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Greetings from Afar

Sunday (November 5) we arrived early in the morning in Addis Ababa, and my ex-coworker friend Shane picked us up at the airport. We had to actually leave the terminal building and walk down a ramp, since no one besides passengers and VIP greeters is allowed to go in. Shane took us to his pleasant house, surrounded by a concrete wall topped with razor wire and glass shards. Two bedrooms, one bath, plus another unit behind it where we slept. He lives there with his wife Brukty, who is a children’s television producer, and his charming kids, daughter Justice (9) and son Amani (6). We pretty much spent the day hanging out with the kids; Shane and Brukty sequestered themselves at her office nearby, working on a speech she’d be giving in Japan. Semira, the nanny, cooked meals constantly, and we had tons of great Ethiopian food over the next few days.

Monday was about the same, except that the kids went to school. We went out to get postcard stamps (cheap at 40 cents per postcard, but boring), and SIM cards for our phones ($1.20 for the cards, 40 cents to cut them to size), which involved registering them with the government (free). The Medhane Alem cathedral nearby seemed too crowded to visit, so we continued walking back to Shane’s house, where we stayed the rest of the day and I got some work done. Monday night Shane took us out to Fendika, a music / cultural dance club. On Mondays they feature a local jazz band, which was excellent: an alto, a trumpet, bass, drums, and a keyboard which was set to an electric piano sound the whole time except for one song. They played without breaks for two and a half hours. After an hour or so, they invited some other locals to sit in, including a couple of other sax players, a guitarist, and an accordion player. Shane said the place is run by a dancer, and is somewhat of a local venue for musicians and dancers to perform for fun, after doing dinner shows at tourist places.

Tuesday there were two events on the calendar. In the afternoon, there was a presentation about the latest project of Brukty’s company, making seven episodes, in eight Ethiopian languages (out of 80), each of which teaches some kind of good behavior. After that Shane took us to a developer incubator, and I was the special guest, talking at random about what it’s like to work on a big legacy audio program.

And in general, people seem pretty well-behaved in Ethiopia. It’s a nice place, but it’s still quite poor. There are several miles of freeway between Addis and Adama, and many of the streets we went on in Addis are paved, but the ones that are are desperately gridlocked with traffic pretty much all day. Shane’s street has cobblestones, but to get to it you’ll wish you had a 4×4 or other high-clearance car. It is quite overpopulated; there are 100 miillion or so now in the country, estimates of 6 to 10 million in Addis, sprawling over a huge area. There is a subway line, but it doesn’t serve very many people. Traffic is not just cars, it’s tuk-tuks, donkeys, horses, cows, farm equipment, trucks, buses, and pedestrians, and they all somehow manage to share the same travel space without getting run over, much. Construction standards span a wide range of qualities, but the distribution is similar to income equality in America: people sleep and work in shacks, and basic buildings, and nice houses with concrete walls, and even nicer houses and offices. We’ve felt pretty safe walking around, but Shane warned us about how pickpockets will use magazines pressed into our chest to distract us from the activity below, and indeed, some guy pulled that on Ray (to no avail, my wallet is zipped in a vest pocket at chest level).

Wednesday thru Saturday was our tour to the Afar region to see geology in action. We flew to Mekele, Ethiopia’s second-largest city, and after some drama where we waited for two of the guests to go ATM-shopping to raise enough funds to pay their bill, the tour left for Erta Ale, a volcano containing a lava lake. Maybe I wasn’t drinking enough water or something, but I had no appetite by lunchtime, and when we got the base camp, I just felt like sleeping. I certainly did not feel like walking three hours up the volcano in the dark over rough ground, and then descending into its crater down a steep slope so that I could inhale clouds of sulfuric acid. So I stayed below, though most of the other campers did the climb. They slept for a few hours just below the rim, hopefully out of smellshot, and then descended starting around 4:30, while the temperature was still a pleasant 80F, before it got up to 105F by midday.

Thursday we visited a salt lake, said to be connected somehow to the Red Sea. There was an adjoining hot springs, about the same temperature our hot tub would be if we fixed it so it worked again. Then we went to a very basic guest house in a small town.

Friday we headed toward Dallol, stopping at a potash mine to camp. These camps had no toilet faclities whatsoever; one simply found a spot near a big pile of rocks a short walk away.  At sunset we went out to another salt lake, this one located next to a salt flat. Earlier in the day we had seen a series of camel and donkey caravans doing the 7-day walk from Mekele to the salt flat. Workers at the flat carve out slabs (approximately 3” x 12” x 15”), several of which are tied onto each camel or donkey. They then walk back to Mekele with their heavy loads. Presumably they deposit them and turn around and do it all over again. Anyway, the scene at the lake was otherworldly, just flat white ground (you could have a festival there) very gradually turning into a lake (you can walk in about one inch of water hundreds of meters out into the lake). They poured everyone Ethiopian wine, which in this case wasn’t actually very good.

Saturday we drove to Dallol. The trucks parked at the base of a rocky hill. We walked up the hill, and were greeted with another otherworldly scene, this one with saturated psychedelic colors, and the strong odor of hydrogen sulfide. We continued on, through several other little areas with completely different yet similarly unusual textures and colors. At the end there was another saturated-color area, and here one of our group members passed out, probably from not eating. There was a doctor in the house, he called for sweets, and someone delivered: she was up and walking around again in no time. We stopped at various other interesting formations, and at the place where the salt is carved into slabs to be strapped onto the waiting camels and donkeys.

The things we saw on the tour were incredibly interesting, and the ability of the tour company to be modular and flexibile, constantly joining and splitting people and cars to provide them with 2, 3, and 4 day tours, was quite impressive. What was not impressive was the food and the guide.

First of all, the food was not Ethiopian. Now I appreciate that there are Westerners who are already out of their comfort zone being in Ethopia in the first place and don’t want to compound it by having to have to eat food using spongy sourdough bread instead of forks, and having to have unfamiliar spices. But I wish the tour company would appreciate that there are also people, like us, who are trying to get more of an authentic experience, and who want Ethiopian food. One day we ate lunch with the drivers, who had goat stew (served on injera, of course) provided by the restaurant where we stopped, instead of the pasta and vegetables brought by the tour company. The company seems to feel that the European food is somehow safer than the Ethiopian food, less likely to provide food poisoning. But maybe it’s the other way around: the goat stew was piping hot, yet the reheated vegetables were tepid at best.

The guide was a nice guy, and was effective at herding tourists into seats and beds and trucks. But at no point did we have any kind of “orientation” where the geology or history or culture of the region was explained at all. I’m pretty sure most questions asked of the guide about any of these would have been met with blank stares.  And since there was one guide for all the people on the tour, so one could not ask questions while driving, since the drivers spoke hardly any English.  (Exception:  two of the guests had hired their own private guide to travel all over Ethiopia with them.)

