Category Archives: Accents

Retrovalogue: France and Italy

Retro Travelogue from 2004 trip to France and Italy full of broken links and missing pix. Embarrassing jokes, juvenile observations, outdated references, and ridiculous quotes retained for posterity’s sake.

9/14/04

I was flying into Chicago at night
Watching the lake turn the sky into blue-green smoke
The sun was setting to the left of the plane
And the cabin was filled with an unearthly glow
In 27-D, I was behind the wing
Watching landscape roll out
Like credits on a screen
The earth looked like it was lit from within
Like a poorly assembled electrical ball as we moved
Out of the farmlands into the grid
The plan of the city was all that you saw
And all of these people sitting totally still
As the ground raced beneath them thirty thousand feet down

Well, replace “Chicago” with “Paris” and you’ve got the beginnings of the Honeymoon Hullabaloo (not to be confused with a Brouhaha, HB). I would love to write up a full-blown travelogue of the three weeks we spent in Europe, but I have neither the time nor the creativity to do so. Instead, I’ll offer you bite-sized reports. Well, make that nibble-sized. Mouse-nibbles at that.

So. We arrived in Paris on a Monday and in order to stay awake and adjust to our new time zone, we spent the day promenading around the Saint Germain neighborhood on the left bank of the Seine River, staggering around the grounds of Notre Dame Cathedral, and limping to have a sushi dinner at Orient Extreme (the “Extreme” stands for “extremely high prices”). The rest of the evening was a blur but I have some hazy recollection of chowing down on some decadently rich Berthillon ice cream (undisputed champ of the best ice cream in Paris) before passing out. This is the view from our room:

[remind me to find that pix]

9/15 Nibblet: Jardin du Luxembourg is so much prettier in the fresh, lush late summer than it is in the chilly, dormant late winter. The spiky, purple-topped artichokes, the rows of straight and strong chestnut trees (which we don’t have in the US), the anemones, the dahlias, the . . . uh . . . something or other pretty flowers! KA-BLOOM!

[pix]

And the prize for the best deep, dark, rich, hot chocolate in Paris at a reasonable price goes to (drumroll, please) Cacao et Chocolate! Sorry, Cafe de Flore; I love ya, but my wallet does not. I mean, seriously. Who pays $10 for a hot chocolate? In other news, anyone else hear Bush say “internets” last night? That guy . . .

Nibblet 9/16:

These boots were made for walkin’
And that’s just what they’ll do
One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.
(“you” being the streets of Paris)

After a shot of caffeine (cafe con creme) and bite of pan con chocolate (where a thin layer of chocolate was painted on top of the pastry; LAME), we headed up to Montmartre (pronounced “Moan-mart” and no wonder after we hiked up the eleventy-hundred steps leading to Basilica de Sacre Coeur) the highest point in Paris. We could have taken the funicular up the steep hill, but where’s the pain in that? Here’s a pix I took of the Basilica when we reached the top and I cleverly covered up the extreme need to catch my breath and rest my aching legs by insisting on stopping, focusing the camera, fiddling around with the buttons, and taking a picture.

We walked from a house of God to a house of sin: the infamous (“infamous is when you’re more than famous!”) Moulin Rouge. We walked from there to the house of the dead: the rather serene cemetery of Montmartre (“A dreaded sunny day, So I meet you at the cemetery gates”). Upon our return to the Left Bank, we walked from Saint Germain to the Pantheon in the Latin Quarter and then to a house of God again: the Paris Mosque and its lovely courtyard. We walked to the Jardin des Plantes for some more ka-BLOOM action, walked along the Seine (number of dead cats along the way: one. number of injured old men in a bike accident: one. number of stunning cathedrals: one.), and finally, to collect some mezze to eat at home, walked to Au Bon Marche (the city’s largest food market; at 2,700 square meters, you can imagine the time it took to find the hummus). Whole lotta walkin’ that day. My poor Abibbas will never be the same.

In other news, how is it that finally getting poor, busticated Cressie washed (Ultimate Deluxe Wash, that is) makes me think that she goes faster now?

9/17 Nibblet: Centre Pompidou looks like a huge hamster cage turned inside out. Here is someone else’s pix of this wacky complex. Marais has a tiny shop that sells the self-proclaimed “best falafel in the world” (although it could have stood a little more tahini, IMHO). Cafe viennois and crepes at bustling Bastille where the huge column not only commemorates the storming of the prison and the end of the monarchy but also TP’s and Najm’s birthday. Les Halles was once a thriving marketplace for 700 years but has been replaced by shabby 1970s mall-type stores. The only cool thing in that area now is this guy, “The Listener”:
[pix]

Dinner was had at the restaurant “Paris” at Hotel Lutetia where, during WWII, the Nazis camped out to enjoy the art deco and posh surroundings and where, during the height of dinner-time, our hosts’ three-year old, strong-willed, strong-legged boy ran roughshod over said surroundings. Note to self: do not feed children multiple scoops of chocolate ice-cream at 10 o’clock at night. In other news, apparently I have become the proud new owner of a machete.

Live: 9.17.2004 bon jour, mon petite bloggeuers! i’m attempting to write on an incredibly busticated, teeny tiny (isn’t every thing in france?) sony vaio right now whilst balancing the laptop on my knees and sitting on a balcony that overlooks saint germain and a buncha parisians smokin’ they ciggies, tossin’ back they cafe cremes, and not scoopin’ up after they puppies’ poops. all’s well here. great weather, great walking tours, and great location. off to italy tomorrow! miss youze guyz!!!

Madame Baji
directly above the metro mabillon
saint germain, paris

9/18 Nibblet: We flew from Paris to Naples on some no-name airline (ok, fine, it had a name, but you had to ask the crew for permission to use your portable device: “Can I use my Rio?” “No.”) and after spotting our driver (hint: he held a big, white sign with our names emblazoned on it), we zipped in and out of the crazy Napoli traffic (LB! I saw a Fiat Panda!), arrived in Sorrento, and checked into our no-name hotel (ok, fine, it had a name, but it was located directly on the busy highway on the cusp of town; this meant that despite the beautiful view it afforded of the coastline and Mt. Vesuvius, we had to risk our lives every time we stepped out onto the World’s Narrowest Sidewalk).

Eager to sample some of the famous Napoli pizza, we stopped at what we thought was the main square to eat at the first restaurant we saw : “Restaurant Number Two”. Worst. Pizza. Ever. Pasty, doughy, limp . . . how can this be? Upon further investigation (i.e. 2 minute walk away) we found the proper Piazza Tasso which was packed with much better restaurants, excellent people-watching perches, and Brits as far as the eye could see (in fact, we heard more people speaking English than we did Italian). We consoled ourselves on our bad lunch with gelato (pistachio gets a B; watermelon gets a B-) and returned to the hotel and tried to take a nap (where the pillows made out of either (1) wadded up towels jammed into thin cases or (2) a huge brick of foam). In the evening, we flirted with death and returned to the Piazza where we were rewarded for our bravery with dinner at Donna Vittoria, an excellent restaurant (good service, delicious meals, inexpensive bill, and the waiter will behead and fillet your fish for you). We celebrated our reversal of culinary fortune with some more gelato (strawberry gets an A; chocolate gets an A+). On our walk along the coast of the Bay of Naples, TP was overwhelmed by the beauty of the cliffs and the sea and was subsequently inspired to eat his third helping of two scoops ™ of gelato (sicilliana gets an A; egg nog gets a D).

In other news, TP and I were browsing around for a new bed (futon days are nearly over) and whilst doing some research, I came across this article. Anyone wanna drop $20,000 for a comfy night’s rest? And, in yet other news, today LB and I met Yasmine’s and PPP’s friend today!

 

9/19 Nibblet: Woke up early thanks to an insane rooster who could not tell time. Tried to get TP’s hair cut (he was sporting some molto bushy noggins) but the barbershops were closed on Sundays. Learned the difference between an Italian’s version of cafe latte (“white coffee” because it’s basically milk with just a teaspoon of coffee) and cafe con panna (espresso topped with whipped cream), both of which are preferable over the hotel’s caffe orzo (a coffee substitute made with barley and tasting of burnt towels). Many, many more choices. Can’t go wrong with cappuccino though:

Got a Fodor’s guide (lame), two mosquito bites (drat), and dinner at the marina with accompanying festivities, frolicking, and fireworks (holiday). Gelato report card:
vanilla cherry, C-
coconut, B
profumi di sorrento (citrusy), A
vanilla, B
plays well with others. listens carefully. completes homework assignments.

In other news, Ramadan Mubarak, y’all!

 

 

9/20 Nibblet: During breakfast, I swear I think I saw one of the 200 Brits staying at the hotel butter their ham and dunk it into their burnt tea. We spent the morning traversing Sorrento and hanging out at the marina where all of the ships were docked. We picked our way down a steep, stone staircase to watch the Mediterranean blue waters lapping at the sides of the ferries, hydrofoils, and sailboats bobbing at the port: loverly.

After chillaxing by the pool for a few hours, we caught the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii. Our timing was perfect because by late afternoon, the tourists had disappeared and the slanting sun gave everything a warm glow (I believe photographers call it “sweet light”).

Considering the city was devastated by earthquakes, a tsunami, and exploding Mt. Vesuvius’ whose lava buried the city and whose cloud of ash blocked out the sun, the Forum, the villas, the uh thing with the things, the gargoyles, and the tiles were incredibly well-preserved and restored. To learn more, clickety click right hyah. TP even made a couple of friends, one of whom was thoughtful enough to demonstrate how the ancient residents died of carbon dioxide asphyxiation. For more gruesome pix, check it. We gave ourselves a self-guided tour of the grounds, pointing out the fig trees, trying not to trip over the ruts in the cobbled streets, and contemplating what the frescos were attempting to depict. If we had had more time, we would liked to have visited Herculaneum (the lesser-known but equally destroyed neighbor; kinda like Brian) but the trip to Pompeii was very edutaining.

We had dinner at Il Lanterna which, besides the refreshing insalata caprese with ripe tomatoes and fresh basil, creamy risotto with perfectly cooked asparagus tips, and hearty, belly-warming gnocchi ala Sorrento (sorry, fellow fasters), boasts original Roman mosaics illuminated under the floor on the way to the self-cleaning, self-flushing toilets. A leisurely stroll along the calm streets (traffic was mild on this Monday night) was followed by . . . you guessed it.

Gelato report:
Peach, A+
Cannoli, A-
Walnut, B
Fig, A
Zuppa de Ingles, A- but with some extra credit homework, a potential A.

In other news, for you South Park fans, the Motion Picture Association of America has given Team America: World Police an R rating. Yeah, that movie with the puppets. Rated R.

