19th century. They became quite popular, attracting several hundred thousand visitors a year by the 1970s. Signs of deterioration started to appear, and the cave was closed while they did a study of how many people could visit each year. The result of the study was basically that they should keep the cave closed. So they built a large museum next to it, with a replica of the cave paintings. Not having seen the originals, if the replica was true to them, they were quite well-done, and the originals must have been very impressive. An area of perhaps 300 square feet was covered mostly with pictures of deer, with red coloring.

Their business will drop off over time. It’s one thing to hang a replica on your wall, but the sense of wonder is missing when tempera is daubed on fiberglass (except for Hot Dog Man, of course). We missed Altamira, just as we missed Three Gorges and the temple at Abu Simbal and Iguacu Falls and Hetch Hetchy and the Glass Palace and the lighthouse and the library at Alexandria and all the lost canyons and forests of Gondwanaland.

You do what you can. Furthermore, the new features of the globe are Grand Theft Auto and mountains of smoldering truck tires, and I don’t go to them, either. 1000 Websites you must visit before you die. Or, before lunch, if you click fast.

A friend of ours in San Francisco suggested a place to have lunch in Asturias, which we scheduled as the next stop on the drive. The conflicting to nonexistent directions on the Internet led us to a one horse village above Arriondas where an old man directed us back to town. Ray was ready to give up but I was persistent in finding Casa Marcial. I made him ask a lady at a gas station where it was. It wasn’t in the town where one of the maps said it was. Nothing was. The 10 La Selgar isn’t a street, it’s a town, not in the GPS or anywhere else. Anyway, once you take the right turn out of Arriondas (third right actually) it is signposted.

Boy, is it good. It’s also at 43.41846 North 5.19296 West, for those of you who are anywhere nearby ever.

As usual we were the first there, though they filled up shortly. Of most interest: a middle aged man in a tie who read a newspaper through his entire meal. Fine, so he’s a regular. But I heard him ask where the rest rooms were. What the hell? Who searches out an unfamiliar place with a Michelin star, we later determined, and eats lunch by himself reading a newspaper? They had on the menu the big fat white beans that El Bulli was referring to with their fake one. Given enough time we will get all the jokes.

We decided to cut back to the main road on a little white road on the map (blue roads are freeways, red roads are two-lane roads between cities with lots of trucks, yellow roads are little two-lane roads in the country, and white roads are basically narrow yellow roads). The GPS told us there was a road from where we were which went directly to this white road: after some searching, we found it behind the restaurant. It had some really nice views of the Asturias hills.

And then the drive west along the coast. Every idea to avoid truck traffic resulted in worse roads. Well, not bad roads, just curvy and long. I don’t mind driving all these hours on little roads through little towns as long as there isn’t a lot of traffic, which ultimately there wasn’t, but I still felt like having a glass of wine when we pulled in to our hostel, Pazo Cibran. The maps to Pazo Cibran on the website proved sufficient after all. They had signs.

Breakfast is glorious at Pazo Cibran and the ladies who run it are sweeter than the cakes they serve. They start out with sweetened clotted cream and fresh squeezed Orange Juice, then cheese, ham, melon, and membrillo, then cheese crepes, French Toast, and pound cake. I’m not sure why everyone here isn’t fat, if this is traditional breakfast food. It must only be the tourists who eat.

Yesterday we walked the first 22 stations of a 23 station Santiago Turismo walking tour with an audio guide which we shared. The last 5 stations were in the rain and the battery in the MP3 player rented at the tourist office gave out at #22, which was the tourist restaurant street. None of restaurants in the street were in the Michelin Guide, which Dave had taken a picture of after lunch at Casa Marcial. So when we were done, we headed out on a fork and star hunt. Of the closest to the car, parked at Praza Galicia: closed; unoriginal; an exact duplicate of the previous down to font and dish but absolutely packed; full because of a tour group; one table available at 2145; and Toñi Vicente.

Toñi had three forks and a star in the Michelin 2007 guide. When we entered the vestibule close to 9 PM with our wet raincoats, the waiter was tossing a wet towel high against the wall. He explained he was trying to catch a fly. He took our raincoats and seated us. The room was elegantly decorated with modern art and a gracefully curved ceiling and we were the only people in it. We ordered, got our foam and our foie and our Albariño and our fish and our petit-fours, paid our 150 Euros, and the whole time we were there, not a single other party showed up. The waiter explained first that Spanish people didn’t start eating until 10 or 10:30; and later that it was Saint Anthony’s Day and everyone ate at home. Didn’t seem to affect the customer base at the other restaurants.

We felt bad for them. They have three forks and a star and the full place only has two forks and a star. The food was good! Not as sparkling with creativity as the lunch in Asturias, true, and I think Potato Foam is trying just a bit hard to make foam out of something that isn’t meant to be foam, and the apple fritter might have been batter on the inside but I presume that was intentional. The tuile the size of a dosa is a great rendition and coquille st jacques (all redesigned and with a different name) and the lamb loin with quinoa couscous were all proper, though Ray wouldn’t have put so much butter in the quinoa (I really am tired of oils after so many weeks on Via Michelin). But what was going on with the customer base anyway? Go figure fickle crowds, or random variation. Anyway, unique dining experiences are as alike as two peas in a pod. McDonald’s would get a Michelin star if only they would precede the delivery of each Happy Meal by gravely placing before you a square ceramic dish atop which lay a tiny fried McNuggety thing, a small square jellied thing, and a spoon with a looped handle filled with liquid nitrogen based meringue detritus.

