A little bit of everything

So I can’t be this tired. It’s just not possible. I worked four hundred hours in a month, over eight weeks without a day off and now I can barely keep my eyes open after being awake for only eleven hours. Am I really this out of shape?

No, I won’t believe that. I think we’ve just a number of factors colluding against me here. First, though I’m not normally susceptible to jet lag, I may be feeling it a little this time around. Second, I have technically had a cold all week, I’m just too stubborn to admit it and let it ruin my vacation. Third, I have been walking virtually nonstop and carrying around fifteen+ pounds of gear suspended on a single shoulder all week. Fourth, not by choice, but I’m eating a lot more meat this week. A LOT more. I’ve probably had more pork in the last four days than I’ve had all year. I am so not kidding. But, the Europeans love their buta (pig), be it bratwurst or prosciutto. The upshot here is I just don’t have the enzymes to break this stuff down anymore, so that takes energy, and I haven’t had natto, or fish, or tsukemono all week. Think about giving your Ferrari high-octane jet fuel and then all the sudden dumping regular in the tank.

So, I guess it’s not entirely inconceivable that I could be getting a little more run down than usual. I mean, it’s not like I’ve overweight or never do any aerobic exercise or anything. Still, I’m going to have to ganbare and have dinner tonight in an actual restaurant. I’m seriously worried though if I can handle the portions, though. I don’t want to be wasteful or offend. The other day I went to a Greek restaurant in Vienna and I couldn’t even finish my tzatziki, it’s just too much heavy stuff for a healthy man to finish (unless your Michael Phelps, I guess).

I got off track from my original topic, though. The key is that today was much more well balanced than yesterday. Admittedly I didn’t hit so many Frommer’s landmarks, but geographically and sociologically, I covered a much wider swath of the island.

In the morning as I said, I first took the vaporetto to San Michele and the cemetery. Then I continued on to Murano, where I passed about three hundred shops selling the same glassware. More importantly I got some photographs of a slightly different part of the city, architecturally. Then I took a string of vaporetto and made it all the way out to the other side of Venice in particular La Giudecca. There are not many shops there at all, mostly just blocks of Venetian apartments. Again, the buildings and the streets have a slightly different layout, so that was interesting to compare. Just as all practical ambient light disappeared I finished another roll of film and walked past the Venice Hilton, which to be honest is quite an eyesore, not fitting in at all with the rest of the island. The fact it occupies a ridiculously large piece of land doesn’t help either.

On the chain of vaporetti back to San Toma, I played hangman with some gap-toothed, little French girls. I could guess and understand the words they chose, but I realized I don’t know my French alphabet. I could guess the letter ‘r’, but I couldn’t properly pronounce it. I tried saying it and the little girl with glasses, she said “pardon?” in French, it just about killed me. They were sitting up on top of the life raft compartment by the window, but the younger one wasn’t tall enough to climb up completely, so I had to keep giving her butt a shove so she could climb up on the ledge every time they switched positions to draw on the window. After we got off the boat we cast glances at each other through the crowd, I mean we didn’t like say goodbye or anything, but it was a strange, mixed-up kind of feeling.

A little bit of everything, not a bad day I guess.

Stalling

After I had a glass of chianti and a pantina at the bar around the corner, I came back to the hotel to go up to my room. I got my key from the lady just fine, but when I started to ask her what time the restaurant opened, I realized half-way through the sentence that I forgot what the word for “time” was in Italian. She told me but I was still thrown off by having forgotten the word for time that I wasn’t ready to parse what she had to say. I stood there with a blank look on my face until with her eternally heavy-lidded eyes stated, “seven o’clock.” I blushed and managed an embarrassed grazie before scuttling off to my room. For the most part I did really well today though, really. French and Italian.

[Checking the “City time” app in my Visor, I noticed that it is almost two-thiry a.m. Tokyo time right now…further proof to the fact that I may very well be still jet-lagged! I have no idea what’s going to happen when I get back on Monday, though. Somehow I doubt I’ll just break even on the whole process.]

The islands

Quest for Glory V was a denouement of sorts in a lot of ways. The game takes place in the kingdom of Silmaria, which is modeled after ancient Greece. The concept of many small islands connected by a series of boats and ferries is something familiar to me, so travelling in between the various islands of Venice via vaporetti is particularly entertaining for me.

