My trips to Florida are not of general interest. I go to see my college friend, who lives alone in Avon Park, which is an hour and a bit south of Orlando. I had got an airbnb room in Fort Lauderdale because I’m old, and it wouldn’t be safe for me to drive three hours to Avon Park after a flight I wouldn’t have slept on. The airbnb was actually an off-season beach area motel. It had been fitted with keying technology that would obviate the necessity of having anyone on site. Why is “necessity” the only thing that gets “obviated”? Anyway, I went in, slept, and left. I bought food for the drive to Avon Park. Some time after noon, I arrived at the Jacaranda Hotel, another of the Grande Dames of the central Florida vacation circuit of one hundred years ago. It opened in 1926, ten years after the Kenilworth Lodge in Sebring, which was closed after a fire in 2016, and has not reopened because it can’t be brought up to code economically. I always used to stay at the Kenilworth.
Another example of generation-skipping: The Hotel Jacaranda plays Swing music. You’d have to be a centenarian for that to be your music. Maybe there are some centenarians; but most of the guests seem only a little older than me, maybe from the Elvis and Beatles eras. Perhaps they have made peace with their parents’ music. It seems to be an ongoing thing among supercentenarians, to have merged your identity with that of your forbears, and nobody around and Retronaut not having been invented yet, to call you on it. Maybe subcentenarians do it, too.
(I do hope that Jeanne Louise Calment is the real deal. 122 years is not that horrible an outlier when there are nearly a dozen around 117 and even one 119. The recently reported unlikelihood of the 1913 record of 134 degrees Fahrenheit, 56.7° C, at Furnace Creek was a studious bit of computer modeling. I guess you could call it “research”. Remember always to call it please…)
It rained off and on, in a tropical way.
I went to Mike’s house. We went shopping. Sebring has an Aldi’s now. It is good to have an alternative to Walmart. Mike shops as he always has, a true Floridian. Lots of canned goods for those moments of civilized breakdown. He has also got a new generator. Hurricane season goes until November 30.
Thursday, October 10
There is a wing in the Jacaranda hotel called “dorm wing” with some rules I can’t make out through the locked glass door across from the laundry room. I thought based on the community that it would be a bunch of old guys who couldn’t even pony up for Single Room Occupancy hotels, but I have seen three people going into that glass door, and they have all been fit twenty-year-olds. The first one I saw, yesterday, was in a baseball uniform. My thought then was he was the grandson of a geezer, or a hired Gerasim, but that isn’t true. Now I figure it’s a Christian fellowship that houses its acolytes in pairs on the theory they can talk each other out of masturbating unless the scoutaster’s around…hmm…I meant to type “scoutmaster” but “scoutaster” sounds like a fail of interest, the lost Sherpa….By “fit” I mean they aren’t obvious meth addicts. Not fit like gym bunnies.
(that is a nearly unedited note from my vade mecum for the date mentioned.)
Mike told me later, that the dorm belongs to a school sharing the Jacaranda, and it is a culinary school. Being a fit school athlete in a culinary school must be transitory and an exercise in willpower. Bright College Days. I hope they’re still friends in five decades.
We began at a nominally Greek restaurant in Avon Park for old people’s dinner, scheduled for people who go to bed at sundown and wake up at 3 AM to tweet. The Olympic was having its 40th anniversary party. There was a raffle of sorts; they handed out tickets. It seems as though everyone won something. Mike got a coupon for a dessert and I won a steak. The waiter told me they accidentally served the steak to customers, so he gave me a coupon for one. I gave that coupon to Mike.
There are not a lot of places to eat in that conurbation. The most authentic, probably, is Homer’s Smorgasbord. Homer is nearly centenarian himself, and walks around and greets the customers.
Olympic is the other place to go. There is a Cuban diner south of Sebring, but the Indian restaurant moved to Broward County.
Afterwards we spent another couple of hours at Walmart, where Mike finished restocking after a month of empty refrigerator because his car is broken. He says that people don’t deliver here, except Pizza Hut. There was a tower of pizza boxes, to the ceiling, in his living room, but Boo (the cat) knocked it over.
Then back to his house to watch the last part of The Black Cat, followed by Night of the Demon. The director has said in interviews that the studio insisted on showing the demon. I am on the side of the director — the demon should have been left to the imagination. Like all horror movies of the time, it was heavy with the symbolism of anti-Communism. The liberals defy the reality of the Communist threat, and so the demon must be shown as unequivocally real. Socialist Realism demands it.
Friday, October 11
The breakfast at the Jacaranda is not from the culinary school. I ate a pop tart and some instant grits. The pop tart is as bad as I had imagined.
I drove back to Fort Lauderdale and got on a plane to Texas, the next stop on my American voyage. Amarillo is where I visit my friend from the 1970’s, who is in prison there fairly indefinitely. The Southwest flight attendants are still comedians:
“They haven’t taught us how to deflate the vests: if you want to learn how to deflate, talk to Tom Brady.”
I saw a big meteor descend into the Gulf of Mexico, near Houston.
Again, a hotel near the airport in Dallas, to drive out in the morning. The trio checking in before me were large and Fear Of A Black Planet but when they spoke they were like, Oh, Mary! so that brought up the next prejudice in the filmstrip. It doesn’t matter who you are, snap racial judgment enters into it. I was all ready to deal with Bull Connor when I got pulled over at a speed trap in Florida a few years back, forgetting that I wasn’t a hippie any more, but Duck Dynasty! The officer was all “have a nice day, sir”. You cannot seriously argue that that would have been the outcome if I were young and brown, and the only people making that argument are mendacious slitherers who approve of institutional racism.
Saturday, October 12
I drove to Amarillo and had a four-hour visit through glass. Then I went to Motel 6 where my reservation had been lost. I wrote a review on TripAdvisor:
“There was nothing wrong with the property, but Expedia did not successfullytransmit the reservation. Anyway, the staff figured it out, my presence in the office wasn’t even required.”
I tried to place the above sentences on the Expedia website. Expedia wrote back to me just now:
“Your review has not been approved.”
Hahahahaha. Which of their terms and conditions do you suppose triggered this warning? Profanity? Personal Information? Inappropriate photos?
“This is a perfectly decent Motel 6. There’s a nice Mexican restaurant across the street. When I was staying there, some major construction was happening on the street, making access difficult sometimes, but the room was not noisy. The highway department must be done by now.”
The Mexican restaurant is El Charro and it’s decent, too. Pork and nopales, up from pork nipples. A young man came in selling beef jerky table to table.
Sunday, October 13
Another prison visit, and the five-hour drive back to Dallas Love Field for the flight home. For some reason, they wanted to see everything in my carry-on. If it made any sense, it could be gamed. The man who was stacking the trays at the inspection place thought he had inconvenienced me somehow. Where most people would say “excuse me,” he introduced himself and shook my hand. Some psychological trick, I assume. My friend in Clements Unit says he’s afraid of airplanes. He lives in a prison with the highest percent of life without paroles in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system.
The safety announcement was played straight on this Southwest flight. The last one, the flight attendant said, “if you haven’t been in a car since the 1940’s, your seat belt…” It is interesting the level of experience in flying that the airlines can assume. I wonder how many flights carry anyone who hasn’t been on a plane before? Maybe the flights to Orlando have more: first trip to Disney World.
Today is the day I flew to Barcelona. I had allowed a great deal of time to be lost trying to return the SiXT car, but I found their little driveway on the first pass. I got to the airport before Ryanair was even checking in. The Bucharest airport Otopeni, now named Coanda, had the second best hot chocolate in Europe, in my experience, after Dalmas in Venice, but Dalmas no longer serves it. I got hot chocolate, fresh and a croissant for 60 lei; maybe it isn’t the best in Europe but it is right up there. It’s still better than the chocolate in Stockholm in 2010 that called itself the best in Europe.
Ryanair is getting mellow in its old age. The guy didn’t charge me to print a boarding pass. My flight was to BGY and then on to BCN. All very quick. We touched down in Barcelona at 1546 and by 1712 I was in my Airbnb near Mercat de Sant Antoni. It is a lovely part of town. There are real people everywhere, kids playing on the walking streets, workers doing stuff, people talking who aren’t trying to sell you things. I don’t know how the neighborhood has survived its proximity to Barri Gotic. I will surely stay there the next time I come.
Around 7 P.M., Philipp showed up. He is a friend of Justin’s, who had a job in Los Angeles for a while. We have stayed in touch because he is cooler than we are and everyone should date above his level. We began walking and continued for 10 kilometers, sometimes stopping to eat but mostly just walking and deciding. We walked all the way to Barceloneta and back through the Gothic Quarter. Then it was time to go to sleep.
Saturday, October 5
Philipp’s and my activities on this Saturday (before meeting Dave) were: going to the market, eating, taking a bus to the beach, sitting, looking for a place to eat, eating, taking the bus back. Philipp wrote on the post card to Oliver, at breakfast.
Dave: Getting There from Kiev
I got picked up and taken to the airport. I was flying on Air France, and had a very tight connection in Paris on my way to Barcelona.
When I arrived in Paris, I was quick off the plane (row 5), immediately went through security (an agent helped me jump the line). Then I walked from terminal 2E to terminal 2F, and found a long line of people waiting to enter the Schengen zone. I started panicking that I wouldn’t get to the flight on time, and all the agents seemed unwilling to help. At one point, the number of officials looking at passports went from two to one, but after awhile a second one returned. Finally I got stamped in, walked to my gate, where the flight was well into the boarding process. So I guess a 55-minute connection is possible, though it seemed like it was cutting it close.
I arrived in Barcelona, took the airport bus into town, and Ray and Philipp met me at the bus stop.
We deposited the luggage, and then went off in the Sant Antoni district where we were staying to find some tapas. The restaurants operated by the Adriá brothers (of El Bulli fame) were predictably full, and we ended up at a somewhat touristy but still delicious place.
One aspect of “touristy” is that people are back to walking up to us and wanting our photos and general beardedness. The trio that approached us on this night were striking. We look like J.R. “Bob” Dobbs compared to their colors and weaves and inserted jewelry and permanent fashion statements and the guy had an awesome light brown beard. Some people say “ginger” when describing this color, but I think ginger should be reserved for people with red in their hair, which totally doesn’t make sense because ginger isn’t red, it’s light brown, just like the beard. The grammarians at South Park need to get their act together.
Sunday, October 6
It was nice to see Philipp though I saw him only very briefly: it was time for him to return to Berlin. We got up early, found some pastry, walked around the Sant Antoni market, then put him on the bus back to the airport. Ray and I were staying at an airbnb inside a couple’s apartment, they rent out two rooms. It was a great neighborhood, lots of great places to eat but comfortably distant from the most crowded areas.
Continuing the theme of little brothers of Germans, I stopped at the book fair at Mercado Sant Antoni and bought a 50 cent nudie calendar wallet card for Thomas Schaaf. Where do people get into these odd loops, of sending particular things to each other? He sends the same to me. The gender preference match about 75% of the time but the important thing is the generic Barbie/Ken sexless touristicity. I made his card into a post card and felt very rewarded when I dropped it off at the post office and the man at the counter took it back to show his workmates. Strategic Heterosexuality Mention is as traditional for workers as it is for pedophiles. It has far outlasted any utility it could possibly have had, but I’m always happy to have made someone’s work environment just a little more hostile.
We set off with a list of places to see from TimeOut. We ended up walking up the Ramblas to get to the first one. There cannot ever be a reason to do so, and it gets worse every year. There were any number of kiosks this time around, selling pepper seeds with packet photos showing them growing into penises, but later on when I inspected the Internet for them, I found nothing but complaints that they look like liberty bells or other objects. This is disappointing in any penis, especially one intended for consumption.
After fighting our way through the Ramblas, we found La Musclera, a place which serves mussels in many different sauces, and had a snack. Banners hanging pointed us towards the Gaudi house La Pedrera, which had an exhibition by video artist Bill Viola, who had connections to Barcelona. The first work we saw on entering had video special effects which I have no idea how they might have been done in 1979. It was an interesting survey of several of his works.
Then we went to les Punxes, another interesting-looking Art Nouveau house, and decided to take the tour. Big mistake forgetting to check it out on Trip Advisor first.Do not go in here. The house has been gutted. Inside is nothing but the conference rooms out of an Ibis hotel. Gray wall to wall carpets. An embarrassing narration of the legend of St. George on video screens in rooms to which you are carefully admitted sequentially, which presentation was meant to compete against Game Boy Color for the attention of children.
