Friday, April 29, 2005

I'm back.

The return trip will aquire it's own story, soon enough.

I think I'll call it, "Theft at 30,000 feet"

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Theft at 30k.

I climbed aboard the nice shiny 777 that was to take me back to the States around 9:00, and within twenty minutes we were off down the runway. I had an aisle seat, but in the center section, so I really couldn't see much going on outside the plane.

I listened to my music until we backed out of the gate, at which point I killed it due to that "no electronic devices" embargo they place on us. I'm not sure what that's about. Somehow even when I've got my music player going, a friend's laptop running, and a buddy fiddling with his PDA all within three feet of me, their cell phones still manage to go off. If FCC regulations are designed properly so we aren't interfering with each other, why is it during takeoff and landing we're terrified that a device that doesn't even have broadcast capacity (like my Rio) is going to send the plane's electronic systems all wonky? Maybe I'm just a little overly-trained but it seems the giant electromagnetic fields created by the engines and alternators would probably drown out any field I could generate anyway.

I attempted to fiddle briefly with my entertainment unit (an embedded-in-the-seat-in-front-of-you model that I found very cool. I have taken my share of commercial flights over the last decade, but this was the first time I had my own in-seat entertainment unit, and I noticed happily that there were actually two different movies in the listing that I wanted to see. This trip was going to fly by! [Har har]. However, in my attempt to fiddle with my entertainment system I noticed that none of the buttons were having any effect. That's funny.

I looked around, and nobody else was really trying to play with their systems yet so I couldn't confirm that controls weren't all simply disabled during takeoff and landing (which reminds me: if we're trying to shut down all those pesky extra electronics, why were 300+ little LCD screens all still running?).

However, once we got in the air it became clear that the other passengers were using their systems just fine, while mine still did nothing. I overheard the people in the row behind me ask an attendant about it because theirs weren't working, and he said that a girl up front would try and 'reset the system' shortly.

After about an hour I managed to snag an attendant and asked about it, and he gave an exasperated smile. "Oh, I hate this system." He said, trying to be cheerful and express disgust at the same time (a tricky combination). He took my control stick from my hand (that's another complaint I have--the control design was incredibly stupid) and banged it against my seat handle. This didn't seem to help, but soon thereafter something fuzzed on the screen and he said "hmm. . .maybe that worked." He pressed a few buttons and some of the selections actually worked, so I thanked him. I don't know whether the system was reset somewhere else on the plane or whether him knocking the control unit around actually had an effect, but I wasn't going to argue one way or another.

However, constant bursts of high-frequency, eardrum damaging static fed into the audio often, and the video would frequently stutter and fuzz, making any video impossible to watch anyway. And it wasn't just mine; the two screens to my left exhibited the exact same problems. After half an hour the system dissolved back into complete snow and white noise anyway, and I gave up. I asked a few more attendants and about four-hours out, one of them looked at us incredibly apologetically and explained that they had reset the system many times and there was really nothing they could do.

Now, I should point out that the Delta people are always wonderfully helpful, and I love their cabin crew. They are nice, polite, and will go out of their way to make your day as best as they can with the resources they have on hand. They just couldn't do anything.

Normally I'd have had more patience than this, but my previous three Delta flights had all had a seat related problem, so I was beginning to lose what little I had left, and not with the cabin crew. Rather with Delta for not keeping a competent enough cabin maintenance watch. On the flight out to Seattle last summer one of my audio channels had been damaged. On the way back, the audio had been completely nonfunctional. On the flight to London, my seat didn't even recline (and no, I wasn't in or around an exit aisle--the seat next to mine reclined just fine). And now I was in a seat with litterally no entertainment capacity, and was forced to take a nine hour flight with no way to keep myself entertained. The attendants told us that as many as eight other seats in addition to mine had failed.

So I stole a bottle of vodka.

Just a mini. Pretty much the way Kevin Kline did it in French Kiss. I stretched my legs in the back-area until the crew members wandered from the area and picked one off. It's Finlandia, and I plan to hang onto it until the next time I'm forced to fly Delta and deal with whatever shit is broken on my seat that time. I figure it will help a little.

And another thing. If there is a person from Delta reading this: change your damn 'unsafe turbulence' criteria! Sometimes we'd cruise for half an hour through weather so smooth it felt like we weren't moving, with the seat belt sign illuminated. Very inconvenient.

After we hit the runway, I had gathered my things so I could be one of the first off the plane, because it sucked there, and found myself caught halfway up the first-class section trapped between businessmen pulling their briefcases out of overhead bins. The fellow to my left had already moved up the aisle, and had left his sealed first class amenities bag in the seat pocket in front, next to me. So I swung my small Eastsport backpack around (it's a one-shoulder model) and dropped the little bag quickly into the opening. I've always wanted to know what was in one of those things, and whoever had been sitting there obviously didn't want it. Once I got home I discovered the contents aren't that cool, but it was the spirit of the thing, really.

So that's how I came by a bag of goodies and a mini of vodka without paying for either. Blatant disregard for the property of a corporation which apparently has a blatant disregard for the comfort and convenience of its passengers.

So there.

An Inkling about Oxford

The bus I took from Swansea deposited me outside Victoria Station in downtown London just after 6PM. Victoria by now was familiar territory, since I'd been here three times before and explored a bit each time. I found an internet kiosk and dropped a pound on 15 minutes of access, then e-mailed my roommates to tell them the rough time I would arrive, and then responded to an e-mail from my mother asking which day I would be arriving at the airport again? ("Tomorrow!" Sometimes I worry. . .).

I stuck my head in the bus station information area and got directions to a nearby supermarket, and bought some dinner. Having missed lunch, I knew I'd need the food.

Then I headed for the Oxford Tube bus and asked the driver about Headington (the subdivision near Oxford where my roommates live) and he said he could drop me there. I handed him my printed ticket confirmation and dropped my back in the luggage area, then grabbed a table with my newfound victuals and had a wonderful dinner of sandwiches and fruit.

Arrival in Headington was blessedly simple. When I jumped off the bus one of my boys, QW, was there to greet me, and we hugged and talked excitedly, since we hadn't seen each other in almost a year. Then we headed off towards home. He said they'd been holding a vigil since mid-afternoon at the bus stop because they didn't know the exact time I'd arrive, and my other roommie (John, known to others as Mary Poppins, JC, "Famous", and various other names, but referred to from here on as PFK) had headed home for a minute to grab an apple and check his e-mail, where he'd found my note saying when exactly I'd arrive (whoops!).

He joined us halfway home and we talked and laughed and told stories of the places we'd been PFK had been traveling just as long as I had in Europe, and we'd hit similar towns. When we arrived back to the house they introduced me to their charming roommates and we had a drink and told stories before we left to try and find some dinner for PFK because he hadn't had any. We headed for the nearest pub but they were packed wall-to-wall and stopped serving food in 15 minutes, so we voted for sandwiches downtown and hopped on a bus headed that direction. On the way to the bus, we passed a significant portion of a model of a great white shark sticking out of the top of someone's house, and the boys pointed it out to me and said that it was the "Headington Shark", placed in protest of something decades earlier. I said it reminded me of the sperm whale scene in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ("I wonder if it will be friends with me?"), and QW laughed.

We arrived in downtown Oxford, which is quite charming, even if it is very dark, and found a small pastry and sandwich shop. I bought a couple of curry filled pastries called Samolas (I think?) that were quite tasty, and PFK grabbed a sandwich and we walked across downtown to the Lamb and Flag, QW's favorite pub. There we got a couple of pints for QW and me and a half pint of cider for PFK, and after some effort found a table in a quieter corner and sat swapping stories and asking questions about each others lives.

After the second round had been consumed and we were beginning to grow tired, we finally moved ourselves back out into the night and headed for another bus stop. It was about 10:30 by this time, and I planned to be on a bus to London at 4:10 the following morning, so when we returned to the house, I crashed downstairs on the couch near the front door, and borrowed QW's alarm clock. At 3:40 the next morning I made a silent job of grabbing a little breakfast (thanks for the FruitNFiber, PFK) and scuttling out the door with my bags. I clambered aboard the almost empty bus and arrived in London about 5:30. I had padded my trip this morning by 3 hours, wanting two hours in the airport and an hour for any miscellaneous delays, but everything went by like clockwork. I arrived at Victoria Station and got on a train to London's Gatwick International Airport in just 4 minutes, and once there had no difficulty finding the check-in area and getting in line for my flight due out at 9:15.

Sadly, this mean that I had about two and a half hours to kill before I could even board the plane, and so I finished off my book, listened to some music, and twiddle my thumbs in the boarding area.

Finally it was time to board and head for home. 46 days of travel and adventure were coming to a close. I was leaving Europe much poorer and much richer than when I arrived. I'd basked in the sun beneath Hadrian's arch in Athens, climbed 1,000 steps in Paris, seen the most beautiful sunset of my life in the Black Forest, skied in the French Alps, toasted the health of fellow backpackers in Firenze, and stolen an orange in Sevilla. I had made friends and enemies, shared dreams with travelers and taken advice from strangers. I had learned a tiny bit about the life you must live when you carry your entire world with you every day. I hope I will keep the lessons with me forever. I'll certainly keep the memories.

Until the Alzheimer's sets in, anyway.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

I made it to London

Typing this from an internet kiosk in the bus station. Technology is truely amazing, no?

Next stop? Oxford!

Cardiff and Swansea

On Tuesday morning I awoke early and snatched some food from breakfast, then shouldered my pack and headed for downtown, to use bus 41 to the Dublin Airport.

I had been using, since Thursday, a five day Rambler bus pass, and it had expired the previous evening. However, I had not traveled through seven countries in the last month and a half for nothing, and I had done my share of bus and tram hopping from Germany all the way to Greece. In the two dozen people crushing onto the bus system, I flashed my pass at the driver, pantomimed using the automatic validator, and climbed upstairs for the ride to the airport.