The rain has been virtually constant since this morning, but fortunately its more of the drizzle to light variety, as opposed to the “heavy rain” forecast by The Weather Channel earlier this week.

This morning I departed via vaporetto to il cimetero on San Michele Island. Though photography is prohibited, I managed to take a few shots by retreating to a secluded corner of the graveyard. If you think about it, it seems odd to have a graveyard on an island in a lagoon, as you can’t dig down to bury anyone. Accordingly, all of the graves at San Michele are above ground, in a series of multilevel vaults.

After il cimitero, I continued on to Murano, which is famous for being the traditional glass-making center of Venice, and moreover historically Europe itself. I’ve been trying to pace myself and account for the strain of carrying multiple camera bodies and lenses all over the island; I have two days left. So periodically I pick up a new panini and keep half in my bag, along with a bottle of cheap COOP tea. Currently I’m enjoying my first Italian draft beer at a small pub on the north side of the island.

Before I left Japan someone asked me if I’m accepted as European when travelling abroad. Forgetting the cheapo approximation of the US flag on my right jacket sleeve, actually for whatever reason I am indeed often interpreted as being an EU native. This may be a bit of a stretch, and the more correct statement of facts may be just that Europeans are not ones to go out of their way to speak English and they simply start talking at me with the hope that I understand the language at hand. Most times people start in German or Italian and only resort to a few words of English when the bare minimum for communication stalls. I am holding my own a lot better in Italian than in German; my confidence is a lot higher and I make a greater effort to initiate transactions with as much detail as possible so I don’t have to try and parse anything my partner question says. Interestingly, when I did buy a sandwich in Murano today, the clerk thanked be with a succinct “merci.” This isn’t the first time I’ve been mistaken for being French.

Old, new, and always the music

Music is always going to be important. The first time you hear a song at an important time in your life, it bonds to your heart and then forever that song is your own at that moment in time. Bands are associated with phases of your life, or new loves and breakups. I first discovered Coldplay when I was living in San Diego, at that extremely tense and transitionary period between graduate school and Japan. Warning Sign and The Scientist were huge on the radio; I often heard them in my PoS Escort rental car when driving down highway 78 home after work.

After Nobue left me it was Clocks that flew with me into a turbulent new life in Tokyo. A Rush of Blood to the Head was so representative of all the jumbled acceptance and rejection I was going through at the time. Now I’ve just heard Lovers in Japan (ironically) for the first time on Italian radio, and it seems with another album release, my life comes full circle again. So not ready to accept what I have, so driven to become so much more.

Uneventful

Yesterday was largely uneventful. At the end I returned to my hotel with the fall of darkness at five, and after taking a much needed shower, found it hard not to get into bed. My body was heavy, and my feet almost numb from the pain of three days of constant walking with twenty-some pounds of gear. I should have chosen better shoes and socks. In any case, I was incredibly tired, and the prospect of wandering around the maze-like streets of Venice in the dark without a torch were not so much tempting, so I crawled under the covers with the intention of resting a few hours until supper. However, a few hours became five, and eleven o’clock seemed a bit late for dinner, so I just turned over and made it a good thirteen. But all criticisms aside, that’s how I spent my birthday, for the most part asleep.

I did, however manage to see three of the biggest landmarks in so many hours, visiting Rialto, St. Mark’s Square, and All’Academia, all by foot. When you stick to the main throng of tourists, it’s hard not to find one of these places, actually. My entire food for the day was also consumed in a period of roughly half an hour: panini genovese, gelato, pizza. As authentic as tourism gets.

Now it’s light (and unfortunately completely overcast), and the delivery staff are already busy in the canal outside my window, delivering all the essentials by boat beer, spirits, and something in a lot of white bags that I’m going to guess is laundry? [Later investigation confirmed this was spot on.]

It says on my reservation email that breakfast is included with my stay. This would be much appreciated having not eaten for seventeen hours, but I’m not sure what time it’s served. I suppose I’ll pop down at eight and if the conditions are right, I’ll stop for a bite.

Ah, Venice

So I’m sitting in St. Mark’s Square, the famous site of where Vesper was supposed to meet James after she wired the Casino Royale winnings back to the Imperial Treasury Office. Of course this never happened thanks to Mr. White and his cohorts, but that’s another story.