I think when you get well into middle age, there is a tendency to forget just how many generations there are. There’s more to it than just remembering that you are no longer young: the Kids are no longer young, either. Consider the pundits who speak even yet as though Millennials are the Spoiled Brats. No, wrong, some of the older millennials are taxiing their children around to check out colleges. The people who vandalized the Punxes house thought they’d be entertaining the children of tourists, but the children who once related to that level of graphic and narrative sophistication are thirty years old now, and definitely not traveling with their parents, and the ones who are nine and restless will be rolling their eyes unless they are truly precocious Pixelvision artists who throw up installations of cabbage patch fan art on their post-post-post-retro whatever-is-nine-year-old-for-deviantArt sites.
It would be interesting to learn what happened to the inside of the house. Fire? Termites? It must have been irretrievably destroyed in order for anyone to be allowed to build this dumb experience inside. The house is almost not mentioned by the audio guide and the video presentations. Puig’s other works get much more coverage. As well they might.
Eventually, we pushed our way through and went to the roof, where it was more like a museum, and we could actually see traces of the original construction.
That was enough tourism. We went to the highlight of our Barcelona visit, the restaurant Dos Pebrots. Many of the dishes we ordered (a la carte) were awesome surprises. The alcohol-infused fruit to start, not so much. The dried/cured fish plate was fine, especially the smoked mackerel, but the bottarga had a bitter taste. The biggest hit was the sow nipples, little discs of amazingly flavorful fat served on an upside-down ceramic pig. There was some smoked ice cream, which also had a surprising flavor.
Monday, October 7
We found Cafe Cometa, a wonderful place to have breakfast, a few blocks from the apartment.
Then we headed to MACBA, Barcelona’s museum of contemporary art. The main exhibit there was a timeline of art and world events covering the 90 years since the museum was founded. Each decade was in its own room. I looked for a long time at the Civil War era posters, as that is the part of history, and hence art, we are currently approaching.
Afterwards, we had dinner at Hisop, a fancier tasting-menu restaurant, where everything was beautiful and tasty. But the most memorable part was talking to our waiter outside after the meal. He’s from Mali / Niger / Burkina Faso (“which?” “all of them, we’re nomadic”). It was his last night of working there, and his shift was over. He’d already found some other place to work. We were in the area in 2006, and I can imagine him having gone from the area in a large truck to Libya, and then crossing to Italy or Spain. He didn’t say the name of his tribe. I would not have recognized it.
Tuesday, October 8
We had breakfast at Düal Cafe around the corner, and then walked around the Sant Antoni market to get some food for the flight. We checked out, and took the bus to the airport. We were flying back separately to the United States, me to San Francisco, and Ray to Miami.
Dave: Off to San Francisco
My flight had been a mess the previous several days. It was booked as an Iberia reservation, but was operated by their new budget airline LEVEL. Having two companies be involved was an opportunity to avoid responsibility. I wanted to find out if I had a baggage allowance. We never had gotten an email confirmation of the booking, so there was no booking reference. There was a ticket number on the credit card statement (yay for that!). I called Iberia in the UK (right time zone, right language), and they looked up the booking reference. Then I tried to find out about the baggage on the Iberia website using the booking reference, it said that information wasn’t available. Trying on the LEVEL website didn’t find the booking. So I called Iberia in the UK again, and they told me I didn’t have baggage, but I could buy it, so I did. (I also paid to get a window seat, I’d been assigned to an aisle. A fee here, a fee there, pretty soon you’ve got an expensive fare!) I never got any confirmation, so I had to call them a third time to get one, and this time the agent was able to email me. The record he emailed said that there was no meal service.
At the airport, the agent told me that I’d get a meal since I’d bought a baggage reservation. That’s nice. I got on the plane, the meals came around, and I wasn’t on the list. After having had my expectations built up, it was a bit demeaning to be turned down. As I left the plane, I said “delightful flight! stupid airline!”
Getting into the US was amazingly swift. I’d downloaded Mobile Passport, and submitted my information. I was whisked into a very short line, said I had no food with me. When I got to the carousel, my bag arrived in front of me. There was nothing else, I was sent directly to the exit.
Justin picked me up and took me home. After recovering from some jet lag, I was back to work.
Ray: Off to Miami
My flight to Miami was uneventful. My telephone started speaking Romanian to me again, at the airport, but this time I was able to pull out its SIM. Daisy, Daisy…
As mentioned, the flights to and from the Caucasus are at ridiculous hours, the ones not going to Russia, anyway.
At 2:15 we were ready to go downstairs.
At 2:25 we left.
At 2:39, we got to the airport.
By 3:20, we were at the departure gate. I read on my computer that Robert Hunter died. His lyrics were appalling macho crap leavened only by incoherence. The Guardian’s first “Related Story” was of Don Buchla’s death. Distant relation.
At 4 AM, my computer failed to boot. The white line got about a quarter of the way across left to right and then it shut down. Battery? No time to try that. What I get for speaking ill of the Dead.
At4:09, a completely incomprehensible announcement in any language.
At 4:27, in seat 6A.
We flew to Bucharest, a short flight along the southern coast of the Black Sea. It got cloudy as we approached Romania. I thought I saw a piece of Sinope, but nobody honest. Upon arriving in Bucharest, my computer still wouldn’t turn on, and my phone keyboard became Romanian. It improved gradually. The Return key read Return, but the space bar still said “Spațiu”. The real problem with iPhone xenoglossy is autocorrect. I had to turn off spell check for the duration.
Next, we flew on a little jet to Iași. The man in seat 2B with a diplomatic passport told the girl next to him he is from Minnesota. The clouds broke and we saw the fields.
Our friend Radu picked us up in Iași. We met Radu and his brother Andrei in 2001 when they were in high school in California. We’ve stayed in touch with their whole crew, including Tibi (whom we saw in Medellin) and Dennis (whom we saw in Munich). Radu and Andrei both moved back to Iași, a college town in Romania near the Moldova border.
Radu has had a successful career managing shopping centers, married Nicoleta who has a successful chain of patisseries, and they’ve had three kids. They’re staying with their folks while the house they just bought gets renovated to their specifications. We walked around it and the work is cut out for them.
Andrei has become a dentist with his own practice. He lives in a condo in the same complex as his office. He and Oana have a 1-year-old, Ingrid. He also owns the condo next door, which is where we stayed.
Armen, the Armenian guide, sent to Dave a link to a facebook photo of us that had appeared somehow in Yerevan.
We met Radu’s dad’s handyman. He told Radu he shut off the gas; but he did that at the new house and the problem is at the old house. “Always drunk,” said Radu. “I wish my dad would stop using him.” “Yes, we know,” said Dave.The gas pipes run outside, by law, so there is no great danger.
Our visits in Iași seem to revolve around coffee shops. This has been true for 15 years. It is a sign of true civilization. The man at the first coffee shop of the day laughed at something. Can’t remember what aspect of our existence.
Later, we walked to a park and met Stef and Roxana’s baby, Radu. Radu was named after Radu, I am pretty sure. It has to be a social situation when a whole pod of people is that close, deciding which friend to name your baby after.
We went to Stefan’s house where Roxana had made a delicious homemade vegetable curry. They also have a new baby named Vlad. I guess he decided not to go through the baby-naming situation again, or maybe I just don’t know Vlad. Stef explained later, “We wanted a Romanian name that wasn’t a saint.” Isn’t Vlad the impaler a saint? “Not the regular church.”
There was some good news from Avid: the situation where ProTools seemed to be making computers not bootable is apparently due to a Chrome update that interacted badly with a /var directory. Raise the Somebody Else’s Problem Field.
Thursday, September 26
Today we walked to “eMag”, the local version of Fry’s, and bought a terabyte SSD to back up my computer onto before reinstalling the system. The drive is the size of a stack of maybe seven credit cards. I am not entirely inured to Moore’s Law, even after a lifetime of it. And if I do get used to the idea of a terabyte in my wallet, it will soon enough be time to get used to ten terabytes in my tooth, and faster than light entanglement communication to fetch instructions before I have even written the program.
There was an ad for a Black Friday sale at eMag. On September 26, there was. In Romania. In English. Cultural imperialism.
On the way back, we were introduced to Butza’s son David at the park across from a little coffee kiosk. He had a toddler’s rational fear of strangers.
The WiFi in Andrei’s guest apartment is not as fast as at Butza’s workplace, “Fan studio”, so we went there to do all the over-the-web reinstalling. Dave also did work. Eventually, I had macOS 10.12 on my computer, and it was time to embark upon the six months of tweaking required to regain the functionality I had with my previous system. You never quite get back to where you were. It always takes a year, even if you’ve just changed the color of the briefcase you carry your laptop around in. Industrialists are trying to teach you unattachment. “They’re candy bars,” said Frank Zdybel. He was speaking of cars. I think most commercial candy bars have a shelf life longer than most operating system releases are supported. Modern cars would be intermediate.
Back to Andrei’s house for burritos takeout dinner. Babies have cut into their cafe time.
Friday, September 27
I made an appointment with Andrei to look at my own dental situation, and he was helpful in getting me set up with a 3D imaging place. They gave me a DVD which I’ve brought back to the endodontist here. I may even end up going back there for some dental tourism, we’ll see what happens.
We spent some of today wandering in downtown Iasi. There was an art gallery selling art at the customary prices for fine art, about €7000 per square meter. I feel snarky and dismissive saying this, when I say it, but if you do an internet search for anything concerned with pricing original art, telling art majors to multiply the height by the width appears in the top paragraph, or alternatively hours by a wage rate. I don’t remember any of the pictures we saw. I would have remembered penises.
There was a delicious barbecue at Andrei & Radu’s parent’s house. Radu grilled many types of vegetables, some beef, and various sausages. We drank the bottle of wine we’d been given in Georgia (one less thing to take back home) and some local wine. Their dad, Fanel, makes wine, but he didn’t have any on hand at the time. We also drank some of Georgian chicha, and left the rest for them to finish.
Saturday, September 28
Today was Vlad’s baptism, but the set we stay with wasn’t going to the ceremony itself, so we joined the whole society at “Little Texas” for the reception.
“Little Texas” is a destination restaurant, if you live in Iasi. It’s out toward the airport. It was apparently opened by a Seventh-Day Adventist who missed Texas. Romania does have oilfields so maybe visiting Texans…but if there were visiting Texans, they would have informed the staff that they had hung the Texas flag upside down. Anyway, the food is OK, generic international, it’s not like hamburgers are anything particularly American. The founder hired mostly his friends; then when it was sold lately, all the old staff were let go and the new staff is not as good. At this point in the evening (when he told the story) it was two hours and nobody had taken a dinner order.
After dinner, Dave and I sorted out the suitcases for who was going to take what to Kiev and to Craiova, our separate vacations.
Sunday, September 29
Radu and Nicoleta drove us to the airport for our flight back to Bucharest. Goodbyes all round. When we got to Bucharest, Dave got on a flight to Kiev, for a week of work with the Ukrainian team.
Ray continues in Romania
I went to the SixT counter and picked up my car. I am gradually settling in as a SixT customer, and not price shopping exclusively, because they usually have something at a nearly competitive price, and I have had the fewest number of horrible experiences with them, compared to all the other companies.
After they rented me the car, I drove to Brașov for a whirlwind tour of UNESCO World Heritage Fortified German Transylvanian Churches. The drive to Brașov was O.K. Romania is under-freewayed. Fortunately, on a Sunday afternoon, everybody was heading back toward the capital from their weekend in the mountains. I stayed in an ordinary little hotel called Hotel Brașov. They seemed to apologize for their maintenance of the hotel a lot. Like, if they were vacuuming the hallway, they would knock on your door or telephone you to apologize for the noise they were about to make. Of course, this was more disruptive than the noise, but I spent the minimum amount of time in the hotel, having planned two days worth of furious touring, and not nearly enough at that.
Monday, September 30
Google Maps does not have reasonable expectations of Romanian roads. In particular, they do not assume valid default speeds, in the absence of any cell phone data from other cars. This causes Google to choose routes for you that run along cow paths that have never seen cell phone coverage yet, on the assumption that since the Salvadoran lady in Silicon Valley who transcribed the satellite photo was able to see an opening between the trees, it must, in the absence of data to the contrary, carry cars at 80 kph. In particular: nobody in Mountain View has ever made a left turn in Romania. I think the entire map division should travel the entire world for a year, doing nothing but making left turns. J. Edgar Hoover would not allow cars he rode in to make left turns. He should write the routing algorithms for Romanian cities. But he’s dead. In particular, lane changes: in Brașov, Google plotted some lane changes that could not be done. Maybe a Romanian could do them.