The Rough Trade Guide says that Santiago is meant to be viewed in the rain, when the facades gleam in the moisture and light. No. Maybe if you and your weather god pals at Getty Images order up one of those days where it rains until 6 P.M. and then the clouds dissipate in the West but remain dark and ominous for the cathedral square backgrounds (or the equivalent in the morning); but the aesthetic experience of rain is that of being wet. And, the entire city having an Ansel Adams number of between 6 and a half forks and 6 and three quarters forks, from the crypts to the dreary sky.

An advertiser would appreciate Santiago de Compostela. The whole town is tied together by the scallop shell logo and the staff and the Benedictine guy who tears his cloak in half and it clicks.

Santiago de Compostela is the end of a long route taken by Christian pilgrims since the 12th century. Even today, as long as you walk the last 100 km or cycle the last 200 km, you’ll get a certificate and a scallop shell. Since it’s been a tourist destination all that time, it does not feel as ruined by tourism as would a town that used to be a nice little beach village until 1965. (The ruination can be felt even if you weren’t there before.) Disneyland in 2700 A.D. may have become a location of some interest. There is something that gets you when you drift past a souvenir shop selling pewter scallop shells and souvenir thimbles, and you realize that the identical commerce has been going on at that exact spot for 5 centuries. It’s not the same when the activity being commemorated on the thimble is Human Sacrifice or Pure Wilderness. But the proper commemoration of ceramic thimble sales is a ceramic thimble.

Our WiFi break in a little cafe during the two hours in the afternoon when the museums are closed has come to an end, so we’ll venture back out into the frequent rain showers and dash off to the museums. And then tomorrow on to Portugal.

Basquing in the Sun

June 11th, 2007 9:58 pm by Dave

The weather report told us this morning that we didn’t need to take our raincoats out for a day walking around Bilbao, but that we’d be using them constantly during the three days upcoming in Galicia. Sigh.

Between San Sebastian and here, we’ve been in Basque country the last few days. Not being fluent Spanish speakers, it’s hard to tell how common it is for people here to actually speak the Basque language which is on every sign alongside Spanish; Ray has his doubts that anyone speaks it anymore. At least there are plenty of “Basque style” items on the various menus, which we prioritize when ordering; for example codfish Basque style means in a clear sauce with herbs, and clams on the side.

One common eating strategy suggested by the guidebook is to cruise from one pintxo bar (that’s Basque for “tapa”) to another, having something to drink at each place and one thing to eat. Many bars put out quite a collection of platters of pintxos to choose from. Generally, we’ve found that ordering from a menu often has better results, especially later in the evening — you don’t know as precisely what you’re getting, but it’s usually fresher. And we’ve definitely been ordering plates of Iberian ham — mmm!

Other nights we’ve eaten in restaurants, including Arzak in San Sebastian, the home base of the chef whose Mexico City restaurant Tezka we ate at last November. Both were delicious, creative places with extensive tasting menus (our waitress was quite cooperative in ensuring that each of our tasting menus were different so that we were tasting twice as many things), but Tezka seemed more stunning, somehow.

The chief attraction of Bilbao is the Guggenheim Museum, built in 1997 by the modern architect Frank Gehry. Like his other buildings (the Experience Music project in Seattle, the Disney Music Center in LA, for example) it’s very un-rectangular, consisting of many impossibly curved surfaces like a giant pile of metal shavings. It’s very large and very monumental, and the art inside it, at least when we visited, is appropriate to it. There were no pieces of art with a dimension of less than 10 feet. Aside from some pieces outside of the building, inside we counted a total of four artists. There were permanent pieces by Jenny Holzer (LED columns), Jim Dine (“Three Red Spanish Venuses”), and Richard Serra (a large specially-built gallery containing various labyrinths made out of conical sections of corten steel). The rest of the museum which was open (one floor was closed for installation, with the price reduced accordingly) was entirely Anselm Kiefer, a German artist who works primarily with paint, rust, lead, and tree branches, and makes very large works exploring themes of Jewish mysticism and constellations and Holocaust poetry and Russian philosophy, as it pertains to the number 317. Fortunately, we missed seeing him in San Francisco, so there was something new for us to see here.

A man on the bus told us this morning that Bilbao was until 20 years ago a medium-sized steel city. Lately the City Fathers realized that they needed to expand tourism because the production has moved to China but they hadn’t quite figured out how to do it. It’s the whole world’s solution to being unneeded as anything but a market. We are happy to help. The man was helping too, in his way, he teaches English on an outcall basis to those who are too busy to go to an English academy. However, his own take on English is so far Northern, he’s right at the point where you turn on closed captioning in a Mike Leigh movie. We’ll be able to identify his students if we run into them.

Here’s an example of not hiring the right tourism consultants. We rode a Funicular up to a park with a view of the whole city, and there wasn’t any visible place at the top to have so much as a glass of ice water. We might as well have been on a commuter train. I can’t think of any other place in the world where cute transportation to a non-destination hasn’t resulted in the growth of a community of trinket and ice sellers.

It was never really obvious what we were going to do today, having seen the Guggenheim yesterday, and realizing that not only it, but all other museums in town were closed every Monday. Tourism managers take note. Somehow we managed to find some interesting things walking around. We were looking at “Europe’s largest covered market”, an Art Nouveau building with beautiful stained glass windows, and went upstairs to the Fruit Department to find it had been pre-empted by an art show. The show was closed but a security guard on a scooter let us see it for a few minutes before he went to lunch.