 

9/21 Nibblet: By now, we were used to the slamming doors (7:00 a.m. so as not to miss the free breakfast), the cannon explosions (8:30 a.m. sharp, again at noon, and once more for good measure at 8:30 p.m.), and the insane rooster (5:00 a.m. until he darn well pleases). After a decent breakfast at Fauno’s at Piazza Tasso, we wandered down to the docks on the off chance that we could catch a hydrofoil (like a ferry but faster) to Capri. Success! Make that expensive success. 19 euros and 30 minutes later, we arrived on the shores of Capri. Luckily, our captain was not seduced by the Sirens who hung out and rocked their tunes thereabouts. But the sheer, white cliffs, the deep, mesmerizing waters, and the warm, drugging weather were enough to lull anyone into a dreamy, beatific state.

Our first pit stop was at the restrooms near the docks where a grizzled old woman with yellowing white hair clipped her dog’s toenails with one hand and snatched up 50 cents each with the other. I suppose it was worth it since this place at least had tissues whereas the Pompeii PeePee Facilities did not. We spent a fair amount of time thereafter waiting for the bus at the Marina, taking the bus up the incredibly precarious, hairpin turns up the mountain to touristy Anacapri, and waiting for another bus (whose fearless driver shrugged off ear-piercing shrieks when his bus scraped another bus taking the same curve) to the Blue Grotto. With limited time on the island, we chose lunch over seeing the famed blue waters of the Grotto. I will spare you the mouth-watering description of my meal, but I will share with you my own personal shock and awe when I got the bill: 44 Euros! Oh, my poor poor wallet.

Back at Piazza Vittoria, we poked around the villa before we decided to work off our decadent lunch by hiking down Scala Fenicia: the “Phoenician Stairway” that is cut into the rocks and connects Anacapri’s Villa San Michele with the Marina Grande far below. Far, far below. Like, 900 steps below (yes, I counted each and every one of them). The walk only took about 20 minutes which means that the stairs (good exercise, some shady and cool spots, and 20 minutes) wins out over the bus (nauseating, jam-packed, and 30 minutes). One caveat: the stairs win for the downhill trip only.

Back in Sorrento, we made up for our extravagant lunch by going grocery shopping and making our own dinner at ‘home’: a little of this and a little of that and we were sated for a mere 6 euros. Gelato report:

Lemon, A+ valedictorian
Tiramisu, C-
Mint, C+ but can make up grade during summer school
Chocolate, I think you know the grade for this one

In other news, apparently I bring harmony to the cosmos, I am popular in the northern parts of China and Taiwan, and you do NOT want to mess with me or I will go Shaolin on your ass. Also, I make one mean veggie lasagna.

 

it has come to my attention (courtesy of myself) that these nibblets are turning into huge, jaw-unhinged, only-an-anaconda-could-swallow bites. so, back to mouse nibblet sizes we go.

9/22 Nibblet: After purchasing our all-day, all-zone, all-modes-of-public-transportation (bus, train, funicular, metro) pass for 6.40 euros, we boarded the “direct” (meaning direct to each and every stop along the way) train to Naples. We arrived in the (rather crummy and run-down) Stazione Garibaldi and made our way through the (usually unmarked) streets until we found the arch-rival “best” pizzarias in Naples. When Trianon’s gates slammed shut in our faces just as we were within a foot of entering it, we spun on our heels and decided to grace the (some say) more popular, less expensive, and equally famous da Michele’s. Although also famed for long lines, da Michele’s at 4:00 p.m. on a September Wednesday was not so crowded that we couldn’t quickly find a seat and be served fresh Vera Pizza D.O.C. rated pizza (of which this 19th century establishment always has and presumably always will offer only two kinds: marinara and margherita. Don’t believe me? Check out the menu).

After lunch, we took the metro to the posh Chiaia district, got turned around no thanks to Fodor’s map (a plague on Fodor’s houses!), and ended up far away from the sea-level “Riviera” but with great aerial views of Naples below.

Train. Donna Vittoria’s. Davide “Il” Gelato (speaking of which, why did no one tell me about this?!?!?!(triple interrobang!)). Report:

Amaretto, B (given by TP although almond-flavored anything (except actual almonds) makes me want to vomit through my nose and so I would have given it an F-)
Chestnut, B
Tutti Frutti, F
Perfumo di Sorrento, A

In other news, I came to realize that I sorely need to update my playlists on my mp3 player as this weekend’s seemingly unending road-trip to and from North Carolina proved. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Le Tigre and my Ramones and my Fugazi (I think I saw one of the guys the other day) HuskerDuSleaterKinneyArchersofLoafYeahYeahYeahsSleaterKinneyLizPhair (classic, not the new stuff)PavementFetchinBonesRadioheadCafeTacubaNinaSimoneCarborundum (sigh) TheSmithsShellacMuleDeerhoofPizzacatoFiveEnonPJHarveyHelium (wish they were still together) WeenFolkImplosionInterpolLiarsDr.DreTheShins, etc. as I ever did. But I gotta get some new tunes. Any suggestions?

 

9/23 Nibblet: Decided to have an adventure and see if we could visit and stay the night in Ravello with no reservation, no notice, and no map. Packed a few things in a small bag and hung out at Bar Tasso while waiting for the tourist office to open so we could book a room for that evening. Boarded the 11:35 a.m. bus at 12:00 p.m. and made our ascent along the tortuously twisty roads up and along the mountain. The coastal view was not only breath-taking, it was also breakfast-taking. Note to TP: do not down four shots of dopio espresso macchiato before venturing on a veritable roller-coaster ride without a plastic bag.

Upon our arrival at Amalfi, where we had to switch to another bus to get to Ravello, we stopped for a light lunch, hiked up to San Andre Dome Amalfi, took some pix of the cathedral that brought to mind the Mezquita (mosque/cathedral) in Cordoba, and hiked back down to the marina. After some confusion and some jostling around, we boarded the bus Italian-style (all elbows and no quarter given) and wove our way up the cloud-piercing mountaintop to Ravello.

When we disembarked at the town’s square, I spotted a bus with the name Hotel Marmorata, Best Western on it; our hotel! I ran up to the driver and asked if there was room for two more people on the already completely filled bus. He shook his head and said, “only one, not two.” I tried negotiating at little more, explaining it had to be two until the woman next to the driver spoke to him, spoke to the passengers, got a vote, and spoke to him again. He nodded his head and let us sit on the edge of the raised platform that separates the driver from the passengers. Backwards. All the way back down the mountain. Turns out we had caught the only shuttle to the hotel (which was actually at the base of Ravello rather than at the top) which was dedicated solely for the comfort of the entire busload of American senior citizens on a package tour of the Amalfi Coast. The elderly tour group applauded us when they heard we were on our honeymoon and then began a game to see which couple in the shuttle had the most years of marital bliss under their belts (45 years was the winner). Lucky we were that we caught this shuttle as it turns out our belief that the hotel would be within walking distance from the square was completely wrong. After a little showdown (our lengthy hotel bus vs. a towering tourist bus both trying to negotiate a tight curve with several cars lined up behind each; we won), we arrived at the hotel. The location and view here was pretty amazing and you could walk down the staircase from the pool directly into the Med. Our balcony opened up to a wonderful view from which we could see the sea churning, crashing, and foaming only a few feet away.

After a dip in the pool and the Med, we washed up and got some recommendations for a nice restaurant in the nearby coastal village of Minori. It was only a 10 minute walk, but we had to share the same skinny highway with buses, motorcycles, and cars with the cliff on one side and sheer drop to the sea on the other. We found a hidden staircase that was a shortcut to the square, hung out and watched the locals promenade up and down the marina, wandered around yet more Roman ruins, and had dinner at Gardinera. Best pastry shop in the entire coastal region hands down: La Pasticceria Salvatore De Riso. I think I had about three cannoli and several scoops of limone gelato that night. A+ all around. No joke, this poem, written by an anonymous 17th century poet, could well have been talking about the kind of cannoli served here.

Beautiful are the Cannoli of Carnevale,
No tastier morsel in the world,
Blessed is the money used to buy them;
Cannoli are the scepters of all Kings.
Women even desist [from pregnancy]
For the cannolo, which is Moses’s Staff,
He who won’t eat them should let himself be killed;
He who doesn’t like them is a cuckold, Olè!

In other news, LB, TP, and I met up with Najm (who gave me a very thoughtful, very slayerific birthday present that combines both of our joys in one book; thanks, maign!) and LR (with whom I am going to be tres nerdy and hit the lib’ary today) for dinner last night. And Cybermom, those aloo prathas are wonderful! Ithna muzidaar!

 live: 9.23.2004 buon giorno, bambino bloggerinos! writing to you from sunny sorrento on the amalfi coast. gorgeous weather, spectacular views, but crappy pizza. naples is where pizza supposedly originated but this is no good. the pizza in rome was much better. you will be happy to hear that we have been enjoying anywhere from two scoops (trademark) to seven scoops of gelato per day. profumo di sorrento gets an A. tutti frutti gets a D. hope you are all well! ciao!

9/24 Nibblet: Woke up to the soothing sounds of the sea lapping at the shores early in the morning (luckily before Bruce “friends call me ‘Slammy'” Slammerson began his morning ritual of testing the strength and integrity of the hotel’s doors). At breakfast, we were warmly greeted by our senior citizen pals from the day before (“Hey! It’s the honeymooners! How ya doin’, honeymooners?”). Seated at the balcony, we watched the waves below continue to get darker and more choppy. Our hopes of taking the friendly ferry rather than the breakneck bus back to Sorrento dimmed and sputtered out as I spotted a black flag upon the water.

We caught the SITA bus back to Amalfi even though the bus was completely full and we ended up spending the next 10 minutes as far in the front of the bus as one could get and still be inside it: me, standing next to the driver and trying not to jostle his elbow as he drove; TP on the steps of the bus trying not to bang his head on the windshield or fall out of the door. We arrived in Amalfi in one piece (yay!) but the inclement weather had stopped all of the ferry travel that day (boo!). Luckily, the combination of front seats, 4 ‘forte’ motion-sickness pills from the farmecia, and no espresso helped make the ride a smooth one.

Savvy locals us, we jumped off at the Piazza rather than the train station and had an excellent lunch at The Garden. Back at Hotel Girasole, the chilly wind bringing in smoke from one of the ubiquitous fires in the hills drove us from the pool and forced us to take a nap inside. In the evening, we spent our wild Friday night touring the grocery store with as much attention to the displays as we would any museum. Later, I prepared a lavish grocery store dinner while TP tweezed out the glochids embedded in his fingers that he got after trying to wash a prickly pear by hand. Ah me. So ended our trip to the Amalfi Coast. Buona Sera, Sorrento; Bon Jour, Paris.