Anyway, I got to the churches on time. The first stop was Biserica Fortificată Prejmer, in a quiet suburb of Brașov, or it will be a suburb when the road is wider. Imagine an ordinary old Lutheran church, surrounded by a small lawn surrounded by a wall that conceals everything but the steeple. You can climb up ramps into the wall, and walk around the whole church — not on the top of the wall, but in a hallway with minimal lighting and rooms on each side. The circumference is nearly a kilometer. The rooms facing the outside have arrowslits, for firing on people of differing religions. It’s part of the liturgy.
It’s peaceful being at an unpopular tourist spot. Just a few pedants wandering around.
Next stop, the village of Viscri, whose church dates from the 13th century, in Romanesque style. It is a Saxon village. Viscri is as close as Transylvanians can come, to saying Deutschweißkirch. There was a village museum, similar to any small town museum in the Midwest.
They always feel like they have to entertain you.Here you stand in a 13th century courtyard, it’s enough to look at the moss covered tiles and be amazed — but — farm tools — farming is more recent for Romanians than it is for Americans, I wonder if they feel cheated by unironic museums of the familiar.
There were bees living in the walls, too. You could hear them.
Viscri is set up for tour groups. There are restaurants, and places where people wear costumes, not so much on a Monday afternoon, but you could see the signs. The signs are all in English. Otherwise, you’d need to know Hungarian. This area was owned by Hungary for a long time. It was getting later in the afternoon. These churches are only open a few hours; really hard to see more than two per day. Afterwards, I went to a Slow Food restaurant. I was the only person in it, by that time, as the town attractions had closed and everyone was back in the tour bus on the way to Bucharest. The proprietress said that she had been living in America until her parents decided to move to Las Vegas and she chose at that point to move back to Romania. This is why there is a slow food restaurant in Viscri. Thank Las Vegas.
Slow Food is like buffet food, isn’t it? Only you don’t see the steam tables.
Tuesday, October 1
Today I took a pretty early-fall drive through the foothills in Transylvania. It is charming country, as if in Borat, or the Blair Witch Project. The leaves were just starting to turn yellow and red. I got to the first church, Darjiu, around noon, and was allowed inside. The churches are generally open only a few hours a week, or by appointment. I had email or text conversations before going, in all cases.
In their courtyard were photos of village life, with a big accent on conscripts going off to World War I. Humans caught in the grip of performed masculinity inspire many emotions: pity, pathos, shouts of “Darwin Award!”, laughter (not what they were thinking), holding their steins in their Sunday Best and hoping nobody would notice they were afraid of being gassed.
The church was complicit in their seduction. It had murals on both sides of the nave, depicting, in that traditional graphic novel form, religious bloodshed from the life of King Ladislaus I that spoke particularly to their imagination. I am sure that the conscripts dreamed of the day when they would snatch a girl off the back of a Turkish horse and castrate and kill her boyfriend (mistaken identity figures in here, too) and afterwards ascend to Heaven and act as intercessors to other daydreaming young studs. The mural is damaged, but the colors are good in the remaining parts. This church is affiliated with the Unitarian churches in America. Unitarianism does not present itself as the religion of murderous warlords here. They might be more respected if they did. The average person does not go to church looking for peace.
The Darjiuvian idea of old stuff was a late model typewriter. They also had beehives of a local pattern. Pedal Powered Sewing Machines are a gateway to the past in many small museums, and here as well. I must add that all the people you meet here, tourists or staff, are very nice.
I left in the early afternoon and drove to Craiova. We have friends there. It is a long drive. There is no freeway, and not a whole lot of four lane road. I arrived after dark, having stopped only for water and gas.
The Hotel Royal Craiova is a bargain. The room is as big as a floor of our house, and the shower looks like a transporter on Star Trek. My room also had an in-room spa, which is convenient because I can dry my laundry over it and not worry about dripping on the rug. All this for the usual $40.
My friends joined me for dinner. They all speak English well, although Dan doesn’t like to make mistakes, as he is a proud engineer, and therefore doesn’t say much. I think extroverted buffoons are the best with languages.
Dan’s son Andrei is making good progress in school. They are all young enough to have learned English instead of Russian; the next generation will be the Chinese speakers.
The restaurant at the hotel was out of most everything but that doesn’t matter. Food gets in the way of conversation.
Wednesday, October 2
Craiova is a peaceful and businesslike medium-sized town. Cristi invited me, right out of the blue, to a press conference at which the mayor was going to announce the color of a bridge being restored in Romanescu Park. Ana-Maria and Cristi work for a newspaper; they do this sort of thing all the time.
Romanescu Park is a lovely place. We go there every time we visit. The conference began with mundane city affairs. The base of a statue of a horse needed repairs. The facing tiles were all coming off. The statue has names of all the mayors since 1864 directly underneath the horse’s ass. This has been noticed but not addressed.
I did not of course understand any of the words in the press conference. I think the answer was gray, because that is the color of the rock outcropping.
The bridge was built in 1900, along with the rest of the park. Édouard Redont, who designed the park, is a red Wikipedia entry, in the English version; one is always curious to know who the most famous person without a Wikipedia entry is. (But fr.wikipedia.org knows him!)
After that was a pretty inclusive buffet. I did not know if I should eat, but there was four times the food anyone could manage, so I did. Thee sausages and bean dip alone were glorious enough to undermine the independence of the press. After that, it was no longer necessary to eat.
There was an emergency where Cristi had to go yell at somebody for delivering the wrong size of gravel to the project of restoring his family home, that belonged to his late grandparents. Four comic characters from Shakespeare or Beckett (well, Ionesco) are preparing to pour a new foundation. It was sad wandering through the abandoned rooms that were once alive with cheese and tomatoes, salami and Wallachian pickles. I hope that the restoration is accomplished.
Then, back to Cristi and Ana-Maria’s work place, which is a rented space in a giant hall built with EU money. (Everything you ask about in this town, less than twenty years old, was built with EU money.) It is a big round building, suitable for a revival meeting, and all the upper floors of the colosseum are rented to local startups. Fair enough. Craiova lost its bid to be European Culture City of 2021 to Timisoara, and I think this may be a leftover. There are faded posters advertising the 2021 engagement.
Afterwards, Cristi handed me off to Edy. It was hot. We watched the rowers and the fountain and walked through a graveyard. We talked about art and architecture, mostly. Edy found a paper airplane, which he refolded into the design he favors, which flew much better. We got lost looking for the cafe to meet the rest. Andrei danced as little kids do. It is too early to tell whether he will become suave.
Thursday, October 3
The full extent of the Romanian conspiracy to be good hosts came into view this morning at a cafe on Calea București, where the cashier lied to me that their credit card machine was broken, just so that Dan could pay.
The gas cap on my rental car has instructions on the inside of the door. This should be a clue to the designers of the car that they haven’t done it right.
I drove on an indirect route to Bucharest. I stopped at a monastery that I had been to about ten years ago, and back then failed to purchase the most tasteless snow globe in the world. I told myself I would get it some other time. There are not many three dollar items that I regret not purchasing. I have too much already. Snow globes are not easy to travel with.
But Calvary Snow Globes are no longer sold at Curtea de Argeș. They are so tasteless that when you search for them on Google, you are autocorrected to Cavalry and shown horses charging through a snowstorm.
Just to make things worse, my phone ran out of battery in the Bucharest rush hour, and I missed the exit to the airport. I stayed in an airport motel for a flight the following morning.
Meanwhile, Dave’s Trip to Kiev
Sunday-Friday, September 29-October 4
As with my previous trips to Kiev, I stayed at the Greguar Hotel And Apartments. They have washers in the rooms, and breakfast is not included, so that you are free to try many things elsewhere. However, they have a delightful cafe next door with excellent pastries, where I went on three of the mornings.
I had breakfast two other days a few blocks away at a somewhat upscale place called The Life Of Wonderful People. One day I had avocado toast, the other I had porridge. All of it was delicious, with garnishments and great presentation.
I only had Ukrainian food once, and didn’t have Georgian food at all, since I’d just been in Georgia. I found a Turkish place that had Beyti kebab the way I remember it from Turkey, instead of the way it’s presented in the US. I had dinner with Yuriy, an ex-coworker, and his wife Sasha, twice: once at the nearby Indian restaurant, and once at their house across the river. And one night I had Indonesian food near the hotel.
It was a productive week. The days were all warm except for Friday, the first day of the whole trip I wished I’d brought a winter hat.
We were picked up at the Tbilisi train station by our Georgia driver, who drove us to the border. Along the way, he and another driver were pulled over, presumably for speeding. He said later, as we parted, that he had to pay 150 lari, the same amount coincidentally that I was giving him as a tip. Sigh.
We walked through Georgia customs, down the road a ways, and then through Armenia customs. On the other side was our Armenian guide Armen. We got in the car and started driving through beautiful mountain scenery. The roads were really rough, and we had to go slow. As we drove, we saw a couple large sluices that take seasonal rivers over the tops of railroad tracks so that the tracks effectively run behind waterfalls.
Armen spoke at a whisper, most of the time. Neither of us could hear him. But as usual most of it is on Wikipedia. Although it was interesting to hear the opposite point of view from day before yesterday, on everything.And he spoke much better English than either of the other guides, to the extent that we could actually joke with him.
Armen also mentioned the bulldozing of the graves south of Baku.
The principal contradiction in tour guides of all kinds, is that they offer you no help at all in planning itineraries. When you contact them, you say: I want to see this and this and this and I have seven days.
What they ought to say is: you are stupid. If you try to see all those things, you will live in a car.
What they do say is “OK!”
And you spend all day in a car, drive past fascinating and beautiful things or fascinating and ugly things, and you can’t get the drivers to stop because they grew up thinking that intourist was the best travel agency of all, and checking off destinations in the itinerary is not the important thing, it is the only thing.
Maybe the market demands this. Maybe the majority idea of travel is to put a check in the box next to every world heritage site on UNESCO’s list. I do that too, but to me a WHS is a place to go watch little kids wrestle on the lawn and young lovers spooning on 1200 year old walls and ridiculous Koreans making ridiculous selfies, where Koreans means humans.
When you go to a country your choice is: miss nearly everything, or miss everything.
When we arrived at Haghpat, the first monastery, the first thing, of course, was lunch in their large tourist restaurant.
After lunch, we explored the monastery. Several diagrams with crosses carved into the side illustrated pilgrimages which had been made to this monastery long ago. At some point, they stopped doing that. Instead of a large church space, the monasteries we saw had a small space, with a larger room called a gavit just outside it, that you entered through. Frescoes were common inside these stone buildings.
Most monasteries had a stone honoring the donors, showing them holding the building. Many had sundials in the outer walls. Most had many khachkars, or “cross stones”, elaborately sculpted designs on a large stone, featuring a cross. Armen calls the sun designs swastikas.
It was quite a distance to Haghartsin, the second monastery. By the time we were finished there, the sun had set, and there wasn’t really time to see Lake Sevan.
We went to our hotel in Yerevan, and then set out to find some dinner. It was a bit late, and places were closing, but we found a local chain restaurant from which a tour bus worth of people was emerging, waited a few minutes, and sat down. Their menu was full of pictures, with English captions, and it was easy to find interesting things to order. Sorrel soup, and lamb lungs and heart as a stew, both good. You can only get lamb lungs as dog treats in the U.S. The FDA forbids them because they might be contaminated with stomach contents. It is regarded as a given, in America, that food will be produced carelessly and ignorantly, and that anything which cannot be produced by an overworked and inexperienced worker must be banned.
“I aimed for the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach.”
— Upton Sinclair, on the reaction to The Jungle
Monday, September 23
We headed south out of Yerevan, and saw the dominating presence of Mt. Ararat, long supposed to be where Noah’s Ark ended up, a mountain sacred to all Armenians. Too bad that current borders put it in Turkey. It’s actually quite close to where Turkey, Armenia, Nakhchivan (an exclave of Azerbaijan), and Iran all meet.
The first monastery was Khor Virap, located on a little rise in the agricultural area at the base of Mt. Ararat. It has a chapel that is not oriented East-West, because it is built on the site of the pit prison in which Gregory the Illuminator was held as the result of complicated soap opera politics for some fourteen years. When he emerged, he persuaded King Tiridates III to adopt Christianity and bring the whole nation of Armenia along with him, making Armenia the first Christian nation in the world, and a founding father of murderous intolerance. They celebrated by killing a thousand Hindus who had lived there for nearly half a millennium, and destroying their temples.
Modern Christians have such a weird idea of what “conversion” means.
As you drive south, you pass along a large berm similar to the one on Highway 23 past Lake Okefenokee and many similar reservoirs around the world. This one is to protect cars from shooting, coming from the exclave.