I’m starting to think I could make a decent living just taking people’s pictures here. I’ve already been asked three times. It must be the 5D. The 24mm end of the lens brings out the beauty of plaza’s graceful columns, but I think I’m already sick of it. One of the problems of shooting a subject with such arresting natural beauty is that’s all that it is. It’s virtually impossible to mess up, and when people compliment you on the photograph, it’s not you, it’s the subject that’s due the credit. But I suppose it’s about purposes. I’m not here shooting all of this architecture to define myself as an artist, I’m simply a representative set of eyes for everyone who couldn’t be here. Actually, if you think about it, shooting in places like this is in some ways more difficult than someplace mundane. Everyone has an idea of what Venetian architecture looks like, and that image in their mind is what they want to see. It’s very hard for me to create an original way of viewing it and make the representation unique. Overstated, but it’s true that professional photographers are paid not for what they see, but how they see it.

It has grown overcast and the blissful morning sun has been replaced with increasingly cloudy skies. But at least it’s not raining. Oh, by the way, it’s my birthday.

Quest for the Crown

I marveled that the Wombat City Hostel was a fantastic place to stay for the budget-minded backpacker. After reflecting on this somewhat, I thought half-jokingly to myself that a hostel is only as good as its patrons. I didn’t mean to conjure misfortune, but that is truly the case.

Last night after returning from a day full of walking all over the city centre, I decided to take a little nap before going out in the evening. Unfortunately my roommates were new and they weren’t in the mindset to let this happen. Though one of them was trying to sleep with the lights off, the other four were raucous: snickering, belching, and slapping each other on the back throughout most of the evening. I think they may have been smoking something too; quite often there were incredibly abrupt moments of hushed silence followed by usage of a pungent air freshner and the opening of a window.

Around ten they apparently all decided to go to bed, at which point I got up and headed out to Flex. It was surprisingly cheap, only nine euros for cover, and drinks were just above three euros on average. The music was decidedly German techno, and very hard to dance to, so after another of my classic international bar misorders (ordered: beer Edelweiss, got: vodka cooler Ersthoff Ice) I took the last U-bahn home and decided to call it a night. Unfortunately most everyone on my floor had other plans. Though my German speaking roommates had acquiesced to settle in for the night, they were about the only ones. Virtually every one in the building was fall down drunk, shouting at the top of their lungs, and frequently tripping over furniture. After brushing my teeth I ran into at least four giggling girls barely able to grope their way down the hall. Eventually they found some company and the clanging and shouts began anew. My roommates were just as displeased as I was about this, but they took it a lot less well, often abruptly jumping out of bed to pound on the ceiling and kick the wall in disapproval. Predictably, this didn’t help and just made matters worse. Not until roughly six a.m. did the cacophony finally subside.

In any case, I am done hosteling for the week and am now trying to regain my composure in the Schönbrunn Palace parks. Thankfully the rain seemed to break with the morning, so I am sitting on a bench in close to complete solitude enjoying a very affordable brunch of Camembert and beer which I purchased at Penny Mart for a paltry 1.80. To clarify how cheap beer is in Austria, let me say it again. A whole Camembert wheel AND five hundred ml of beer for 1.80. And I didn’t even get the cheapest beer. It’s not that bad either. My cold seems to have returned, and my lips are about as dry as a sun-baked prune, but I at least it isn’t raining and I can sit here in relative peace, watching the squirrels play and thinking of German-themed Sierra games.

Memories

There are so many ways that one can look at a situation. Take for instance, my predilection for brown-bagging it in parks alone while listening to the more melancholy selection of Final Fantasy piano arrangements. Some people would say that these are signs of antisocial tendencies, the rather immature and depressing behavior of fool absorbed with his own drama and dwelling on the past. Then again, I could say that this is proof that I truly am a romantic, deeply in love with life and the moments I’ve been fortunate to share. Unfortunately the paucity of supermarkets in the city center of Wien makes this less than ideal. I’m short on cheese and sufficient apparel, it’s about fifty-four but the wind is picking up, making it feel a lot more like somewhere in the forties. Though not completely removed from the sounds of construction and traffic, I do have an eight euro bottle of Riesling which I bought from a very attending wine seller across the street from the University of Vienna.