This is made possible by the Dublin bus system because they have designed the buses to have only a single entrance, and during high-traffic periods this means that a crush of people getting into the bus, with a machine on the right and the driver on the left, and the driver doesn't bother trying to police the people that use the machine.

So if you visit Dublin any time soon, grab a single day pass and travel to your hearts content. Unethical? Sure, but this is a bus system which decided to issue new route maps, then put together zilch for a temporary replacement, leaving us visitors stranded with no knowledge of where the buses actually go. So I felt they owed me a free ride or two.

Arriving at the airport I turned in my bag, cleared security and headed for the boarding area. After waiting at the gate for an hour, and observing a three or four year old repeat QoD's airport rollover stunt, only face-first from a height of 4 feet off a window ledge, I acquired a seat on our nice comfy fourty minute hop to Wales.

My plane landed in Cardiff a few minutes behind schedule, and I wound up missing the 11AM shuttle from Cardiff City Center to Swansea by just 5 minutes, leaving me stranded until the noon shuttle. There's not a lot to do in Cardiff when you've only got an hour and your trapped in the bus station, so I twiddled my thumbs and waited for the train, working idly on the last few chapters of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book while I waited.

When the shuttle arrived I threw my bag below and climbed aboard, and enjoyed gliding through the idyllic Welsh countryside (some of the most lush of any on my travels) until I arrived in Swansea city center around 1:20. My instructions were to go through the car-park next to the bus station and wait at a set of benches in front of Tesco. My experience with Tesco being limited to the Tesco Express convenience-markets in London, I was a little concerned that I might not see where I was supposed to go, but I shouldn't have worried.

The Tesco in Swansea is the height and size of a Wal-Mart back home, large and hulking with a brightly colored band above the entrance that runs all the way around the building. It dominates the landscape of the area, with a huge parking lot in front and a giant brown brick multi-level car-park next door, which looks like it was awkwardly shoved between the giant supermarket and the bus station with a shoehorn.

I jumped from the bus, snatched my pack from the luggage area below, and headed around the front of the car-park for the Tesco. There I found that just between the Tesco and the car park there was a row of benches next to a tiny side-street that was used as a pick-up and drop off point. People did their shopping, dropped themselves and their bags on the benches, and waited for their rides. In a nice organized little line behind the benches were a set of saplings, and the area was clean and pleasant. I looked around for 80, but didn't see her, so I figured she had looked for me at 1PM (when we hoped I would arrive) and then, since she didn't see me, popped into Tesco to do her shopping. Since the benches were pretty full, I dropped my Dakine against the last tree in the line, making a back rest, and settled down to listen to my Rio and wait.

I waited until just after 2PM. She still hadn't appeared, and I was starting to wonder if I'd missed her somehow. Perhaps she had gotten the day wrong? Or forgotten I was coming? No, we'd just discussed it yesterday. 80 isn't forgetful like that. So I figured that perhaps she was still up at the bus station, having not seen me she'd gotten confused and figured that maybe I was there. So I hiked up and searched around the bus station for a while, then back down. No luck, and no 80!

So I settled back in on one of the now-clear benches (what else could I do?) and resumed reading, figuring that if I hadn't seen her by 3PM, I would break into my pack, find my copy of her mobile number and give her a ring.

Just before 3, I was just beginning to fear I might be forced to do so (and was starting to worry that maybe she'd gotten into some horrible accident and was in hospital) when she grabbed my neck from behind while I was reading.

She'd been in the area since 12:30! She'd been there to watch the 11AM shuttle unload, but I wasn't on it, so she had gone and done her shopping, then come back and checked the benches, then gone up to find the shuttle. Somehow I'd slipped past her to the benches while she was searching for the shuttle, and when she returned to look for me she didn't see me because the backpack (which she'd just finished traveling with for a month, and I figured would recognize) obscured me since I was sitting on the ground.

So it was that we crossed each other again (we think) when I got up to check at the bus station, and she finally found me when she came back. Apparently I'm easy to misplace, a fact we would confirm in the library the following day.

So around 3PM we grabbed all our stuff, packed it up, and hiked over to her place in the western end of Swansea. It's a nice little townhouse, halfway between the city center and the university, it is perfectly located for a student. We bustled in and dropped all our gear in the kitchen so we could unpack all of 80s food, and debated cleaning the kitchen. Covered in road-dust and sunshine, I grabbed a quick shower, and then we hit the streets again. We hiked out to Mumbles, the tiny fishing town named after a pair of beautiful little islands on the point just west of the bay. There we grabbed a few pictures, enjoyed the surf, and then headed back into town.

We were hoping to get downtown in time to catch "Sahara" at the Swansea cinema, since it was a movie we were both interested in seeing. Once inside the theater I could almost believe I was back in the States. Everything was familiar, from the ticket process to the seating layout. The movie was fun, fast paced, and enjoyable, and of course the handsome Matthew McConaughey and adorably foreign Penelope Cruz made it more than servicable, even if the plot was thin on practicality and heavy on a sort of modern American James Bond feel.

When the movie was over, we strolled back to the beach and then across to 80s place, and made a late night of it, drinking knockoff Malibu and Sprite and reminiscing about our trips. We had a lot to talk about, and it was fun to recall the stories and adventures we'd had just a couple short weeks before. I filled her in on Rome and how the kids had handled all the adventures of the area and she told me how classes were going and downloaded the last few pictures I had from our time together in Ireland.

I crashed on the couch even later, and neither of us wanted to be up and ready in time for 80s class at 11PM the next day. Sadly, no cancellation provided itself, and so we dragged ourselves from sleep at 9:30 or so, cleaned up, repacked (me) and grabbed coursework (her), then made the hike to school.

80s school is on the other side of a beautiful city park that she walks through on her daily commute, and I wish I'd thought to grab a picture of it as we strolled in that morning. I did remember to get a picture of her in front of her corner pub (where she'd developed a penchant for rugby, I hear) and another in front of her engineering building on campus later. I forgot to get one in front of her house, but hopefully she'll realize how important a picture of that will be later, and will get one before she leaves Wales in June.

As we passed through the park 80 filled me in on the layout of the library and gave me directions to the computer room. She was planning to leave me in the library to update while she was in class, and she had already given me a slip of paper with her student number and password so I could get into the system.

As she was giving me directions I listened with as much attention as I could muster. "Ok, when you enter the library you'll have to take an immediate left and then. . ." Other students wandered by, and the sun shone overhead, begging to have us stop and bask in it. ". . .a right. That part is easy. [static] Next. . ." A girl sauntered by with a friend. She had a dancer's body and a baby doll T with "Von Bitch" printed on it in cute italic lettering. My eyes followed her (and her curves), as she passed us while my ears, temporarily given short-shrift by my distracted brain, tried their best to keep up with the directions "blah blah just ahead [garble] a computer room and if that one is full there is another up the stairs in the back."

"Oh, cool. I don't think I'll have any trouble finding it." I fibbed, dragging myself from my reverie, hoping that my natural geek would home in on any computer in the library anyway, and besides, I could always ask somebody.

When we got to campus I entered the library while she took off for class, and inside the library, sure enough, an immediate left was my only course of action. I strolled down a short hall and then took a right. This right turned out to be around a freestanding wall, not a corner, and just beyond it was another hallway back in the direction I had come. So rather than turning only 90 degrees, I turned 180 around the corner. I looked up and voila, just as she had promised, there was a computer lab. "PC room 1" was proudly stamped on the door, and through the plate glass I could see that several of the 30 or so terminals were still free. I stopped at the door to make sure that there wasn't a class being held in the room, then entered, dropped my kit, and logged in.

I updated the blog, checked on some scheduling and weather, printed some ticket information I needed, then checked the time. 11:45. Great! 80 would be out of class in five minutes and we'd have time to grab lunch before I boarded my bus to London at 1PM in front of campus.

11:50. No 80.

I checked my e-mail.

12:00. No 80.

I checked some old web comics I used to read. Maybe her professor had kept her late?

12:10. No 80.

Good grief. Had she gotten delayed somehow? Had I misunderstood when her class ended? I checked an old forum I hadn't visited in years.

12:25. No 80.

Egads! What could possibly have gone wrong this time? I checked my e-mail again.

Sitting in my inbox, from 80, was a message time-stamped about 10 minutes before. "Where are you?!" was the subject.

I fired back. "In the library. PC room 1! Where I am supposed to be!"

12:35. 80 comes in.

"I didn't even know this room was HERE!"

"What?! I followed your directions exactly!" I fired back, hoping to be believed. "I took a right and went straight ahead and here we are!" I gathered my kit and 80 shook her head and beckoned for me to follow.

"No, I was talking about going straight. Up here. To the MAIN lab."

I followed her back to the corner and headed off at what would have been the 90 degree turn, and into a cavernous main room with 90+ computers and students everywhere. "Ooooh." I said. "No wonder it took you so long to try and e-mail. You just thought you'd overlooked me."

She turned back to me and made a face. "I didn't even know we had a PC room 1. I'd never been there before."

"Oh. Sorry. I guess we don't have time for lunch then."

So we went outside and got a picture of 80 in front of the building that has been her home for the last few months, and then we headed for the bus stop.

At the bus stop I said goodbye and we debated whether or not we were going to get a chance to see each other this summer before I (hopefully) depart on my next great adventure. We shared a Mon Cheri and I said I would try to e-mail her from my next stop, Oxford, where I would be staying a very short night with two old roommates of mine, who you'll meet in the next update.


I'm updating the Rome stuff as I go, as well as the stuff that's happening these days, so if you want to read the most recent writing you'll just have to hunt for it, I'm afraid.

I plan to do a re-release of the blog, day by day, either this fall or next spring, with proper editing, more pictures, and so-on. So if you'd rather just wait and read it as it happened later, you're welcome to sit tight.

Where are you?

So I keep losing Patrick... this time in the UWS library.