The second monastery was Noravank Monastery, in a beautiful red-rock canyon. It features a three-story church; one accesses the top story by climbing up a scary staircase jutting out from the wall, with no handrail.
We descended the canyon, and had delicious barbecued chicken at a little tourist restaurant, mostly outdoors. Then we drove a short distance to Areni Cave 1, home of the oldest shoe ever discovered. (We saw the shoe the next day at the History museum). It also contained the earliest known winery, and also the oldest Old World brain tissue, attached to a skull. Today I learned the archaeological term for batshit: “Zoogenic humus”.
Then, back to Yerevan. We bought Mulberry molasses from a roadside seller on the way. Mulberry anything is an easy sell.
Dinner was at another restaurant with a picture menu, this time in a large bustling one with live music. We were sitting directly above the band. Many of the songs were a bit corny, including a cover of “Get Lucky”, but the musicianship was great. The experience was $21 for both of us and the music, too.
Tuesday, September 24
A magical sound moment began the day. We dropped off post cards at a barely open post office at a desk at the edge of a giant concrete room. There was one person on duty, and none of the other shops that usually occupy the bustling mall were open. We handed her the cards. As we walked away across the room, we heard the rhythm of the cancellation of one postcard after another resonantly booming across the vacant mall.
Less magical: Astroturf topiary, outside the coffee shop “Eat&Fit”. Our guide and the driver met us there.
For today’s day trip, we headed southeast out of Yerevan toward the Geghard monastery. On the way out of town, our guide told us that Armenians raise cows, and Yazidi raise sheep, and the people selling sheep from the side of the road were Yazidi, marketing them for ceremonies. Yazidis are most lately in the news as the victims of genocide conducted by ISIS in Iraq. It wasn’t the first one.
Geghard is in a striking setting in the mountains, built against a cliff. Some of the patterns carved around the doors, and some of the dome ceilings, reminded us of patterns we’d seen in Morocco and Spain. The guide insisted they weren’t inspired by Islamic art, that it was coincidental, and pretty. OK, whatever. We heard a chorus singing in a big round resonant room, and bought the CD.
From there, a short drive led us to Garni, a pagan temple. It actually seemed a bit like the Lincoln Memorial or something, with columns all around it. It overlooks a stupendous canyon.
All of these buildings have been demolished several times over by attacks and earthquakes, and reconstructed to the best of the ability of the people at the time. The “dragon stones” have survived. They evolved from prehistoric phalluses, and later became crosses. Conversion is bloody, but also, incomplete.
We headed back through Yerevan to the Echmiadzin Cathedral on the north side of town. It is in a huge complex, but it was completely enclosed in scaffolding and completely closed except for a courtyard in front. It probably wasn’t worth the trouble to drive out there, except for the shop where one can purchase post cards of Armenian historical types.
But a short distance away was the Zvartnots ruins, a round church which had been buried for a millennium. It was rediscovered, exposed, and a museum built. What remained or had been set back up reminded one a bit of Stonehenge.
Driving back, we passed the American Embassy. There were posters all around the outside, and none show Trump. I think I looked at all of them and did not see the President.
“If you’re lucky, he doesn’t know where Armenia is,” I said to Armen. The government paid last year to paint the houses pink on the main road, for the 2800-year anniversary of Yerevan.
Afterward we headed to the history museum in town, and walked around it until it closed. There we saw the shoe from the cave. There was a room devoted to scenes of the Armenian genocide. Everything is devoted to that. They feel so cheated by the Holocaust, like the mass murderer arrested on the 10th of September, 2001, who told the reporter that his crime ought to be good for at least a week of headlines.
I need to mention somewhere: “As I told you” is a common phrase among all the tour guides we’ve encountered, and it’s super annoying since they chatter all day and make no effort to actually teach. And if we don’t remember some Ethiopian bee-eater or Azerbaijani prince, the implication is that we have flunked. I’d like to think I am paying attention. But they’ve been at this — making history, I mean — for thousands of years, in every corner of the world.
There was a demonstration outside a government building, near the museum. “Paid demonstrators,” said our guide. “It happens everywhere.”
“So does that explanation,” I said. They were possibly supporters of the recently ousted president. Armen lost interest in explaining it to us and I lost interest in straining to hear him.
We walked through town, down a generic diagonal modern street which could be a main shopping street anywhere in the world, and then had dinner at a small restaurant, at Armen’s recommendation. “Our Village”, it was called, in English. It is set up for tour groups. I think Armen doesn’t know any other kind. Cold bread, high prices. But it was all we could get into at 1845 on Tuesday. Not sure why the restaurants were so crowded just then.
We went back to the hotel and prepared to be picked up at 3:30am for our flight to Bucharest.
The Azerbaijan border agents on the train, without much English, asked us simply “Armenia?” We said no. We assumed they were asking “have you been to Armenia since you got this passport?” and not “are you ever going to Armenia, like the day after you leave here?” You can’t enter Azerbaijan with an Armenian passport stamp. (When we got to Armenia, they didn’t ask about Azerbaijan. Armenia won the war, after all. Don’t mention the war.) It was a nice overnight train ride. We passed a giant car junkyard on the way out of Georgia.
We were met at the station by our guide, Zabit, and his driver, and taken to our upscale hotel Boutique 19 at the edge of the Old City. It was right across the street from Hard Rock Cafe, always Ground Zero for any tourist area. The room wasn’t quite ready, so we left the luggage and went off into the adjacent tourist shopping district with the guide to find an ATM and breakfast. He picked an Italian restaurant, Cafe Il Patio, but whatever. Rouf, our mostly non-English speaking waiter, had a tattoo in English.
(My mother used to work at a restaurant called El Patio, during the 1930’s economic depression. She called it “El Pot.” She had many stories about it, although I’m sure her stint there was only a few weeks. Why do minor jobs make such an impression on you when you’re 20?)
Zabit and his driver drove us to the post office and Ray bought stamps with their assistance, and then back to the Old City for a walking tour. I had specified during the purchase of the trip, that we had to go to the post office at the outset. You can’t write post cards until you know how big the stamps are.
The tour began at a shrine where one makes sacrifices to improve one’s fortune. I noticed a man making the sacrifice gestures while talking on his cell phone. The man was multitasking but the goat wasn’t.
We walked through a palace, which had lots of things including a model of the city and graffiti dating back at least to 1827. It’s nice for people to date their graffiti.
We also climbed up the stairs inside the iconic Maiden Tower. The guide had some story about a maiden throwing herself off the tower, but we didn’t find this in the documentation inside. We stopped into the Museum of Miniature Books, full of various volumes less than 3 inches or so in height. Then the guide took us someplace for lunch, and sat at another table. At some point the waiter came over and asked a question which I misinterpreted as asking whether the guide would be paying for us. It turned out to be whether we were paying for the guide! Such a scoundrel!
We left the old city and walked down to the Carpet Museum, a huge modern building full of carpets and exhibits of carpet-making techniques. It was all quite artistic. We walked back to the hotel, to properly check in and have a shower.
All day, people were approaching us and asking for photos of us and with us. “Ali Baba!” we heard a lot. The guides get used to it after a while, as have we. I am not sure if beards have a political implication in Azerbaijan. Their government is trying hard to avoid sectarian violence, which could interfere with all the other kinds. Although the country is overwhelmingly Shi’a, with about 10% Sunni and a few other monotheists scattered around, it is entirely secular. The men look as if they could grow beards if they chose to, but mostly what you see is Castro clone mustaches, and among the twenty-somethings, generic international metrosexual eyebrow-threaded scruff.
The old men think the young ones are gay. In Azerbaijan, there is a saying that men should be “just a bit more handsome than an ape.” This mot must have been an inspiration to the early racists.
Do you know why “white” people are called “Caucasian”? It’s the notion of a dolichocephalic twit named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who lived at the dawn of the era of Scientific Racism, and decided that the most Beautiful People in the World came from the Caucasus, and their least degenerate descendants were Europeans. He was liberal by the standards of his day, believing all races to be the same species, and valuable to each other; his racial improvisations were taken over by demagogues more vicious. If he had lived three centuries later he would have made a tumblr blog featuring his crushes on shirtless Georgian taxi drivers and lived his life as one bear-lover among many.
We met Zabit again and drove up to Highland Park at the top of a hill, with a view of the city. Highland Park is notable for the tombs of recent martyrs. More than a thousand martyrs of Armenian and Russian wars are buried there. Russia has not been supportive of Azerbaijan in the dispute over the ethnically Armenian areas inside the provincial border of Azerbaijan, which have been retrieved by Armenia in the years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. (It’s easier for irredentists to recover territory from Azerbaijan than from Turkey.) The Soviets inherited this war in 1920 and hit Pause on it in the way that they did. When they left, it resumed, and has gone on to the present day. “That’s why our country we hate Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev,” said Zabit.
Also on that hill were the Flame Towers, three buildings which are essentially video screens. Sometimes they play videos of fire, and sometimes they play videos of citizens marching with the Azerbaijani flag (Azerbaijan does not rate high on the various “freedom” lists) but there are also lots of abstract color patterns. Yeah, the Bay Bridge has cute lights too, but even these buildings were all out-technologied by the skyscrapers we saw in Shanghai in 2009. So here, on the first night of the trip, the guide asked us “Which is better? Baku or Tbilisi?” What a ridiculous question! We certainly had an opinion at that moment about which guide was better, although Tatia had her needy moments as well.
When we got back to the hotel, we went out for a little snack, having had a huge lunch. We found Paper Moon, a wine bar featuring a special with a cheese plate, which sounded perfect. We ordered it. Their English wasn’t great, but it was good enough. There was basically nobody there, which was ultimately explained by the fact that they had been open three days. We wished them the best of luck. On the way back, we noticed “PAUL boulangerie & patisserie” near the hotel, and resolved to go there for breakfast.
I exaggerated my TripAdvisor review of Paper Moon. I would have put down Very Good instead of Excellent — you can’t declare a place Excellent on the basis of a cheese plate! — but this would be their first review on TripAdvisor, and they were empty. Apparently Grand Openings aren’t a thing in their b-school or maybe country. A 20 Manat 2 wines and cheese plate Large is what they were offering, and allowing for some weirdness in Azeri wine (they offered us the full choice of their bar) it was well worth it. Also the young bartender was crush bate.
Thursday, September 19
We went to PAUL for breakfast. It is a small chain, operating only in 33 countries. We had very delicious pastries, and the usual coffee/tea/orange juice. And a nice mutual photo session with the entire staff, they weren’t busy. Agil, the main communicator, had gone to school in Connecticut.
The day’s tour turned out to be a bit strange. We drove up to Yanar Dag, a hill north of town which has had a continuous flame burning for thousands of years. It was cute, we took pictures. Then to a nearby Zoroastrian temple which also was subject to flame coming out of the ground, but apparently not quite as consistent, and since the last century has been beefed up by petroleum products from elsewhere. Zabit told stories about converting the Zoroastrians to Islam, but there was none of this in the descriptive texts.
These weeks of touring came about by Ray doing a bunch of research of interesting places in the three Caucasus countries, and then working with the tour company in Georgia to make an itinerary. The next place we went was Absheron National Park, where nobody had ever asked to go as part of a tour. It is allegedly a nature preserve with wetlands, about an hour’s drive from Baku, over fairly rough roads.
There are walls on both sides of the road out of town, as with the boulevards in Orange County. Only the oil pumps loom above. Baku is like Dallas, planted in Midlands-Odessa. Oil money for major buildings, surrounded by suburbs, on a vast plain of rusty oil extraction technology, some of it still desultorily functioning.
Absheron was the height of absurdity. Two hours driving through industrial wasteland and 15 minutes at the end, where we were instructed not to leave the car because there were poisonous snakes. We left gingerly and stayed on the walkway, and wished we had brought the binoculars. Assuming the snake stories are made up for the travel office in the Truman Show, you should spend a whole day here, or not come at all. There don’t appear to be any facilities at the end. A little guardhouse. But it is pretty, in its desolation. Colorful shrubs and distant hawks, and an abandoned playground. Nothing says Decline like an abandoned playground, with a green algae concrete pond.
The driver never even turned off the van. Aircon not working anyway. The car has been having trouble starting, so it was perhaps a good idea.
Communism has not left their brains. They don’t care if you are enjoying yourself. All they want to do is get back to the office at the end of their work day and report to their bosses I mean comrades that they went to the places specified in the people’s contract, and gave the speeches there that had been prepared by the Party apparatus. But since there is no more communism, there is no longer the consolation for the guide, of knowing that he lives in a society that is residually committed to the welfare of the worker, provided only that he mention the accomplishments of Heydar Aliyev at every point of description. Well, you can’t simultaneously have a worker’s paradise and a consumer’s paradise.