There is currently a citywide “garden competition” all over town where people have made gardens that are actually art installations. Think plastic cows, except growing. One we saw today, “Trash Mountain”, was a bunch of dirt in plastic bags, with empty oil barrels hanging over it, which will become a pile of squash flowers when it’s done in August. It was next to a smokestack which was in the middle of a park — presumably the factory it was attached to was demolished at some point.

To save a few euros, or perhaps for sentimental reasons or just plain curiosity, here we’re staying at the Formule 1, the French chain of super-cheap business hotels located somewhat inconveniently in industrial parks near suburban freeway exits. There have been a few changes since last time — towels are now optionally rented (instead of included), but this one, at least, has air conditioning at no extra charge. The bathrooms are still automatic and wash themselves after each use, and have a soundtrack with new age music and bird sounds, but they no longer have signs saying “I am your automatic toilet” or whatever it was they said before. We saved a few more euros and some possible aggravation by leaving the car here and taking a bus into town.

Tomorrow will be challenging — a 600-km drive with a scheduled museum stop and a designated lunch site. In the rain. I should go set the alarm.

Salvador Bulli

June 8th, 2007 7:37 pm by ray

The Dali Theater Museum and El Bulli Restaurant are the perfect museum/restaurant pairing. Neither is suggested by any words you might use to describe them. To call Ferran Adrià a chef is as descriptive as calling Salvador Dali an interior decorator. Of course they are. I am sure that Mr. Dali would greatly appreciate the experience of eating an olive flavored bath oil bead whose relationship to an olive will be reverse engineered by all the other chefs on the planet for the next ten years. He wouldn’t have to carefully put his moustache out of the way either; Dali wore his in a position convenient for eating. And who knew that braised rabbit brains in noisette butter were such light little egg yolk lookalikes with a barely crunchy surface? (As Dali painted straight-ahead portraits of Gala in the 1940’s, so must Adrià prove that he can deliver the basics. At El Bulli, rabbit brains are the basics.)

Putting your moustache out of the way is the least of it. The waiter instructs you how to eat at least half of the thirty courses that comprise the experience. “Half bite the raspberry, then the spoonful of vinegar, then the rest of the raspberry.” That one was actually bogus; our waiter didn’t say whether the first or the last half-bite should be the half of the raspberry with the wasabi on it, which resulted in Dave’s and my having fundamentally different experiences of the course. We probably will never get along quite as well in the future.

Being advised how to eat things is not unique to fine dining. I don’t know if it’s just that we look confused, but now that we’ve arrived in San Sebastian, the bartenders tell us how they want their pintxos (tapas) consumed. If you keep coming up with original food, it becomes part of the culture to be advised, deep into middle age, how to hold a knife and fork.

One side effect of this is that the waiters at El Bulli never really have time to sit and chat with you. A week earlier, we went to Bagatelle, another Fine Dining place (liquid nitrogen counts as fine doesn’t it? except in college when you pour it over Rice Krispies), and the waiter told us so much about the food and his life plans that it was like we’d been to his facebook page.

And I always look forward to hearing the stories of the gang at Caffe Riace in Palo Alto.

I’d love to go back to El Bulli, but on the other hand, their reservation situation is difficult since the prices are so reasonable*, and I feel I’d be depriving somebody else of the opportunity. But get in if you can.

*El Bulli? reasonable? They charged us 3 Euros each for one bottle of water each. They kept the glasses full all evening, and we were hydrating heavily, you have to in a mentally and physically challenging situation like that. Same with the wine. The blue plate special, which is pretty much what everybody gets, costs 185 Euros. For that you get 30 named courses of incomprehensible complexity, all of which contain more than one part and some of which have a dozen separate elements which must be prepared and plated by the kitchen staff. The cost to put before us that individual haricot simulacrum, filled, by a technique I can’t imagine, with the most divine pork drippings, and wrapped in a gossamer perfect prosciutto, is rather less than an order of flautas at Taco Bell. It has fewer calories, of course. Make of that what you will.

And in the morning, it’s time to hit the road again. Thursday was a driving day. The traffic was terrible. Summer time is construction time in all the Empire. I had the bright idea to mail post cards from Llivia and Andorra so we drove back roads over the Pyrenees.

Llivia (a Spanish town entirely enclosed by France) turned out not to have a post office. But it’s complicated talking about the border between Spain and France because half of it is Catalonia, and the other half is Basque Country.

I have not heard anything good about Andorra and I can’t break the streak. We only went just as far as the border town of Pas de la Case. It is about like Nogales, except that French shoppers are a lot more earnest than American drinkers, and earnest in the rain isn’t any fun. I don’t know what’s happened to postage stamp republic philately, either. Unlike Liechtenstein, there was scarcely a postal presence at all. Drive away from Andorra.

We got to San Sebastian at dark and began eating pintxos and haven’t stopped. The Nogales drinkers have showed up here. Six or seven teenage girls accosted us just this afternoon and said our beards made us look like characters in the Lord of the Rings. This introduction would have been much more useful to persons other than ourselves.

Now it’s 8 PM and time to continue eating. Our Rough Trade Guide says about San Sebastian that the dinner pintxos ramble starts at 8 and goes to 11, but they omit to mention that the drinking starts about noon and continues until 8. Ask the Spanish girls. More accurate to say: There are the times that you drink, and then there are the times that you drink and eat. Unless you feel like doing the other one, in which case there is always plenty of food, which is always on display at the bar and practically free, and wine and beer, which is the same price.

