Archive for May, 2007

Going Postal

May 28th, 2007 2:56 pm by Dave from here

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 from here

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 from here

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 from here

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 from here

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 from here

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 from here

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 from here

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.

Details:

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.)