The tour ended at Mekele for the flight home. I went looking for post cards and actually found some, my first in Ethiopia, with much help from passers by and their cousins. One of them was a sort that I have run into occasionally in traveling: the guy who speaks kind of good English and has some kind of education, and talks with you a while before he asks you for money, directly or indirectly. I thought that he should become a guide for WorldSun Tours, and showed him where their office is. Not sure if either of them is looking for that, but now they have the opportunity to find out.  (Later, in a guide book at Shane’s house, I discovered that the type has a name: Plonker. I think I am one of those, too. I am plonking right now. Send money.)

We had a small meal at the airport before the flight back to Addis and I had diarrhea that night. Fortunately, whatever it was, got done with whatever it was doing, because on Sunday morning (November 12) began the next tour: birdwatching.  Or birding, as it is now called. I have a notion of what changed, though I don’t know if anyone else shares my opinions. “Birdwatching” I would call, watching birds do what birds do, like People watching, or even television watching. “Birding” is the compulsive accumulation of species and as soon as you’ve checked one off, you go right on to the next.  It is another case of tourists training the guides to do bad things. Just as high maintenance eaters encourage guides to line up endless meals of pasta and vegetables, so do the birders with their golf counters encourage guides to ignore every bird they’ve already checked off and move on to the next.

I associate this behavior with the word “do”. When someone says that he has done Rome, or done carmine bee eaters, or done some woman, I suspect him of not respecting his target.  For the record, Dave and I don’t have “life lists”. Our guide tells us we saw 235 species between Sunday and Thursday, but I couldn’t pick most of them out of a lineup.

The bird tour was: Sunday in the highlands northwest of Addis Ababa; high point of the day, setting out lamb bones and watching a variety of vultures have a snack on them. Monday we stopped at a lake and saw some shorebirds, then drove to Awash National Park.  We stayed for two nights in its humble little lodge, so that all day Tuesday we could take drives and walks through the forested and grassy savanna and especially along the river Awash, where there were monkeys and baboons.

On Wednesday we were off to a hotel in the town of Hawassa, stopping at various shores of Rift Valley lakes along the way. The high point of that day was watching a squacco heron stalk a fish (it hunts just like a cat) but the guide said we had already seen that bird so on to the next one.  The lodge in Hawassa had marabou storks and vervet monkeys. Thursday we drove back to Shane’s house, for the end of the tour. We stopped at a place where a friend of the guide knew exactly where there would be a nightjar and an owl sleeping in the midday heat. A couple of other owls had moved their roosts. At that point I was more interested in the little red-cheeked cordon-bleu, but again, we’d already seen him.

Friday was our last full day in Ethiopia. We went to the National Museum to see the skeleton of Lucy (not decorative like the Cappuccin skeletons, but older): it’s surprisingly good. You get used to seeing dusty Natural History museums with typewritten labels from the 1960’s or the 1920’s, but this one is worth going to.

Saturday we tried once again to go to the Medhane Alem Cathedral but it was closed for a wedding. The wedding party was dancing around the perimeter of the cathedral so we made videos of them and they made videos of us.

And then to the airport for a long trip home. Addis to Jeddah to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to America. About 30 hours of travel. I know better than to do this, but at the planning stage, everybody wanted to be home before the Thanksgiving rush, so here we all are.

This was the trip of the new planes. We did an Icelandic Dreamliner on the way there and the A380 on the way back.  The A340 we took from Addis to Frankfurt had a very functional touchscreen entertainment system, the one on the A380 was much worse.  And I thought those planes were brand new.

When in Rome…

The first thing that happened to me in Rome, as I stepped out of the train station into the street, was that a pigeon shit on my head.

The next two weeks were spent in Rome with our friend Jenny, who didn’t have two weeks of vacation, but arranged with her boss to work in Rome, as I did. Both of us took off both Fridays and the second Monday. (We got a late start on the second Wednesday as well.) We were in a fabulous airbnb apartment in the Testaccio area, right next to the Piramide metro station and the Ostiense train station.  This is about a half-hour walk from downtown, and while we took the metro sometimes, there were many mornings and evenings that we just walked.

The apartment had two bedroooms and two bathrooms, a clothes washer and a dishwasher, and it was the only apartment which opened onto the courtyard behind the building. There was also a living room and a kitchen.  It was awesome in about every way except for the WiFi, which kept kicking us off.

Jenny’s friend had sent an extensive guide of what to see and what to skip, and the apartment people had left a handy guide to the immediate neighborhood food stores and restaurants. These were both instrumental in our planning.

We started our touring on Sunday (October 22) just after we arrived, walking past the Pyramid up to the river, along the river then up to the Pantheon, and from there to the Trevi Fountain. We walked back via Piazza Venezia, and went to the first dinner suggestion: Trapizzino in Testaccio. They serve triangular bread stuffed with some sauce, a combination concept of Roman sandwiches and pizza. Each one is 3€50. We bought about five of them for the three of us. Fantastic spot.

The work days were pretty routine: bread or some pastry in the morning with coffee from the Mr. Coffee machine, oranges bought from the Egyptian guy around the corner and squeezed by Ray in the juicer that came in the apartment. One day Ray and Jenny walked to the Jewish neighborhood downtown and got a ricotta and sour cherry cake from Pasticceria Boccione (which has no sign). Though it was delicious, it was large and lasted two days.

There were unfamiliar 100% deep green oranges in the fruit stand, and immediately bought two. Research reveals that the green does not mean a different breed. They were just ordinary oranges with green skin. If you search for “regreening”, you will find that the green is chlorophyll. If the weather is warm, the oranges become greenish. If it is cold, they will be orange. This year, cold weather has yet to arrive in Spain, and the oranges are still green. So Tesco, among others, have had to conduct a public education campaign in their stores in Great Britain, to inform consumers that green oranges are still oranges and are just as good as orange ones. Our green orange was good, too.

Generally we went out for dinner, though Ray and Jenny cooked on Tuesdays, as it turned out. The area has as many restaurants as does the Mission: Jenny was right at home.

Monday we went to Hostaria da Enzo, one of the closest Roman restaurants (a block away), and had some nice pasta and oxtail. Tuesday Ray cooked pasta with what Jenny had bought when she arrived the day before we did, and with some of the salami that we’d brought from Paris. Wednesday we went a few blocks further to Trattoria da Oio a Casa Mia, another Roman restaurant with typical Roman pasta, bitter vegetables (chicory and puntarelle), and a plate of lamb parts which unfortunately was too much liver and not enough lung, etc.

Thursday we went to Doppio Zeroo, another nearby restaurant, for dinner, which was perfectly fine and tasty. But we figured out that the time you’re supposed to go there is at 6pm for their “aperitivo”, in which you buy a drink for 10€, and then it’s all-you-can-eat pizza and pasta salad and vegetables and dessert. (There wasn’t a lot of meat, and aside from the vegetables, it was all carbo-loaded. But it was all-you-can-eat! For 10€!) We returned the following Monday and took advantage of that.