A Quick Note

June 6th, 2007 3:44 pm by Dave

So what can I say in 19 minutes?

Oslo was rad. Mostly rainy but the sun came out the last day and made for nice photos at the Gustav Vigeland sculpture park. The day before we went to the Emmanuel Vigeland mausoleum, a large dark room with fascinating paintings, and spent the afternoon hanging out with our wonderful host fixing a large dinner for several people.

We flew back south, landing in southern France. We spent a day driving through the Camargue, where we walked around an ornithological park. It was flamingo season and hundreds of them were obediently hanging out in only the ponds where you had to pay five euro admission to see. There were many other interesting waterbirds, and we saw a couple colorful bee-eaters as a bonus. We found a place to have dinner in Montpellier before driving on to Versols, where we stayed in a medieval castle repurposed as a bed and breakfast by a couple who got tired of the Paris city life. We wonder who bought their company. Our GPS insisted in us taking all these tiny roads to get there, instead of the freeway.

The quest of the next day led us to the town of Roquefort where they make the cheese — we stopped by our favorite supplier and found out where they ship in the US: there´s a place in Alameda we can try to get it from. Meanwhile we bought plenty to have as car food. Then it was on to a few more castles and a park of interestingly sculptured rocks, where we got some exercise before a nice dinner in Millau, a small city which is completely dominated by a modern wonder of the world, the Viaduc de Millau, an ultra-modern suspension bridge.

Now we´ve driven south to Figueras, where we just visited the Dali Museum, which defied two attempts to visit when we were here in 1997. And tonight, we have reservations at El Bulli, which we´ll report on soon.


June 1st, 2007 12:18 am by Dave

Our last post was from Vercelli, a lunch stop between Chiavenna and Bergamo. Our plan was to spend two nights in Fuipiano Valle Imagna, another idyllic little town at the end of a road out of Bergamo up into a valley in the Alps.

The traffic getting there was ridiculous. First there was a succession of traffic jams on the freeway outside Milan (it was rush hour). Finally we reached our exit, and the zip up a lonely mountain road was not to be had; there was first a one-lane bridge with traffic control which took about 15 minutes, and then we followed a slow truck up past a succession of small towns. Only the last ten km were unimpeded, steep, and twisty. They would have been beautiful except that it was foggy and raining a little. So we arrived at the Albergo Moderno in a bad mood, and quite pessimistic about getting to a 9:30 am flight a day later. The host was very friendly, spoke great English, fed us delicious inexpensive dessert, pointed out the local badger scrounging for garbage, and let us use his dial-up WiFi connection. Unfortunately, what we used it for was to find a different, twice as expensive, badgerless, characterless Bergamo airport hotel for the following night so that we wouldn’t have to worry about traffic making us miss our plane (or making us get up at 4 am).

The next morning continued being cold, gray and foggy and almost rainy, so we abandoned any ideas of walking around in the hills. (We’d been very lucky with sunny days up until this point.) Instead, we headed back to Bergamo, found our dreary hotel, drove into town, and spent the afternoon walking around the walled Bergamo Alta, mostly killing time. We found a delicious wine bar for dinner, and went back to sleep.

The next morning the challenge was to pack our bags so that the checked bags had no more than 15 kg (actually, up to about 17 kg turns out to be acceptable). To do this, we put books in two carry-on items (they’re allowed to weigh 10 kg), and we had to move shoes from one suitcase to another to even them out. If we’d gone over the limit, it would have been 8 euro per kg. It’s one of RyanAir’s ways of making money. Still, it was a pretty cheap flight overall — 75 euro for both of us one way from Bergamo (they call it Milano Bergamo even though it’s 40 km from Milano) to Oslo Torp (which is 123 km from Oslo, a two-hour, $20 bus ride following a two-hour flight). The amusing RyanAir breakdown was 20 euro for the fare, 12 euro total for the two checked bags, and 43 euro for “fees and taxes”. They saved a few pennies by buying seats which don’t recline or have pockets.

Anyway, we’re in Oslo now, which represents a halfway point between the “bonus vacation” generated by the wedding invitation, and the originally intended vacation to Spain, Portugal, and France. Since RyanAir made going to Oslo very cheap, Ray hadn’t ever been here, and they had an exhibit at a museum on homosexuality in the animal kingdom (it is apparently widespread, but it’s hard to show in a museum, and it filled up only one medium-sized room), we came up here. Also, we knew some people who live here, who have been very wonderful in letting us stay at their place and use their neighbor’s WiFi, and to take time off work, organize stuff to do, and show us around. Today we saw the gay animals exhibit, the Munch museum (which featured two galleries of Egon Schiele, who we’d just been introduced to in Vienna), the Nobel Peace Center, and the Viking Ships museum (with three huge Viking ships which had been unearthed from burial mounds).

Tonight we went to Bagatelle, which is a very nice restaurant. It was similar to The French Laundry in that it took four hours of continuous nibbling at delicious tidbits, accompanied by the appropriate wine, and cost over $200 each just for the food. Everything was good — nothing was annoying or cooked wrong. The waiters were very attentive, and knowledgeable: on the few occasions they didn’t know what something was, they went and asked the chef. One nice thing about ordering wine in Norway is since they don’t make their own, they’re free to choose wines from all over Europe, so we had French whites, sweet German wine, and a delicious Italian red. (Forget California.) There were many nice pieces of art (they had a guide to the art); we were sitting in front of a panoramic photo of revelers at May Day 2000 in Berlin, blown up so you could see the grains of the film. The print was 5 feet by 30 feet or so.