Sometimes I wonder how old I will have to get before I can attain closure and resign myself to the truth about the difference between being in love with a person and being in love with a concept. Maybe experience will never bring me the answer, maybe it requires a degree of emotional training.

It’s funny how what’s important to you changes, or doesn’t with time. Cartoons and toys disappear as one grows from dreaming about doing to the act of doing itself. Parks, buildings, and slow, quiet hours that once were boring now become yearned for. Yet…

Wet and the colds

After breakfast at the hostel I decided to walk into the Ringstraße, the inner ring at the city’s center. It’s a little over a mile from Westbahnoff down Mariahilfer Straße through a chain store part of town that reminds me of affluent downtown in San Francisco: molded fascades, boutiques and record stores, and a moderate degree of construction. At the end of Mariahilfer Straße the scenery changed immediately at Museumsquartier. Now I’m sitting directly in front of Hofburg Palace on a bench in the chilling cold and cursing myself for having left my wine opener and knife in my bathroom kit at the hostel. I should have brought my winter jacket and muffler, or at the very least worn my lohn johns (left to air out in my locker). It’s only eleven, but I’m thinking some wine would be very good right now. Perhaps a Riesling.

I’m still searching for an artist that suits Vienna. I started out listening to Simon and Garfunkel and have now settled on Björk. Unfortunately each of them already has deep emotional significance so this is awkward and inappropriate. I do enjoy the solace, though. All of the few people around seem to be tourists, mostly families.

HIS AEDIBVS ADHAERET CONCORS POPVLORVM AMOR

Vienna smells of autumn

The sky is grey and overcast, just as the weather predicted. It’s probably in the lower 50s, the air is damp. It reminds me a lot of Pittsburgh in the fall. The air is heavy with autumn. Last night after arriving at Vienna I fumbled around a bit and bought a ticket for the s-bahn, connecting to the subway at Wien Mitte. The train from the airport to the city reminded me a lot of the one in Paris: oddly shaped, orange on the inside, an odd seat layout; a slow amble from through the suburbs. Vienna feels a lot safer than Paris though. Train cars are not connected, people can’t migrate from car to car panhandling. Almost everyone I’ve seen so far seems to be affluent and relaxed. A lot of faces remind me of people I know back home: blindingly blond hair bobbed short, fair bone structure, and smooth, white skin.

The hostel I’m staying in is fabulous. There’s a bar, plasma TV with CNN, bathroom per 6-bunks, and a locker in my room. Very upscale and clean. I think I’m paying about twenty euros a night.

Last night it was so quiet I could hear the blood in my veins; very, very unnerving for someone who’s been living in noisy cities for so long. It reminded me a little of my grandmother’s in that way: the pitch black darkness, the silence, the dry air. Riding on the flight from Moscow, and the train to Vienna, I felt more exhausted than I can ever remember, like ready to throw-up exhausted. Still, I had a hard time sleeping, and my body tried to get me up at five. I forced myself to stay in bed a good seven and half hours, now it’s nine. I have to get moving, I only have forty-eight hours in Vienna.

In Soviet Russia, baggage check you!

I don’t begrudge a scheduled four hour layover. Why? Because shit happens. An original four hour layover becomes three and a half with boarding time for the connecting flight, three with a changed flight plan, then two-fifteen with three loops over Moscow because there aren’t any gates free, then one forty-five because you disembark onto the runway due to said lack of gate, one-fifteen to line up for a make-to security and customs array full of disgruntled employees, and then just about an hour when you get to your next gate.

Apparently zonno means “this seat is taken” in Russian, as in “my obnoxious, loud middle-aged friends and I are occupying this row with our pink hairstyles and gum.” It’s ok, Moscow’s international airport is a lot more glum than I imagined. It is indicative of similar economies in a state of rapid growth: half-completed and poorly managed construction all over the place, scores of valueless duty-free stores, and a single sketch bathroom. It’s incredibly dark; there is very little illumination and mismatched furniture, it kind of reminds me of old Grand Central– almost as intimidating, but a lot of the people sitting around look like fairly well-to-do Europeans, so I guess nothing too shady goes on. Not a lot of smiles though, unfortunately.