In other news, apparently in honor of Halloween, we spent much of this weekend watching terrifying, nightmare-inducing, disturbing, creepy movies including one romantic comedy with zombies flick (where, during one particularly gruesome scene, two patrons leapt from their seats and ran out of the theater). Plus, holy role-reversal, Batman! I spent yesterday painting the bathroom while TP fixed an amazing dish of Iraqi Lentil Soup with Meatballs. Yum.

 

9/25 Nibblet: Happy Birthday to me! With the chill and rain keeping people indoors, we spent most of the morning watching “Robin Hood” (the good version, not the cheesy version) in Italian but with the dubbers using the same voices and cadences as the original actors.

Sibilo : E voi. Chi ha potuto voi essere, signore?
John Piccolo : Sono sir Reginald, duca di chutney. E non attacchi la vostra linguetta fuori me, capretto.

(Hiss: And you. Who might you be, sir?
Little John: I am Sir Reginald, Duke of Chutney. And don’t stick your tongue out at me, kid.)

When the rain abated, we hit the Snacketeria, meandered through the streets, and sat by the pool soaking up the humidity and heat before our return to Paris. We packed up our belongings and waited for the car to take us to the airport (the driver was late by an hour which, I suppose, in Italian timing, was right on time). At the Naples Airport, we checked in, grabbed a bite to eat, and waited for our plane to arrive. Number of cents extra they charge for ketchup: ten; number of open head-wounds caused from falling on the slippery floor: one; number of people gathered around aforementioned head-wound victim: twenty-five.

Paris was cold and rainy, so we made haste in gathering our luggage, catching the RER back to the city center, and running in between the drops back to the apartment where friends, presents, and chocolate raspberry cake awaited me. *contented sigh*

In other news, only one week left until Election Day. And for the laziest of D.C. voters, we . . . I mean someone can elect to vote “curbside”! Sweet! Check out this insult to chimps everywhere: Ook, ook.

9/26 Nibblet: Back in the land of the croissant, we spent some time doing Sunday morning chores around the house (it’s amazing how many crumbs trail behind a three-year old boy) before we took a walk along the Seine and lingered at the used book stalls. Taking advantage of the Musee d’Orsay’s half-price Sundays, we thoroughly explored the train-station-turned-hotel-turned-museum (psst – that mystery pix in the previous post was the view from the inside of one of the museum’s clocks which, if you get closer to the glass, affords this view). I made a special stop to visit my and LB’s room before wandering up and down and up and down the complex. One particularly eye-catching exhibit was the art nouveau furniture. The style of the pieces appeared to be influenced by Hector Guimard’s famous script of the Parisian Metro sign.

We spent several hours inside, on top of, underneath, and then back inside the musuem and then headed outside for some fresh air. We caught some sun and did a fair share of people-watching at the Jardin des Tuileries. As the children pushed their rented wooden boats around the fountain and shrieked with glee when their boats made it safely to the other side without crashing into other boats or ducks, a lively band played some marching music (I can’t call them a marching band because they were pretty much standing still) under the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (not to be confused with its much larger sister, the Arc de Triomphe at Etoile).

The combination of sunshine, sitting, and sweet crepes (of which we had several which makes crepes our new gelato) took its toll and after packing for our trip to Lyon, we snoozed the rest of the late-afternoon, evening, and night away. Crepe report card:
Sugar and lemon, A+
Nutella, A
Cheese, A

9/27 & 28 Nibblet: Thanks to Monsieur I-don’t-like-to-read , all you get today are pix. Well, ok, a little text. TGV to Lyon. Lyon to Chateau Gaillard. Tour of Chateau des Allymes and Tour de St. Denis. Three hour hike through the Alps. Delicious, familiar, safe, mouth-watering, missed-you-so-much-Pakistani-cuisine. 12th century farm house with cable tv.

Mont Blanc

Mer de Glace

Bustling Rest Stop

Crossing Swiss Border

Championeire Water Pump

In other news, Gojira and I totally have to apply for this position! Because we arrre the best and everyone else is the worrrrst.

9/29 Nibblet: After our daily alarm clock went off, we found out that our little pink farmhouse in La Championniere was still sans hot water. My cousin, Riz, picked us up, took us to her house, and there, I tried to take a hot shower. I say “tried” because I managed to shampoo my hair, rinse, and soap up before the water cut off. Not just the hot water; all of the water. So with a thin film of soap rapidly drying on my skin, I bellowed for help. Apparently, there was a notice from the construction crew nearby that they were doing some work that morning and that the neighborhood’s water would be shut off for a few hours. Alas, in this sleepy little village, no one really checks the mail on a daily basis and so the notice went unread. Riz came to my rescue by heating up half a bucket of bottled mineral water for me and 10 minutes later, I got to rinse off. The only highlight from that little incident is that I can now say “why, yes, I have bathed in Evian water!”

Since TP needed to wash up as well, we zipped over to Riz’s sister-in-law’s house which, despite being nine centuries old, had both hot and running water. Alack, we zipped too quickly and Riz kinda crunched up the car against the wall. Oops. Now running even later than we were, we scarfed down our breakfast and drove into Lyon to meet Gojira’s mere and chien. The second largest city in France, Lyon is a sprawling metropolis located between Fourviere, ‘the hill that prays’ and Croix-Rousse, ‘the hill that works’ and is split in the middle by two rivers, the Rhone and the Saone. Mrs. Gojira’s apartment was in a very lovely neighborhood that bore a striking resemblence to Saint Germain with its chic shops, bustling cafes, and spotless boulevards. Mrs. Gojira welcomed us warmly and immediately fed us a wonderful leek pie, fresh and healthy tomato and avacado salads, and all sorts of cheeses. We shared some stories about Gojira (heh heh), saw some family pictures (ha ha!), and eventually bid her and MacDuff adieu.

We drove up to Fourviere hill and worked our way down from the Roman Ampitheater (where TP stole a bunch of grapes) to the Notre-Dame de Fourviere Basilica to the St. John Cathedral. We had a clear view of the city below at each stop.

9/30 Nibblet: Travel Day, so not much happened. We took an early morning walk through the fog around our little village and came across a whole patch of grapes, blue berries, and figs. Free food! Walked a bit more, bid bon jour to our neighbors, scurried past the homes with wildly barking dogs, and took some pix of the cornfields, the houses, and the animals.

Riz picked us up so that we could have breakfast at her house before heading out to Lyon to catch our 11 a.m. TGV back to Paris. Unfortunately, her husband was operating on D.S.T. (Desi Standard Time) and didn’t arrive until quite late. We reached the Part Dieu train station at 10:59 a.m., just in time to watch our train (and our reserved seats) slide out of the station. We were assured that we could board the 12 p.m. train (there is one every hour to and from Paris) so long as there was room enough. We found two seats together, tried to look as inconspicuous as possible, and when the conductor came by to check our tickets, we meekly handed them over. He glanced at the ticket, glanced at us, shook his head and said something in French of which I only caught “un probleme.” We asked if he spoke English. He looked at us again, took the ticket of the passenger next to us, reviewed it thoroughly, and apparently found un grande probleme with that guy’s ticket because he passed our tickets back to us with a curt “c’est bon” and focused his attention and glower on our neighbor instead. Whew.

We arrived in sunny, balmy Paris and immediately hit up La Croissanterie for their wonderful croissants, flan, and cafe creme. TP bought me a cool, orange messenger bag from Mandarina Duck for my birthday. We strolled around the neighborhood, did some window-shopping, and finally returned to the apartment to take full, uninterrupted showers. Stink waves be gone!

In other news, thx to Abez for the great gingerbread punjabis (I got the @-man and the pirate), thx to Najm for the moist brownies (excellent sehri material), thx to Literaunty for the spicy haleem and southern peanut salad (TP had haleem for sehri this morning!), and thx to Chai and HBiddy for the laughs (and not killing me for leading you in a complete circle downtown).

10/1 Nibblet: We spent Friday morning taking the metro up to the Arc de Triomph and promenading down the Elysian Fields. Along the way, we passed by the Louis Vuitton shop that was oh-so-stylishly under construction:

We stopped at Pizza Pino for lunch where we shared a pizza with beef, two kinds of cheese, and an egg (whaaa?). The pizza was humongous and could possibly rival our neighborhood’s jumbo pizza that made the cover of the City Paper this week. We walked along the chestnut tree-lined boulevard and stopped for some crepes. We continued on to Place de Concorde and stopped for Belgian waffles liberally dusted with powdered sugar. We strolled through the Tuileries, crossed the bridge, and finally made it back to the apartment by late afternoon (just in time for a nap).

Upon waking up from the nap, we learned that several Tunisian guests would be arriving soon for a house-warming party (i.e. excuse to shop in Paris) and were asked if we could help out with the dishes, ironing, dusting, distract the toddler, move the chairs, put out the plates, and greet the guests. The old crew from Hammamet (see Tunisian Travelogue for details) showed up with their finery wrapped around their necks, brand names wrapped around their bodies, and high-falutin ‘tudes wrapped around their heads. TP and I escaped onto the balcony for some fresh air and to give the guests some privacy in which to discuss and eye each other’s clothes, shoes, and latest acquisitions. The “fabulous set” decided to go to a “fabulous restaurant” and our only amusement came when they could not identify any of the dishes (upon the advice of a friend, one guy ate a whole scoop of wasabi before dashing off to the bathroom to wash out his mouth) or operate the eating utensils. After getting our fill of fakeness, we passed on joining the group for dessert and, in full anti-social mode, took off on our own before calling it a night. Seriously, I chose getting away from those people over getting some Bertillon ice cream. *shudder*

In other news, despite the near freezing temps that are predicted tonight, I’m going out to see Interpol! For free! I heart free.

Last Weekend in Paris Nibblet: We decided to start our early Saturday morning with a jaunt through the neighborhoods and ended up climbing down 85 steps down a circular, stone staircase into the depths of the Parisian sewer system and mass grave known as the Catacombs. We wove our way through the dark, wet tunnels decorated with skulls and bones and tried not to imagine that the dust on our shoes was bone grit and the drips on our heads were not blood. Since it was our honeymoon after all, my favorite design was of the skulls artfully arranged into a heart:

Awww, how romantic!

We spent the afternoon perusing through the open-air market where we were dazzled by the [radio edit] and the delicious [radio edit] and the scrumptious [radio edit] which we picked up for our picnic lunch at Luxembourg Gardens. After a brief sit-down at Cafe de Flore, we watched a battle of the bands take place when a chanting, finger-cymbal-wielding Hare Krishna parade marched through a lively brass band (complete with crazy dancing lady) playing in front of the Saint Germain church.