Ok... let me explain. This isn't the first time I've lost Patrick in Swansea. Yesterday I was supposed to meet him at the bus station around 1. The bus station is right next to Tesco's where I do my grocery shopping, and I needed to get groceries as well. So I told Patrick in an email and I quote:

Why don't we aim for 1pm. My class ends at 11, so that won't be a problem. What I'll do is wander over to Tesco (which is right by the bus station) and pick up some groceries, since I'm about out (anything you want me to pickup?). Then I'll plan to drop by the bus station around 12 and check back after I'm done shopping. There is really no seating in the bus station so my advice is to walk through the parking garage (you'll see what I mean when you get there) and then there is some benches off to the left, next to Tesco, you can sit on (I'll meet you there).

So I arrived at the bus station at 12 like I had said. Noticed that the Cardiff shuttle goes out of bus stand 22 on the :15 and the :45. The 12:15 bus dropped passengers off at stand 22, but no Patrick. That wasn't a big deal since I really wasn't expecting him until 1, I checked just in case he caught an earlier bus over and to find out where the bus dropped off.

So off I went to shop, and came back around 12:40, just in time to see the 12:45 bus to Cardiff pull up, there was an elderly couple that got off the bus, but again no Patrick.

The next buses from Cardiff arrived early (it's roughly a 45 minute drive to Cardiff from Swansea with out traffic - an hour with traffic) but I didn't realize this until 2, when I saw one pull into Bay 7 to unload its passengers before heading over to stand 22 to pick passengers up.

By 2 I'm starting to get a little worried, and went to check the seating area at Tesco's just in case he slipped by me. I still didn't see him. (He says he was sitting on the ground a little ways away from the benches, but he also commented that he got up about that time to try and find me, so we probably crossed paths by accident.) So I wait and check the next 2 buses, but still don't see Patrick. Ok... now I'm more than a little stressed. (I think part of this comes from the fact that whenever I traveled with my siblings without my parents, mom always said to make sure you bring everyone home, and not to lose anyone.)

So I decide to wander over to Tesco again to see if I can see him.

And lo and behold there he is, sitting on a bench in the sun with his back to me, reading the unabridged version of The Jungle Book, listening to his Rio.

That was yesterday.

Today I had a class, and Patrick's bus left from directly in front of the university, so he just grabbed all his gear and came with me.

Well technically I told him the layout of the library and that I would find him there around 12, since he wanted to use the computers to update.

So I get out of class at 11:50 and head to the library. I enter the library and go straight through to the Study Hall where there are probably close to 200 computers set up over 2 floors for students to use. And since final papers and dissertations are due, the place is packed. I wander ALL over looking for Patrick, AND I CAN'T FIND HIM.

So I log into a computer, and email him, and add the first line of this post, hoping he'll respond.

Three minutes later, he posts Updates. So I start to hope that he's seen my post asking where he is.


Thirty minutes later he replies to my email:

In PC room 1. Right around the corner. Facing the entry, for goodness sake. Computer 2.

PC Room 1? We have PC rooms? Right around the corner? What corner? So I log out, grab my bag, walk out of the Study Hall, and search for the elusive PC Room 1.

I find PC Room 2 & 3 but not 1.

So I head towards the information desk to ask where PC Room 1 is, and out of the corner of my eye I see it.


And there Patrick was standing at the printer. Wondering why on earth it took me so long to find him.


Oh well, everything turned out fine, and he caught his 1 PM bus to London, where he will catch a connecting one to Oxford to hang out with John and William before he has to head back to the States.

I'm leaving Wales today.

Oxford, then Gatwick, then back to the States.

It has been a journey.

"Oh! Ooh, this is fun!"

So we got back from Sahara last night, and booted up 80's trusty laptop to try and update once or twice before crashing. It was already pretty late and we'd walked a good deal (Mumbles, and the theater).

Before we opened up Explorer, though, I told her to open up Word and move the mouse across the page edges, because we had all had a conversation in Greece about how Word moved the mouse cursor from left to right and she didn't think it did.

So I go to get my journal and I hear her exclaim, from in front of the keyboard "Oh! Ooh, this is fun!" and she's just sitting there moving the mouse back and forth, on and off the left side of the page.

So I wrote the quote down, and today it makes its way into a post. Apparently she was entertained.

Monday, April 25, 2005


On Monday, I awoke late and had an early morning of it, then headed off into the slightly more western side of town, around St. James's Gate, where the Guinness Brewery (the original one) is located.

Just around the corner from it, shoved between other factories and glowering brick buildings with little glass and less welcome, you will find the Guinness Storehouse.

I sought out this amazing place and entered the hallowed vaults of the "Heart of Guinness" around 11AM. I purchased my ticket and was handed a drop of Guinness suspended in plastic with a small plastic ring attached to the back. The girl at the counter smiled as she explained that when I reached the top floor I could take an elevator up to "Gravity"--the 360 degree Guinness Bar/Dublin viewing space and there would receive a free pint for turning in the small plastic ring.

I expected I wouldn't spend more than an hour or two in the storehouse, since it's just an old warehouse that was once devoted to the fermentation stage of the process of manufacture, and has now been converted to a museum of Guinness memorabilia and history. I was wrong. I spent almost five hours in the storehouse. The designers have done a fantastic job of building interesting, engaging exhibits throughout it that I enjoyed and spent plenty of time absorbing.

When I had finished, I enjoyed my pint (and wonderful view of Dublin) quite thoroughly. I also met a brick mason from Australia and a charming young Canadian girl who had been teaching English in Korea for the past year, and who gave me fresh encouragement that I might spend a few years pursuing that temporary career in East Asia somewhere. It was a lovely day and by the time I had returned to Four Courts it was late in the day.

I wandered a bit, captured some strong pictures of the river as the sun dipped low in the western sky, and headed for Chill-Out Café. Once finished, I returned and spent a quiet evening reading before dropping off early. The next morning I needed to fly out of Dublin for Cardiff, and I had no intention of missing my flight.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Dead Day.

After we had updated the blog, we returned to Four Courts and slept heavily until five-thirty the next morning, when we awoke to begin preparing for 80's return to Wales.

After everything had been arranged in the dim light of pre-dawn (awkward, since we had to make as little noise as possible in the large dorm room, and wound up mouthing most of our conversation), we struck out for downtown, having been supplied a list of ways to get to Dublin Airport on a Sunday morning.

Since I was on a day pass and had no other plans, I rode out to the airport with her and we said our goodbyes before I returned to the city center. I got back around 9:30, and spent the rest of the day. . . well, dead.

At Mercer (and many other private schools) there is a day between the body of the semester and the week in which finals are conducted. On this day (at Mercer it is always a Wednesday) no group is allowed to meet, no classes are held, and no tests are given. It is meant as a day of rest and recuperation and study to prepare for the coming exams. The academic calendars usually call this day "Reading day", but the students know it by its proper name: Dead day.

I had survived my trip. My travels were coming to an end. Soon the final tests would begin as I would try to get to London and fly back to the States. This Sunday served as my dead day. I had intended to do a little sight-seeing. Maybe even day-trip out of town, but my fatigue caught up with me, and I divided the day between only four tasks.

I went shopping and bought my food for the next two days in Dublin.

I then alternated between wandering down to Chill-Out to update (knocking out a few more days in the process), reading Angels and Demons (the latest Dan Brown atrocity) and cooking lunch and dinner. On the way to Chill-Out, just before dinner, I was given the inspiration for Cat Calls? (thanks, whoever you are).

This vacation from touring served me well--recharging my batteries and giving me fresh energy for the days ahead.

I had decided that I would be a fool not to visit the Guinness Brewery and Storehouse while I was in Dublin, so before I went to sleep, I resolved to make this my primary goal for the following day.

Cat Calls?

I was walking to the Chill-Out Cafe just now, my internet point here in Dublin, when a small sedan hatchback about the size of a mini whizzed by on the edge of Essex Quay, and a blonde that I barely glimpsed (pink top? Maybe a v-neck sweater? Sunglasses?) in the driver seat called out to me as it passed. The words were muffled by the wind and city noise, and distorted by the Doppler effect, but I caught the familiar phrase all the same. "Where have you been all my life?!"

I was half tempted to spin in my tracks and wander back, as the car was pulling up to a conveniently red stop light and call out "Right here, what kept you?!"

But it I didn't. I crossed the street and kept walking towards my destination. It did make me smile though, in an odd, disquieting sort of way.

If I find her, when I find her, where will I have been all my life?

Will the answer I am able to give be sufficient, or will it leave me feeling hollow or ashamed?

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Live from Dublin, It's Saturday Night!

So I had been in Dublin for two days when 80 got here mid-afternoon Friday on a bus from Cork.

After she arrives we drop her gear with mine at our location of choice. We're staying at Four Courts Hostel, a cheerfully irreverent "little" place directly across from Four Courts, just a block from the Temple Bar district. It's a sprawling multi-story complex, with funky murals of travelers and little green men on the walls, a leprechaun named Seamus that guards the left luggage room, and decent rates for hostel beds (breakfast and linens included), even for a weekend, in the notoriously pricey isles.

Dublin has treated me well the two days I was here before 80 arrived, and with the exception of the confusing and MAPLESS bus system (grr) I know my way around pretty well.

After we deposited our stuff, we hopped the 31B bus (we had hoped to use the DART, but it's being "upgraded".) out to Howth, a tiny fishing town in the cliffs on a nearly-island peninsula north east of Dublin. From there we walked to the summit and then enjoyed the hiking trails among the glorious rocky cliffs. Very typical Irish scenery and a pleasant place for a late afternoon meal, which we had in a tree, since it was just wet enough to discourage us from sitting on the ground among the grass and heather. As dark fell we caught the bus back to town and walked around the Temple Bar district a bit before heading for bed and a full following day. 80 says: 26 hours will make anyone tired. I say: it's true; she slept the sleep of the dead. I had a helluva time waking her the next morning. (No washcloths were harmed in the making of this blog).

We awoke late this morning (Saturday) and did a little shopping, then headed down to Christ Church and St. Patrick's cathedrals. We had a lovely time and got to see some really amazing artifacts, including the plate set that King William III gave to Christ Church to celebrate his victory at the Battle of the Boyne, and the grave of Jonathan Swift, who served as Dean of St. Patrick's for many years, and is buried in the cathedral's floor.