In all that touring, we resisted being taken to lunch, so that we’d be hungry at dinnertime, although we were cadged into taking tea at a big group tourist restaurant near the second flame.
The reason the guide was pushing us to move on was that we had one more destination for the day, the Heydar Aliyev center. Heydar Aliyev was an Azerbaijani leader for many years, in both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. The center is a dramatic building, by Zaha Hadid. It was one of her last major completed works, before her death in 2016.
The building is swooping and marvelous. Streamlined in many directions at once. White, glass, the roof pouring itself onto the ground.
We began in a special exhibition of automotive history, taking place on one level of their parking garage. Good placement. The guides like to take foreign tourists there; I’m sure they like it more than carpets and invisible snakes and the life story of the ruling family. It is a fun collection, especially the eastern bloc cars that you didn’t see in America. And who can resist an Isetta, the original “bubble car”? Fun fact: When “Little Nash Rambler” was released in England, the BBC wouldn’t play a song with the name of a commercial product in it (boy, weren’t those the days?), so it was re-recorded with the words “limousine” and “bubble car”. I didn’t learn that at the museum.
Afterwards, we went upstairs to the main exhibits, celebrating Azerbaijani culture, and the events in the life of Heydar Aliyev. The culture exhibit had a brilliant installation showing various Azeri musical instruments, and when you stepped in front of each, speakers above you would play a recording of that instrument.
It is not mentioned in the architectural reviews, but the mezzanine has a feature that really looks like a cruise ship ploughing into the building, in the manner of an early scene in “Airplane!” Hadid must have noticed.
We were driven back to the hotel, and went off to Firuze, an Azerbaijani place underground in the tourist shopping area, with a menu in which every dish had a picture, as well as an English explanation. We ordered what we thought we could finish, and it was all delicious. The decor was very cute.
Friday, September 20
We went into the Old City for breakfast to have Tandir, bread made in an oven, and various things to have with it. It was good and authentic, but definitely priced for tourists. You want honey with the bread? Here, pay $5 for a bowl with more honey than you could ever eat! The few things we had turned out more expensive than the premium mediocre buffet offered by the hotel would have been.
Today brought another tour out of town, to Gobustan, a mountain with hundreds of petroglyphs. We looked at the exhibits in the museum, then drove up and saw many of the drawings themselves. One fascinating thing was that much of the rock was tafoni, and there was one perfect piece that you could make sound like a steel drum by hitting it with small rocks, it was so resonant.
I was particularly impressed by one comment in the museum: “Today, it is impossible to know how prehistoric people perceived their world and what they believed in. To a certain extent, we cannot truly understand them. On the other hand, we still use their discoveries and our culture has developed from theirs.”
When do you ever get to read that simple humility from a curator brought up in the tradition of an Abrahamic religion? For us, it comes automatically, to say it all started with Stonewall or Einstein or Moses or Rousseau.
Gobustan has lots of rock drawings of goats and sheep and aurochs and horses and hunters.
After exploring Gobustan, we went with a guy with a smaller car to go on the very rough roads up to the Mud Volcano. (Another instance of a surprise fee for transportation to one of the places on the tour.) The volcano was belching up bubbles of bentonite, which scores of Indian tourists were collecting for skin care purposes.
A touring Mumbaikar asked how I liked Azerbaijan and I said, “It’s interesting,” and he said, “I don’t think it’s very interesting.” An interesting thing for a tourist to say; but tour directors do their best to ensure that most of what you experience is frustration.
I have read there are mud volcanoes all over the area. It is good preservationist practice to take all the tourists to one site and let them overrun it, like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Otherwise, the damage would be widespread.
On the way back we visited a mosque. Near the mosque is a cemetery from which all Armenian graves were removed by the government. Zabit said that when he was a child the beach south of town which we are passing was free but now it is all five star hotels and it costs ten manat.
We then went to see an art museum, originally scheduled for the first day. The itinerary said “Azerbaijan National Museum of Art”, but we went to the “Museum of Modern Art” instead. It was almost entirely Azerbaijani, late twentieth century, and had many interesting pieces. There were a couple rooms where a guard told us not to take pictures: a room with a Picasso and some Chagalls, and another room with Azerbaijan’s most famous artist, whose name escapes me.
The problem with the Modern Art Museum is that there is absolutely zero Pop Art influence. The pieces all give the same impression. Nearly all of them are dated after 1988, which was when painters seems to have decided that the Communist regime would be coming to an end, and they could start preparing to exhibit New Styles.
The Old Style, as represented in this collection, was not Socialist Realism, as under the Hoxha dictatorship (and embraced by the museum in Tirane), but rather Socialist Cubism, the heroic struggle of the little guy reduced to its basic structure and illumination with a tip of the Hatlo Hat to post-Academic trends in art up to circa the 7th Party Congress. At this distance from Moscow you could do that. When the Party was over, there was, therefore, less of a reaction. From 1991 to the present day, the artists collected by this museum are still producing slightly cubist, slightly expressionist, slightly collaged, slightly having penises (“Adam and Eve” is a big meme here — represented in numerous works), slightly feminist, if you count as “feminist” a male photographer depicting a girl trying to make herself attractive to men, which the curator seems to have done.
You don’t really realize how strongly Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein have influenced World Culture until you enter the alternate universe in which, you know, Jasper Johns was never born, and there was nobody to grasp the graphic impact of national and commercial images on perception. Instead, the technique-brought-to-the-forefront explorations of the early twentieth century keep circling around and around in a perpetual pre-operational phase.
Maybe it’s a religious political thing. Azerbaijan has been navigating difficult waters throughout its entire history, with Turkish populations east and west, and the Persians vs. the Russians north and south. Sunnis and Shi’a. Maybe in such a place, edgy hotel art is what you feel like making. Heavily gendered societies always seem pubescent anyway. Azerbaijan is the least so of any place in Islam — they are like the Sweden of Islam — tolerant but pecksniffian, and trying not to give offense and personally quite staid and upright.
Back to the hotel, and we decided we might as well go back to Firuze for dinner. As we got to the entrance, we noticed a tour bus unloading down the stairs, so decided to go to another restaurant, Nergiz, half a block away. A man wearing a badge that said “hostess” showed us the menu. It was virtually identical! So we went there. Clearly it’s all the same operation, with a centralized kitchen, and two sets of rooms with similar decor. Competent tasty food once again, including grilled sturgeon. And pomegranate wine, which tasted like juice.
Saturday, September 21
This was a free day, before our return to Tbilisi on the overnight train. We got checkout extended to 2, working in the room until then. After that we stored the luggage and worked in the hallway until it was time to go have dinner on the way to the train station.
I took a short walk in the afternoon and found a Hot Dog Man and some outgoing guys that wanted photos of me with it and them.
On the Internet I’d found a Yemeni restaurant near the station with some good reviews, and I talked the tour manager (the driver’s wife, it turns out) into going there on the way. Problem was, it didn’t exist. So we started walking to find a good place, and really never did. We found a bakery, and had sandwiches with the tour company owner, the driver, and their two kids.
The train was pretty much the same as it was when we came down three days earlier.
Our flight to Tbilisi left Athens as scheduled at 12:30am. It got there shortly after 4am. I don’t know what it is about transport in these countries all being in the middle of the night. Our return flight will be stupid, too. We were met by a hotel shuttle, and taken to Hotel Anata, a basic hotel some distance away from the center. Our room wasn’t available, but “a better one” was, and we ultimately decided to stay in it since it wasn’t much more expensive. We got a little bit more sleep before the guide and driver for the tour we’d arranged showed up around 10am, along with the manager of the tour company. We made the rest of the payment for the tour with all of our Euro cash, plus a few dollars more. They gave us a gift of a bottle of Georgian wine. It became our mission to drink it as soon as possible so we didn’t have to carry it around, but that ended up not happening until we got to Romania.
Our first experience of a uniform practice at hotels in Georgia came today: when we got to the front desk, the owners asked us to cancel our reservations and get the same room. Saved them a booking fee from the online places. How long before this is noticed?
We drove off to the station to buy train tickets for our train to Baku a week hence, and to the post office to buy stamps. Our guide, Tatia, was very helpful at translating for the agents. Her English was pretty good, and she was very friendly and knowledgeable. We drove on to the center, where we had a walking tour of the city. We saw Trinity Cathedral, a small closed church with a large statue of King David the Builder on a horse. Then we took the cable car to the top of the hill overlooking the city. At the top, a raft of Iranian tourists wished to speak with us.
We saw mosques as we walked down; the thermal baths as we walked further down; Anchiskhati Basilica, an ancient church; the marionette theater, a little tower where a wooden puppet comes out to ring a bell every hour. Hundreds of tourists watch in picturesque rapture.
For me, the high point was a basement, where Sabir’s old teahouse was hanging on. Sabir died. His family continues. Old men play dominoes. Tea is the only item on offer, as mentioned in the guidebooks. It wasn’t overwhelmed with Chinese groups. It wasn’t overwhelmed by anyone. 6 lari for us all. Pictures from the early 20th century. They were in living memory until Sabir died. It was peaceful. Drinking tea is peaceful.
Tatia told us, in the course of touring squares and buildings, that in the old days, concrete was made with egg yolks and sand. The Internet says it was egg whites, but who would think to ask? We tourists are so centered in our own time.
Tatia left us at a good local restaurant. You can tell it was good because veal and tarragon was off the menu because tarragon season had passed. Tarragon is an herb popular in Georgia. It forms the basis of a god-awful artificial soft drink, and it is served in little pickled sprigs. You can tell what people like by what they fake, as with Americans and freedom. We had one form of khachapuri, bread with greens inside, and “vegetable pate”.
Tatia had set me up with a taxi app we could use to get taxis Uber-style. Unfortunately it required a phone number, and the SIM card I was using was data-only: I just didn’t have a number. So when it was time to go home we found a cab on the street and overpaid, $7 instead of $3.50.
While we were negotiating with taxis, a family wanted to take a photo with us. In this case, a girl in her early teens. Are we comic? I can sense the comedic motive, from tipsy boy gangs. But it isn’t what is happening with the families. If we are an example, what of?
Wednesday, September 11
Our trip to Georgia was planned as day trips followed by an overnight trip. Today was the first day trip.
We took a road trip to the north, almost to the Russian border. The Caucasus mountains get very high along the border; the highest is over 5400 meters. We stopped at Ananuri Fortress, and its various shops; drove past the Gudauri ski resort; saw the Friendship Monument celebrating various degrees of friendship between Georgia and Russia (located quite close to the Russian border).
The whole existence of the friendship monument as a tourist spot is ironic. The guides play it straight, but the history of Russian-Georgian relations since the Middle Ages has been that of invasion and rebellion. At the current moment, Russia has sponsored two breakaway regions which will be annexed to Russia, in due time. The monument is a grand half-Stonehenge looking out over a valley, which was entirely obscured by fog when we got there; the visibility was about 30 meters so all you saw was gray when you looked over the railings. It was covered with mosaics illustrating the couple of dozen times in the last five hundred years when certain Russians and certain Georgians were not trying to kill each other, and had taken a tile selfie to remember it by.
There were also tourists there who wanted to see what we were up to: the beards make them think we are remarkable in some way. (Have you all read “How To Talk Dirty And Influence People” by Lenny Bruce? Honey Bruce, his wife, had long hair, and was always being approached by women who said that they used to have hair just like that, but they only cut it last week. This is also the case with beards. It’s about 60% girlfriends and 40% jobs that made them shave, or pass over their chins with some modern scruff-generating tool. I don’t know why a girl would go with a man if she didn’t like secondary sexual characteristics, like violent bombast. There are other choices.)
There was friendship food, too. Roast corn on the cob. A family with two crying baby girls wanted a photo, also an Azerbaijani and an Iranian. Arabic was the lingua franca of the corn stand.
On the trip, we received another liquid gift: chacha. It is the Georgian version of grappa, homemade by the driver. This we were able to take little sips of frequently over the next couple weeks, before leaving the rest in Romania; grappa is better omiyage than beverage.
Once again, an additional charge for something that was a planned part of the tour manifested itself: the driver wasn’t allowed to drive us up a little hill to the Gergeti Trinity Church, and we had to pay one of the locals to do that instead. It was like $16, but was just a bit annoying. The church had great views, and had a monk living there. The van, and many others in town, was right hand drive. I think this is another case of Japanese unloading their old cars, just as in Palau.