Touring began in earnest on the Friday. We decided to visit the Capitoline Museums, starting with Centrale Montemartini.  It is a decommissioned power station, with old Roman sculpture standing in front of the most beautiful of the remaining generation machinery. After that, we took the metro up to the main museums on the Capitoline Hill, spending the next several hours looking at palace murals and lots of sculpture and paintings. After that we were very hungry and tired, and went to celebrate Ray’s birthday at La Fata Ignorante (“the ignorant fairy”) which was slightly upscale, but not amazing.

La Fata Ignorante is a) the patron spirit of painters, b) a painting by Magritte c) a movie by Ferzan Özpetek (“Hamam”) who lives near here, according to the man at d) Fata Ignorante, the restaurant. Lingua in salsa verde. Rigatoni Amatriciana. An Italian version of gazpacho, at room temperature. Oxtail. A nice wine from Tuscany. Bitter greens whose name escapes me now. A semifreddo that was supposed to taste like mango but didn’t. A thing called Caprese which was a lemon-soaked cake.

Saturday we had reservations for a tour at the Borghese Gallery. It was a bit touch and go getting there on time (bus from the Termini metro, or taxi?), but we did. The major problem was that there was no coffee for sale at or near the museum. Another problem was that the tour left without us, and someone had to lead us to the tour in progress. It was the first time I’d been on a tour with the little headsets, and it was brilliant. Visiting the Borghese happens in two-hour slots: they completely clear the museum before opening it for the next slot. Given that limitation, it was nice to have a guide to steer us to the most important works, while still having 30 minutes at the end to stroll on our own. Here were many important sculptures by Bernini, and a special exhibition honoring him was in the process of being set up. It was OK to take pictures of the paintings and sculptures in the permanent collection, but pictures of the wrapped-up exhibition pieces were strictly off limits.

Afterwards, we worked hard to find coffee, finally settling on Dagnino, a Sicilian bakery. It was a bit expensive for table service, but it was worth it after the standing and walking.  We headed to Piazza Barberini, and the crypt of St. Maria dei Capuccini church which had about seven rooms decorated with bones, somewhat outclassing the ossuary we’d visited in Kutna Hora. The thing about this one was that you couldn’t take pictures. The funny part was the use of scapulas as wings, in combination with skulls, to build the little bodiless putti you so often see in Italian religious art. We walked down the Spanish steps (the Dolores Park of Rome) and up to the Piazza del Popolo and into the Basilica, where a euro would light up the two Caravaggios for a couple minutes. By then we were a bit tired, and did the half-hour walk down the river back to the house, and then to Porto Fluviale, which was a very large and popular restaurant with a pizza section and a trattoria section. It was quite good.

Sunday (October 29) we decided to see what Rome had for contemporary art. The answer was “not much”. Their museum MACRO has two locations. One of them was near the house in Testaccio. It had two rooms, one with works from three artists, and another special exhibition from another. That was a bit more interesting, with maps showing the sky in various locations just before they were invaded, and another inviting you to write your problems down on rice paper and leave them in a bowl of water and they would go away. We took a tram to the other location (after waiting for the infamous Bus 83 that never came, and then having a snack at Trapizzino). It was a huge metal and glass building with wide open spaces. That way they didn’t have to fill as much actual gallery space. Most of it was of the artist ORLAN who, as a protest against plastic surgery, had it performed on her to make her uglier, and had the process filmed. It was a bit painful to watch.

Afterwards we decided we’d try to find a Sardinian restaurant, in honor of having eaten at one when we were there 16 years earlier. The nearby ones all seemed to be closed, though Google said they were open. We finally went to Sapori Sardi, which was just fine and quite festive. We had black pasta with bottarga, and a “dentice”, a whole fish. They gave us glasses of Mirto, the single piece of Sardinia which seems to be missing from our favorite restaurant La Ciccia, inspiring us to hunt some down and buy it and bring it home.

Monday was another touring failure. We went to the Vatican and determined that we really needed to have gotten reservations beforehand. So we got them online — for the following Friday at 2:30pm.

I saw a guy with no legs and only one arm walking steadily down the sidewalk near the Vatican, paying no notice to anybody, just like any salary worker getting off his shift and heading for the bus. He was so normal acting that I did not take undue notice — of course you always notice amputees and Negroes and cute 11-year-olds and Vietate signs and well-dressed women, for what they are, but without prejudice. So here was an amputee living his life. And then when I got to the Vatican, there were mutilated beggars in a row doing the begging thing. And some time later, I realized that the first fellow was probably just taking a lunch break from begging. And after two hours, and his coffee and his slice of pizza and his smokes, back in the saddle for another shift of begging. It may not have been so, he might have been a website designer, but this is my guess.

We walked over to St. Peter’s Square, and marveled at the length of the line to get into the Basilica. After that we went to Pizzarium, a somewhat gourmet pizza-by-the-slice place (they just opened one in Chicago!), having arugula/ricotta/onions, nduja/broccoli, and one other. We walked around the other side of the Vatican (dumb idea, it turned out), and got to St. John the Baptist church about 2:30. Which was closed until 5pm. So we decided to check out Gelateria dei Gracchi, and were rewarded with super-intense flavors: pear, chestnut rum (it was the rum that was intense), pistachio, gianduia, persimmon. Three flavors in every size. Wish I could have gone back. On the way back we stopped at a white Gothic church on the river we’d seen a couple days earlier, and checked out their tiny museum of evidence of souls in purgatory trying to communicate with the living by leaving burned fingerprints on various documents. Finally St. John the Baptist opened, and while its little crypt was open, its museum wasn’t. We gave up, and walked the half-hour directly to Doppio Zeroo for their “aperitivo”.  We could have taken a bus, but walking seemed faster given the amount of traffic.

Tuesday night was another dinner at home. In the morning we went to Eataly, a four-story high-end grocery store brought to you by Mario Batali. In addition to groceries, there are numerous little cafe areas where you can have various meals. We bought fresh pasta and chicken, and Ray and Jenny made it into dinner. Eataly is basically Whole Foods. Bunny suicides calendar for example. But four floors of it. You could get Stendhals syndrome just walking down the 6 aisles devoted only to pasta (2 fresh, 4 dried).

Wednesday we decided to have a “late workday”, and we returned to the Capitoline Museum to finish our visits there before our 7 days were up. One of the guards recognized us from our previous visit and showed us the snapshots he had made of the funny looking tourists. I forget which kind he was: Gandalf or maybe Papa Noel.  We saw the Dying Gaul and somebody else’s Venus. From there, Jenny went back to work, and Ray and I went to a couple of other churches. One of them, St. Maria Maggiore, was actually open, and we took a tour of the mosaics at the back, and a Bernini spiral staircase which did not go anywhere, but you could go and look at it and walk a little ways on it. We also walked around the museum which had the usual Catholic vases and robes and other treasures. We returned to the house, and I went to work.