After we left St. Patrick's, we headed for St. Stephen's Green, a lovely little park south of Trinity College, and had a nice packed lunch. Then we walked our way from there up bustling Grafton Street, watching the buskers and window shopping as we wound our way towards Trinity College.

We gained access to the campus through the west entrance into the incredibly peaceful and quiet square of Trinity College. The many stone buildings of the academic center are placed so closely together, and the entrance so small in the middle of a building itself, that the ring creates an architectural sound suppression system that smothers all the city noise. You don't realize just how amazingly oppressive the sound level is in a city until it is suddenly and startlingly removed, and that passage is one of my favorite places in all of my travels in Europe now.

At Trinity we spent an hour in the library exhibit for the Book of Kells, "Turning Darkness into Light", an entire exhibit devoted to the illuminated manuscripts and their origins and methods of creation. It was a fascinating place and we had to be nearly shoved out of the building when they closed at 5. On the way out we lingered briefly in the Long Hall for a moment, enthralled by the amazing collection of books and the wonderful 'old book smell' that we both love so much. I have always found that to be one of the most appealing non-food related scents, and since the Long Hall's many shelves were completely filled with over 200,000 volumes by 1860, its hallowed spaces are permeated by the smell of aged knowledge and timeless classics.

After Trinity College we headed back and grabbed a quick nap to restore our weary bodies (walking and trying to stay warm in the misty, windy streets took more out of us than we expected), then headed back out for dinner (Chinese fast food - totally non-Irish, but we were both craving it) and now we've stopped here (Chill-Out Cafe)to conduct a little bank business and update before we go out for a round of drinks at a traditional pub, then head for bed, since 80 has a very early bus to catch.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Welcome to Dublin

In the Dublin airport I found an internet point and looked up a few local hostels, had a glance at a map of downtown, and found out how the bus system worked.

From that, I chose a bus, bought some day passes (under the assumption that, since I was here for five days, a five day pass would come in handy) and headed downtown. When we arrived at this particular bus' last stop, on O'Connell Street, I asked about Brown's Hostel. Actually I just asked which way Lower Gardiner Street was. I had a rough idea of downtown in my head and knew if I was pointed in the right direction. As it turned out, I was probably wrong (oops), but it didn't matter because my very kind bus driver simply asked where I was headed and then drove me there before returning to the garage for the night.

I thanked him and headed up the steps to Brown's Hostel. By far the cheapest of all the places I had stayed, Brown's was 11.50 a night, breakfast included, with an hour of internet access thrown into the bargain.

The downside? Breakfast was a little lame, the computers sucked, and the shower area was heavily damaged, with tiles fallen out and exposed wood drenched in water. On the upside, the guy at the desk, John, was awesome, and despite my constant badgering with questions about directions around town, the internet, the rooms, and so on, he was very patient and helpful. A great guy.

The biggest problem though, was one I noticed even more the next morning. No-one in Brown's, as far as I could tell, spoke to one another aside from me and John! There were ten or fifteen people in the breakfast hall area that morning and none of them said a word to one-another. It was downright dreary. And with the cheerful decor and cool layout, Browns could have been a pretty fun place.

So that morning I went hunting for another place. I had been in contact with 80 and she was going to come and meet me on Friday, so I was trying to find a place that I liked that she wouldn't mind either, and by mid-day I'd found Four Courts hostel. It was a nice place, near downtown, right up against the Temple Bar district, and pretty decently priced, for much nicer digs than Browns offered.

So it was that I checked into Four Courts on Thursday and dropped off my kit, then began exploring Dublin.

I found, just two blocks away, Chill-Out Cafe, the cheapest Internet point I had found in all my travels. At 10 Euros per 10 hour block, it was a steal, and I immediately purchased a block and began trying to catch up. I managed to knock out nearly a week in the next couple days, and before I'd left Ireland I had completed most of Greece.

Since most of my wanderings that first day were repeated with 80 two days later, I'll only mention them briefly. I wandered around the downtown area, found the bus station, and then struck out across town. On the way I saw the Talbot and Henry Street shopping districts and found the old GPO, site of the Irish declaration of independence back in 1916 and center of an urban firefight and shelling throughout downtown during the suppression of that uprising by British forces.

From there I headed south and explored St. Stephen's Green and Grafton Street, then wandered through the center of Trinity College campus and across through Temple Bar, stopped on Essex Quay to spend some time in Chill-Out Cafe researching the local area and updating again.

Thursday night I went to bed early and slept well, and began to finally recover from my long travels. My rhythms and immune system were returning to normal, and I finally began to feel mostly human again.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

It has been a long week.

I need some sleep.

There is a massive monger amazing and glorious update coming. It will include full-colour photographs, interviews with moderately famous people, and a coupon for a full 30% discount off your very own framblous bandersnatch.

Watch for it!

Note: I've added some updates, including Confusion Ferry and the one that follows, that have appeared in their right places in the archives. For the sake of making reading easier, I'm 'drafting' all the more recent entries, so the 'active' date of The Road will go to April 7th. I'm about to leave and have lunch and explore Dublin, then I'll return and post a few more entries.

The entries that have disappeared will reappear as soon as their older brethren have been uploaded.

All Roads Lead From Rome.

The next morning I packed up the last of my things in my faithful Dakine pack and joined the rest of the group for the morning's tours. I had a flight out of Rome's Ciampino Airport for 15:05 and so I was planning on doing the morning tours with them, then catching public-transit out to Ciampino, boarding the plane, and heading for Dublin.

In the bus on the way into town, we were all smashed into standing positions in the aisle because we happened to be headed for the heart of Rome at rush hour. All roads may lead there, but that doesn't mean the traffic has enough methods of reaching downtown. As we rumbled into the maelstrom of taxis, buses, motorcycles and vans, I was struck by a strange vision of the herds of humanity. It was similar to that scene at the beginning of the Lion King, where all the animals move to gather at the rock. The buses move like elephants, slow and ponderous, thudding down between smaller beats. The taxis and smaller vans dart in and out, dashing like gazelle or zebra around the legs of the elephants, each trying to get slightly ahead and be slightly further up the line. And around and through all, like a herd of angry bees, are the mopeds and motorcycles, buzzing and whipping through the throng, weaving through small spaces and eternally sailing by their more sluggish and larger competitors.

The vision faded after we entered the subway (at Fermi station I took a moment to stop and pet a puppy. This turned out to be the softest dog in the world. No joke. It was surreal) and we headed for Colosseum. Our stop was in the very core of the city, where we were scheduled to receive a tour of the monstrous amphitheater, the Roman forum next door, and the Palatine hill that overlooked it all.

When we exited the station and were standing blinking in the sunlight, we found ourselves with half an hour to kill, so we hit a small corner magazine vendor and I bought a paper with an article about the Pope who had been chosen the previous evening. So it was that I discovered that Benedicto XVI (the 16th) was to be the new Holy Father. While his picture was terrifying, the article expressed praise for him and his connection to John Paul II, so we smiled and hoped for the best.

The tour we had arranged was with a lovely young tour guide named Valentina, who did part-time work as an archeologist, and was as charming and knowledgeable about the ancient city of Rome as Alphonso had been about Pompei (Pompeii). She gave us a great tour of the Colosseum and I learned a lot. For example, it's really just a Flavian amphitheater. The name Colosseum was only given it because of the Colossus, a huge statue of Nero that stood nearby and predated the building. Another random fact? Women and men were not allowed to sit together. All women (even the wives of wealthy and powerful senators) had to sit in the top sections, further from the action. The information goes on, but this isn't a history lesson. If you want more knowledge, you'll just have to go to Rome!

After that we took a tour of the Roman Forum, also endlessly intriguing but not nearly so sound bite-worthy. We did see the suspected location of Julius Caesar's grave though. It isn't nearly as ornate a spot as St. Peter's, but it holds its own special mystique. To think that the body of the man who once united the world is buried there, just below the surface of his beloved city.

A hike to the top of the Palatine hill put us at the end of our tour and it was time for me to leave. Noon was fast approaching and I needed time to get across Rome and board my flight. So I bid my farewell to the kids, who had by this time become my family. The memories of our great times and hardships made it feel like I was taking leave of my extended family, and it was hard to finally make a break out on my own again.

I said goodbye to them, and my parents, and set out across Rome. I had a lot of ground to cover in the next two hours. A couple metros, a stop in a supermarket, and a bus later I was in the airport, and it was nearing 14:20. I didn't have much time! I dashed into the airport, which thankfully was tiny, and searched the flight lists anxiously. I didn't see my flight, so I hurried to the information desk, fearing they had already closed the check-in for it, and asked the polite and pretty young lady there to check on my flight. She informed me that it hadn't been listed yet, but would have a desk soon.

I was bewildered for a moment, then checked my flight information. Indeed, my flight didn't LAND in Dublin at 17:05 as I had originally thought; it landed at 19:05. It left Rome at 17:05! I had two hours!

So, since I was starving, I found an open patch of floor, sat down, and made myself some lunch, then repacked my bags. Just as I was repacking, I was shooed away by a couple of the airport security fellows. As an aside: here's a message to all airports, everywhere: if you don't want us sitting on the floor, install some damn public seating.

I headed upstairs, found a quieter corner and sat down again, finished my last repacking, went back downstairs and checked in, since the desk had just been opened. Thankfully my pack squeezed just under the limit (14.8 kilos!) and I went to the gate to wait for boarding to begin.

Everything about the flight was flawless, and at 19:05, I found myself standing in the Dublin airport. Tired but happy to be back on my own. Wistful in a way, but with a lighter step and a cheerful whistle now that I was again striking out to find new places alone.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Tiny City Made of Ashes

Extra points if you recognize the word play (Hipster is excluded from this offer. I know he knows it).