On the way back, we had an early dinner at Pasanauri, featuring the Georgian dumpling Khinkali (one order came with 15 of them between three of us) where we were instructed on the proper way to eat it (be sure to drink all the juice); incredibly delicious barbecued lamb and pork; tarragon soda pop (I think I’ll stick to tarragon leaves); and pickled vegetables, of which the weird one was Jonjoli. Look it up. The Georgian workers eat a lot but Americans are still fatter.
Note to Self: I heard a Nokia Ringtone (measures 13 through 16 of Gran Vals by Francisco Tárrega) today. I’ve been making notes, as one of these will end up being the last time I hear it.
Thursday, September 12
Traveling around, it’s obvious why global warming. Every country we go to is growing like the US in the 1950’s. New buildings, loads of cars. But instead of bootstrapping 120 million people, 8 billion.
We took a road trip to the east. We stopped for coffee at a little hut on Gombori Pass with a very entertaining host. There were bills of all currencies stuck to the ceiling, and two donation boxes, one for guests encouraging him to get married, and another for guests encouraging him to have fun.
The itinerary says we went to a palace/wine cellar, but I don’t remember that. What I do remember is the tour and wine tasting at Shumi winery, which is where we learned about the large underground clay pots called qvevris, and the Georgian style of winemaking which lets wine sit in them along with the skins and seeds. Most of their wines are still made using European methods, but several of them are made in the qvevris. We tasted both, and the qvevri versions were much more flavorful and interesting. The white qvevri wine was actually tannic, not something you often find. And orange. There was a bit of bread and cheese to have along with the wine.
The official tourist bit of local color about qvevri maintenance, is that when the workers dropped themselves down inside to clean them, they were expected to sing continuously. When their diving buddies up at the top thought their singing was getting too slurred, they would haul them out. It was their version of a radiation badge for alcohol intoxication.
We stopped at another fortress, and then went to the Khareba winery. This one was located in tunnels bored deep into the mountain, and we had a very enthusiastic high school student who had just completed Junior Year Abroad in the US conducting the tasting. Once again, the qvevri wines were better. Unfortunately, we never saw them on the menus, and the gift wine we’d gotten wasn’t one of them.
It was a big problem for Giorgi, the Junior Year Abroad, to upsell inside the cave. Endless paperwork and discouragement. Giorgi said he couldn’t just take five euros and give us wine because of video cameras. “It’s a prison,” I said. “There are video cameras in prison?” he said.
We returned to town, and got dropped off at Tiflis, another restaurant in the center of town. They didn’t speak English well, but we finally managed to order more pickles; Imretian khachapuri, pizza bread with cheese inside; and Megrelian kupati, a sausage. The last was taking forever to arrive, and I reminded them about it. I assume they forgot, but boy, was it delicious and spicy once we got it! The courses were cut like early Jim Jarmusch films: A plate. Nothing. A plate. Most tables had either nothing or one thing at them. I made a note on my phone that next time, we should come with a gun, a hostage, and a chess clock, to encourage faster service.
We found another taxi, and were overcharged less.
Friday, September 13
We checked out of Hotel Anata, and headed west towards Gori. We began at the post office, again a long-winded affair because there are so many pretty stamps to choose from and they sum with only great Diaphantine difficulty to useful values for post cards. The post cards I had ready for mailing, she cancelled in front of me. I enjoy watching postal people cancelling stamps. None has ever matched the old guy in Venice, California, in 1979. It’s too bad you can’t all share my memories.
On the freeway driving north to the monastery complex, we passed a statue of a man and a lion engaged in mortal combat. Tatia told us the story: the man and the lion killed each other, the man’s mother came to claim his body, and ended up weeping together with the mother of the lion. It isn’t often you see statues based on anti-war mythology.
There is also an ambitiously ugly bank, built during the Soviet era. It has holes in it, like brutalist lacework.
We visited the Jvari Monastery a short distance out of town which has a wonderful view of the valley; then descended to the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta (a six-letter word: M ts kh e t a). Tatia baptized her daughter there. The font used to be reserved for kings, but the Soviets democratized things.
All the statues aren’t inspirational here. Far up on the wall of the cathedral is a bas-relief of a severed hand holding a chisel. It is one of the earliest surviving examples of the arm-and-hammer meme (which now adorns baking soda) and the story is, that the architect Arsukidze had his hand cut off so he could never create another cathedral as beautiful as this one. Copy protection, I guess you would say. If this reminds you of the statue of Silvius Brabo in Antwerp, so be it.
The highlight of the day was the Stalin Museum in Gori, which is where he was born. He really didn’t seem to hang around Gori very long, though — he hooked up with all his communist friends and started making trouble everywhere. The museum was built around the site of the house he grew up in, likely clearing quite a bit of space around it to build the museum and monuments. There was also the bulletproof railroad car he would use to travel long distances. It was a bit difficult to understand the thick accent of the museum guide, but I contented myself with reading English captions of the displays.
Then we went out to the Uplistshkhe cave city, an archeological site with rocks into which caves had been carved, as a kind of anthropogenic tafoni. I think I would have rather spent more time at the Stalin museum; there are a lot of cave cities in that part of the world and we saw a much more spectacular one two days later.
We had dinner at a restaurant which most reviewers didn’t like. Some reviewers accused the restaurant of cheating on prices when the bill came, causing us to watch that they charged us the same prices that we’d seen on the menu. They saw us, perhaps, taking snapshots of the menu. Their specialty was french fries and burgers. Gori is a small town not noted for cuisine.
We stayed in a very cute Airbnb in Gori, inside an older couple’s home. They had a washing machine, which we made good use of.
Saturday, September 14
The road to Kutaisi is like a U.S. Highway of the 1950’s — lots of shops with their wares out in the parking lot — but the Chinese Silk Road engineers are working to fix that. They’ve already fixed the goods offered. There are massive amounts of wicker for sale in addition to native pottery. Soon it will all be a freeway, four hours to Turkey, and the government will wonder where all the unemployed people came from.
We visited two churches in the Kutaisi area. Bagrati Cathedral was one of many of the World Heritage sites we were seeing on the trip. While we were there, there was a wedding ceremony. Fortunately, Georgian ceremonies are much shorter than Romanian ones, and we were ultimately able to go in and look at the church.
There are always two beggars crouching like nats before the gate of a church. Well, maybe 15, but you notice the ones that look most like architecture. Often musicians, too. We were accosted by musicians.
Gelati Cathedral had been a World Heritage site, but a fellow named Andrea Bruno did some modern reconstruction of it, and that caused it to be removed from the list. Architecture schools need to shut up about new buildings communicating with old ones in the view of self-satisfied vandals. The Louvre is only the most prominent victim. The few success stories involve buildings that weren’t great to begin with: the shot tower mall in Melbourne, for example, or even the Stalin Museum. In most cases, aesthetically coherent modification of old buildings can best be accomplished by artillery bombardment. Not even kidding — compare the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche ruin with its 1963 belfry, a scaled-up Eierlikör gift box from the mall down the block.
Remembering the quotation unaccountably in a restaurant in Arequipa: “Restaurer un édifice, ce n’est pas l’entretenir, le réparer ou le refaire, c’est le rétablir dans un état complet qui peut n’avoir jamais existé à un moment donné.”
Wikipedia says that Andrea Bruno actually consults for UNESCO. As what, a bad example? Jamais existé indeed. The photos of Bargati that you see on the web are all taken from the unreconstructed side; Bruno’s work is hidden like Stalin’s left arm and Roosevelt’s wheelchair.
Notre Dame is in great danger. The French are creative. Come back in 20 years and you’ll think it has been bit into by an aluminum and glass velociraptor generating tension between modernist and classical lines, or whatever https://www.artybollocks.com/generator.html tells you to say.
Some other guys wearing traditional shirts with ammo across the chest sang for us, and then passed the hat. Ammunition belts in church, it’s like you never left Texas. Tatia, our guide, said, after we were pursued at some length by the itinerant singers, that it was impolite in Georgia to say “no” when an elderly man wants to talk to you. I expect that is leveraged to what Americans would think of as male privilege.
Kutaisi is a nice place, and we would definitely go there again. We found a very cute restaurant for dinner called Sisters. Their “vegetable pate”, called phkali, was orders of magnitude better than what we’d had in Tbilisi. It’s made largely with walnut paste, but there were three different kinds that were delicious. We also had chicken with a pomegranate sauce with plums. Also an Imeretian khachapuri, their answer to naan. We should have skipped dessert, which was a large bowl of cream of wheat. We had a glass of white and a glass of red. They let us do some tasting to make better choices. Our hotel was about 15 minutes away from the center, giving us an opportunity to see more of the city as we walked downtown and back.
The “Gay or Eurotrash” of Georgia is: Khinkali or white ceramic salt shaker in the larger-than-life form of garlic?
Sunday, September 15
In the morning, we walked to the nearby Sataplia nature reserve, which had fossils of some very old dinosaur footprints, two of which were of a very large dinosaur, and the rest of which were of a much smaller reptile. It also had a cave to walk through, with many drip stones. Unfortunately, they were lit with colored lights; it might have been more interesting to see their true colors. I suppose they were all gray. But total points for naming one of the stalagmites “the heart”. I was prepared for a valentine, but it’s a meaty heart larger than a person.
The best roadside attraction in Georgia is on the way to Akhaltsikhe. Old ladies sell a delicious sweet bread called “nazuki”, made only in that area. It has cinnamon and raisins, and is baked in a clay oven. There are recipes online, but you can’t match the handed-through-a-car-window experience.
In Akhaltsikhe, we visited Rabati Castle, a large complex with a museum, a mosque, a hotel, a fortress, and several reflecting pools.
The castle was so reconstructed that it might as well have been new. I would say that this country leans toward the Rebuild As It Might Have Been theory of archaeology and tourism, as opposed to the Leave It On The Ground school (Hattusas in 1999 at least) and the Thousand Footnotes approach of which the Hildesheim Cathedral is a good example: all blank walls unless they are dead sure that the fragment they found in the ground was exactly there.
We found a restaurant near our hotel which was well-liked by the Internet. It seemed somewhat ordinary to us; we had some traditional dish which was a chicken boiled in milk. It was an entire chicken, but mercifully, it was a very small one, constituting probably half an American chicken. We also had a nice grilled trout.
Monday, September 16
We drove to the Vardzia cave complex. The road from Akhaltsikhe to Vardzia was only paved this summer. Before that it was gravel and the trip took two hours each way. Now it is one hour ten minutes. Mediterranean scenery still, leaning toward the Nevada.
Vardzia is a cliff into which hundreds of caves had been carved, and in which Queen Tamar lived in the 12th century. You reach it on a shuttle bus from the parking lot, with a voice activated tour guide responding to keywords. It isn’t a language thing, either. Something of the culture of Intourist has persisted as an ideal here. Plunging forward resolutely against the threat of historical unanswerability.
Queen Tamar lived in several of the rooms so the invaders would never know where she was. A church, with the usual cross floor plan and arches and domes, was also carved into the rock. The passages and cliffside trails go on and on and on. It is hot on the cliffside. Two intrepid tourists from Poland took no notice of the difficulties, including their eleven month old papoose. I really respect the trouble that people go to, in traveling. No matter where you are, there are people who worked so much harder to get there.
We then drove back to Tbilisi, stopping for a late lunch on the way. We arrived at Vinotel, our luxury hotel for the last night, and went on a little walk to Culinarium, where we had a light dinner.
Tuesday, September 17
Vinotel had a somewhat world-class breakfast buffet, but annoyingly had live molto rubato piano for half an hour. She played “Over The Rainbow”. Many extra notes and no discernable rhythm sense. The phrasing was nonsensical. It turns out to be important to know the words of a song, even if you are playing it without a singer. And also to know the chords.
The waiters poured champagne. Vinotel cost 3 1/2 times as much as the other hotels where we stayed in Georgia. Was it 3 1/2 times as good?
We were driven to the National Museum, and saw exhibits of taxidermy, ancient treasures, religious art, and the Soviet occupation.
We then went to the “open air ethnography museum”, in which characteristic houses from all over the country had been transported to this large park at the edge of town. (Characteristic for each region, but seemingly houses for moderately wealthy people. Ethnography is mostly about the moderately wealthy. Poor people and rich people are more similar.) As we walked into the first house, the sky opened up and started pouring rain, also characteristic of the region. We waited inside for the storm to subside, and then explored a bit more; we didn’t really feel like getting too far from the car.
Tbilisi has a large reservoir nearby called the “Tbilisi Sea”. A large monument looks a bit like a Modern Movement Stonehenge, with large slabs covered with carvings of Bible scenes tending toward the glorious. We talked there to some Iranian immigrants to Georgia. We had dinner at a fancy fish restaurant on the lake which was mostly empty because of the early hour, and then got on the sleeper train to Baku.