In Soviet Russia, subtitle read you

Yegveny’s impeccable dedication to quality continues on. Now our second movie of the flight has started, it’s what seems to be a 1960s Technicolor puppetoon film in the vein of Tom Thumb or Babes in Toyland.

This starry-eyed young man in some tavern says goodnight to the girl he’s in love with, and then starts talking to the marionettes in the common room. We have wide screen VHS but Japanese subtitles, and sound that only comes in once every seven seconds or so. So I am watching this grainy fairy tale (some Mother Goose lady is yelling down a well now, the starry-eyed boy is now in some kind of dream land I guess, wearing a toy solidier uniform and moving through a cave of skeletons while the old lady directs him from outside the well). Anyway, no audio I thought I’d put some BGM to the film, and since Russian hop-hop didn’t fit, I went with elevator music. But this channel is now some kind of Tales from the Crypt radio show.

So to summarize, I’m listening to what sounds like a Russian haunted house narrator, watching some Technicolor folktale, and reading very crude Japanese subtitles. And to think I was bemoaning the lack of alcohol for this trip (yes, it’s an all charge system, despite the eleven hour flight).

Old lady danced off, the hero wants to get back up, shoots his musket up at the winch outside the well that lowers the bucket. Climbs out and is now chasing after a cartwheeling grandma while we have closeups of a cat intercut into the film. Old lady’s head is cut off, rolls across the ground, her body replaces it with cabbage. Gold coins fall out of the old lady’s basket, and now the cat is transformed into some Chaplin-looking dude. Maybe he was under a spell or something from the witch.

Money talks. After a song and dance routine involving milk maids picking potatoes in the field and a bunch of chimney sweeps, the soldier returns to the candy colored town and with the aid of some gold coins at the city gate gets into town. Now he’s running around getting all gussied up in the latest pastels and what not, I guess with all that loot he took from the woman he beheaded.

Well, the movie stopped and has been off for about ten minutes or so. I suppose someone complained about the lack of audio and the politburo decided that in the interests of equality no movie was better that movie sans sound.

I like looking at the map of Asia as time goes by. I get to see the names of all of the Siberian cities. A good number of them are familiar to me since I read Farley Mowat‘s The Siberians a couple years ago. Talk about your weird media choices. Here’s a book that was written thirty some years ago during the peak of Soviet expansion for natural resource exploitation. Farley Mowat is an interesting guy to start with, but him writing about a time, place, and culture completely foreign to me (and him) adds so many layers of imagination it’s mind-boggling. I’ve never even seen a picture of Siberia, but the images in my mind are fantastic; endless snow, quiet, sparsely populated frontier towns, scrub tree lines, constantly dark, overcast skies, and a cavalcade of vivacious, land-hardened individuals pounding vodka like its going out of style and raving about the future of engineering and the Soviet Economy.

The Siberians is probably the bulk of the reason that I’ve dreamt of going to to Russia for so long. My expectations are so high; actually going there and spending time alone under that great, big, sky is surreal. I think it would be both a long and difficult trip, being off the beaten path as it is. Like China, I have to apply for a visa even to get into the country for a short vacation.

(An Olsen twins movie dubbed in Russian started and then was promptly abandoned after about a minute of opening credits.)

In Soviet Russia, drink consumes you!

Another fragment of things about Russia I recall from my youth is a reputation for engineering of questionable quality. Towards the end of middle school I developed a voracious appetite for automobile literature. Hot Rod, Car and Driver, Porsche restorer’s guides, two-stroke engine manuals, I tore through it all. In particular, I remember an editorial from 1992 Road & Track that told of all the amazing ways a Russian lemon could prove a formidable challenge for its owner. Right now, my reading light will not operate and I am forced to do my clerical work in the dark. This may be an American-made Boeing but Vginny’s dopey grin has got me thinking that this cannot be a simple coincidence. Fortunately my Visor has delightfully retro monochrome night vision so I can type. Tagging my Italian conversation book will have to wait until later.