This morning we awoke early, so that we could make it into the city, purchase tickets, then head for the coast. We had to catch a train down to Napoli (Naples), on the Italian coast, and from there ride the local rail system over to Pompei (Pompeii), the city that was smothered by ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvio in 79 AD.

The train ride was fun. It was nice to see a little of the beautiful Italian countryside as we traveled, and the car we found was compartment seating for 6, so the group split up, eventually into three different cars so one car slept, another talked, and the car in which I found myself read poetry.

Now, I should point out that I am in an odd space, in terms of poetry. Just because it has rhyme, or meter, or is spoken in a slow dramatic tone does not stir anything in me, but I tend to enjoy well written, well read verse as much any man, I think. In addition, the dark spaces between words and lines where evil and good and kindness and death meet and exchange ideas hold out their arms to me and bid me enter, and my mind rushes into them and fills in the most opaque areas with freshly imagined details.

In any case, Bubbles had a collection of her favorite poems with her, and we took turns reading from it. It was a different experience for me. I hadn't been to any 'reading', public or private, since I left Mercer, a year (it seems an age) ago. Later on I began reading some of the darker excerpts of the work Kipling included in the Jungle Book (Nag, come up and dance with death!) which I very much enjoyed. Especially to see my compartment mates squirm and their skin crawl when I hit the measure and the voice just right.

When we arrived in Napoli, we boarded a local subway-style car and rode, standing, out to Pompei on this local above-ground rail. In the car on the way through, a young boy (he couldn't have been more than seven or eight) came through playing an accordion and begging. I didn't have any change on me, and we watched him walk, unwelcomed by matrons and well-dressed middle-aged men, through the next car. At the end of it a handful of boys younger than I dug deep into their pockets and came up with a handful of coins. Funny who will extend kindness and who will refuse to give, isn't it?

Once we had arrived in Pompei we found a nice little restaurant that my family had used before, and had a wonderful lunch. The table at which I sat (made up of primarily the same people from the train car) split five things five ways, and it was a superb meal. The best was a pine-cone shaped rice ball filled with meat, cheese, and field peas. Outstanding!

We already had a guide lined up, a wonderful gentleman by the name of Alphonso, who had done a previous tour for my parents on a past trip, and so when lunch was completed he met us at the restaurant and we traveled on to view the world's best preserved ancient city.

Inside the walls of Pompei Alphonso regaled us with tales of the lives led by the people, the politics they must have played, the things they ate, and the ways they died, all tied up and wired together with references from the Latin language and Roman history. His knowledge of the culture and architecture was stupefying. More intimidating was his innate talent for language. He proved himself to be pentalingual over the course of our tour, lapsing into Italian at the gate when buying tickets, giving our tour in English and interjecting Latin for explanations and details, pausing to greet a tour in Japanese and even admonishing some visiting high school students in French.

I'll include some photos of both him and the city itself later.

Our tour included the Roman baths which were intriguing. The idea of public baths has always fascinated me and I've long wondered if I have the bravery or shamelessness to engage in such a social behaviour. Honestly I think I'm too Victorian at heart for it. The intact sculptures and mosaics were amazing though, and I'll include pictures later.

We visited the Colosseum of Pompei as well, and it was easy to imagine the stands filled with jeering fans and the ring filled with blood and the cries of battle. Being swept away in Pompei is not a long journey. A drop of imagination travels far in such a lush environment.

On the way back, we met the most curious dog. He opened a water bottle in front of us (on his own) and drank from it. I'm not lying. I'll post the pictures of this feat later, as we were all shocked and grabbed cameras to prove it.

Then, like thousands of generations of dogs before him, he dashed off to bark widely, probably at a sculpture or pillar that predated us all by 2000 years.

We left for Camping NSF and QoD and I discussed our various martial arts drills and techniques on the way back. Lots of fun, and it is always encouraging to see someone with such a drive on the path we martial artists travel. I think we frightened the Maggles (If you've read any Harry Potter, you'll get that. If not, go start!) in the cars around us, but they'll get over it.

We were separated on the trip home (Papa Phil and I had some errands to run in Termini) and we arrived at the restaurant where we were supposed to have dinner and none of our group was there!

Thankfully they all showed up in short order, and we had astoundingly good brick-oven pizzas for dinner. As we ate, we noticed that the news above us was declaring that a new Pope had been chosen and we tried to catch what we could, but we didn't really get any more information than that until the following day.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Be Like Mike.

The next morning, blessedly hot showers behind us, we ate a simple breakfast. Now, let me explain what simple breakfast means to my family when we travel.

Yoghurt, bread, coffee, apples, oranges, hot chocolate, bread, cheese, meat, honey, jam, butter, and maybe some more bread. And I'm pretty sure I forgot some things.

Simple, yet filling.

In any case, we left our trailer with new promise in mind (no rain clouds on the horizon, well fed, hot showers, etc.) and set out to prove that the third day was the charm, and today, things would not be one long unmitigated disaster.

Shockingly, we were right. We had broken the will of the world's most powerful city, and the relentless punishment Rome had tried to hard to inflict had finally faded.

We traipsed the half kilometer to the bus stop with ease, and spent a little under an hour in the public transit system getting to Ottaviano Metro Stop, and from there walked on to Piazza del Risorgimento. There we stopped and bought overpriced but very tasty sandwiches, pastries, and ice creams from the local vendors. We had some time to kill before our tour, and we knew that we wouldn't get much of a chance to eat before the tours were done.

While we were making our own snack stop, Papa Phil got this lovely photograph of some fellow indulgers.

 Posted by Hello

Yes. Those are nuns.

As noon approached, we made our way down one more block and into the amazing Piazza del St. Pietro, the amazing ring of stone that marks the front side of the Holy City.

Conclave had begun just two or three days before, and so the square was filled with tourists, pilgrims, watchers, and media, and a heightened tension and sense of expectancy filled the air.

At the foot of the obelisk we met Angel Tours Rome, our guide service for the day. Present were the dignified and charmingly Irish Sean, and our own guide, the young, irrepressibly American Mike Barnett. Also there was Russ, the young Irish man who would do our later afternoon walking tour, but that story comes later.

Now, when we walked up I should note that I was in the back of the group, and missed the immediate introductions. As such, I should explain that my impression of the meeting was that Sean was to be our tour guide, and that Mike was a fellow single backpacker, who had been allowed to tag along on our tour as a paying guest. He was a sharp-faced crew-cut youth with jet-black hair and a quick smile. Dressed in baggy jeans and a hoody, he looked like he'd just stepped out of third period American History from any Midwestern US high school.

Thus I was a bit surprised when I caught Sean saying "Now, Mike will be leading you guys today, and I'll see you later this afternoon!"

'Eh? What's this? A high school student is leading our tour?

As it turns out, Mike is no high school student. He's an accomplished world traveler and ex-Infantry soldier, is married to an Italian art student and has probably forgotten more information about the Vatican than Dan Brown read when he assembled Angels and Demons.

He's a native of Ohio, and his clear midwestern accent and informal speaking style were the perfect mix of information and fun for a high school group. He packed more information about the Vatican Museum into my mind in four hours than I would have thought possible, and I would recommend him to anyone looking for a guide of the Holy City's public areas.

Now that introductions are over, here he is.

Mike Posted by Hello

He gave us a fantastic tour of the Vatican Museum, informative and lots of fun, with plenty of interesting facts about Michelangelo, Raphael, the intrigue of the scared court, and the various popes thrown into the mix with a slew of useful stories about the artwork itself. He even gave us a thorough overview of the entire Sistine Chapel using the picture posters put out for public display, since Conclave (the process of electing a new Pope) was underway and there was no chance we'd get to see the inside on this trip.

After he had finished with the Vatican (and he went an hour and a half over schedule for us, which we loved), we headed over to a small local bar that he recommended and we had a couple drinks and light snacks and chatted about life for a while. Then we followed him back over to St. Peter's cathedral, where he conducted a free tour of the entire cathedral for us and anyone who wished to join in. It was good advertising for him and great for us. He told stories about the beautiful and sad Pieta, the sheer scope of the cathedral, and some of the more loved Popes that were on display (the Papal bodies are mummified after death and kept on a rotation through a couple of 'display cases' in St. Peter's).

After we finished at St. Peters, we headed across town again and met Sean and Russ in front of the Spanish Steps, near the heart of Rome. There we began a walking tour with Russ as our guide. Russ was a newer guide than Mike, and his voice did not carry as clearly. He was good, but he has far to go before he becomes comfortable enough with all of the material to cover about that area of the city (and there is a great deal of it!).

Still his accent was fun, and he had a bunch of interesting facts about the politics of the city and the artwork that runs throughout Rome. While with him we stopped at Trevi Fountain, and threw in coins.

The legend goes like this: Throw in one coin, and you'll return to Rome, throw in two coins, and you'll return to Rome and meet your lover, throw in three coins and you will return to Rome, meet your lover, and marry them.

I cheerfully dug out a single coin and threw it in. I'm sure I'll be back.

Trevi Fountain Posted by Hello

After Trevi fountain, we continued on and saw several other interesting sights throughout the city, including the Pantheon, and had a wonderful time. There is a marble in the floor of the Pantheon that has since been mined to extinction, and now costs US$28,000 per square inch!

Now that's some expensive flooring.

On our tour we stopped and got gelati (mmmmh, gelati. . . ) and even found a poster, from which Oh-Oh! got her name.

Posted by Hello

After the tour ended in the Jewish Ghetto portion of the city, we got directions to the nearest and cheapest internet cafe (Euro 1.50 an hour. Not bad!) and headed there for some quick work. I had to purchase a couple of plane tickets, one to Dublin for later that week, and one out of Dublin and into somewhere in the U.K. After some deliberation, I chose to land in Dublin on Wednesday, the 20th, and fly out for Cardiff, Wales, on Tuesday, the 26th.

Tickets secured we headed back to Camping Not-So-Fabulous, almost missing the last bus in the process. Securely at home, we crashed relatively early that night. We had a big day ahead of us.

Pompei was up next!