It turns out that throughout this particular Saturday night, Paris was celebrating its Second Annual Nuit Blance (“White Night” or “Sleepless Night”), a city-wide contemporary arts and culture festival where you can visit a theater, enter a number of museums, or see exhibits at an art gallery from dusk to dawn. We walked to the riverbanks to experience the “Foghorn Concert” performed by 15 barges sailing down the Seine (recall the honking notes of the spaceship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”). People filled the streets either as performers (tiny local bands set up their sets at almost every corner) or audience members (did I mention how much I love free?). Some artists displayed their talents with vegetables. Some artists left their marks directly onto the streets of Paris:

The night was very surreal, made doubly so when hordes of rollerbladers took over the streets for several long moments. We spent the rest of Sleepless Night wandering around the city, taking a nap (but it was artistic sleeping, so it was ok), and by Sunday morning, touring the Louvre for free (FYI, free rules!). Actually, Nuit Blanche aside, the Louvre would have been free anyway because the first Sunday of every month is free. After touring the Islamic Art Exhibit (portions of which were on loan from the NY Met), we walked to Place de Concorde, hung a left, and met our touristy obligation to visit the Eiffel Tower (which had been closed due to a worker’s strike earlier). We capped off our last day with ice cream directly from the one, the only, actual Bertillon shop on Ile St. Louis. Final gelatoish report:

Coffee: A
Earl Gray Tea: B+
Grapefruit: B
Extra Dark Chocolate: A+++ valedictorian, best in show, undisputed champion of the world.

In other news, that concludes the travelogue so now what should I blog about? Any suggestions?

10.02.2004

bon jour, mon petite bloggeuers! thank you all for the lovely birthday greetings! and special props to LB for managing to update me blog whilst i am away. i’m back in paris now after a little sojourn to lyon (love that 2 hour super fast, super sleek TGV train ride) to visit one of my eleventy hundred cousins. on our visit to mont blanc, we ended up hiking for three hours from mer de glace to the town at the foot of the mountain. hey, a hike downhill all the way is STILL a hike. we stayed in a charming little farm house (not quite 12th century, but close!) and ate tons of fantastic desi food for the first time in a month. we only have a few more days left in paris and then it’s back to DC. hope you all have been well! perhaps each of you can be kind enough to recap a month’s worth of your blog posts for me? that would be great. thanks!
Madame Baji
directly above the metro mabillon
saint germain, paris

10.05.2004

*sings* “Back in the US, back in the US, back in the US of Aaaaaaa”

Ahem. Ok, I’ve finished butchering the Beatles’ tune now; you can unplug your ears. Flew in to DC yesterday evening and boy are my arms tired. *rimshot* But seriously, my arms are tired, my neck is sore, my back is aching. Why, oh, why did I pack my suitcase full of heavy candles and shampoos and perfumes and glassware and shoes and rocks? And why were most of the pillows I slept on for three weeks apparently made out of wadded up towels crammed into thin pillowcases? And why is the euro so darn healthy and the stupid dollar so lame? And why can’t I get a cafe creme or a cafe con panna or dopio espresso macchiato when I step outside the front door anymore?!

So, blurb version until I get my thoughts together: wonderful time, great weather, lots of pix, rich food, plenty of fresh air and exercise, swimming in the Mediterranean one day and hiking down the Alps another day. Now. Excuse me while I go lay down for a while. I have a mild case of lag of jet. *thunk*

Top Ten Foreign (non-English because technically the U.K. is “foreign” for this blogger) Films

I love subtitles even when the movie/show is in English.

  1. Amores Perros
  2. Fear and Trembling a version of …
  3. Amélie
  4. Y Tu Mama Tambien
  5. 8 Women
  6. The White Balloon
  7. Dil To Pagal Hai
  8. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
  9. Once Upon a Time in China
  10. The Lives of Others

 

Monday Morning Comedy Jam: Rob Brydon

My fellow Welshman! Joining forces with Alan Partridge! What more, I ask ye?

I’ll tell ye “what more”: sequel!

Scootin’ in Scotland

5.20.2004

Bonnie Scotland! Land of bagpipes, the plaid, and whisky (Fun Fact: “Whisky” is a Scottish Gaelic word that means “water of life”). At 5 a.m., we packed up our belongings, kept the sunrise company as we took the AirLink to the airport, and said “Slan libh, mo bhaibini” to Dublin. Mode of transportation: Ryanair, Europe’s Number One Budget airline. Since we are leaving Ireland, perhaps a limerick would be fitting here:

Ryanair is no frills.
Its price will result in low bills.
No breakfast, no lunch,
And your kidneys get punched,
So don’t forget your pain pills.

Um. I guess that fourth line needs a little explanation. Like the US’s Southwest or JetBlue, Ryanair is an inexpensive airline that is a bit less organized and a bit more uncomfortable than the major carriers. The air-sickness bags double as pre-printed envelopes to mail in your film for developing. The food and beverage service is administered thusly: you look above you, right there, right next to the air vents, for the pasted-on menu (sandwiches, sodas, mars bars) and when the flight attendant trundles by with her cart, you can pay for and claim your snacks. And, somehow, the seats are wedged in so tightly that every time a passenger, say the one right behind you, moves his long legs, another passenger, say yours truly, can feel knobby knees in her back for the entire 45 minute flight. Still, for a $27 flight (taxes and fees included), it’s hard to complain. (And yet, if I try hard enough, I manage).

Brilliantly sunny Edinburgh greeted us warmly. We sneered at the passengers waiting for their luggage, got our return trip bus tickets (5 GBP – that’s British Pounds (almost two to the dollar, ouch), not the Euro (even though the UK is part of the EU)), and got some cash (50 GBP to last both of us for three days). Fun Fact: The 5 pound note sports Robert Burns on the front and a vignette of a teeny weeny fieldmouse from Burns’ “Ode to a Mouse” on the back. The bus wove its way into the center of Edinburgh and dropped us off at Waverly Train Station about half an hour later. New city map in hand, we walked up a steep, deserted curve and ten minutes later, we checked into the Travelodge on St. Mary’s Street. It was 9 a.m. and our room would not be ready until 3 p.m., so we stored our bags and headed out in search of direly-needed coffee.

oldtownedin edin

Taking our traditional giant steps, we stomped through Old Town and arrived at Elephant House cafe in just a few minutes. Right off of the George IV Bridge, this cafe has a great pachyderm-themed decor and ambiance, but surprisingly weak coffee and even worse sandwiches (insert ironic foreshadowing where our characters return to this place several times despite displeasure in the culinary fare). As we enjoyed the bright early morning sunshine streaming through the windows, we perused the various magazine articles taped to the walls. One blurb claimed that J.K. Rowling dreamt up Harry Potter in this very cafe. One proudly displayed review listed the city’s best cafes (including, naturally, Elephant House) and mentioned Plaisir du Chocolate which appeared to be within walking distance. We crossed the bridge, strolled along the Royal Mile (a collection of streets, kind of like Copenhagen’s Stroget, running from the Edinburgh Castle to Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse), and plopped down at the quaint French cafe for a tastier hit of caffeine.

plaisir

I went to visit the cute-for-an-outhouse outhouse and when I returned, I saw Gojira warmly greeting a bunch of strangers. Turned out, it was the mother and father and some friends of the bride of the wedding in which Gojira was a bridesmaid and for which we came on this trip in the first place. From that moment on, we experienced the odd combination of visiting a foreign city but running into so many familiar people. Well, Gojira did. I was still just along for the ride and everything and everyone was new to me.

After a brief foray over the North Bridge and left on Princes Street, looking determinedly for and dreamily at tennis shoes, we returned to the beautiful and towering St. Giles Cathedral, The High Kirk of Edinburgh and the “mother church of Presbyterianism”, to meet the rest of the wedding party for the rehearsal.

church

Anxious about possibly missing the rehearsal, we grabbed a sad lunch of Walkers Sensations Sea Salt & Cracked Black Pepper Flavoured Crisps (not as good as it sounded, but presumably better than the Greek Kebab flavored ones or the Marmite Yeast Extract flavored ones) and Scotland’s very own Irn Bru (a toxic orange-colored soda that outsells Coca-Cola, is wildly popular in Russia, and leaves a weird aftertaste) and sat outside of the cathedral to wait for the others. As the meeting time came and passed, I, allegedly, tried to drive Gojira slowly mad by insinuating that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong clothes. But, we weren’t and we weren’t and we weren’t and we lived happily ever after.

church2

I watched the rehearsal from the back of the Cathedral, and afterwards, we returned to the hotel checked into our room. Gojira napped while I gleefully watched Scottish television – anything and everything. In the evening, we parted ways. The rest of Gojira’s evening was spent dressing up for a delicious, fancy rehearsal dinner among friends, colorful and exotic peacocks, and some Brits who were happy to discuss the finer points of “The Office“. My evening, on the other hand and in sharp contrast, was spent choking down a bad chicken curry dish from Bay of Bengal (tryna help a brotha out and this is what you get), watching a session of Scottish Parliament (if I could marry the Scottish accent, I would), and flooding the bathroom whilst trying to shower in the world’s shallowest shower stall. You may weep for meeeeee . . . now.

Next up: dormant volcanos, cliff-perching castles, and the world’s end.

5.21.2004

Knackered. Here are the highlights from the next day:

Trekked from Logie’s Baird Pub on the Royal Mile, hung a sharp right at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and took our legs off-roading to climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat, a long-extinct volcano. Burning thighs. Creaky knees. Lung a’fire. Reached the summit at 251 m for a gaaarrrgeous view of the Firth of Forth, the Leith Docks, and the city below (’twas interesting to look down upon the city from such a dizzying height through the haze of spots and glittering sparkles swimming around in my eyes after the strenuous hike).

hill black black2 black3 firth firth2 view arthur

Reversed course, went down one ancient volcano and up another, and hoofed it over to Edinburgh Castle. Sitting atop the austere crags of Castle Rock, the dark, massive castle also afforded an amazing panoramic view of the towns (old and new). The entrance bore the royal Scottish motto in Latin, nemo me impune lacessit, which in English is translated as “you do *not* wanna throw down with me” – gotta love it. Perfect moody, melancholy atmosphere, lovely architecture, and serious guard-changing action.

holyrood edin8 clockwarmemorial logo wall bldg france above top garg guard2 suspicious gun castle castle2

Fries with brown sauce. Or, if you prefer, chips with brown sauce. Either way, oh my. Flipping through the channels on the telly, I caught the show “Still Game” and decided that for that show alone (Scottish comedy about two crotchety old men and their collection of pals, each with such a thick brogue that the dialogue was nearly or completely incomprehensible), I would move to Scotland. Seriously. It was that good.

While Gojira was getting gussied up for the wedding, I failed several times to catch a bus (apparently standing at the designated spot is not sufficient; one must wave ones hands and possibly leap about before a driver will stop for you) before finally succeeding (only because an old lady who knew the score managed to flag a bus down) and spent a lovely afternoon at the Royal Gardens.

garden gardengate flow gardenbridge gardne2 garden4 hedge squirrel garden7 gardent9

Wedding stuff. Drowning in accents. Shoes acquired. Stuff. The end.

weddingtourists piper piper2 wedding sean cowgate puma

Doublin’ in Dublin

Flashback to Iceland, 2003 (insert flashback wavy lines here)

Gojo and I were doing some comparison shopping on postcards at the various tourist information shops when our ears were accosted by the booming voice of a loud, pushy American (complete with reverse baseball hat and sports jersey) demanding to know:

“Where can I get A CUP OF JOE?”