We had a reservation at Da Felice Testaccio, a Famous Restaurant famous for its “cacio y pepe”, or pasta with cheese and pepper. Unlike the Sorrento place a block away, which was empty, Da Felice was packed and needed reservations in advance. We were seated immediately, and the selling began. What? Only one order of pasta? What? You’re ordering from the Wednesday menu which is the reason you came on Wednesday? Many of the things we’d scoped out seemed not to be available, yet items from other days’ menus were. We did allow ourselves to be upsold to three orders of artichokes, and they were very, very good. We got the cacio y pepe, some other pasta, and some meat thing. The wine person started out recommending the 85€ bottle, and eventually came down to the 45€ bottle; most other restaurants recommended really good bottles in the 20€ range. The food was just OK (except the artichokes which were great) and the experience was pretty darned annoying.

Thursday night after work we went to a very close place we’d walked past, Trattoria Pennestri. It wasn’t in anybody’s top list (though it was decently high in TripAdvisor’s). It was basically San Francisco comfort food, ie Italian food made with creativity and attractive plating and interesting and non-traditional flavor combinations. It was by far the best meal we had in Rome, in my opinion. It wasn’t crowded, though we always ate earlier than most Romans.

Friday we had reservations for a tour at the newly opened highest levels of the Colosseum. The people who sat on these levels were the lowest levels of society: the guide said that fat senators couldn’t be expected to climb all those stairs. But now, you can only go there on one of these tours, so it’s kind of an elite thing, you’re there behind a locked gate. The views of Rome and of the lower levels are great. Definitely recommended if you’re going to go there.

When we were done, we returned to Pizzarium for three more flavors, including anchovy and sausage/gorgonzola/almonds, and then got to the Vatican half an hour early for our tour. It was packed with tour groups. We did our best to stick together, but it was a struggle. The guy at the Sistine chapel said to “exit to the right”, but you never know if that’s right in your direction of travel (towards the back of the chapel), or right when facing the front of the chapel. We opted for the former, which had a Do-Not-Enter sign, “Groups with Guide Only”. We ended up going through this secret Ikea-shortcut-like passage which became Skip The Line To St. Peter’s, which we were happy to do. For all the lip service about charity and helping the poor, the church sure does pour tons and tons and tons of money into building impressive churches. Sigh.

Friday night we met up with our friend Bill, who had just arrived in Rome for a few days. We went to Il Ciak, a game restaurant in Trastevere, and had three mixed grills, but above all a great conversation about traveling and art and Venice and Rome and catching up just generally.

Saturday was our last day in Rome. We packed up and finally met Bill at St. Maria Maggiore, where he and Jenny had a chance to go on the tour, and we all examined its mosaics and gold more closely. When Spain repaid (in gold) their loan from Italy which financed the Columbus expedition, Italy used the gold to line the ceilings of this church. We then went to San Pietro in Vincoli, St. Peter in Chains, with a Michelangelo sculpture of Moses and the chains that St. Peter was fettered with. Below that was a window through which you could see the sarcophagus of the Maccabee brothers. The Maccabees are not technically Catholic, but the torture martyrdom was too good a story to pass up, and so they are celebrated and have a saints day and everything.

Then to a bakery for a snack before our departure. Ray and I left Bill and Jenny, who went on to have a night Forum tour. We walked to the train station a couple blocks away, took the train to the airport,  and flew to Addis Ababa. Overnight.

On the Périphérique

Sabrina is the daughter of our friend David, who is in Spain for Junior Semester Abroad. She and her friend Leah were taking 10 days to visit Athens, Rome, Venice, and Paris. We realized we’d overlap in Paris, and agreed to meet for dinner on Friday. I found a restaurant, Jeanne B, which had good vegetarian options (which turned out not really to be that necessary because most restaurants did, and it turned out Leah ate fish also). Our train would arrive at 6, so it would be comfortable to meet at 9 — we could check into our hotel, and then take the Metro to this restaurant.

The train plan was a nine-minute connection in Stuttgart. The train from Salzburg got there about 40 minutes late. Oops. We frantically researched as we approached, and decided the best thing to do was to stay on the train to Mannheim, then catch the TGV to Paris from there, so that we’d arrive about 8:30. When the TGV passes 300 kph, its WiFi sends you a message on your browser that you are now in the elite club of people who have gone 300 kph in a train. Invited you to post it to Facebook. I don’t know who is impressed by this, after many years of daily service. It is pretty impressive. Sitting in a chair, moving 300 kph. So we did that.

Once again, we dragged all of our suitcases to dinner, but It turns out, that the Metro stop that Google instructed us to go to, Lamarck-Caulaincourt, is about in the center of the earth. To their credit, there is an elevator down there, and a sign next to the elevator says CAUTION 92 STEPS. To their debit, the elevator never came. On the way up the steps, a nice young man offered to carry my suitcase, but I told him that if I am carrying around more things than I can manage, I need to be made aware of that and to get rid of it. When we emerged onto the street, we discovered that it was quite hilly, and that we needed to walk up even more stairs and then a hill. Unfortunately we were disoriented and started by walking downstairs, making it worse. Eventually we got there, and dinner was in classic Bistro fashion, cheese and wine I suppose, although the really good meals you don’t remember because you are talking and not paying attention.

Saturday (October 14th) we took it easy in the morning, and explored the neighborhood where we were staying. Levallois-Perret is a suburb of Paris just across the Périphérique from the 17th. We found a beautiful fish market, a nice cheese market, a fruit stand that offered to squeeze the oranges it sold, a bar which served cafe crème, all the essentials. We saw the fancy city hall / mairie / hotel de ville, and went to the local shopping mall to get a few things. It was world class enough to have its own Uniqlo, but not its own Apple Store. I hadn’t ever been to an H&M, and was happy to find a belt with a mesh that could let it be any length. A guy with lots of tattoos liked our beards. Another person who liked our beards took a marvelous photo of us, best of trip I’m sure:

We arranged to meet Sabrina and Leah at the Arc de Triomphe, and walked there from our hotel. The line to actually get in to the museum part was much too long, and we just walked to the outside area and stood in awe of all the reliefs on the sides and watched people make obeisances to the flame of the unknown soldier. There doesn’t seem to be much movement in the direction of generating fewer soldiers’ tombs.

Sabrina and Leah had learned some things from the Internet, but not others. They knew that the thing to do was to go to the Eiffel Tower at sunset for a picnic, on Saturday, but they didn’t know that there would be guys wandering around with wine to sell. Nor did we. As it was, we bought wine from a wine shop earlier, and it had to be a screw top (which totally limits the choice) because they didn’t want to carry an opener back on the airplane from Orly to Alicante (which is where their JYA is happening). I’m sure that Rick Steves advises its customers that they won’t lack for wine at Tour Eiffel. Or for Eiffel Tower key chains sold by Senegalese entrepreneurs.