Train Report

Here's a list of all the trains we took in a 21 day period.

Date Time From To
18/03 12:34 Cologne Koblenz
18/03 13:51 Koblenz Mainz
18/03 16:14 Mainz Karlsruhe
19/03 12:09 Karlsruhe Freiburg
19/03 14:03 Freiburg Titisee
20/03 11:19 Titisee Neustadt
20/03 11:32 Neustadt Donaueschingen
20/03 12:18 Donaueschingen Radolfzell
20/03 13:38 Radolfzell Friedrichshafen
20/03 15:00 Friedrichshafen Lindau
20/03 16:25 Lindau Bregenz
20/03 17:16 Bregenz Bludenz
20/03 19:35 Bludenz Salzburg
21/03 19:03 Salzburg Munich
21/03 20:56 Munich Paris Est
26/03 09:30 Paris Lyon Sallanches
29/03 09:11 Annecy Chambery
29/03 11:20 Chambery Lyon Part Dieu
29/03 14:41 Lyon Part Dieu Montpellier
29/03 17:14 Montpellier Barcelona
29/03 23:00 Barcelona Madrid
30/03 10:00 Madrid Cordoba
30/03 13:35 Cordoba Sevilla
31/03 22:10 Sevilla Barcelona
01/04 10:20 Barcelona Portbou
01/04 13:58 Portbou Cerbere
01/04 15:45 Cerbere Avignon Centre
01/04 19:59 Avignon Centre Marseille
01/04 21:38 Marseille Nice
02/04 07:55 Nice Ventimiglia
02/04 09:15 Ventimiglia Milano
02/04 15:05 Milano Venice
03/04 18:02 Venice Florence
03/04 21:57 Florence Pisa
04/04 13:17 Pisa Lucca
04/04 16:59 Lucca Florence
05/04 11:33 Florence Bologna
05/04 14:35 Bologna Ancona
05/04 17:47 Ancona Bari
05/04 23:11 Bari Brindisi
06/04 10:58 Brindisi Lecce
06/04 13:39 Lecce Brindisi
06/04 15:12 Brindisi Bari
06/04 20:00 Bari Patras
07/04 13:40 Patras Pireas

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Cold Centurions In Frigid Formations.

The parade. . . where to start?

First, please read the disclaimer I placed in the Camping Not-So-Fabulous entry.

Now then.

When we arrived, we checked, in case the hot-water fairy had visited us in the night (at this point, yes, we would have given teeth for water that didn't feel like it should go "clink" when it hit the bottom of the shower). Since we hadn't been visited, we grit our teeth (all of them) and climbed back into our costumes, feeling like the not-so-great unwashed that we had become.

On the plus side, it looked almost sunny outside, and while a few gray clouds on the horizon glowered, we ignored them. It was going to be a great day, right? We were going to march in the Founding of Rome Parade in the lovely sunny weather, and it was going to be wonderful!

No, it was going to be fabulous.

Just how fabulous, we were about to find out.

We went down to the now supremely muddy bus-boarding area, and here's where our confusion about the buses really began. We attempted to ask if there was space in the first bus we found (since we were willing to stand all the way there, 'space' just meant "may we stand here?"). However, even with that particular group's very limited grasp of English, "Not your bus!" has a pretty clear ring to it, and so we figured out that we couldn't ride there. We reconvened outside this first bus and looked back at the other three or four with trepidation.

What now?

We had thought there were several buses going to this parade, and that all of them were for the Groupo Historico in general. It turns out, we were completely wrong. Instead many of the groups had their own chartered buses, and there was a single bus for everyone that didn't have their own buses, and it was already mostly full!

In a few hurried seconds (the bus departure time was within the next five minutes), the leaders stuck their heads in the different buses and tried to find an English speaker with whom we could hitch a ride. This turned out to be a tricky task, but my father managed to find the main Green Line Bus that had free spaces and was welcoming. There was enough space for 10 of us on it. He and I (the 11th and 12th people) said that we would follow by whatever means we could, and herded all of them onto the bus as quickly as possible. Then we went and wandered through the bus area one more time.

I had a vague notion that even if everything went badly we could always take public transportation to the city center, and meet up with them whenever we could. I should point out that at this time my father, since he'll be acting as a member of the press and recording the event on video and digital media, is dressed in street clothes, while I (because I am a schmuck and let my mother demand it of me) am in costume.

In a stroke of luck, one of the bus drivers had pity on us and let us climb on board his bus. I am fairly confident this was not done with the consent of the riders, who turned out to be the crustiest bunch of Patricians I've ever seen. It was like we'd stepped onto the set of "Grumpy-Old-Men-Re-enactors, Italian Edition".

We were basically ignored for our entire trip into downtown, where the bus pulled off and the feeling of unplanned confusion that had followed us since our arrival in Rome suddenly flared up again. The bus drivers weren't sure where they were supposed to stop.

We took a guess (50/50 chance we were about to get stranded in Rome. Dad in stylish and all-weather black, and me in a shepherd's costume looking like a Nativity play reject) and exited the bus, in the hopes that the passengers of this and other buses would do the same, and thankfully we were right. We joined up with our 10 compatriots, who had been on a bus full of young Spanish re-enactors playing bacchanalian revelers (complete with leather, horns, wreaths, music, and dancing) and had enjoyed themselves immensely.

If you are wondering what bacchanalian revelers are, have a look here.

After a few moments confusion and one reveler returning for face-glue (he lost a horn) they all set off at a brisk pace through the city streets, and we followed them, under the hopeful assumption that they knew where they were going.

We were not proved fools, and indeed we arrived at the head of the parade line and made our way towards the middle, hoping to find someone to tell us where to stand. We passed the main procession, and Nero came bustling up to us.

I realize now that I forgot to introduce Nero yesterday when we met him at the banquet. Nero was the organizer of the banquet, and I think part of the head of the Groupo Historico. Perhaps even the boss man himself, I'm not sure. The night before he had been in a very classy evening jacket, and looked like an Italian playboy supervillain straight out of a Bond Film.

This morning when we met him, he had changed clothes, and was now in a sharp professional looking centurion's costume that seemed to glint sharply, even though the sky had filled completely with clouds during our ride into the city. We were confused about our location in line, and even which direction the parade was intended to travel. He greeted us warmly and pressed into my mother's hands a layout of the way the parade was supposed to organize itself, then bustled off on more important business. I imagine there were other fires he had to put out, or start (har!).

We looked at our location in the line, and then began polling the other groups to figure out their names. Once we knew the names of the group in front of us (the primary crew from the Rome area) and the names of the bacchanalian (who wound up being directly behind us) we quickly realized there were two or three groups that hadn't arrived, and they were supposed to be directly in front of us, and behind us, respectively.

So we simply put ourselves in the line and figured they would show up and take their places as 11:00 approached, since that was the time the parade was intended to begin.

I should point out that this point that it was starting to threaten to rain on us, at least a little, and the temperature had stayed chilly all morning, and appeared to be dropping.

We wound up, initially, sandwiched between the bacchanalian revelers, with whom most of our group wanted to join (because darn it, they were dancing and had music and looked warm!) and the end of the large main group, which included legionnaires and various other Roman mainstays (patricians, etc.).

As the group filled out though, a group of pretty-boys representing, we think, Roman slaves joined in behind us. 8 or so young men of late high school or early college, all with subtle piercings and not-so-subtle haircuts that, Stateside, would have made a person's gaydar ping like a telephone ringing.

In front of us, a manlier group of gladiators took the spot between us and the main body of marchers. There were a dozen of them, ranging in ages from 8 up into their 30s or 40s. And a couple of them, according to the girls, were quite attractive.

I noticed that the oldest of the group was wearing a thick and professional looking leather breastplate with large free-mounted rings, almost like door knockers, where his nipples would be. I pointed this out to the group curiously and mused about their potential purposes. Our always Fearless Leader suggested we go ask, and I pointed out that it was a bit of an odd question for me to spring on my own, but QoD and Oh-Oh!, both more bold and more motivated than I, offered to ask. So we strolled up, knowing already that one of the group spoke English (we'd learned that the night before at the banquet) and introduced ourselves, than asked our question. It turned out that they would have been fasteners for a cloak. Far enough from the throat and mounted where they were there would be no risk of choking, and it could be easily removed to expedite dexterity in combat. An intriguing side note, in any case. We returned, our curiosity satiated, to our tiny band of 11.

We then assembled ourselves into something approaching a dignified procession. Theoretically, our members represented almost every facet of Roman life. Some foolhardy person (*cough*Fearless Leader*cough*) told Oh-Oh! and QoD that their costumes, the most brightly coloured and decorative of the lot, resembled women who served in the more public facets of the religious and temple industry of Rome (Yes, P.R. Maidens, that is what they were), and they decided that this was brilliant and immediately the two of them, both trained in drama and gifted naturals, slipped into these roles and stayed there for most of the parade. As our most colorful members, they took the front spots. Since they were in wonderful and eye catching costumes and it kept the gaze of the masses off me, I was more than happy with this.

Following them were myself, Hipster, and the Magical E!

Hipster and I were dressed in dark browns and grays, rough mockups of the outfits slaves of the higher classes would have worn during their official duties in the city serving as assistants, memory aides, or errand runners. Between us, The Magical E! acted as the one we were escorting. She had a lovely dark blue dress that evoked images of a visiting Oracle on official business in Rome from some far-off eastern temple. We attempted to keep a dignified pace in cadence with the steady drumming of the legionnaires at the front of the procession, but oftentimes we dissolved into shuffling, because it was easier.

Behind us, SSW and Bubbles, dressed in white robes with blue and gold trims, kept pace, representing the young unmarried nobles of Roman society. High born, but as yet unassigned a dreary life as the wife of some local merchant or dignitary.

Following them, Shutterbug and Fearless Leader, representing the matrons of high society, and at the end of the procession shuffled HR and TOH, representing a young married couple on their way to a new life.

We made up a cross-section of Roman life that was fairly broad. Before the parade started, however, we would have one member added to our party.