The agent manning the desk flinched a bit and gave him a puzzled look.

He repeated his question in a louder voice, because loud always makes translations smoother:

“A CUP OF JOE! JOE!”

Slowly, a dim light dawned upon him and then, enunciating each word,

“Oh, coffee. THAT’s. What WE. Call COFFEE. Cup. Of. JOE. Know where I can find some?”

Gojira thought she heard him add “And some CHOW,” but that may have been a delusion brought on by the shock of his initial onslaught. Embarrassed by our countryman, from that moment on, Gojira and I became Scots and spoke with thick brogues for the remainder of the trip. A few days later, Gojira mentioned that she had a wedding to attend in Edinburgh (pronounced “Edin-burrrrrrah”) in May, 2004, and invited me along. Aye, lassie, I’ll join ye. . .
(insert return-to-present-day wavy lines)

And so, less than a year later, I came to find myself taking a cheapo bus ($35 round-trip) from DC to NYC to meet up with Gojira for another trip abroad. As always, you get what you pay for. Granted, I did not take the “Chinese bus where everyone is kung-fu fighting” as our appallingly racist driver warned us we would have to take on the return trip if we did not keep a tight grip on our little, yellow tickets. But, I did have to suffer through a chatty neighbor (“I wonder when we are leaving. I’ve never been to New York before. Oh, are you reading that book? How is it? I really like to read myself. Blah infinity blah.”); I couldn’t watch the movies (“Meet the Parents” and “Remember the Titans“) because the woman in front of me sported a huge hairdo that Marge Simpson would envy; and I had to watch said bouffant-loving woman pop the painful-looking zits off her daughter’s cheek for what seemed to be an eternity.

Because of the delayed departure, we did not arrive in mid-town Manhattan until 3:30 p.m., an hour later than anticipated. Gojira was nowhere to be seen, so I found a narrow ledge to sit upon that was close enough to see the street but far enough away from the crazy, toothless (well, that’s not fair, she did have at least two teeth) woman who was alternately cooing and cajoling for spare change and screaming with rage at the imaginary thieves who were trying to steal from her. By 4 p.m., Gojira finally rescued me.

We dumped my gear at her place in the Lower East Side and walked to Vosges Haut-Chocolat, an ice cream establishment I had read about in the New York Times that featured exotic flavors of chocolate and ice cream. We sample the Red Fire ice cream which combined dark chocolate, chilis, and cinnamon (zingy, tasty treat) and the Naga ice cream which blended curry, coconut, and white chocolate (Um. Not so much).

Gojira’s summertime roommate AK met us for dinner at the restaurant imaginatively named “Supper” that, apparently, the East Village hipsters frequent when they want northern Italian food. Gotta admit, the tagliateli with porcini mushrooms was pretty good. We followed up our meal with creamy mochas at the newly-opened Ini Ani coffeehouse whose interesting walls, as I have come to learn, are made of 24,650 cardboard strips. For our self-imposed homework, we returned to Gojira’s apartment and watched “Trainspotting” to give us a refresher on our Scottish accents (never mind that we were going to be in Ireland first and for twice as long). By 2 a.m., we were ready for our trip. No, we had not discussed what sights to see, where the locations of our lodgings were, or how much cash to carry. But we had ooor accents doooon pat.

5.14.2004

Trying to outsmart British Airways, we attempted to assign our own seats on-line so that we could skip the line at the airport and kick back in the emergency exit row for the seven hour flight. Alas, the slowest ever dial-up connection foiled our plans and made us sweaty with frustration. We mentally hurled the laptop away and went at it with baseball bats ala “Office Space” and went out for brunch. Paul’s Boutique, a cafe named after the Beastie Boys’ album, satisfied our hunger and thirst and gave us the energy we needed to try to wrangle our airplane seats once more. No joy. We were going to have to hit the kiosks after all.

With the memory of our last attempt to get to JFK still fresh in our minds, we allotted several hours to ourselves to take the train (the right one in the right direction this time) and take the free shuttle (allowing for the many stops at each parking space and each terminal along the way). Final bag check, snacks check, and tickets check, check. We caught the correct A train to Howard Beach and narrowly missed getting hit by a poor, sick, crying child’s projectile vomit in the process. Pleased with ourselves and with hours to spare, we strutted out of the train and headed to the airport shuttle. Which was nowhere to be seen. Which no longer exists. Which has been replaced with the brand-spanking new, futuristic, $5-one-way AirTrain. Yes, it swiftly delivered us to the proper terminal in about 15 minutes. Yes, it was clean and roomy. Yes, we were still annoyed that we had to pay $5 for a one-way ticket to the terminal when, until December 2003, it was free. True to our fake Scottish heritage, we are ‘mean with our money’ (quote attributed to a real Scots woman). Aside: to learn more about the difference between ‘Scots’ and ‘Scotch’, click here. Otherwise, enjoy this explanation by Mike Meyers playing a fiercely proud Scot on an SNL skit “All Things Scottish,”: “Scotch is a drink. Scots are a people. But we are both great tasting!”

By 5:00 p.m. we were in the front door of the terminal. By 5:05, we checked ourselves in at the kiosk and selected our seats (rats, no emergency exit rows left). By 5:10, we were through security with two hours to spare. Two whole hours. What to do, what to do. We dined on airport food. We flipped through magazines. We poked around the duty-free shops where I helped myself to some pre-flight free samples of the insanely expensive La Mer products. Seriously? $110 for 1 ounce of lotion? Ah me.

When our flight was called, we excitedly boarded the plane, found our seats, and settled in. Unfortunately, our happiness with our primo seats was short-lived. A portly man sporting a navy blue blazer with shiny brass buttons, a way-too-open collared white shirt, and several gold chains sat next to me. Our eyes slid glances at our neighbor, slid glances at each other, and suddenly filled with tears. The ‘Sea Captain’, as Gojira dubbed him, reeked. The foulest, rankest, most fetid stench emanated from him in nearly visible waves. A cartoon version of him would employ hundreds of stink lines. The noisome, pestilential odor made my nostrils curl and my lungs refuse to function. He was either an animated corpse with a valid passport or else he was rotting from the inside out. When he got up to use the bathroom, I quickly flagged down a flight attendant and begged her to move us anywhere else on the plane. She said she would see what she could do. The Sea Captain sat back in his seat. The funk of forty thousand years + seven hour flight = sheer agony waiting for the flight attendant to return. My lungs were burning and screaming for fresh air. My hands went numb from strategically holding a magazine so closely to my face to shield my tortured nose. My eyes were blurring and my brain started getting foggy from the shallow breathing. My Jedi mind tricks failed to force the emergency oxygen masks to drop down and provide us with a respite. The flight attendant returned with good news and we scrambled out of our seats, into the aisle, and towards the back of the plane so quickly that you would have thought we were practicing for an evacuation drill. We were given the seats in the extremely last row, right next to the bathrooms, and with little-to-no seat reclining action. We were in heaven.


5.15.2004

Arriving at London Heathrow Airport nearly an hour late, we briskly trekked, trammed, and trekked from Terminal 4 to Terminal 1 and still had time to wrangle two tickets for the coveted emergency exit row for our British Midlands flight to Dublin. I had never been in the domestic-and-Ireland flights section of Heathrow and was intrigued by the bizarre design and shape of the terminal itself. The interior looked like it was made out of a hollowed out jet complete with uncomfortable chairs, curved metal walls, and unflattering carpet. We had our first breakfast, a simple meal of Triscuits and York Peppermint Patties, standing up while waiting around in a general area until our gate was displayed on one of the rickety computer monitors trembling overhead. On-board the surprisingly spacious and comfortable BMI flight, we had our second breakfast, a wince-inducing panini (mine was a tomato and gruyere omelet) that tasted remarkably like plastic to me but which Gojira appeared to relish with gusto. 45 minutes later, we slid into the Dublin Airport which is nicely situated on the east coast of Ireland.

We got some cash (100 euros to last us the week), got our Rambler Bus Tickets (there goes 10 of our euros for the one-way trip to the City Centre), stepped outside and got our first view of the Republic of Ireland. Dubh Linn, or “Black Pool”, in mid-May is lusciously green and admirably clean. The ramshackle residential areas north of the city slowly gave way to the modern, sleeker buildings of the city center. We were dropped off on Upper O’Connell Street, which was smack-dab in the center of the city, but several streets away from where we actually wanted to be let off. Toting our backpacks, whipping out our maps, and determining which way was north, we hiked up to Clifden Guesthouse, the nearly 200 year old, refurbished Georgian townhouse that would serve as our abode for precisely one night.

clifden

After being buzzed in, we learned that our room was not ready as it was only 11 a.m. and check-in was not until 2 p.m. We were given a detailed map of the city, were permitted to leave our bags underneath a table in the entrance hall, and were shown the door. We stood outside of the guesthouse for a moment, blinking in the sun and feeling the jet-lag setting in, and gradually stumbled our way back down to O’Connell Street.

irishdoors

We found an internet cafe where, for 1 euro per half hour, we could pacify our families and inform them that we were safe. We gawked at the Dublin Spire, or “Spike” (no relation to William the Bloody), the 120 meter tall structure that was built last year to replace the Nelson’s Pillar which was built in 1808 and blown up in 1966 by an Irish Republican in the middle of the night.

spire

We counted the redheads we saw and absorbed (and graded) the Irish accents lilting around us as we made our way towards and then south of the River Liffey. And then . . . AND THEN . . . we found Wagamama, a Japanese noodle bar. ding ding ding! Gojira and I are creatures of habit and once we find a place we like, we keep returning to it regardless of the other options around us (until such time as something pisses us off and then we ban it, but that’s another list). In merely one hour of stepping foot on Irish soil, we found a winner. Could we eat any more Cha Han? Yes. Yes, we could. Halfway through, I was so tired and my eyelids were so droopy (a condition hereafter known as having Wagamama Eyes and sung to the tune “Betty Davis’ Eyes”), that I could have laid my head down on the soft pillow of fried rice and fallen asleep right there.

We lugged our heavy bellies back up to the North Side, threw our bags into our enormous suite (one and a half rooms, two beds, clean and sunny bathroom), and collapsed. The room was one short flight of stairs away from the front door and its security buzzer, which, now that it was officially check-in time, was in constant use. Luckily, I still managed to nap the nap of the dead. Vampire-like, I rose near sunset and needed to feed again. Actually, I was more like Woody Allen’s Count Dracula who misjudged the sun’s timetable, when I learned that the sun did not set until many, many hours later!