One thing that came to mind while trying to find a sleeping position that didn’t involve a steel protrusion into my back was how does immigration work on trains in Europe? The reason it occurred to me is because I haven’t been able to get Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” out of my head for the last three days. There’s that intro to National Lampoon’s European Vacation where Chevy Chase’s passport starts out crisp and new but as the credits are displayed it gets progressively more chewed up until it’s a barely tenable mess of stamps, tears, and coffee stains. If I enter Austria via the airport, then get on a overnight train to Italy at Westbahnhof, do I have to go through emigration before I board the train? Or does it happen near the border, or, what? The same goes for entering Italy at like five in the morning, sometime when I’m asleep presumably. It’s not like they’re going to come into the compartment and wake us all up and ask us if we have anything to declare.

I’d say that the train ride is probably the biggest dodgy part of this whole trip. I read there is a train overnight from Vienna to Venice, the Allegro. However, knowing only that I booked (I think) a ticket in a sleeper car and paid with my MasterCard via the Austria rail system’s website, which I can’t even pronounce. The English version of the page didn’t seem to work for international travel so I just fumbled through it running the text surrounding the form fields through Babelfish. There were probably any number of “You must agree to be informed of this” sections that I just completely ignored.

After I received what looks like a digital ticket via email I considered my blind groping validated and immediately claimed complete victory. I really have no solid proof that I actually succeeded in producing anything other than a perceived waste of forty-nine euros, so hopefully someone at the hostel registration will be knowledgeable and kind enough to let me know if I’ll be walking to Italy or not.

In Soviet Russia, plane boards you!

Once again I am fortunate enough to be in the position to visit hereto countries known only to me via American movies, which means every mundane event is subject to quiet ridicule. Though this week I will travel to both Vienna, Austria and Venice, Italy, I am traveling via Soviet Era air juggernaut Aeroflot, even transferring in Moscow.

This is no minor joy for me. When I went to Thailand, I had a small collection of stereotypes involving Anna and the King, Kickboxer, and Sagat. However, the former Soviet Union was a virtually limitless source of intrigue and propganda for the duration of the Cold War. A record score of James Bond and Tom Clancy films has provided me with Siberian-sized expectations of what and who to encounter, to say nothing of Rocky IV and virtually every male-targeted cartoon series from the 1980s.

Right now my obsessive imagination has reached a fever pitch while listening to the magnificent crescendos of The Hunt for Red October. The captain has just come over the PA in classic, on-the-mark, beleaguered Russian drawl, informing the crew of today’s flight time and destination. I will pepper the rest of my writing all the way to Vienna with a nearly endless tirade of heavily accented movie quotes.

Most things in here don’t react well to bullets.”

It’s amusing, because you see so much of the stereotypes of Russian characters in film and then when you actually run into real people, it’s so entertaining to find copious amounts of evidence to back it up. This plane is full of tall, thin guys with fair skin and blindingly blond hair or burly comrades with dark hair and beards thick enough require a machete for shaving. Even the CG passenger on the safety video looks like Ed Harris. I wonder how long until our complementary 3-euro Stoly.

Apparently the alcohol isn’t the only thing that costs extra when traveling Aeroflot. The vinyl backing from the seat in front of me seems to be separating from the chair proper. Though this isn’t a huge deal, I just hope Vginny the grinning Aeroflot maintenance technician spends more time checking the avionics than the cabin amenities. I haven’t flown on a 767 in a long time, most of the international flights I run into these days are A320s. My seat doesn’t recline as there is a wall directly behind it, but fortunately this isn’t a huge deal as I am the only person in my row. I may do the pull-up-the-armrest-and-lay-across-three-seats thing in a bit. The dearth of provisions (my inflight-snack was a wet tissue) on the flight will make it hard to get through the full ten and half hours conscious. I anticipated something like this and brought a litre of oolongcha and some Pretz to ration. I wonder what we get to see on the crusty CRT monitor hanging near the lavatory. I hope it’s more than just the Aeroflot commercial presumedly designed to make me feel better about my airline selection (read: the only airline with seats available two weeks’ before departure). The blankets, oddly enough, are quite nice, a retro quilting in UVa orange and blue with the hammer and sickle logo. I may have to have a rare ethical blackout while one finds its way Kenderlike into my bag.

“Brainstorming is one of the best products of American thought. All the modern gangs use it.” Object modeling.

Valentin: “Do you have any idea how long the winter lasts in this country? Tell him, Dmitri.”
Guard: “Well, it depends…”
Valentin: “SILENCE!”