The Junior Year Abroad effect is even stronger than the Rick Steves effect. Leah said that in their one week sojourn from Alicante, where they are nominally living and studying, she had met TWO people, totally by accident, who were not in her program, not at her college, but with whom she had gone to high school or middle school. A narrowly focused world, this.

We left them at the Eiffel Tower when the sun went down. We aren’t bad company, but they sure aren’t going to meet any French boys in the presence of Sabrina’s dad’s ex-workmates.

Sunday we took it easy in the morning, went to a better patisserie, had coffee at a different bar, juice from a different grocery store. We decided to go to Foundation Louis Vuitton, an art museum designed by Frank Gehry in the Bois de Bologne, the Golden Gate Park of Paris. The line was quite long, and the trick of buying tickets online on the spot to avoid it didn’t work, in that the earliest tickets available were for four hours later. We toughed it out for 40 minutes in the normal line, and got in. They were having an exhibition celebrating the history of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which neither of us had ever been to.

The exhibition was refreshingly free of bullshit. I was on the third floor before I encountered the word “temporalities”. The show is in all, the last moment before the curator’s demise, when his whole life passes before his eyes. Everything is from MoMA and pretty much obviates any need to go to New York.  It’s hard to imagine that modern art is twice as old as the space age.  Best hits of the twentieth century.

We walked back to Levallois-Perret, and stopped at Zinc du Marché, a bistro with yummy chestnut velouté and whelks, and had dinner.

Monday – Friday I worked at the Avid office in Levallois-Perret. It is a sales office. Hardly anyone ever talked to me. I’ll never know for sure if it was because they were French and I was American, or because they were sales people and I was an engineer, or because they were reasonably well-dressed and I was in T-shirts and tourist pants. Probably a combination. Anyway, everyone was very helpful, the Internet was fast, you could see the Eiffel Tower out the window, and it was a short walk from the hotel. I got quite a bit done while I was there.

Tuesday I went to the Parc Citroën, which the Guardian called one of the fifty most beautiful English gardens in the world. Even accounting for the late summer, I think not. It might be one of the most beautiful gardens built on the grounds of a demolished auto manufacturing plant; but the sensibility of the assembly line remains in the aesthetic, and without any attractive industrial ruins which you encounter so much in the world of art and landscaping.

It was the first place I saw a drinking fountain that dispenses carbonated water. I walked back through the Bois de Boulogne. It is a nice summer place with families and ducks. It had a reputation of being cruisy in the days before grindr, but I didn’t see much of that in progress or in detritus. I don’t know what the background count of used condoms is on the streets of Paris, which number I could compare with the density in the park.

Friday I went to see the 3-D map room at the Musée de l’Armée. There was also a show of the Life of a Soldier, with the interesting organizational premise, that it takes the aspects of a soldier’s life; and in one room shows that aspect through the centuries kind of mixed up.  Napoleon is also buried there. The crazy thing is this is what Trump’s tomb is going to look like, and he didn’t even do anything.

But Thursday I took a day off and we toured. We went to Jeu de Paume, a museum featuring a retrospective of a German photographer, Albert Renger-Patzsch, and an exhibition of Ali Kazma, who had some visually interesting short videos with no dialogue, including one about the World Seed Bank in Svalbard, a frame of which enticed me there in the first place. Afterwards, as we walked through the Tuilieries park where it is located, we saw several art exhibits which were part of a public art program. We walked along the Seine and Ray checked out old postcards, not really buying any, then headed up to the Pompidou center to see Domestikator, a work we’d heard about, basically a small building which looks like two houses fucking. It turned out to be the same public art program as the Tuilieries art, but the Louvre directors didn’t want it to be shown there. Pompidou was fine with it. We didn’t actually go in the Pompidou center because these days there are long security lines to get in anywhere big, even if you already have “skip the line” tickets. They don’t have TSA PreCheck for museums in Paris. Instead, we had a falafel to tide us over before a long walk to the same Vietnamese restaurant, or at least the same area, as we’d eaten at with Harvey eleven years earlier. Google said the same restaurant was open, but when we got there we saw they’d put up a sign that they were on vacation. So we went to another one nearby, which was excellent. The radio playing upstairs featured some kind of chant: it was Diwali that week but I didn’t think that was big in Vietnam.

Most nights we found some place to eat in our little suburb, always either French food or that of French colonies. Monday night we had Lebanese food. Tuesday night we went to another delicious local bistro, Coin de la Rue. Wednesday night we had couscous at a Moroccan restaurant. The Lebanese and the Moroccan places weren’t bad, but I think it’s best to stick to the local specialty.

Friday  we went a bit further afield and further upscale, and went to “l’assiette et le bouchon” (“the plate and the cork”), a really nice bistro in the 17th. Everything there was really pretty, and delicious: oysters on a bed of mushrooms, mushroom soup, scallops on a bed of chopped pears, sweetbreads with mushrooms, and a slice of cake.

Saturday  we left for Rome. First a TGV to Torino, then a very slow Italian sleeper train to Orte, just outside Rome. Crossing the Alps, there weren’t any signs of fall colors to speak of. The seasons have changed from the past.

Home of the Faun

When you see an artwork that is a parody of a work you haven’t seen appropriated before, the first thing you do is perform an image search to see what it is that’s missing from your experience.  It might not be found on Pinterest.  In the case of Renner’s Faun, the image search took us to the Glyptothek in Munich, where the Original Faun sprawls passed out upon his marble cape, inviting his frat brothers to write all over him in magic marker.  I should not say “original”.  It was not until a few hundred years ago that people even thought originality was a good thing.  Remember what Caliph Omar said about the library at Alexandria: “If those books are in agreement with the Qu’ran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Qu’ran, destroy them.”  To be original is to be heretical.

Somewhere in Greece, sometime around 200 BC, somebody carved a very realistic statue of a drunk satyr.  This either found its way to Rome, or a copy of it did, where it lived at Hadrian’s Mausoleum until soldiers threw it down on the besieging Ostrogoths.  Expensive ammunition.  It laid buried in the moat for the next 1100 years at which time it was found during a remodel and put back together, what was left of it.

If you don’t value originality, then you also don’t value what it means to be original.  This whole business of keeping things the way they were when they were made, dates back only to the 19th century.  The restoration of the faun has proceeded over the course of the last 400 years, carving and discarding limbs without having any evidence of what they might have looked like in 200 BC, and there are copies around the world, including the gift shop.

So we went to see the faun.  He is pretty sexy and Bill Cosby would have had his way with him.  How dated that sounds!  One could put in a piece of Javascript here that would substitute for %1, the latest celebrity in Google News who has importuned an incapacitated satyr.  Quick: what’s the name of the Stanford swimmer rapist?  I would have molested the Barberini Faun, too, except for shyness.