Oslo is a very expensive place for food and especially alcohol. Entrees that might be $25 in the US are easily $40 here. Wine that might be $40 is probably $90 here. Tomorrow we’ll eat at our friends’ house, which will be more social as well as less expensive.

Saturday night we’ll begin the second part of the vacation with a flight to Marseille (preceded by a two-hour bus trip).

Going Postal

May 28th, 2007 2:56 pm by Dave

The last post was made so quickly that I forgot to relate the story of renting the car in Venice. We rented a reasonably new Lancia Ypsilon, which was sitting in the car rental lot. We put all our luggage in it, and then decided to go inside to check out their Michelin Guide. The windows were down, so to lock it I put in the key to turn the power on to put the windows up. Instinctively I took it out of gear, rolled up the windows, got out, locked the car, and started walking back to the office. That’s when it started rolling down the gentle hill (they hadn’t set the parking brake, and I hadn’t checked it.) There was only mild crumpling of the front bumper panel (and shattering of the taillight of the car it hit). Good thing CDW is mandatory for international rentals.

Anyway, it’s worked fine ever since. It took us to Bolzano as described previously, where we went on two intense 6-hour walks, and then it took us through Austria to Liechtenstein, where there is a big industry of selling postcards and stamps — presumably their only other industry is being a tax haven. Ray wrote a bunch of cards, I walked around, and then we resumed our trip, this time on a Swiss freeway. We exited on a very twisty little yellow road which went over the Passo di Spluga, an incredibly beautiful Alpine landscape, taking us down the hill on the other side to Chiavenna, Italy.

Chiavenna is a sleepy little town, catering to mostly Italian and Swiss tourists. There are nice paths to walk around, and lots of waterfalls. We didn’t bother with any of the palaces or museums.

Now we’re in Vercelli, another sleepy small city with no tourist infrastructure whatsoever. You can’t buy postcards here. Hopefully we’ll be able to send one with a Vercelli postmark to a friend at work whose family is from here.

More later — my Internet cafe half hour is about up. It might be a couple days, since the next place is pretty remote. But we’ll stay with real people in Oslo, who will definitely have The Internet.

The Iceman Resteth

May 25th, 2007 11:58 am by Dave

Sorry we haven’t posted for awhile. It’s difficult to get to the internet reliably when you are dealing with a primitive people, in particular the managers at Dreamhost, who contrived to be offline to us yesterday (“DNS problems”). It cost a Euro to find that out, too.

We had a Perfect Day In Venice, with a really nice hotel, and a great fish restaurant advertising “No Lasagna No Pizza No Menu Turistico”.

Then we drove to San Genesio, a little village in the Alps foothills not far but quite a bit higher than the small city of Bolzano. It is the most charming place in the world, and we’re staying at a very charming hotel with the best possible view out of our room. We went on a 6 mile hike yesterday, marveling at all the slightly different wildflowers, and horses with blond manes. Today we saw the iceman at the museum who was dug up in 1991, amazingly preserved for 5300 years in the ice.

Our parking pass expires in a few minutes, so we’ll leave it at that for now. We’ll drive back up the hill and go on another hike, to try to help metabolize the wonderful Austrian food we’re eating (technically, we’re in Italy, but culturally, it’s completely Austria. Everything is completely bilingual, which doesn’t leave room for English).

Tomorrow we’ll drive through the Alps to Lombardia, for a slightly different view, and slightly different hikes.

Museumed Out

May 21st, 2007 9:16 pm by Dave

We’d worn nice clothes to see the choir because our other ones were dirty. We could have gone to museums in them, but Ray’s camera battery failed during the exact moment the boys were onstage, and we went back to the hotel to change, and to get my camera which I coerced back into working until the next time E18 happens.

We spent Sunday in two museums (the ones which were closed Monday): MUMOK and the Leopold. They are both located in a new complex called MuseumQuartier which has several museums and spaces to hang out — it’s pretty nice. At MUMOK, they featured Yves Klein, a French artist who became famous for making paintings which were entirely blue, an exceptionally pretty shade which he copyrighted as International Klein Blue. In his later years, he used gold and pink as well, and even later, painted with fire, which was pretty cool. Other exhibits at the museum included various conceptual pieces from the permanent collection, and an exhibit highlighting somewhat revolutionary young Austrian performance artists channeling Karen Finley and Bob Flanagan for Austrians over 16.

The Leopold museum had large collections of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, two important Austrian artists of the early 20th century. Klimt has the advantage over the artists featured in MUMOK that you don’t need to read his manifestos to like his images. I really liked Schiele: he did everything between age 16 and 28, when he died of influenza in the epidemic of 1918.

We stopped at a pretty dumb museum called Haus der Musik which is the Vienna equivalent of the Experience Music Project in Seattle. One floor was called Sonosphere, which had several exhibits of the properties of sound; another featured Austrian composers; and another was designed by MIT Media Lab with a bunch of “fun” music-making devices. The only problem was that almost none of the “fun” music making devices worked very well. Either they were based on old slow computers, or the sensors were just worn out from overuse, or the psychoacousticians had slept through their morning UI classes. Or a combination of the three. I didn’t have very high expectations, so I wasn’t too disappointed.