We arrived in Athens, and got picked up by name by a taxi friend of the Airbnb host, who helped us into the apartment. It was a very compact apartment, complete with a little kitchen, but no room to walk around. The toilet was located inside the shower. This is not an uncommon arrangement in tiny houses. We went to sleep. This neighborhood of Athens did not look that great.
Sunday, September 8
We woke up and searched the neighborhood for breakfast, finding the Bread Factory which had all of the basics (coffee, tea, orange juice, and pastry). The location is convenient to brothels. On the walking street Iasonos, they are the doors with signs that say “open” but with no other identifying information.
Then back to the hotel, and up towards the Acropolis Museum. As we went up there, we discovered all of the little breakfast places that we should have gone to. Oh well, next time.
We entered into the line at a gate among hedges. It’s like the bridge of sighs, the last sylvan coolness you will experience for a while. The Acropolis Museum has been open for ten years. Many artifacts, particularly the decorated elements of the Parthenon, had been weathering badly in the smoggy air and were getting damaged; the museum was built so they could be shown in conditioned air. The entire top floor, the Parthenon Gallery, showed these elements. Most significant were the gaps, where the museum indicated which of the marbles had been abducted by Lord Elgin. The Greeks want them back. I understand their point of view, but I also understand the British point of view as well, that these marbles would by now be stumps of corroded limestone or garden ornaments of God knows who, if they had not been judiciously stolen. Art theft is a special category of preservationism.
The lower floor showed various statues and pottery and artifacts found on the Acropolis hill and the slopes beneath. You couldn’t take pictures on one of the floors, which seemed the same as all the floors where you could take photos. Perhaps Lord Elgin was pissed at some officious curator who wouldn’t let him take selfies.
An additional exhibit which opened this year was the “excavation”, where the foundations of ancient houses underneath the museum were visible. Houses were built on top of older houses, and it was a bit impenetrable to figure out what was what. There were diagrams which tried to help, but were often confusing. AR will go a long way to fixing this; we’ll rent the goggles if we go back in ten years.
We walked back a different way, stumbling on a book fair in a park, though it was all Greek to us. A website had a list of interesting spots that locals eat at, and we went to “Avli”, and were seated, after some shuffling, in a hallway. It was tasty, and fun to watch the locals. Ray was facing in the direction of the stairway cat, who was watching us.
Monday, September 9
We found a place for breakfast in the neighborhood where we’d seen places the day before, after being rejected by some and rejecting others. It was early, by tourist standards. We walked back to the Airbnb, and took our luggage to a nearby store operated by the host, to keep until our night flight.
We explored our neighborhood a bit more on our way to the post offices, seeing picturesque junkies passed out with their cell phones in their hands, and another who had shit himself and might have been dead. After the post office, we decided to go walk up Lycabettus Hill, a very prominent hill not too far from the Acropolis. It was a good hike, and it had an excellent view of the Acropolis and the entire city. The weather was hot, and the water at the view cafe on top priced accordingly.
Coming back down, we stopped at A is for Athens’ rooftop bar to get a picture of the hill we’d climbed, and had a pear cider from Sweden and a mastic tea. The mastic was a sweet goo, sticking to the spoon in the tea.
We were forbidden to take pictures of “Little Kook”, a restaurant designed by a quirkiness consultantcy.
Then we went to a little fish restaurant for locals (whatever that means so close to the Acropolis). The fish was peppery, something you don’t see much here. We stopped by another restaurant for its cheese plate, and returned to the store, for our taxi ride back to the airport.
We got up early and drove back to the Venice Tronchetta to return the rental car, which needed to be back by 10am or it would cost a lot more. We found that we could take a vaporetto directly from the Tronchetta, and didn’t need to use their silly people mover to add yet another step. A ticket office there added a bunch of rides to our Venezia Unica cards, which we will have to renew the next time we go to Venice, since they expire in a year.
We walked to Cà dell’Angelo, the hotel we’ve stayed at the previous two times, which gave us a good rate for a long stay, and then met up with Johan, rode to Lido, where all the movies are, and saw our first two programs: the world premiere of Pelikanblut, in which a woman adopts an evil child, and tries too hard to make it work. It was followed by the world premiere of La Vérité, with Catherine Deneuve by Kore-eda Hirokazu. I wanted to see more of Ethan Hawke even though he was charged with making his character uninteresting, in furtherance of the character studies of the leads. Also it was terribly inside-baseball, in the sense of presuming that the audience lives for understanding the process by which actors and writers produce. In Venice that is a given, but I wonder about the prospects of such movies elsewhere.
Afterwards, dinner at Al Vecio Marangon, after getting off the ferry at Zattere and discovering that the places we were aiming at were closed. A man was staring at me. I thought he was angry because I was staring at his super good-looking son, but it turned out later he was trying to decide if we were ZZ Top.
After dinner, we headed off to the Corner Pub. The bartender insisted on taking Johan out into the midnight street, so he could pull down his pants and show us his thigh tattoo. I have never been able to inspire that level of sharing in the service economy.
Thursday, August 29
At the vaporetto stop, a publicist for the Film Festival wanted our photo, reading the brochure. Subsequent interactions with strangers were more challenging.
The security at the Film Festival is high, but I think that the organizers must take on a lot of newcomers to swell their ranks. At the pat down at the arrival point from the festival ferries to Lido, a security person (maybe even police) wanted me to remove my phone and my glasses from my pocket. If the staff can’t tell an iPhone and a pair of glasses by touch, they haven’t searched enough American tourists.
First up was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Pedro Almodóvar was getting a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. We saw it many years ago. I didn’t remember the first part — does this happen to you with movies? — but at some point your memory gets in the groove and you remember the rest well. Also the palette.
The highlight of moviegoing for the day was a Saudi film called The Perfect Candidate. It is a little stodgy as a movie, in that the scenes are more than a quarter of a second long and there aren’t any CG spaceships the size of Manhattan, but I thought it made a point about political engagement which American liberals seem incapable of comprehending: one can be politically effective without winning an election, and therefore you don’t have to compromise on every last thing and move to the Electable Center. As it played out in Saudi Arabia, the female candidate did not get beheaded, although she didn’t win, either, and in the end, the road outside her clinic got paved.
(I say “liberals” because the rightists are perfectly aware of how third parties work. The Tea Party was founded in 2006, did not fret about throwing the 2012 election to Obama by failing to back the moderate Mitt Romney, and elected one of their own four years later. Ten years from start to the Presidency, and the Republican Party wiped out in the process, leaving only the name. Interestingly, that’s the same track record as the Republican party itself: started in 1850, elected a president in 1860.)
Sunset found us at a rooftop bar, with prices and quality to match all the view pubs in the world. After that, to the Wildner, where Johan knows everybody and we are embraced by virtue of his aura.
Friday, August 30
The day begins as always. Walk downstairs and a couple of hundred meters to the ticket office to see how well their opinions match those on the web, as far as what tickets are available. Purchase tickets in the course of a half hour of text message consultation with Johan and Dave, who are trying to do the same from the festival site. Later, go out for coffee and juice. Today, lunch came first, at CoVino. CoVino is a nice place but the truly great innovation there is a piece of flatware that functions as a spoon but is actually a small spatula, of the kind you use to scrape out bowls. These should be in all place settings, worldwide. The other interesting thing about CoVino is that none of the waiters had tattoos visible on their forearms. It’s something you don’t not see very often any more.
Afterwards, a spot of orange juice for 5 euros, and a trip to the island where a different policeman wanted to see and not just pat my iPhone and glasses; and then two more policemen near the theater wanted to see my passport. Yet they ignore the fat external battery, which on television would be a grenade.
I am starting to think that they have some specific information that somebody who looks like me is planning propaganda of the deed, using something that looks like a cell phone and glasses. Italy has a history of imprisoning people who look like other people.
I was walking around with a copy of my passport, as the US State Department tells you to do. But the Carabinieri want to see the original, so I’ll begin carrying that instead.
The movies we saw were disconcerting, which is what you come for. Madre was about a mother who lost her young son to a kidnapper, and ten years later, befriended a teenager who was about that age. Electric Swan was all symbolist, concerning a skyscraper in Buenos Aires where the bad luck drips from the top story down to the basement and the tremors transmit up to the penthouse.
Afterwards, we ended up at the Ristorante Wildner, near St. Mark’s square, same as last night. All these people know Johan, because he spends a lot more time in Venice and is much more friendly. But they didn’t pull down their pants for him, as at Corner Pub.
Saturday, August 31
I left the waiting line before I got to the ticket office because Dave was able to buy tickets for what we wanted, on line. There must be a better way to allocate theater seats.
The first art Activity today was going to see the beach opera at the Lithuanian Pavilion. This involved standing nearly two hours in line. There were two girls behind us, writing post cards as they waited. I felt I had missed an opportunity. There was also a really cute line jumper I was too shy to chat up.
Lithuania’s representatives at the Biennale had taken a military warehouse, paved it with beach sand, laid out blankets, and got singers in beachwear to emote, while the audience looked down from a mezzanine that surrounds the beach on all sides. As with all operas, you couldn’t really understand what was going on without carefully consulting the libretto, which detracts from the Experience. It had something to do with Global Warming and Ecological Destruction. The show played continuously in a cycle. The guard at the door said the average person stayed 20 minutes, and when he left, the next person could come in. We selfishly stayed the whole one hour duration. It was quite interesting.
After, we went back toward St. Mark’s to find our way to evening films. I say “toward”: the space-time of San Marco is well defined, but it is unlike the curved space that you find around Black Holes and the like. As you approach San Marco, you slow down, even in your coordinates. Therefore, by the Principle of Least Time, if you want to go to a place behind the square relative to where you are, you pick a path that refracts northward, away from the square, not all the way to Fondamente Nove obviously, because also you have to realize that Rialto has a similar repulsion of nearly the strength of San Marco. If you aim first (coming from the Armory) to the Acqua Alta bookstore, and then thread the needle half-and-half between the Grand Canal and the Piazza, you should get to La Fenice in less time than if you went straight. The geodesic is more sensible toward Accademia. Tourists fall off even faster than 1/r² — they can’t wait to get back to their staterooms and happy hour and blog that they’ve done Venice.
Outside the North Macedonia pavilion, a teenage boy with suitcases said to his dad: “Is this even the street?” “A question you will be asking much,” I said. They both laughed after they realized I was speaking to them.
Three more movies:
No One Left Behind: American GIs go to Mexico to bury their fellow soldier who had been deported after his service, and then killed himself.
You Will Die At Twenty: a film from Sudan about a boy who, during his naming ceremony, the holy man pronounces will die at age 20. He didn’t, but everyone sure expected him to. This movie was filmed in the director’s father’s village. The ritual that kicks off the story really does happen. Gosh there are a lot of ways to be stupid and if you don’t travel, you’ll only see the ones that happen on television.
Adults in the Room: a film by Costa-Gavras “dramatizing” the efforts by Yanis Varoufakis to work out a sustainable resolution to the Greek Debt Crisis with the European banks, and their resolute refusal to allow that. This was a Guardian “Opinion” piece that should not have been a movie. Except for the final dance number, there was nothing that couldn’t have been conveyed in an SMS with emojis. Everything explained three times at fourth grade level. Remember the black and white 16mm educational films in fifth grade, in which everyone spoke in complete sentences lifted from 19th century biographies?
The movies came so close together we had to eat at the festival bars, 66 euros for salad and sandwich.
Sunday, September 1
Today was our first exhausting day at the Biennale itself. We went to Arsenale. It was also like reading the Guardian. Bad news from every country, a few cockamamie ideas, and absolutely nothing designed to make you feel good in any part of your perception. The notes I wrote on my iPhone that day included, “Can’t spell art without Arduino”, and, “Christian Bendayán is the Peruvian artist who did Indios antropófagos.” Christian Bendayán is a hoot. Google him. He mixes up the old Anthropology Racism with the New Anthropology Racism and a decent amount of skin, too, not all of which you want to see, of course. If you want to see all the skin you’re seeing, it’s just porn.
Monday, September 2
This was Giardini day, the other oppressively large venue for the Biennale. It is divided into permanent country pavilions. Don’t know what happens there on the off years. Probably weddings.
I ended up disagreeing with Johan about the Denmark exhibit. It was a black sphere that somehow managed to look like a disk from any angle you saw it. I am OK with single-concept gags. But I think Johan got distracted by an impenetrable video which turned him off to the whole exhibit, and some dictum to the effect that the sphere “represents the accumulation of memories, traumas, and stories” well, whatever, if you’re going to read descriptions of art you’re never going to enjoy anything.