In search of a good fish and chips shop, we made our second trip through north and south Dublin and finally found a ready table at The Shack in the busy Temple Bar neighborhood. The friendly host let us peruse through the menu while we waited for our table to clear, made helpful suggestions, and told every other would-be patron that came after us that the place was booked for the night. Tuna on Basil Mash for me; Pasta with Chicken for Gojira. It was still light out when we finished our meals so we felt safe walking through what was reputed to be a dangerous area north of the river. By 10 p.m., I was knackered (ooh, ahh, local slang in use!) and went to bed to the sounds of Gojira watching the Eurovision song contest finals.

Next up: “Blood pudding” is neither blood, nor pudding . . . well, maybe a little blood.

__________

Refreshed, revived, and ravenous, we came downstairs to Clifden House’s dining room for breakfast at 9 a.m. I loaded up with scrambled eggs and toast with rich, creamery butter served on pretty blue and white china, a cup of fruity yogurt, some coffee, and a small glass of OJ. Gojira went “Full Irish” (enough to make any Muslim cringe): one egg (slightly runny), some sausage (linked), some bacon (soft and fatty like back/Canadian bacon, not crispy like American bacon), toast (buttered), slice of tomato (shoved to the side), and the crown jewel – the ‘white pudding’: ground pork butt or liver, grains, eggs, seasonings, and something white (either milk or fat or white blood cells; never found out, never want to) stuffed into sausage casings, sliced into medallions, and fried up. The white pudding differs from black pudding in that black pudding includes pig’s blood. In my recipe book, the final preparation step after frying either version up would be to toss it out as far as humanly possible, but maybe that’s just me. In fact, if I mustered up the courage to touch it and practiced throwing it enough times, I might be able to enter the World Black Pudding Throwing Championship!

We returned to our room to shower (Oh, Danny Boy, the water pipes, the pipes, were clanging!) and re-pack. With nearly 20 pounds of junk on our backs, we checked out of the guesthouse, said goodbye to the north side, and joined the Sunday strollers milling about the River Liffey.

ireland flag dublinchurch dublin bridge

In response to its recent economic boom, Dublin ran right out and got an urban face-lift of slick, glossy storefronts, a botox injection of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Urban Outfitters, and a nip-tuck of refurbished historical buildings. The result is a city that looks less like a quaint Irish town and more like EPCOT. Apparently, even the population matches the youthful look of the city with over half of Dubliners under the age of 30.

lamppost

We found a nice, sunny patch of green near City Hall and whiled away the time there until it was time to check into our next rest stop. We observed the past meeting the present as a driver of a horse-drawn carriage clopped by while chatting on a cell phone. We watched three happy dogs bound after a tennis ball for an hour. We found Dublin’s version of Starbucks in Butlers Chocolate Cafe. Coffees in hand, we found a spot in the crowded 22 acre park of St. Stephen’s Green and counted ducks.

ducks2

At 2 p.m., we checked into Avalon House where, despite making a reservation for a double room en suite (with private bath) a month in advance, they put us in a bathless room with a co-ed shower and co-ed loo down the hall. The room was so small, you could not swing a leprechaun in there!

dublinroom

Leaving the dispute with the front desk for the next day, we decided to check out Trinity College. We monitored the progress of what must have been a drunk-on-Guinness, clumsy magpie struggling to carry a limb up a tree for a while before we chose watching a women’s cricket game over visiting the famous and historically important Book of Kells. What can I say, sunshine and action won out over darkness and a $12 fee to stand in line to see a manuscript.

cent magpie cricket

After visiting Oscar Wilde’s front door, (“I’m sure I don’t know half the people who come to my house. Indeed, for all I hear, I shouldn’t like to”) we paused for a bit at Merrion Square and then wandered around the nearby museums. Note to fellow travelers: the free bathroom at the National Gallery is much nicer than the free bathroom at the Natural History Museum.

wilde flowers

We weighed our dinner options and after a hearty thirty-second debate, we decided on Wagamama where I ordered the exact same meal I had the night before (the leftovers of which we had that morning). After dinner, we returned to St. Stephen’s Green to soak up more of the surprisingly strong Irish sunshine. The heat and sun began to make us loopy as we lounged around on the soft, cool land fur and attempted to share my mp3 player while watching our fellow park-goers enjoy the day. Unbeknownst to us, the lamp in the sky was on high and Gojira ended up with a slight sunburn! In Ireland! Glory be!

Spotting “Publin’ in Dublin” on our to-do-list, we had a pint at McDaid’s (one Stella and one water, please), discussed the merits of the latest Chris Rock special, and listened in on our neighbors’ conversations. When the pub closed at 11 p.m., we returned to our hostel (to the heart-warming sight of two dudes relieving themselves on the hostel’s wall) and scurried up and down 6 flights of stairs to retire in our room on the 4th floor. Yes, 6 flights of stairs to get to the 4th floor. Don’t ask me. I think it has something to do with the metric system.

Next up: How to score free crepes.


5.16.2004

Good news, after a talk with the manager, we secured a new room with two bunk beds and a private bath! Bad news, we had to check-out and store our bags in the locker room by 10 a.m. and then reclaim our bags and re-check-in at 2 p.m. That meant that our day was going to have to revolve around the hostel’s schedule.

bunks

We dressed for a day at the beach and planned a trip to Bray, the resort town on the coast of the Irish Sea south of Dublin. Picking over the paltry selection of cafeteria-style breakfast offerings (lame muffin, no bananas, and one puny juice box), we headed over to St. Stephen’s Green, Butler’s coffee in hand. The day was so gray and chilly that we cancelled our Bray plans, returned to the room to change into warmer clothes, and stored our luggage as instructed.

The Winding Stair Bookshop and Cafe just across the Ha’Penny Bridge seemed a good bet for bibliophiles like us and so there we went. Sneezing through the appropriately dusty aisles of the used bookstore and climbing up the eponymous stairs, we found the cafe on the second level. There were three other patrons sitting at the wooden tables and reading when we walked in.

bookshop hapenny guiness

We decided to split one lemon and sugar crepe (6 euros!), helped ourselves to two cups of water, and sat on a bench near the window that afforded a nice view of the river and the Southside. We sat on the bench and flipped through a local music review magazine. We sat on the bench and watched our waitress eat a sandwich at the table next to ours. We sat on the bench and observed our waitress finishing off her sandwich. We looked at our watches, looked at each other, and finally, when one of the three patrons went to the register to pay, Gojira went up to the register to check on the status of our single crepe. Incredibly apologetic and fiercely embarrassed, our waitress realized that she totally forgot our order. She quickly offered to give us two crepes for the price of one or return our money to make amends for her gaff. We laughed it off and said that’s fine. She ducked into the kitchen and then returned with our crepes and a full refund. The crepes were mediocre, but we felt so bad about our waitress feeling bad that we left the full amount on the table for her anyway.

crepes

Returning to the Northside, we hit the internet cafe to check out the week’s forecast (brr) and perused through the outlet store Hairy Legs (meh). Suddenly, the sun came out in full force. The cancelled Bray plans were spontaneously reinstated. On our way to Connolly Station, we saw a number of people crowded around a single spot draped in flowers. Sensing something somber and important was going on, but not exactly certain what, we slowed down. Unbeknownst to us, today was the 30th anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings where a series of car bombs exploded during rush hour and 34 people were killed in the two cities. The perpetrators were never caught, although the breaking news this week is that the Lord Mayor Royston Brady (whose mug was plastered all over town along with Proinsias which is pronounced “Francis” – I don’t know why, maybe it’s the metric system; ask Gojira’s Dad) admitted that his father’s taxi was used as a getaway vehicle. Hmm. We stood among the mourners for a moment during a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial near the train station before moving on.

dart bray connolly

At Connolly Station, we caught the 12:45 p.m. DART to Bray and enjoyed the 45-minute ride along the coast. The sun and the clouds had a long debate, but as the day became overcast and moist, we realized that the clouds won. And so we arrived at Bray on a gray, drizzly afternoon. As per our usual course, we walked in the complete opposite direction of the beach but were rewarded with a little tour of downtown Bray, its golf course, and a view of the Wicklow Mountains. Making a 180, we found the beach, but the wide swath of rocks and narrow strips of sand were completely desolate. No fairy floss vendors, no sun-bathers, and, for that matter, no sun. When the restaurant Katie Gallagher’s came into view, we finally took the opportunity to have fish (mine was in finger form) and chips (with malted vinegar and new-to-me brown sauce). A perfect meal to warm us on the wintry summer day.

bray2 bray3 water ardan

Back in Dublin, we scoured the pharmacies for Cooper’s Inis Free perfume and lotions and potions that were commonplace in Ireland but exotic to us. Gojira found a sun balm in stick form at Boots Pharmacy and fell in love. I found my Klorane shampoo but refused to buy it until I had looked in every other pharmacy on, near, and beyond the shopping hub of Grafton Street. We kept ourselves occupied until 5 p.m. when we returned to our new (now third) room. When the luggage room, which was only unlocked every even hour, opened at 6 p.m., we retrieved our bags, used our lower bunks as make-shift closets, and for the first time unpacked our stuff.

Resting our weary bones on the upper bunks, I flipped through my Lonely Planet Dublin Condensed book looking for a place to eat while Gojira amused herself with crossword puzzles. Eureka! Aya, the “best” (and quite possible “only”) sushi bar in Dublin, was just a few streets away! Voila! When we found it, we were rather intimidated by the whole conveyor belt sushi concept at first. Stalling for time, we looked at the menu posted outside, peeked through the glass doors, and eventually tip-toed inside. Once seated, we were subjected to the high pressure sales tactics of our waitress, crumbled, and agreed to the “all-you-can-eat-in-55 minutes-for-25-euros” deal. Gulp! Make that, gulp gulp gulp. A welcome drink and miso soup began the meal. Salmon and eel. The evenly spaced sushi plates snaked their way around the restaurant atop the silent, sliding conveyor belt. California rolls and tempura. The minutes crept by as our bellies expanded. Shrimp and chocolate cake. What? The food kept coming and we kept reaching, pulling a plate down, cleaning it, and putting it aside. Where was my TUNA?! Not soon enough, our 55 minutes were up. What were we thinking?! I felt like Homer being tormented in the Ironic Punishment Division of Hell. Complimentary green tea? God, yes, please. Stumbled home in a stupor, showered in the stop-and-go shower, and prayed that the sushi would stay down.

Next up: Kilmainham Gaol – the jail for Ireland’s political prisoners, the poor, the martyrs, and the stone-cold criminals. And by “stone-cold,” I mean literally . . . those limestone walls are freezing!