Our restaurant info was pretty rudimentary, and we ended up Sunday night at a small chain serving the Viennese equivalent of pho — beef boiled in broth. But instead of bean sprouts, there were root vegetables and applesauce mixed with horseradish. It was crowded, and unobjectionable but expensive, like all tourist restaurants.

After dinner we saw a small exhibit featuring some Beijing artists, and just outside was the coolest thing we’ve seen in this city. In Craiova, where the new fountains had been installed, our friends were disdaining fountains as a concept. But there was this fountain which was dropping words from an overhead bar like a dot matrix printer — I think even our Romanian friends would approve.

Today we started at the Globe museum, which had a large collection of globes. Old globes, showing California as an island as late as 1700. Celestial globes, showing the stars. Inflatable globes. Big globes (over a meter in diameter). It was pretty fun. It was located in a building of the Austrian National Library, which also had a small Esperanto museum, showing the history of the language; they have a department which specializes in “planned languages”.

After snacking on a cheese sausage from a stand in Albertinaplatz (the cheese is in the sausage) we returned to Museumquartier to the Kunsthalle, which had an exhibit of Korean artists, and an architecture museum, which showed Austrian architectural history from 1800 to the present.

We decided not to go to any more museums and spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the center of the city, heading towards the gray green greasy Danube canal to see some scenery more like “Before Sunrise”, seeing lots of interesting architecture on the way. We ended up at Kronprinz Rudolf, a perfectly nice hotel restaurant, which specialized in “roulades” (rolled meat like chicken cordon bleu) — I had deer rolled with dried fruit, and pork rolled with blue cheese and spinach. And a sachertorte for dessert because you have to.

Now it’s time to ask our hotel to wake us up at 4:30 so we can make the 6:30 train to Venice leaving from a station about 15 minutes away. It’s nice that there’s a streetcar named 18 directly in front of the hotel which goes directly to that station, so we don’t have to take a taxi. And it starts at 5 in the morning.

Boy Band

May 21st, 2007 8:45 pm by ray

Viennese ticket agents lie like CB radio.  (about ten years ago somebody told me the Internet lied like CB radio.  I don’t know how CB radio lies but the transitive property holds.)  They tell you that with their special 44 euro tickets you will be able to see the Vienna Boys Choir sing a Schubert mass in F in the Chapel but actually they are four floors up and you can only hear them.  It’s a mass, after all.  You’re supposed to be looking at God, and not his manifestation in the choir.  The acoustics of the chapel are about like a bus station which is OK for singers and fortunately makes sermons unintelligible, even if you spoke Austrian or Latin.  So don’t expect to be able to see anything except when they run across the altar and take a bow.

It must be harder to be a Boys Choir prodigy than any other kind of prodigy in the world.  At least John Stuart Mills and Taylor Eigsti and McCauley Culkin had some hope of being able to carry on as adults, but with VBC you’re guaranteed impermanence, the Church of Rome having given up Interventions of that sort a little over a century ago.

Fixing a Fiat in the Rain

May 19th, 2007 5:51 pm by Dave

Sometimes things don’t work, and sometimes they work.

Like I said in the last post, we arrived in Craiova to several large platters of food, visiting friends we first met on a train in 1999. We were taken to a nice new slightly expensive hotel which had good Internet service, where I posted.

The next day was a walk in the park. Specifically, the very large city park in Craiova, with a large lake with a fountain, and a high suspension bridge, and a zoo. This after checking out the downtown area, with some brand new high-tech fountains and lots and lots of traffic everywhere. In the afternoon, we went to Teasc, a village in the country where our hosts’ grandmother has a farm with chickens, geese, peppers, and corn. There was a villa a few kilometers away once owned by Ceaucescu’s wife, where he would go to hunt. We checked that out, returned to Teasc for another huge dinner, and stayed with a friend of our hosts.

We talked our hosts into going up into the mountains to the city of Sibiu, about a four-hour drive from Craiova. At first approach, it was another huge city, not the small cute place we expected at all. We stayed at a tourist hotel a few kilometers out of town, where we had the only disappointing food during our entire Romanian stay. We found the center of town the next morning, with its three charming squares, surrounded by buildings which have gables in the roof that look like eyes (Ray tells me this is typical of Nepal). We checked out the church, including the bell tower (we are tourists, after all), and the museum. We took a longer way back past an impressive old castle. We’d spent a little more time at all these places than perhaps we should have, and it was clear we wouldn’t have much time in Craiova before we had to catch our train. Our host drove his Fiat as fast as he could given the twisty road and occasional truck, and the increasing rain. All of a sudden the wipers stopped working: the left wiper wrapped itself around the door. Neither wiper would move (except slightly when turning the car on or off). He pulled over, determined it wasn’t a blown fuse, and then started disassembling the linkage between the left and right wiper. We were sure this was not a field-reparable problem: we started thinking of ways we could make it with all our suitcases to the train, and thought about what would happen if we missed it. Meanwhile, our hosts both struggled out in the rain trying to fix the problem, unscrewing screws, and prying out plastic seals. And then all of a sudden, both wipers worked! They had found some strange mechanical problem which had happened, and fixed it. We got back in Craiova in time to snack from several large platters of food, and were given a large bag of food to take on the train (which will be dinner tonight).

Our hosts were heroes. We tried to contribute to their car’s improvement fund, but they would have none of it.

The train to Budapest was great. We had a sleeper compartment, and happily paid $5 extra not to have to share it with a third stranger. We got there in plenty of time to connect to our train to Vienna, where we are now. We’re at a fairly basic hotel, nice enough but with no in-room Internet. (There’s a place across the street which is 2 euro per hour.) We’ve mapped out what museums are open Sunday and Monday, and after seeing the Vienna Boys’ Choir tomorrow, we’ll see how many of them we can visit. And maybe we’ll find some good desserts.