Japan was cute, too, a bunch of imaginary imaginary stories written about tsunami boulders, which are evidently a real thing. Although, there comes a point, and it arrives early on, when mocking yourself is perceived as a way of bragging that you are important enough to mock.
Burning Man has so much better artists than the Biennale. They actually build art, instead of building explanations of why they didn’t build art.
Branzino and duck ragout for dinner.
Tuesday, September 3
This was the day we saw Painted Bird. It is a slasher film with only one victim — real “Mr. Bill” territory. It’s clearly set in the Holocaust, except fictionalized, so that Jerzy Kosinski never had to do fact checking on dates and troop movements and the like. He also stole most of it, I learned upon doing later research. That doesn’t bother me. History should be plagiarized — the alternative is making it up. As usual, the critics are more upset that an adult woman had sex with a young boy (I think that’s what happened) than that a crazy guy gouged out somebody’s eyes for looking at his wife. I can’t make sense of human morality.
Before that, there was a documentary about an organization that Tim Robbins supports, which teaches acting to convicts. It’s a good thing he does. People let themselves be far too ignorant about what goes on in prisons, and prisons are ten times as big a part of this country as Silicon Valley (2.3 million prisoners, 225,000 tech bros in the South Bay). (That wasn’t in the movie, that is the Internet talking as I write this.) It’s much better that people coming out of prison have the skills required to get jobs as con men, rather than just bopping people on the head. The movie is called 45 Seconds of Laughter and refers to a warming up exercise, laughing. I suppose the concentration camp guards had stretching exercises as well.
Wednesday, September 4
A couple of forgettable pavilions and then two excellent movies, where “excellent” means “really hot but not intimidatingly so actors who take off their shirts from time to time.” Moffie is a sweet film about a closeted gay South African white boy doing his military service killing black people. Kai Luke Brummer, the lead actor, was there after the presentation, making the same shy gestures as he did in the movie. I asked him afterwards if he was consciously staying in character for the Q & A and he said, no, South Africans are just this way. When not torturing ANC sympathizers. Or, who knows, maybe even then. It is really accepted now, to have characters with Asperger’s syndrome or nearly so, which takes quite a load off the performers, not having to find a place to breathe in the middle of a mad Tarantino rage.
Babyteeth is another movie I think you all ought to see, if you are trying to get the taste out of your mouth from movies where dying young people get prettier and wanner as their life is snatched from their pale grip. The gal here is dying, all right, but she is doing enough other stuff that her parents have time to worry about some other aspect of her life than that she is dying.
The third movie of the day was Saturday Fiction which had the usual play within a play, alternate history, is any of this true? going on. It rains more than Blade Runner. The Internet has made us lazy viewers, I fear. You really want all the characters to be clickable.
Thursday, September 5
We awoke to no electric power. Christina came knocking on the door shortly after. Told us to unplug everything. She had telephoned someone. It became gradually apparent, that the power would not return that day, so, when we got back from all the movie and dinner activities, Christina had found us a different place to stay — not far, but the usual degree of Venetian confusing. This other place was about the size of our house, all in the highest end beige, and with fixtures that shattered when you nudged them off their delicate perches. I assume. Anyway, we swept up and went to bed.
There were movies, too. Borotmokmedi, The Criminal Man was about Georgia, which is the next spot on our travels, so obviously I wanted to see that one, although our specific plans do not include incomprehensible murder. The description of the film made it sound a bit like that James Thurber story where a man mistaken for a gangster gradually turns into one. It wasn’t like that, although Thurber is darker than the Walter Mitty image projects.
There was a shorts program, too. One of the more motionless ones was titled After Two Hours, Ten Minutes Had Passed. It attempts to convey the tedium of a juvenile detention facility.
For a change from Venetian fare, go to Africa Experience. The decor is over the top without being embarrassing (no to Nubian nudes with spears, yes to chandeliers made from drums) and the food and especially the staff are top notch. We had the “chef’s selection” and Guinean beef peanut stew with herb flavored rice, and couscous with another beef preparation. All excellent. Apparently their workers are all refugees from different places, which is how they can get a whole continent packed into a walk-in closet in Dorsoduro. The service is as good as any. Only two working the front room but there weren’t more than a half dozen tables. I recommend you go there. Or to Africa. There are a lot of connections through Rome to different African cities, especially via Dubai and Addis Ababa. But you can’t go to Corner Pub afterwards.
I’m probably not doing a favor by reviewing Corner Pub. They have enough customers already, and their customers are having more fun than you, because they are doing a semester abroad at the Guggenheim nearby and this is their first experience drinking legally — and in the street, no less. Really, don’t bother them. Go somewhere else. Johan’s favorite bartenders have gone on to other things. The new ones are a little subdued. The main guy is still there. I can’t imagine how he maintains his cheer through the whole evening.
Friday, September 6
We were invited back to our originally scheduled room at 11 AM — the power had returned.
The Biennale has many pavilions scattered all around Venice, it’s a great opportunity to see parts of the city you wouldn’t see otherwise. There are also several other exhibitions happening, including a large one with three venues put on by the European Cultural Center.
This was the last day of films, for us. We saw a lesbian romance with guns, and another set of shorts which ended with two naked guys wrestling in a locker room. I think it was a music video at heart — they were much friendlier than Viggo Mortensen’s adversaries in Eastern Promises. Various other sexual minorities were included, such as MILFs and infertile couples.
One last time to the Corner Pub for a final Ramazzotti, but by this time, Johan had a new crush, who worked at the seasonal bar “Al Leone D’Oro” across from the Palazzo. Johan manages to get contact information (in terms of where he’ll be working in the non-festival months) without ever asking for anything as tacky as a phone or email.
Saturday, September 7
The day you leave a place, you see almost as much as the day you arrive. The flocks of Brown Squall-class boats, that will be missing from your life at least until Clear Lake, if not the next time you see Venice; the tourists from all parts of Midwestern America, in all sizes from overweight to morbidly obese. The pavilions, some of which have free post cards.
The Biennale attracts a lot of non-Biennale artists whose art falls between that of the perpetual little glass shops and that in the National pavilions. Some of it is even offensive enough that you wouldn’t have it in your house. The artist’s statements are funnier. “I, Barbro Raen Thomassen, am a visual artist and woman. I am not on facebook and I have no mobile phone. Pray for me.” This is superior to anything generated by the bot at https://www.artybollocks.com/generator.html because it is more personal.
We had average cicchetti at lunch time, and then came upon, by accident, “Vino Vero”, a cafe highly recommended, so we had to do it all over again. Vino Vero is out of the way, north from Rialto and you would only pass by there if you were going to catch a vaporetto around the island back to San Marco. But you should make the effort.
We grabbed our luggage and walked to catch the boat to the airport. We took a 3:20 boat for a 7pm flight — air travel!
The road out of Idrija was closed for construction, so we took little mountain roads from our hotel to bypass the closure. All of Slovenia is quite scenic. The search for Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice (always the first stop of the day) led to several bistros in the town of Žiri. The last one had it — the proprietor said “God bless America!” when we said we were from California. Slovenians have a delicate relationship with the US just now.
We drove to Skocjan Cave, a very popular tourist spot. There were 250 people on the 12:00 tour, and we split into five groups. The first part of the cave had some nice stalagmites and stalactites, but it was the second part which was special: it was 140m tall, up to 60m across, and 3.5km long. We walked along the path about halfway up, with a ceiling way above us, and a floor way below. The surface of the path, rebuilt recently, was very high-tech; though it was pretty consistently wet throughout, there was no lack of traction anywhere, one always felt stable footing.
We emerged from the cave, walked along the river, went back to the car, and drove on to Trieste.
We found our hotel in Trieste on a pedestrian mall. It was brand new; our room was decorated with coffee paraphernalia; and it was all accessed with codes, no keys needed. We moved the car to a place we could get it at 7am, and then walked around town. We walked directly to Piolo & Max, the amaro shop where our picture is on the wall, and it was closed with a “back soon” sign. This can mean anything, in Italy. Around the corner was an outlet of Trapizzino, the fast-food joint we’d gone to in Rome. They serve little pieces of bread with stew inside; several different flavors were available.
After we finished our two pieces, we returned to the shop, and it was open. The woman immediately recognized us, and we spent awhile tasting several of her different infusions. We ended up with one with ginger, one with cardamom, an absinthe, and one with lemon verbena.
We completed our dinner a block away at Nearby Open Now which was an Osteria, Traditional in Decor. Watercolors of sailors arm wrestling, from the days when being seen with women made you less a man.
As we walked up the pedestrian mall back toward our hotel, we counted seven gelato places in one long block.
We drove on to Idrija. We stayed in a humble little room over a bar (TripAdvisor) some 6 km out of town, up a hill. As we were getting ready to go to sleep, a bunch of people musicians arrived to the bar below, with an accordion.
Through all of this, we were continually chatting with our friends who went to Hisa Franko with us:
Received 25 Aug, 2019 22:01:24 Dave Oppenheim The Wi-Fi here is called TP-LINK. I wonder if the admin login is default too. No Wi-Fi password needed. Also, here they use no top sheet. The duvet is too hot and using nothing is too cold. A sheet would have been just right.
Received 25 Aug, 2019 22:01:49 Emmett Byos
Received 25 Aug, 2019 22:02:01 Dave Oppenheim And there are mosquitoes.
Received 25 Aug, 2019 22:02:50 Emmett Our airbnb host is ridiculous
Sent 25 Aug, 2019 22:02:52 Hisa frankers and a tuba
Received 25 Aug, 2019 22:03:23 Emmett Oh you play the tuba to scare off the mosquitos
If Ibn Battuta had had chat, he would never have got anything written. Or maybe much more.
Monday, August 26
Several years ago, on the way back from NAMM, we attempted to go to New Idria, an abandoned mercury mine east of Hollister. We never reached it, there was an impassable pile of asbestos dust. Idrija is what that was named after, which had the second largest mercury mine in Europe (after Almaden in Spain, which another mine in the Bay Area was also named after). The mine in Idrija closed down about 20 years ago, but it is of course open for tours. Like the tour of the silver mine in Potosi, we were issued protective gear (this time only a jacket and a hard hat). Unlike that tour, this mine was easy to walk through standing all the way up, and there were no workers scurrying by as we explored. It was interesting to see deposits on the walls of cinnabar (mercury ore), and tiny inclusions in the rock of liquid mercury.
Our guide had backpacked through South America around 2000 but did not go into the mines at Potosí.
The part of El Tío is played here by Prekmandlc the dwarf.
Then we went to another building several blocks away, the smelter. It had a fairly comprehensive museum detailing all the things mercury is used for, and showing the history of the Idrija mine. We walked up into the smelter, though there really wasn’t much left to see.
The guide at the smelter was funny, though. When you meet somebody in a faraway land, you speak slowly, but you also listen slowly, and you aren’t parsing for irony and zingers the way you listen to Emmett. So he got the drop on me at first. I don’t remember the conversation — another characteristic of witty talk — they must have had wall-to-wall secretaries at the story conferences for “Your Show Of Shows”.
After a bite of lunch featuring Idrija’s signature lamb dumplings, we went to the museum and saw many historical exhibits, including several showing Idrija’s history as a center for lace-making. Apparently lace was an industry which permitted money laundering from the mining industry. It also was Women’s Work. Since the mines closed, gender became redundant, and now boys do lacework, too. One of the guides said that boys even win some lace competition but I can’t find evidence for this on the merciful Internet, p.b.u.www.
We arranged with the museum guy to meet us at a historic water wheel a few blocks across town. We tried to drive there. Google sent us around tight curves and down a bike lane. Fortunately nobody seemed to care. The water wheel was immense — 10 meters in diameter. It had been used to pump water out of the mine.
We drove a short distance away to “Wild Lake”, a curious tiny lake by the side of the road. The curious part was that it was in a very small box canyon, with a fault at the far end. And beneath the fault, there was an underground cave, full of water. We would frequently see ripples from the cave on the surface of the lake. A sign next to the lake showed the various dives into the cave which have happened, people have gone quite deep into it.
We had dinner at the Hotel Jozef Restaurant, and went back to our little room. I like Hotel Jozef. Don’t be put off by the second floor view of the Hip Hop Petrol station — HJ manages to avoid most “view restaurant” tropes, like high prices and tiny creative portions. The salmon came with carrots, not broccoli (as was on the menu) because they hadn’t any broccoli. Our guide at the mercury mine told us this afternoon that nobody here grows carrots because they pick up mercury from the tailings. Hopefully these carrots came from upstream.