5.18.2004

Lonely Planet lied. Trustworthy up to a point, LP has a tendency to misguide, misjudge, or have outdated information at least ONCE in each book. In Egypt, it was the location of the final stop on the bus to Sharm El-Sheikh and the quality of our hotel. In China, it was the timings of the boat tour in Shanghai. Here, LP promised that the Gallic Kitchen (allegedly displaying a sign that stated “Our food is so f****** good you won’t believe it”) offered a “melt-in-your-mouth goat’s cheese brioche.” We sought out the place. We tried their fare. We don’t believe it. LP, that was your one get-out-of-jail-free card.

Speaking of jails, after dejectedly eating our crappity breakfast in St. Audoen’s Church’s garden, we headed west towards Kilmainham Gaol. Taking the scenic (and, naturally, longer) route, we walked along the Liffey. It started out as a good idea as we got the chance to see the various, lovely bridges arching over the river.

bridge2

But soon, the bustling shops and pretty quays and early morning commuters faded in the Irish mist. Wait. That wasn’t mist. That was the fumes of hundreds of cars and busses and trucks rumbling by on the street which now resembled a highway. By the time we reached Heuston Station, we were gagging on the exhaust fumes and questioning our sanity in choosing to walk to the Gaol when it was so painfully obvious that everyone else took the bus there. The Irish Museum of Modern Art appeared, our map showed it as a landmark near the Gaol, and so we headed . . . thataway. Half-way there, we started second-guessing ourselves. We turned around, retraced our steps, took a long, circuitous path that led us away from, south of, and then back to the Gaol. We stopped at a wholesale beauty salon supplier to ask for directions and learned that we were just a few feet away from our destination after all. We lingered there a bit longer than needed; not so much to understand which way to go, but more to rest in the air-conditioned store and listen to the burly Irishmen’s lilting voices debate over the proper directions to give us.

Kilmainham Gaol was amazing. For over a century, the prison held more than just criminals. Rebels, political heroes (including the future prime minister and president Eamon de Valera), and people seeking escape from the Great Famine came through the gates .

tower

We listened closely as our guide, Martin, told us about the history of the jail, highlighted some of the more important inmates, and explained why the site has become a national monument. Basically, the jail represented the struggles Ireland faced through an important period in its history. The jail opened four years before 1800 when the Act of Union abolished the Irish Parliament and made Ireland a part of the U.K. The jail closed two years after the south of Ireland declared itself a Republic in 1949. The massive, limestone prison became a symbol of Ireland’s battle for independence. Plus, it was the setting for In the Name of the Father, The (original) Italian Job, and the U2 video “A Celebration“!

jail jail2

Martin, who got an A for his knowledge of Irish history, his red hair, and his accent, showed us the sunlit East Wing where two floors of cells were connected by metal catwalks that afforded the guards a 360 degree view of the cells around them. The Victorians believed that punishment (hence the cold, harsh cells with little to no interaction with any other human being) should be tempered with hope (hence the small window in each cell letting in God’s sunlight and a view of heaven). The new section reminded me a lot of the jail in The Shawshank Redemption(which, for you trivia hounds, was filmed at Ohio’s closed Mansfield State Penitentiary).

jail4

The infinitely colder, darker, and grimmer old section still bears the names of some of the prisoners. We were permitted to enter the cells as we pleased, but none of us stayed for too long inside. The older section led to the execution grounds and the wall where Martin described the killing of the Invincibles as well as the execution of James Connolly who so badly injured in the fighting during the Easter Rising of 1916 that he was unable to stand for his execution and so the British tied him to a chair and shot him there. We learned that an execution requires space away from the other prisoners, a firing squad, and one blank bullet so that none of the gunners knows who was the real executioner. Ah, the things you learn every day.

jail3 jail5 jail6

After the tour, we shook off the gloom and doom that had descended upon us and walked through the neatly kept lawns of the MOMA.Note the helpful signage.

sheep squirrel

We passed the Guinness Storehouse, the Guinness Brewery, and the Guinness Windmill. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, we parked ourselves on the crowded, sunny yard and watched future footballers in their diapers practice their kicking skills without falling down or dropping trou. Starved after our long hike to and from the jail, we risked mad cow disease and had cheeseburgers at Chatham Brasserie near Grafton Street. Lunch was followed by iced lattes at St. Stephen’s Green. We browsed around St. Stephen’s Green’s Mall, but after the misfortune of PAYING (15 cents) to use the bathroom (STANK), we ran back outside and went on a shoe hunt: me, orange trainers; Gojira, lime green Pumas (that do not exist). Grafton Street started getting really crowded and one guy almost knocked the pony out of me! We wandered around a bit more, had a great dinner at Monty’s of Kathmandu and since it was still light at 9 p.m., hit International Bar to round off the night.

green

Next up: Last Day Doublin’ in Dublin.

5.19.2004

We were up at 8 a.m. to shower, pack, and store our luggage until our fourth (and thankfully final) room was ready for us. Breakfast was had at the Keogh’s Cafe and while I quite enjoyed my vegetarian fare of sauteed ‘shrooms, potato pancakes, and French toast, it was hard to eat with my eyes closed. Why were my eyes closed? Across from me, Gojira was eating black (a.k.a. blood) pudding. Ahem. Moving on.

We walked around the now-familiar streets and continued to be captivated and thrilled by the sound that was triggered when the “Walk” signal flicked on at each pedestrian crossing. PEEEowwwww . . . tuk-a-tuk-a-tuk-a-tuk. HEE HEE!!! Ah, it’s the little things that amuse us. We ventured north again in search of Gojira’s non-existent lime green Puma’s (shhh, don’t tell her, but I just saw a pair at a Puma store) and ended up with a shirt from Mango in all the colors of the Irish flag for Gojira and a pair of red, fly kicks from Ecco for me. After hitting the architecturally lovely and historically important General Post Office to mail out some postcards, we pretty much spent the day popping in and out of various stores. A gentle, misty rain began as we returned to Avalon House to rescue our luggage and dump it in our new room – the best so far with a single bed suspended over a double bed below.

Lunch at the Lemon Crepe and Coffee Co. was followed by a visit to the tourist center, which was surprisingly unhelpful and disorganized, to purchase our bus tickets for the airport the next day. We began heading towards Dublin Castle when we were distracted, hypnotized, and beckoned by the charming used and discount bookstore, Books Upstairs. So bedazzled by cheap books, we spent more time in there than we intended and when we finally emerged, we forgot where we were going and ended up walking around in a huge circle before finally reaching the castle.

library palm

We spent more time in the castle’s gardens than we did on the castle grounds itself. Instead, we breezed through the impressive collection of Islamic art at the nearby Chester Beatty Library (which gets full marks for its clean, comfy, and free bathrooms).

I’d like to say that the remainder of our time spent in Dublin involved visiting historical buildings, appreciating culturally significant sights, and immersing ourselves in the local culture and cuisine. But, no. Shoes, Butler’s coffee, shoes, St. Stephen’s Green, shoes shoes shoes.

ducks

We had our last supper at Wagamama. We packed up our stuff (sans a pair of torn jeans, two grungy t-shirts, and a pair of raggedy socks). And we tried to sleep without waking up every hour, on the hour, for fear that the alarm wouldn’t wake us up in time to catch our 5 a.m. Airlink bus to the airport. So ended our stay in Ireland.

Next up: Scotland!

The Land of Ice and Snow

Repost of travelogue from a decade ago which has disappeared from the interwebs.

My friend Gojira and I were discussing our respective travel-bugs and our never-ending competition to visit at least one new country each year.  When she suggested that we both travel somewhere, anywhere, together, I whimsically accepted the offer.  The conversation went something like this . . .

“Hey, wanna go to Australia?”
“Yeah!”
(several months pass)
“Ummmm, Australia is too far and too expensive to fly to – how about Iceland?”
“Yeah!”
(few more week go by)
“Why don’t we add Denmark too?”
“Yeah!”

And so, taking advantage of Iceland Air’s offer to fly to a European city and for no extra charge, stop over in Iceland for three days, we took off from New York and traveled to the northern-most capital in the world and points east.

Pre-Day One: August 21, 2003
To get to Iceland, I first had to get to New York City to meet up with Gojira. I took the train which was supposed to take a little over three hours but delay after delay got me into the city five hours later. By then, I had exhausted my supply of York Peppermint Patties which I had intended to use as a substitute for brushing my teeth on the various planes and trains and buses through Scandinavia. Ah well.

Gojira met me at Penn Station and we dropped off my luggage at her lovely Lower East Side digs so we could discuss travel plans. DC had a heat-index of about 100 that day and I am certain that NYC reached those breath-robbing, brain-melting temperatures as well. Over a delicious Thai dinner, we caught up on each other’s lives and swapped stories. Later, at the Pink Pony, we chatted over coffee and discussed literature, movies, and music. Even later, until about 5 a.m. the next morning, we talked about friends and family, quoted our favorite lines from film and television, tried out different accents and voices, did a few comedy routines and generally managed NOT to accomplish anything in the way of planning our trip as we had intended.

At 8:30 a.m., Gojira staggered off to work while I stumbled over to the computer for some last minute research for our trip. I sluggishly went out in search of Ray’s Original Jumbo Slice Pizza for a Coke-and-a-slice (Thanks, Christopher Moltisanti!) and when I returned to the apartment, I was so wiped out by the heat that I couldn’t even bear to open the pizza box. I cooled off, gobbled some cold pizza, and napped for a couple of hours until Gojira returned home, drenched and winded. We double-checked our packing, had lunch at the Pink Pony, and, since we had allotted ourselves plenty of time to reach JFK, leisurely made our way to the subway to catch the first A-train we saw. Unfortunately, it was not the right A-train. In fact, it was the completely wrong train to take and it wasn’t until we reached the end of the line in the absolute opposite direction that we wanted that we realized that small but important fact. It was rush-hour on Friday afternoon and we were at the northern tip of Manhattan when we really wanted to be near the southern end of Queens. We looked at each other, dumbfounded and aghast, and jumped back on the now-empty train, anxiously waiting for it to switch directions and take us to our destination. Turns out, the Ramones had it wrong; it was very hard and it was very far to reach Far Rock Rock Rockaway Beach. We constantly checked the map and our watches, held our breaths at each stop, willed the train to go faster and mentally encouraged the conductor to refuse entry to the slow passengers who, with each passing minute, were making us late for our flight (Yes. That’s right. It was the train and the other passengers’ fault).

Gojira was so distraught that she could only retain a tiny nugget of information each time she went to look at the map to see how many more stops we had left. I consoled myself by imagining worse scenarios that made this one seem palatable. “Hey, at least we don’t need dual emergency heart transplants and if we miss this flight and don’t receive the healthy hearts awaiting us in Iceland, we’ll die” kind of thing. At least I didn’t share this out loud (please refer yourselves to the classic film “Young Frankenstein” and the genius line from it: “Could be worse . . . could be raining” . . . smile, pause, wait for torrential downpour to begin).