Meanwhile, Ray’s camera seems to be saving bad files more frequently. Maybe the other card will work better. And we just activated a SIM card that didn’t quite arrive at home before we left — maybe using the phone will be cheaper yet still functional. I wish we had the technological karma of our Craiovan hosts.

Massive Failures

May 16th, 2007 12:59 am by Dave

The night before the wedding party, Ray heard a Bad Sound when opening the computer. One of the hinges on our 2002-vintage TiBook seized up, and broke. Everything continued to work, though, and we were a little more careful when opening and closing the lid.

At one point during the wedding party, Ray’s camera saved an unreadable file. Just to be safe, he went back to the hotel, saved the pictures onto the computer, and reformatted the memory card. The camera hasn’t messed up since, but it was a little annoying.

The next day, when Ray used the computer, he noticed a spark coming from the break in the hinge, and the display no longer worked. This started a long process of deciding what should happen next — should we have a spare computer sent from home? buy a new MacBook? get something secondhand? do without?

When we got back to Iasi, I opened the computer to use it with an external display, and noticed smoke coming from the break in the hinge. The external display trick worked, but required an external USB keyboard as well, not something we’d often find on the trip.

The Internet told us a few things: MacBooks are more expensive in Europe than the US (the number of Euros matches the number of dollars, basically, making them 34% more expensive), and they’re more expensive in Romania than elsewhere; there was a guy selling a secondhand 12″ powerbook in Bucharest.

We spent Monday in Iasi, eating pancakes, gathering info at the Apple Store (ie it’s hard to get an English keyboard in less than 2 weeks in Europe), and got on the train and headed back to Bucharest, where we stayed at a hotel two blocks away.

Today was a whirlwind in Bucharest — we ended hooking up with the guy selling the 12″ Powerbook at a McDonalds. He wanted a lot of money, but we ended up getting it. Its battery is definitely shot — it went from full to empty in about 10 minutes. Everything else seems to work. It cost about a third of what a new MacBook would have cost, or about the extra amount of markup that getting one in Europe would have cost. We had a nice leisurely lunch with friends, then returned to the computer errands, getting a FireWire cable at a long-standing Apple dealer in Bucharest, before getting on the train for the four hour trip to Craiova, where we are now.

On the train ride, I discovered that my camera had once again gotten the dreaded E18 error (search for “E18 S80” for more info), and the gentle whacking wasn’t fixing it this time. I don’t know what will.

Now we’ve met our friends here, gotten to a hotel, and gotten set up on the new computer. It’s been a pretty rough couple of days, technologically speaking. (On top of all that, Ray’s drugstore reading glasses broke when the precarious very heavy suitcase came down on the train).

And I’ve spent an hour or so posting instead of sleeping. But now we have three days here to experience the Romanian countryside with some nice folks we originally met on a train in 1999, and hopefully things will be a little more relaxed and stable for awhile. When we arrived, there were three platters full of food that could never possibly be eaten by the five of us, including some delicious pieces of goose.

So I’ll go to sleep so I can make the most of our time here.

Party Non Stop

May 16th, 2007 12:32 am by Dave

It’s been an action-packed few days since we last wrote. I’m sure Ray will have much to add, but he’s asleep now. And the next few days might be action-packed, and away from the Internet, so I’ll try to catch you up.

We drove from Iasi, Romania in a caravan of 10 cars through Moldova to Soroca, on the border with Ukraine. The plan was to check into the hotel, change into nice clothes, and go to the 4:00 wedding ceremony. The hotel turned out to be under major renovation, with no electricity or hot water.

So we decided to wear t-shirts to the ceremony (Ray and I changed anyway in the parking lot). The ceremony was held in a chapel in a 500-year-old fortress on the bank of the river, and involved lots of orthodox chanting, quite nicely harmonized. The bride and groom were King and Queen for several minutes, wearing crowns which were kissed upon putting on or taking off.

Afterwards we went up to the bride’s family’s house, where her grandmother still keeps chickens and rabbits, some of which were dinner. There was a huge spread of platters full of food that could never possibly be eaten by all the people there.

The next morning, we wandered around town before most people got up, and still ran into others of the wedding party on the streets. The groom’s father took us back to the bride’s house for leftovers from the previous night. Soon, everyone was awake, and we went to a restaurant for their breakfast (we just had a little).

In the afternoon, there was the procession through town. A caravan of perhaps 10 cars drove all around, continuously honking. This drew kids for the long tradition of throwing water at cars and expecting money in return. The procession ended at the “candle”, a rather phallic monument on a hill above the south end of town. Soroca has many “gypsy mansions”, houses which were built by gypsies who had come into a bunch of money one way or another, but never finished or occupied. The street full of these elaborately decorated shells was very Ghost Town-like.

The wedding party started at 7 pm, in the upper banquet floor of a restaurant. There were about 200 guests, and a nine-piece band (including violin and pan flute). The band totally rocked. They played for nine hours (yes, until 4 am) until everybody left, without stopping (one or two members would take a break, and the others would continue). The tables contained a huge spread of platters full of food that could never possibly be eaten by all the people seated at them. But that was only the 8 PM food, essentially appetizers. More food arrived around midnight, followed by cake around 2 AM. Dancing went on the whole time. The band didn’t ever repeat anything, and they played hardly anything we recognized. The band singer emceed the wedding, presenting each of the people toasting or being honored. I wish we’d had UN headphones simultaneously translating everything into English. There were a few cute traditions: at one point the bride was kidnapped, and the groom had to negotiate for her return. At another, her veil was replaced with a scarf, symbolizing the lifetime of housework she was about to embark on.