Just before the parade began, we were approached by a middle-aged professional looking man in a centurion's uniform accompanied by a young girl in a plebian costume, carrying a four-foot span American flag.

He hurried up to us, obviously aware that there was very limited time, and explained. "Each group needs a banner or flag to carry, but you have banner, so for you we have an American flag. This little girl will carry it for you. Her name is Sylvia and she will be your child. Do not lose her! She's your responsibility."

And he was off. To our group had just been added a 9 year old Italian who spoke no English, with an American flag in hand. Her mother snuck over after the centurion had gone and we talked briefly, learning the girls name and thanking her for her aide.

And then the big drums of the legion at the fore began to beat and the parade was underway.

We placed the flag girl at the head of our little procession, and off we went, shuffling towards the Arch of Constantine. We were south of the Colosseum, and the parade route was to travel around it to the east, then up and past the Roman Forum, then make a U turn and travel back, split through and around the Forum and rejoin at the southern side of the Colosseum.

We set out and marched our way through the wind and chill around the Colosseum. As we approached it we began to hear thunder. "Oh, please let that be a drum out of time," someone joked. Then a second peal, louder, rolled across the sky like an angry roar. Someone else frowned and tried to keep the tone light, "Oh, this is going to be Fabulous."

Nervous laughter.

By the time we were halfway around the Colosseum, the lightest of spatterings had begun to fall at our feet and on our heads. The rain was colder than the surrounding air, and we were flinching from each drop, trying to imagine that it would clear any minute and everything would be fine.

As we rounded the Colosseum and headed up past the Forum, the rain began to fall thicker. As our hair and clothes became saturated each drop mattered less and the overall effect mattered more. Our body temperatures began to drop and we started to discuss the best ways to hold our hands so as to keep them warm or dry, and how nice an umbrella or a heavier cloak would be.

Around this time the dance troupe from the previous night arrived on the sidelines and slipped into the parade just in front of us. Hipster and I did not complain, but there were loud protestations from our maidens that this pushed the gladiators further from us. Ah, what shallow beasts we humans be!

The rain began to fall even more heavily, and the cold permeated everything. The spaces between us in formation. Our bodies. Our clothes. Our 9 year old leader had wrapped our flag about her bare shoulders like a shawl, and we didn't blame her. Had any of us been carrying of it, we would have considered the same.

As we reached the U-turn, her mother finally came and rescued her (we wanted her rescued by then, she looked like she was freezing). Hipster took the lead with our flag. We quickly reorganized our lines, with me between the Temple Maidens, and the two ladies in white now on either side of our Oracle.

As we turned our way back towards the Forum, Nero bustled past us and said "continue on through the Forum!" and we made an abrupt right down a flight of ancient steps and onto the Roman road that winds through the archeological holy-of-holies that is the Forum Romanum.

We were following only two other groups, the first and most respected body of legionnaires, and the dancers that had performed the previous night. And behind us, no others entered the Forum. We found ourselves part of the 'heart' of the procession. We're not sure what we had done to earn this honor, but we were surprised.

By this time though, we were also very cold. All of us were soaked to the skin and several of us had lost feeling in our hands, faces, and feet. I found it funny therefore, that several of us remained OCD enough to complain when our little formation got out of line, and rearranged ourselves to make sure it maintained its symmetry both in numbers and costume colours.

We trudged our way through the Forum, eyes to the ground not in exhaustion but in caution. The Roman way is far from smooth, and the likelihood of twisting an ankle was high. I'm sure we looked an awkward procession, but we had fun and were even privileged to get to see the legionnaires perform the traditional shield formations, which was awesome to watch, in a brief stop before the rest of the procession rounded the Colosseum from the east.

After that, we caught the rest of the parade as it came back around the Colosseum, and plugged ourselves back in after some slight confusion.

Arriving back with the group, we soon found that it was passing the starting point, and the parade was ending. As the parade dissolved once again into Italian unplanned madness, one of the men from the dance troupe approached us, and told us that we could ride in their bus. We thanked him profusely and followed them and a large group of legionnaires to a staging area under a large tent to wait for the buses.

As we approached the tent, the wind picked up severely, and the bottom fell out of the sky just as we scurried beneath its cover. There we huddled together for warmth and to block the combination of wind and cold rain blowing through.

At least one member of our group was starting to turn blue, and another was getting whole-body tremors, so we were starting to rue the day we had first heard about this parade, despite the fact that it was pretty cool that we had been able to take part in something so fundamentally Italian and historical. We remained there, waiting for the bus, for some time. While there, I stripped out of all the exteriors of my costume, over-cloak and cloak, to use them as blankets on the colder members of the group. So I stood there in jeans and t-shirt and tried to think of a way to extricate myself from the huddle of high schoolers that I was now unhappily trapped within. However, the cold had gotten to my brain and had unleashed my inner-stupid, so I just stood there, wishing the rain would stop and I was anywhere else.

At this point it might be worth explaining that my discomfort had zero to do with the group in question, and more to do with a general abhorrence on my part. My last friendship with anyone in high school after I entered university did not end on a positive note. And as much as I adore high schoolers for their cheerfulness, their sparks of promise, and their kindness, I prefer them at arm's length or beyond, as it keeps things simple, and I like simple.

After a while, a cargo van arrived, intended to carry the legionnaires' equipment. However, on account of the cold, the van instead took one load of mostly members of the dance troupe, as well as our most frigid member, and we sent her on ahead with instructions to find a way to dry off and warm up before she caught hypothermia and died.

After another short wait, the main bus finally arrived, and we all cheered with gratitude and climbed inside, freezing and soaked, to try and warm up on the way to the restaurant.

It wasn't too warm, but at least it wasn't raining in the bus.

When we arrived at the huge, sprawling restaurant where we had arranged lunch, we were greeted by kindness and laughter and all of the other members of the various groups attempted to dry off in that space. It actually got so wet from all the soaked costumes that the water began to condense on the rafters of the room and drip back down upon us, creating a sort of absurd interior rain. We were also greeted by the member we had sent ahead, covered only in a green tablecloth fixed with safety pins. Ah well, at least she was dry and moderately warm! She had located a space heater and made some new friends, so when we arrived she quickly grabbed the other students who were still nearly frozen and herded them off to the heater to begin to dry out.

Once we'd begun to thaw and dry, we sat down and had a wonderful lunch. It was really neat, because several different guys from different groups, both Italian and Spanish stopped to talk with us, and we promised to exchange pictures with several different people from the soldier groups. It was a lovely meal, and the food was fantastic.

Of course, we knew things had been going too well, and we should have known at least one more disaster would befall us this day. . .

Sure enough, when we prepared to leave we discovered that the bus on which we had been offered a ride was prepped to go. Suddenly we were mobilizing the troops and I found myself about middle of the group, with QoD (still dressed in her tablecloth) in front of me as we filed out. One of the ladies quickly called out to QoD and warned "be careful. They might want that back!" A quick discussion later we realized that this put us in an awkward position, as we needed to leave now, and so we made a command decision. "Pull your coat tight around you." The girl had recommended, so that's what we did, and strode out without being noticed or stopped.

Having left the building though, we had no luck finding the bus we were supposed to be boarding. Surely it was here somewhere?

Alas, the other buses had not yet departed, but ours, it appeared, was long gone, along with 5 of our members. Left behind were me, QoD, Papa Phil, Shutterbug, Oh-Oh!, Bubbles, and The Magical E!

We were in a bit of a bind.

A few minutes of discussion and Papa Phil made the call. "Well, there's a bus that takes us to the metro station right out here, and we're using it to get to town tomorrow anyway, so this is a good time to start using public transportation. It should take us a little over an hour to use the public transit to get back from here, but we'll go shopping along the way first, to pick up food for tomorrow's breakfast."

So, off we went, me carrying a 50 kilo flour sack half-full of our soaked clothes and wearing just a t-shirt and jeans. I'm sure we cut dashing figures in the bus, in our mix of costumes, street clothes, and table-wear, but by this time we were too tired to care.

After one bus and one metropolitana we got to Termini, the main bus/train/metro station of Rome. From there we headed for a local square under the impression that there was a supermarket there. We got correct directions to the same supermarket three times at the square before we found it (who puts a supermarket in a basement? Honestly!) and spent some time figuring out what we needed for the following morning.

By the time we finished at the supermarket, the flour sack had gotten soaked and nearly burst, so the clothes were transferred to shopping bags. I was beginning to feel homeless.

We headed back into the transit system, using the metro and the bus to get back to the outskirts of town where Camping Not-So-Fabulous was located. By the time we had gotten to the metro/bus station (Fermi) and the bus had departed, night had fallen, and several hours had elapsed since our separation in the restaurant.

In our last bus, with the Roman countryside whipping by, my face resting wearily against the glass, my eye just caught the glint of the stoplight marking our turn as it whistled past my window.

"Hey Dad, wasn't that our stop?"

Some confusion, discussion with the bus driver, and cursing on the internal monologue later, we exited the bus about a half mile beyond our destination, and began to stomp back up the highway towards our stop, in the dark, on the side of the road. Thankfully no-one got hurt, and only one person fell in the dark, and she sustained no real injuries.

All in all, the kids were real troopers, and did an amazing job of keeping their spirits up. On the bus, and in the dark of the roadside, I found myself trying, as always, to keep the mood light and positive, trying to keep our minds off the cold and the wet and the missed stop and the lousy bus leaving us at the restaurant. We joked about drama, recited old skits, and told stories about the effects they had had on our lives. It was a good way to pass the time, and despite my exhaustion, I enjoyed the chance to hear others speak of their dramatic training and begin to grasp its limitless possibilities.

Thank God for Shutterbug, too. Without her calm nature and perseverant spirit, I don't know what we would have done. She was a beacon of patience all day, never complaining and always the first to point out the silver lining. I think she had been on my good side ever since our first day in Greece, when she was the first to catch on to the way I play "What is the worst that could happen?" Anyone with a sense of humour that morbid and a character as strong as hers is cool with me.