There is a ton of other marble there, too.  When you’re a king there are no limits to what you can collect.

Munich is also the home of Dennis, who is about the best friend I have whose profile resembles the way sculptors represent Socrates at the Glyptothek.  We stayed at his apartment.  He and Paulina worked during the day, so Dave did, too, using Dennis’s monitor.  The first night that we got into town, he met us at the train station, and we walked with all our suitcases to a Persian restaurant called Shanzi to meet Paulina.  It made a pile on the bench behind the table.  Shanzi is nice but I don’t remember the food because we were talking.  I think when people have a good time, they generate unuseful Tripadvisor reviews.  Dennis’s friend Ralph joined, later.  Dennis’s social circle seems to include a lot of people from when he worked at Frog Design and they are all pretty neat, even in a noisy restaurant where you can’t fully make out what they are saying.

The next night we ate at a German restaurant, Görreshof Wirtshaus.  Dennis says he doesn’t go out for German food much because there are only about fifteen dishes.  But we had an enlightening disagreement about the waiter, which highlights differences in the American and German attitudes toward work.  The waiter was unnaturally cheerful, to where you would suspect brain damage.  I thought that it must be his first few days on the job, before disillusionment had set in.  I’ve seen that in boxboys at Whole Foods, and Hare Krishnas — a complete buy-in to the cult, the phase of belief in which you are in danger of becoming a truck bomber or to give up masturbating or to stand around in airports handing paper to strangers (except airport proselytizing has gone the way of airport life insurance vending machines, due to security reasons).

Dennis thought it was that the waiter had just been there for six months, and was happy because he could no longer be fired without cause.

Once again on this trip, (more than once in Salzburg as well) Dave’s watch tap payment gesture was the first the waiter had seen, even though the machines have presumably been programmed for it for a year.  Card taps are only that old.  It made the waiter giggly, as did just about everything.

The food was good.

Friday (we’re up to October 13 now), we took ANOTHER delayed train ride, this time to Paris.

A Concert in Salzburg

Monday we moved on to Salzburg for a day. We bought tickets online for a little classical concert, because that’s what happens in Salzburg. Getting there was a bit stressful: an accident caused the tracks to be closed in front of our train. Everyone got off the train, and hoped for buses to Vienna. We took the first bus which went only just past the closure; a train there took us to Vienna. And amazingly, we were able to stuff into another train to Salzburg that left 10 minutes later. I have no idea what happened to everyone else on the Budapest train.

During this whole fiasco, we kept wondering if we would miss the concert we’d paid for. But we got there just in time to take a cab to the hotel and walk to the concert and not miss any of it. A dazzling Greek violinist and a respectable Greek pianist played Mozart (required in Salzburg), Beethoven, Franck, and Ravel. They all sounded as you would expect (you can tell it’s Beethoven if it would fit in A Clockwork Orange), except that the Ravel was Tzigane, a wild violin fantasy nothing like the Ravel I was used to. After the show, we had excellent food off a late-night pub menu at Zum fidelin Affen.

Tuesday, we walked around in the church downtown, and decided to get a 24-hour Salzburg Card, which unlike other cities’ cards offering discounts, provided “free” admission to all the major attractions. We worked hard and got our money’s worth. The Salzburg Museum had an exhibit of Lois Renner, a photographer who builds sets not unlike David LaChapelle, but without beautiful or famous people. The ad for it featured The Barberini Faun sitting at a weight machine. The museum also had extensive exhibits about the history of the city. The adjacent Panorama Museum has a cylindrical mural of the town. The Mozart Birthplace had a tour examining Mozart’s entire life. History has recorded every night of his life, where he slept. Even though there were relatively few such nights, it’s still an OC achievement.

By then everything was closing, so before dark we went to the Mirabell Gardens and hunted down a collection of dwarf statues we’d seen a picture of, and had well-recommended Korean food at the nearby Hibiskus, followed by a dessert which was not a Torte at the Sacher Hotel. (It was a Savarin and it was fine. Everybody else in the lobby where we ate was standing up wearing suits and drinking champagne and getting canapés off of platters passed around. It is a measure of the good manners of the staff of the Sacher Hotel, that they made no effort to get rid of us.)

Wednesday we completed the 24 hours of our card with a visit to The Fortress, ascending on its funicular. The funicular has been around for hundreds of years, powered originally by a horse powered mill-like wheel. It was your basic castle tour, including a small military museum. We walked back into town and saw a small art museum featuring William Kentridge, a South African artist who we’d seen works of at SFMoMA. He’d been in town designing the sets for a production of the opera Wozzeck.

The card timed out, and we stopped at a cemetery behind the church of St. Sebastian with elaborate mausolea on our way to retrieve our luggage and proceed to Munich. Paracelsus is buried there.

Views of Budapest

I found Ray at the train station in Budapest on Friday afternoon.  I had arrived by plane a few hours before.

That night, at the suggestion of Stef in Romania, we went to a fancy restaurant called Gundel.  It was a grand room with oil paintings on the walls, a small band with a cimbalom (a Hungarian hammered dulcimer) and a roving violinist, and a menu with high prices.  We had a tasting of soups, smoked goose liver, a fish starter, and a plate of duck.  The food was fine but the whole thing was a bit kitsch.

Saturday we went to the Hospital In The Rock.  Limestone caves were plentiful in the bluffs overlooking the Danube, and as WWII neared, they built a then-modern hospital in the caves.  Now it’s a museum with wax figures sitting in for doctors and patients.    It is unusual for a military museum to feature so heavily the effects of war on people.  The antique medical devices are modeled on over 200 wax moulages representing battles from the siege in 1944 to the latest incarnation as a fallout shelter.  The air and water machines still work, as if it could be called back into service at any moment.

After catching a good view of the city from The Fisherman’s Bastion nearby, we walked down to the river and across.  There were three huge river cruise ships anchored side by side, which looked like a big hotel.  You really can sail from Amsterdam to the Black Sea via the canal connecting the Main to the Danube.  Further up the river was Shoes on the Danube, an installation of bronze shoes to commemorate people killed by the fascist Arrow Cross party in 1944-1945.  They were instructed to step out of their shoes before being shot into the river.  The ideology of the Arrow Cross is resurfacing in modern Hungarian politics, and everywhere.

We determined that we couldn’t get in to see the beautiful Parliament building, and found Kispiac, a delicious bistro across the street from the US embassy.

On Sunday, we walked back across the river, and up to the Citadella, which has perhaps the best view of the city.  A shell game was going on, and they weren’t fond of Ray recording it on his phone.  From there we visited a Church In The Rock, and the Gellert thermal baths which go up to 40 degrees C, the same 104 degrees our hot tub is at when it works.  Next time we go we’ll take sandals and towels.