We got a few hours of sleep before returning to the restaurant to eat a huge spread of platters full of leftovers that could never possibly be eaten by all the people there. A few hours later, after stopping to buy some of the most delicious salami in the world for train food, six of the cars returned to Iasi, guided by the track made on our GPS going up (since no one driving had ever been in Moldova, or had a map). There were a few wrong turns, but with the GPS we realized these immediately and corrected them.

These Romanians, and the Moldavians, who were even more intent on preserving the Romanian traditions as a protest against Soviet occupation, sure know how to throw a wedding.

Being There

May 10th, 2007 1:27 am by Dave

Summary: We’ve had two arduous days of transportation. We left the house Monday at 2 pm, and three hours later were in the air on a 10-hour flight to London. After a nice afternoon nap, we had a delicious Indian dinner with a friend; we stayed at his house an hour and a half, and it took us two and a half hours (bus, tube, bus) each way to get across town. This morning we got in the hotel shuttle at 7:30, and after a three hour flight and a six hour train ride, we arrived in Iasi, Romania at midnight. The next four days should be a lot of fun, though — a continuous wedding party. It’ll be nice to sleep in tomorrow and not go anywhere, except out to eat and drink.


The flight to London took off on time or maybe a little early, flew up just north of Bozeman against a negligible headwind, and about at the Canadian border, slotted itself into the jet stream which was turbulent but supplying a tail wind of 165 mph. Our ground speed was very close to the speed of sound, well over 700 mph at times. Eventually it smoothed out and we rode it across Quebec and over Goose Bay and out over the Atlantic. Sometime after Kap Farvel it seemed to die down but it picked up again and we landed early by a half hour. The British Airways terminal 1 has a primitive and uncrowded immigration station and we were through that in ten minutes.

We called the hotel shuttle, on a phone that costs $1 a minute and $3 to Romania because the phone card activation never arrived. While waiting, Ray went to British Air and got window seats for the flight to Romania – the shuttle came 40 minutes after calling and took us to the Heathrow Lodge. It’s in a nice residential neighborhood. The principal drawback is that the bus service to London is spotty and slow and buses that are full pass you up and the 81 only comes once every 20 minutes and the last service from Hounslow West is at 11:53.

We took a nap and then went to David Kaplowitz’s house for takeout dinner from the same Keralan restaurant as the last time. They hadn’t been there since then either; they’ve moved. Ray berated David for having bought a house — he told him he’d have to choose between his house and his son for attention. After dinner and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (which is exotic in London) they played a game called “Shopping Cart” with Zach who lost interest before the adults, of course, and then he walked us to the bus back to the tube and to bus 81 back to Heathrow Lodge. Got a wakeup call set up, and the phone and the travel clock alarmed.

We got up at 6 AM anyway before they’d gone off. We boarded the bus after talking with a BA flight attendant on his way to Nassau today. He explained that the UK no longer banned all carry on, it was now just like the US (until the next threatened outrage…) We ate breakfast at the airport. — no fresh squeezed juice to be had. The plane was a half hour late getting off, it seemed to have to do with takeoff slots. We flew at a very low altitude all the way to the Channel, then ascended to the same jet stream (it seems to have a name even, the paper this morning talked about “Bachan” and it develops in May) where we had a less bumpy but still fast ride to Bucharest, where we arrived early. The flight is about 2 hours and 20 minutes and they allow 3 hours and 15 minutes for it, mostly because it’s Heathrow.

We hang with such celebrities. Dave picked up a free copy of The Times on the jetway to our flight to Bucharest. In it were allusions to two friends: a food designer for a chocolate company related that he had been inspired to his career by reading Ray’s college friend Hal McGee’s book; and some columnist whose greater purpose I can’t make out had stumbled upon Wickerpedia (made by our friends Skot and Tollef) and found it pointless.

There was minimal confusion buying tickets at Gara du Nord. Everything is quite smooth for being so quick. This train car we’re in wasn’t built the last time Ray took this train, in November 2005. It’s fantastically spiffy, very roomy and airy and big seats. It’s getting dark now and the power must be running low on this computer.

In Iasi, Andrei and Radu and Stef and Butza are partying already. We went out for a beer after the traditional dinner of fresh cheeses, polenta, and chicken; and it’s now 3 AM and we aren’t asleep yet.

I thought of another possible theme for the trip: in school I learned that there were five Romance languages, and it occurred to me today that on this trip we’re going to the home countries of all five: Romania, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. (Ray said “what about Catalan? and Neopolitan? etc.” So much for my education.)

South of the Mountains

April 22nd, 2007 6:52 pm by Dave

This year finds us flitting randomly around Europe. It starts, southeast of the Transylvanian Alps, with a visit to Romania, featuring a wedding in Moldova. It continues, south of the Alps themselves, with a drive from Vienna through the Tyrol and Lake districts of Italy. It jumps to Oslo for a few days southeast of the Norwegian mountains, and then jumps back for a few weeks south of the Pyrenees in northern Portugal and Spain, ending up in southern France.

We’ll try to provide occasional reports on our progress. See you when we get back!

–Dave and Ray