We arrived back at Camping Not-So-Fabulous to find that we had hot water and heat in the old rooms, and had been given two new rooms, each a trailer capable of holding six, with kitchens.

Apparently in our absence, our other five members had staged a sit in, with their blankets, in the office until they were provided new accommodations. Our Fearless Leader had worried herself sick about us since we hadn't returned home for so long, but at least now we had heat, light, and breakfast covered. The rooms were fairly dry, and had warmed up a bit, and included enough space for us all to rest comfortably and have a meal together the next morning.

We began to hope that maybe, just maybe, things were starting to look up for us. The following day would tell.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Banquet.

So, we got off the bus and after some confusion about where on earth we were going (Truism 19: Wandering around a Roman restaurant in a group all in costume will make the locals look at you funny) we found our seats for the "Groupo Historico Banquet Thingy."

We really had no idea what this event was going to be like, and it was a pretty cool event, I'll admit.

First off, the food was excellent. We started with a lovely antiPasto dish of several different meats, artichoke hearts, and all sorts of other goodies (I stole several foods from those of the people sitting to my left and right (The Magical E! and QoD, respectively). Hipster was sitting on the other side of The Magical E! which will be a factor in a few minutes, when I start discussing the dancers.

After that, a course of pasta (outstanding), then a course of chicken or pork and carrots (lovely), and then a course of a really wonderful dessert which I consumed and have already forgotten.

All this was mixed in with a sort of floor show, consisting of speeches, a beauty pageant, concert, and dance numbers all mixed in together.

The show started with a group from Germany that is part band, part archeological research group, and they were very cool. They played several different pieces using traditional instruments and did some of the dances as well.

They were following by the parading of 20-some-odd competitors in the "Who will be the next Athena?" competition which is held every year.

Many of them were very cute, and Hipster and I began running commentary about which ones were most adorable and which were off-the-charts attractive.

Thus, the permanent mental scarring to The Magical E! was probably begun. Already she had been unsettled by our time in Greece (courtesy of Vickie, even I saw more models of male posteriors than expected) and her seat between us probably did little to keep her sane.

It got worse though, when the ancient dance troupe (whose name, I'm sad to say, has been misplaced) began performing.

Now, I should point out at this point that I'm a dancer, trained for ballroom but with an appreciation for almost all forms of dance (with the possible exception of the bump-and-grind style most popular in clubs--it's both ugly and mundane). As such, any dance exhibition (be it ballet, belly, or ballroom) is absolutely riveting to me. In this case, the traditional dances performed were from the canons of such groups as priestesses and courtesans, performers who relied on the salacious nature of the dances to capture the attention of men both rich and powerful.

As such, most would say I was leering. I categorically refute that statement. I was observing! Closely.


So anyway, since we already had a running conversation going, Hipster and I grew no less bawdy when the dancers arrived. We were impressed, and our commentary reflected that, via praise of both their abilities as dancers and their attributes as women.

Not, I think, inappropriately, but certainly in a direct and honest manner.

At least that's my story, and I'm sticking to it. I think we unnerved the girls by being so honest about our opinions though. I think they are more used to men who do their best to steal their glances between comments about how they don't care, and how their current girlfriends are way more attractive to them, and etc. Since we were both single, and direct, we surprised them.

In any case, the dancers (who did several cool numbers, including one with scarves and one very awesome one with candles in little clay pots) were quite skilled, and I applaud their work. Bravo, say I!

In all, I don't think the banquet was worth what we paid for it though, and if I could do it over again, I'd probably skip the entire event. But that's just me.

In any case, the show and dinner were great, and we enjoyed ourselves.

Thankfully we managed to catch the bus back, and arrived to find our rooms cold, but at least we had blankets (the rest of us having been furnished with them) and promises of hot water and heat the following day.

Little did we know how badly we'd need them.

Camping Not-So-Fabulous

A great deal has happened to me on the course of my travels, including spilled drinks, lost reservations, buildings collapsing, beds breaking, misplaced luggage, fellow travelers fighting either verbally or physically, famine, fire, plagues of locusts, etc. I tend, as anyone who has traveled with me will admit, not to complain. I tend to always talk about the positive, gloss cheerfully over the negative and do my damnedest to be a good sport.

(And ok, technically I've never had to deal with a plague of locusts, but all those other things have occurred--even the collapsing building.)

However, in the interests of not just skipping Rome all together, I must mix in the bitter with the sweet, as the saying goes, and tell you about one of the worst travel experiences of my life. So, with my apologies, the following will most likely feel like a laundry list of complaints. I'll try to keep it light and throw in enough jokes to keep from scaring you off, but feel free to skip it if you wish.

So we get to the site, and since we're in a public service vehicle, they have other tasks to do, so they drop us off, in the cold, now persistent rain, with our gear and high-tail it off to wherever Italians in cargo vans go. I think they probably have a big cargo van swap-meet where they brag about their latest adventures and drink coffee from tiny, tiny cups. I theorize that our drivers will have the best story at this particular meet "We picked up 12 American Tourists in a cargo van designed to hold no more than 5 people plus luggage, then transported them through the streets driving as if we were an ambulance!"

My mother goes and meets with the organizer of this crazy event, and we meanwhile stand, in the rain, attempting to keep ourselves warm and dry as best we can considering there is no possibility of either.

After quite some time (20 minutes? It feels like 40.) we are shuffled off to the welcome desk of the place, and from there into two tiny mobile-homes, each split down the middle into two three man rooms, complete with ensuite bathrooms, running (frigid) water, and non-functioning heaters.

We are given sheets, and some of us are even given blankets. (oh happy day! Surely the gods have smiled upon us and granted us luxury!)

So, without hot water or heat we make our unceremonious arrival in Rome. Well, near Rome. Actually getting into the city center from Camping NSF takes over an hour via public transit, but we're near Rome, we think. At least we know Rome is out there somewhere. Everybody is speaking Italian, right? So how far away can the city be?

Of course our entire area, being a campground, a location which is notorious for not being well paved, has absorbed enough water to float a 37 foot yacht in comfortably. Thus we are, by the time we are assigned rooms, slogging through mud, trying our best to stay out of it but failing, and tracking with us enough dirt and clay to build a 5 gallon vase, fill it, and raise flowers.

We get to the mobile homes ("Look guys, it's just like being back in Alabama!") and drop off our stuff, then begin discovering how many 'unique features' our lodgings have.

One of the doors doesn't latch and must be locked or it drifts open. One latches too well (trapping the occupants inside! Whee!). Three of the four heaters don't work. No-one has hot water. All of the rooms are filled with mud (on account of the rain) and the steps shift, sometimes blocking the doors so that people become trapped in their rooms. The situation appears pretty grim.

On the plus side, there's food in one of the rooms, which the girls promptly begin to consume--since we're all starving and they figure that each room had food in it. We discover later that:

A) Only this room had food. It was meant for all. And
B) This food was to be our breakfast for the following morning (whoops!).

Keep in mind that this evening we are scheduled to attend a nice sit-down banquet-and-production, we assume in semi-formal or at least dressy-casual clothes.

None of us would survive the showers without hypothermia though, so we're in a bit of a bind about not looking like a bunch of gypsy-hobos that just fell off the train and put on nice threads.

All this takes a backseat to a much worse revelation though. Our leader has some contact with one of the organizers, and he tells us that we should definitly attend the event (cue eye-twitch and displeased voice) in-costume. Now understand that these are the costumes of ancient Romans, not exactly draft-free if-you-get-my-drift, and designed for much warmer climates than the 50 degree rain we are experiencing. We had hoped for 70+ and partly cloudy and that is obviously NOT what we're going to get.

So we're still trying our damnedest to be good sports about all this. I'm cracking jokes about how I think I see blue skies ahead, and how at least the rain has let up to a drizzle (though it's caused the temperature to drop) and that there's always suicide!

Ok, so I didn't actually make jokes about shuffling off our mortal coils to avoid some bad weather and embarrassing moments, but it was tempting.

Since we're all still trying to be good sports, we nod and mumble "Ok", although none of us is particularly happy about hearing that we've got to wear the costumes out in this weather.

So, without having seen any other members of this Groupo Historico business except our contact, we decide to get dressed and head down to the main area, where supposedly there will be travel arrangements provided for us. (This dinner event is held far in towards Rome, and we must get there by bus).

Now allow me to explain briefly that we are at this point unaware of the bus situation. Quite simply, there are no buses for everybody. There are individual chartered buses arranged by the individual groups (the dance troupe, the Spanish bachannalians, etc) and we are essentially arriving, travel arrangement-less and just trying to hop in other people's private buses. Speaking no Italian, and very few of them speaking any English.

At this point though, we don't know this yet. We're still under the impression that there are buses meant for the whole group.

So we get into our silly-looking costumes, and we huddle in front of our leader's mobile home (Hey Maw! Come see this here funny dress Ah put awn!) in a bunch. 12 drowned cats, shivering in too-little clothing and just thanking the heavens that at least it stopped raining.

We run across our contact organizer, who is, of course, NOT IN COSTUME (this should have been our first clue to go straight back, change into nice clothes, and proceed as planned). We get to the bottom of the hill where everyone is congregating at the bus-area, and there are lots of people. All members of the Groupo Historico. They all appear very nice and friendly and ARE DRESSED IN STREET CLOTHES.

This is NOT humorous to our bedraggled band. We fear we are being made a laughing stock, and that truly fortune and our God have both turned against us in our hour of need.

Ok, so that's being a bit overdramatic.

In any case, it was awkward.

Thankfully we note that a couple of the groups do have large bags and are going to change when they arrive (turns out they were part of the dance troupe that was in the program, performing) and finally 4 people from Germany show up in costume as well (turns out they were also performing).

In fact, only a handful of people show up in costume, and 95% of them are in the freaking show that goes with dinner!

We are not amused.

But we bite our tongues (it's too late to go back and change now) and board the bus, ignorant of everything going on around us in quick, sing-song Italian, and head for dinner.