A girl came into the boys’ locker room with her male friend, at the baths.  She was standing right next to us as we got dressed, and I didn’t notice that this was odd for three or four minutes, and neither did anybody else, apparently. They got dressed and undressed.  Her boyfriend wrapped a towel around his waist before pulling off his pants.  What a wasted opportunity.  It was another three or four minutes before a locker room guard showed up and said it was the boys’ locker room and she wasn’t supposed to be there.  But nobody shot her out of her shoes.  The guard sounded more perfunctory than concerned.  Arrow Cross is not the only tendency in modern Hungary.

Maybe her boyfriend was embarrassed at his endowment in one way or another.  If you look at the Penis Map of the World, Hungarians have penises that are a full self reported three centimeters longer than their neighbors the Romanians.  This is a complete crock.  A huge chunk of Romania was Hungary until quite recently, and they have been living so close together for so long that it’s impossible to believe that there are statistically significant differences in any quality but braggadocio.

From the bath we went to the Ludwig museum, which had a big Fluxus exhibit, and then back close to the hotel for dinner at Krak’n Town, a “steampunk brewery”.  It was listed as a British place, and indeed served deer pie and British-style sausages that taste a bit grainy.  Their beer was good and their decor was great.

Meanwhile, in Romania…

Friday, I flew to Romania.  Well, not quite.

You would think by now, I know how to schedule connections — loosely — but somehow I talked myself into allowing only an hour and five minutes to go from the Air Berlin flight to Vienna, to an Austrian Air flight to Bucharest.  The Air Berlin flight was on time, and I would have made it, except that in Berlin, the check-in lady said that my 11-kilo carry-on luggage was too far over the limit of 8 kilos, and would have to be checked.  I never understand what they are driving at.  Does luggage in the hold have less mass than luggage in the overhead rack, and thereby lower the takeoff weight?  I should have argued, should have put everything that would fit into my vest pockets (I have done this before on British Midlands) because things carried on your person count no more than atmospheric helium.  But I was being naive and not considering that an hour later, when I got to the end of the flight, it would be half again as long before my suitcase trundled around on the carousel, and by that time, boarding to the flight to Romania had closed.

I lingered in the airport a while, texting with Dave and talking to various Austrian Airlines and Tourist people.  They would not give me credit for the flight not taken, and they wouldn’t give any discounts on the remaining flights that day.  Proceeding to Bucharest any time before Saturday afternoon would have been around 350 Euros, but going on Saturday night about half that, and Dave found a hotel for 51 euros, so the cheapest recovery was to spend the night in Vienna and go to the Natural History Museum in the morning and everything in Romania gets pushed a day into the future.  Two days, since my friend in Budapest insists I stay with his family two nights because he is planning a barbecue and inviting his parents.

So I chose Vienna.  The only other good thing about the airport was a little baby who was full-on break-dancing.  Shoulder spinning and all that.  I mean baby, too, when he was done, he crawled back to his mama on hands and knees.  He was white, if that’s part of the story.

I took the OBB to the “Urban Resort”.  That hotel is a ways from downtown, near the Palace of Schönbrunn, but easily reachable using the same train ticket on the tram that takes you on the airport train to Vienna Mitte.  It’s also a block from a perfect little homely restaurant where the menu is written by hand and translated by the waitress because you probably couldn’t read her handwriting anyway.  I had schnitzel soup, which is like wonton soup except you started with a long wonton and then sliced it.  Some reviewers call it Duke’s Inn and some call it Herzog’s Wirtshaus but it has a good reputation.  Most of the customers seemed to be from the neighborhood.

In the morning I went to visit the Venus of Willendorf.  She lives in a darkened, downlit, room with a couple of other paleolithic period pieces.  The room is in the center of one of the world’s great natural history museums.  You need days to even glance into all the rooms, but I only had a few hours.  The ground floor is a massive collection of rocks, displayed mostly on rows on shelves but a few of the major ones free standing or in glass cases on the walls.  I like the videos of the breakup of Gondwanaland and Laurasia, and the continents that preceded them and followed them.  It’s hard to imagine the amount of data that has been gathered over the centuries, to deduce this comprehensible model, sorting out “the leaves of a library that has been repeatedly looted and burnt,” as H.G. Wells put it.

The dinosaurs in the dinosaur room are now animatronic.  The Venus of Willendorf has a pixellated head, in the modern style.  Nobody cares about genitals any more but they do pay obeisance to an antique vision of privacy, violated from every angle a thousand times a minute.  The moderns would also think she could stand to lose some weight, but such voluptuousness was quite a luxury where she was brought up.

The interpretations of ancient artifacts always educates you as to your own times.  When I was visiting Natural History Museums as a child, the collections of broken tools that seem to gather around sites of human habitation (such as your garage) were described as being, of course, gifts to the gods; today they are known to be storage areas for recycling.

Nobody in museums says the obvious about the function of human images such as Venus, even though the art world is starting to cotton to it.  We had seen a big room of teenage drawings of Evgenij Kozlov, in the Venezia Biennale of 2013, which were all of naked women doing things to him and he was pretty frank, in the museum cards, about what he used the drawing process for.

Or maybe Venus has a knit cap that she has pulled down over her head for a bank job.  In some Mad Max future that explanation will make the most sense.  Anyway, I went back to the airport and got on a TAROM plane to Bucharest.

My friend Bogdan was at the airport.  Also at the airport, was a white van that said, “Nanoindentation scratch and tribology testers”. (That’s English, I think.)

Dave and I had met Bogdan during the series of turn-of-the-century parties that Justin and Spitkiss organized.  He was one of the first to give up on the American Empire as being no place to build a future.  Eventually, they almost all left, to Germany, Colombia, Romania…even Justin has permanent residency in Sweden now, though his stuff is at our house.  This is what the Americans wanted, right?  Doctors, lawyers, engineers, all working for other people?

There is a cadre of people you really owe something to.  Family, and a few people you have decided are like family.  And just beyond that curtilage lie all these people who are really interesting, but you are not able to do a lot of good for them in life, beyond wish them the best, and keep in touch so that they can tell you of their accomplishments, and those of their kids, and dogs, and the autonomous procedures they have specified so that they may write themselves.

Such is my regard for the people I met fifteen years ago at Justin’s parties at our house, who have scattered to Romania, Germany, Colombia…I always feel a bit like a fifth wheel when I visit but they are so entertaining.

Bogdan and I talked until about two in the morning and then continued on Sunday.  His parents came for the barbecue on Sunday afternoon.  We didn’t talk so late on Sunday night because he and Lumi have work in the morning. But they need to get used to irregular sleep hours, because a baby will join their household shortly.

On Monday morning, as I was preparing to go to Gara de Nord for a train to Iasi, a deus ex machina descended in the form of a WhatsApp conversation that revealed that Stef was in Bucharest and heading home to Iasi that minute. So instead of going to the train station, I took a taxi to the parking lot of the Metro Voluntari station and got in Stef’s car and he drove 6 hours to Iasi, and we talked the whole way.