With less than an hour before departure, we reached Far Rockaway Beach and nervously awaited the free shuttle bus which, in our fantasies, would whisk us away straight to the gate. Alas. By the time we got to our terminal, we had only 15 minutes before boarding and departure. Cue the “Mission Impossible” theme music. We ran up the escalator, skidded around the corner to a nearly-deserted Iceland Airways Check-In counter, and breathlessly awaited the punishment to be handed down to us.

“You are checking in NOW?,” the airline agent asked, flabbergasted.
“Yes, please?”
(clacking of the keys, frowning of the face, glancing of the eyes at these two wretched, sweaty women)
“You two are lucky. You are getting the last two seats.”

Relief washed over us as we raced through security, through the boarding area, and onto the plane. We laughed maniacally and marveled at the fact that, in this day of hyper-security and uber-suspicion, we managed to get through the entire JFK terminal (entrance, security, and plane doors) in under 10 minutes. We found our seats at the back of the plane, slumped down with relief that the last several harrowing hours were behind us, and then settled back and idly wondered when they were going to serve us some water and give us our cashmere blankets that we could later steal. Craptastic airplane food, not nearly enough water, acrylic blankets, and five-hours of flying time later, we arrived in Reykjavik.

Day One: The Land of Puffins, Prices, and Popp Rokk

Having flown all night from sweltering New York, we arrived in nippy Reykjavik, Iceland, a.k.a. Break-ya-bank, Priceland.   We staggered our way through customs, hit the ATM (Fun Fact: Iceland is one of the most expensive countries in the world, second only to Japan!), and threw our sleep-deprived bodies into the FlyBus shuttle from the Keflavik airport to the capital.  We got our first views of the Icelandic landscape which was decidedly lunar-like with its dark lava fields covered lightly in moss.  After being dropped off in the heart of Old Reykjavik, we checked into the Salvation Army Guesthouse which was much more pleasant than we expected.  Our new home was in a perfect location, just north of Tjörn lake (teeming with waterfowl and children) and west of the street Bankastræti (teeming with shops, cafés, and tourist information centers that employed chilly-demeanored personnel).  We dropped off our luggage in our garret room which was so tiny that you couldn’t swing a puffin in there. I could stretch my arm and leg and touch the opposite walls. Trust me; I tried it.

Lava Fields of Iceland Salvation Army Guesthouse

Attempting to follow the walking tour suggested by a guidebook, we ended up walking clear across Old Town and reached the bus station at the other end of town without finding any open cafés in which to have our breakfast/dinner. Neither locals nor tourists were to be seen on that early Saturday morning. I would not have been surprised to see tumbleweed-like snowballs drifting down the deserted street and to hear someone whistling the theme song to “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. Doubling back, we found Kaffitár, the #2 champions in the 2003 World Barista Competition. We were surprised at how good the bagels were in Reykjavik and Kaffitár became our favorite coffee/bagel hangout (Fun Fact #2: USD$8 for a bagel with cheese and a swiss mocha!). We watched some ice-blond children feeding ducks and gulls at Tjörn lake until the chilliness and bone-tiredness hit us and we returned to our mini-room for naps.

Three Icelandic Kids

View from our room in Reykjavik

Refreshed, we strolled around the town until we reached the end of the main street again which did not take very long.  Apparently, the exchange rate is one American step = five Icelandic steps.  We leaped and bounded back up the street and decided to try Icelandic Thai food for lunch at Nudlehaus.  The black noodles were topped with what we originally suspected were raw shrimp and then figured were canned shrimp but at any rate were gross.  Score negative one for Icelandic cuisine.

Whole Mess of Black Noodles and Shrimps

We strolled around Austurvöllur park which had an amazing exhibit of Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s “Earth from Above” photographs.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand Exhibit

Afterwards, we parked ourselves at Café Paris for a three-hour coffee break and before we knew it, it was 9 p.m. and the sun had disappeared!  It had been completely obscured by clouds all day, but by night, it was really “night” – no midnight sun, no insanity, nothing.  We later learned that only in July are there a couple hours of darkness in southern Iceland.  Since it was dark and surprisingly quiet for a Saturday night, we decided to pack it in.

Day Two: Bláa Lónið
After a good night’s sleep on comfortable beds with thick blankets, we stacked up our beds, packed our few belongings, and said goodbye to the weeping baby portrait hung on the candy-colored walls of our single room to shift over to a double room.  Kaffitár did not open until 10 a.m., so we occupied ourselves by walking along the main street, loitering by the harbor, and counting ducks.  Over breakfast, we leafed through the local paper where several news-worthy ducks made the front page (seven ducks on the front page and another five geese on the second page).

Gulls & Ducks

Bellies and minds fed, we returned to our spacious double room to get ready for our excursion to Iceland’s famous Bláa Lónið, or the Blue Lagoon.  The geothermal spa boasts healing power water that is warm (38°C/100°F year-round), silky (from the mineral salts, silica, and blue-green algae), and dreamy (clouds of vapor surround the pool and the lava rocks beyond).

The bus picked us up at the Guesthouse and we arrived at the Blue Lagoon about 40 minutes later.  We ran from the bus through the chilly mist to face our biggest fear: the communal shower.  Icelandic protocol requires all patrons to shower sans swimsuits before entering the pool.  All accounts thus far indicated that we would have to join throngs of naked swimmers jostling for positions under the shower sprays.  One helpful individual suggested we “just suck it up.”   Our fears were allayed when we entered the locker room with electronic-key bracelets and saw that there was a bathroom in which to change clothes and several cubicles with shower curtains.  Whew!  The indoor pool led to the outdoor pool where several areas were available to explore: the silica mud dispenser stations where one can glop Iceland’s #1 skin-care product on one’s face to draw out impurities, the intense waterfall that pounds one’s shoulders, and the sauna that can lull one to sleep (and/or suffocation) in an instant.  Definitely an experience to be had.

Back in Reykjavik, we walked along the coastline and clambered over Sólfar, a metal sculpture of a Viking ship.  We treated ourselves to a meal at the relatively inexpensive Kebob Husio of fried fish and kebabs, and then warmed up with some coffee at Svarta Kaffið.  We chatted amiably for hours, sipping on our mochas and observing the clientele, when suddenly, in mid-conversation, I gasped “We don’t have any money left!”  We had spent our last bit of Icelandic kroners on our trip to the Blue Lagoon having received false information that the bus took credit cards.  Luckily, the café took plastic so we were saved the embarrassment of not having enough money to pay for two coffees.  On our way back home, we wandered around Yann’s exhibit again (Fun Fact #3: touring over 20 countries for more than 30 million visitors, the photography display is the world’s most seen exhibition ever!).  A round of cards, a review of the next day’s itinerary, and a sound sleep all around.

Iceland View of Atlantic Ocean 2

Day Three: Gullfoss and Geysir

Kaffitár was hopping that early Monday morning, so we ordered our breakfast to go and went to enjoy it in a patch of rare sunshine on a bench at Tjörn lake.  This time, not only did we count the ducks, we fed some as well.  One geezer duck came right up to us to be fed and I think I may have contracted duckpox when I hand-fed a half-blind duck and he mistook my fingertip for a piece of the bagel.  We made our daily trek up the main street to book a six-hour tour with Iceland Excursions that day and returned for a power-nap.

The tour of South Central Iceland began with þingvellir (the þ is pronounced as a “th” as in “Thor’s Hammer”), the setting of the first parliamentary house established in 930 A. D. (and by “house” I mean wide, open fields precariously resting on a still-active rift between the continental plates of Europe and North America) and later, the first national park established almost 1000 years later.  Close to the beautiful, crystal-clear þinvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake, one can see the Öxaráfoss waterfall (Fun Fact #4: women found guilty of crimes such as having illegitimate children were executed by being tied up in bags and tossed into the immensely powerful waterfall which led to Drekkingarhylur, The Drowning Pool!).  At the wishing-well spring Peningagjá, we looked longingly at the numerous shiny coins glittering in the chasm that mocked our empty pockets.  The pure silence and beauty of the area was palpable and it would have been easy to lose hours and hours just admiring the scenery.

pingvallavatn lake 3 pingallavatn lake at pingvellir peningagja wishing spring

On our way to the next spot, we stopped at a farm in the countryside for an unexpected treat of being greeted by the handsome Icelandic horses.  Friendly, soft, and gentle-natured, the horses came right up to the road and allowed us to pet them.  They were so docile and short-statured that we were tempted to call them “ponies,” but our guide warned the group not to call them that because that would upset the farmers who take great pride in their purebred Equus scandinavicus.

pony pony pony Icelandic Horses

Gullfoss (the Golden Waterfall) provided us with a great place to take pictures of the glacial river Hvitá’s long drop (11 meters and then another 21 meters of rushing, falling water) and to snack on granola bars (our version of lunch in Priceland).

Gullfoss

If the sun was shining, we could have seen a rainbow, but it wasn’t and we didn’t and so we moved on to see the Great Geysir.  The English word “geyser” is derived from the Icelandic word “geysir” which means gusher and all of the world’s spouting hot springs are named after this one.  The petulant Great Geysir was not in action that hour, but the nearby geyser Strokkur (The Churn) erupts every 5-7 minutes.  If you time it just right and don’t get distracted by a bit of sunshine that may suddenly appear behind you and wait for the big, blue bubble to appear at the mouth of Strokkur, you can catch its white column of boiling hot, sulfuric water that furiously shoots up as high as 20-30 meters.

Geysir

On the way back to Reykjavik, we stopped at the 3000 year old explosion crater Kerió that is filled by a symmetrical green lake.

Kerio crater

We drove through the clouds along a mountainous path and Odin (yes, that was our guide’s name) told us tales of trolls (apparently they like blueberries and dislike sunshine), the shortage – and shortness – of trees (classic Icelandic joke: Q-What do you do if you are lost in an Icelandic forest? A-Stand up!) and golfers (every town has a golf course because they are thought to be classy even though not many Icelanders play).  Upon our return, we thought we’d try out the restaurant Pasta Basta for dinner and figured even Iceland couldn’t get pasta wrong. Result: score negative two.

Day Four: Aloha, Iceland. Aloha, Denmark.

We had an early morning breakfast at Café Paris of smoked salmon (although at first, the waitress brought us some lamb; presumably, she heard “smoked lambon”) which was very good and finally scored Iceland a positive point in the culinary ratings.  Quick stops at Kaffitár for our last bit of award-winning coffee and croissants, at Hallgrímskirkja church that was built to resemble a jet of lava, and at our room to pack.  We confirmed that the FlyBus that was to take us to the airport did accept credit cards (because at that point we didn’t have two kroners to rub together) and bid adieu to Iceland.

All the text above is copyright 2003 Bajidc

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