I can’t possibly reproduce these conversations.  If there is anything we said that needs to be made public, they will post them on their facebook pages.  I know it is the fashion to rate your friends as if they were restaurants and describe them to the public, but we are not that far from the era of death squads and I’m not sure I want to give Richard Spencer or the Iron Guards any easy information.

Iasi is in the grip of a baby boom.  Everybody that grew up together there — Andrei, Radu, Butza, Stef — is about to become a dad.  They don’t go out to clubs as a way of entertaining now, since their wives aren’t drinking, and in the case of Andrei, there is already a tiny feisty baby in the house to be more entertaining than anything that happens in college town brew pubs.  I stayed in Iasi until Thursday night.  The downside of this uplifting visit, is that I didn’t get to see my friends in Craiova.  Next time.  Having lost two days already — one in Vienna, and the plan to stay one night at Bogdan’s was dumb to begin with — I see these guys once every two years at most, really it should be more than brunch.

Nothing terribly eventful happened.  Iasi is the Real Romania.  I tagged along to a car dealership where Stef had something done to his car.  It was flashy.  There is a restaurant upstairs.  We went to see the house he is having built in a new suburb.  Everything is brick.  No earthquakes there.  We spent an hour at a tax office where Roxana had to file a form stating that she wasn’t a bad person.  One day we had Papanaci at Restaurant Oscar for dessert. Never order that with less than three people.  It’s like a gulab jamun without kewra syrup but replaced with one cowful of cream and a bale of sugar just because.

Stef got approached by a policeman in a park one afternoon, who explained that even though they knew that all the No Dogs Allowed signs were gone from the park, he was still supposed to know not to take his dog there.  There’s a reason why the best cynical authors hail from Eastern Europe.

I wrote some post cards.  Fanel took me around town one afternoon, including a market underneath a bridge where grape growers were selling large numbers of grapes to home wine makers.  It is still the case that most of the wine I drink in Romania comes from two liter coke bottles, although Bogdan did buy some bottles at a shop, before the barbecue.  He and his parents aren’t pregnant, after all.  All shopping trips in Romania are conducted the way civilized people shop: one store, one product.  Supermarkets are barbarian.  My favorite store in Bucharest was the bakery.  No name, a line out the door.  Fantastic breads.  I got a pretzel for a leu, about a quarter, US.  I had been feeling like a pretzel since the airport in Vienna, except I could not justify paying 3 euros 50 for it.  I have ongoing discussions about this with people who think I should be rich enough to not worry about paying 4 dollars US for a pretzel.  I don’t see it this way.  Selling food for that much money is a sin, and using your wealth to participate in sin is like buying an indulgence.  It was 500 years ago this Halloween, that it was most forcefully pointed out, how wrong this is.

Thursday night, I got on a train to Budapest.  Everyone is helpful in these projects.  It was uneventful, unlike some of the other travel connections this trip.  The train change in Deva, a small Transylvanian town, was gray.  Much time to look at concrete disintegrate.

Just Another Work Week in Kiev

Sunday I flew to Kiev.  The last time I’d stayed at the Holiday Inn, a thoroughly American Tourister experience.  This time I stayed at Hotel Greguar (connected to the patisserie Gregoire), a Ukranian apartment-hotel.  There was only one elevator and most of the time I found myself walking up five flights of stairs, but the room was huge and had a washing machine!  Sunday night I had dinner with Yuriy and his wife Sasha.  He’s a superstar developer no longer working on Avid stuff, but it was delightful to see him and hear his observations on Ukraine and Agile.

Monday thru Thursday I went in to the office, and worked in a three-person cubicle at the desk of an engineer on vacation.  Developers there come in late and leave late, which facilitates communication with California at the end of the day.  I met lots of people I’d only ever known through email and Skype, and had fun as well as getting quite a bit done.

The street the hotel was on had several restaurants.  I went to a Georgian one (Khachapuri and Wine), two Ukranian ones (Compote and Petrus), and a salad place.  But the most interesting was a little bar called Taranka, which serves dried fish and Ukranian craft beer, which go together very well.

Friday I flew to Budapest, dropped the stuff at the hotel, and walked to the train station to meet Ray, arriving from Romania (and an unplanned stop in Vienna.)

Just Another Work Week in Berlin

It was difficult to find where to return the rental car at the Hauptbahnhof, but we finally did (note to travelers: Google Maps doesn’t work underground). Our friend Philipp was going to pick us up, but a marathon had traffic all jammed up and we ended up taking the train to Potsdam to hang out with him for the weekend. We did some important shopping (replacement noise-cancelling headphones and a power adapter), then had a nice dinner at Zwei Hundert Eins.

Sunday, after Philipp voted in another sad election, we went to Teufelsberg, an abandoned CIA station from the Cold War. Now it is a street art gallery with tons of murals and ever-changing installations on the floors of the tower. One tour guide had worked there as a young spy in the 70s, the other, Deirdre, was an artist setting up a project there, so they each had quite a bit of non-overlapping information. The buildings are mostly trashed and empty. One has the ruins of a massive paper shredder which output finely divided gruel to be formed into bricks, dried, burned, and the ashes dissolved. They took their bureaucracy seriously back then. The rest are concrete rooms that have been drawn on. In the highest tower, the graffiti is so intense that pieces don’t usually last more than a week, Deirdre said.

I had always wondered about the spherical antennas you see from time to time: they are actually enclosures to hide the real antennas. They also have amazing acoustics, and Deirdre can really sing. She also knew the Temescal Brewery, in Oakland. Small first world.

After walking down from the mountain and driving back to Potsdam, we stopped for a döner as a snack, which turned out to be dinner, it was so big. Then we took an evening walk around the lake near Philipp’s house. It has pretty buildings and views and is a part of the World Heritage Site that encompasses Sans Souci.

Monday we all got up early. Philipp drove us to our artist friend Thomas’s house in Berlin, on his way to pick up his girlfriend Betty from the airport after her long trip to South America. We didn’t see Philipp again after that! Thomas’s house still seemed to have most of the wedding setup, though the glasses and wine bottles had been cleared away. I set up my computer in his office, and started working. The week was pretty businesslike, though there were dinners, a visit to the new Urban Museum (art by street artists which wasn’t really street art), a concert at Berghain (Forest Swords). Dinners were mostly Greatest Hits: Schwarzwaldstuben (the Bavarian restaurant in Mitte at which Thomas is a regular), the delicious bistro Parkstern near his house, and another visit to Mädchen Ohne Abitur with Lindsay and Kevin and Bibo.

Berghain is a piece of work. This reworked transformer station is normally a Velvet Rope establishment, where one is admitted or not based on whether the bouncer thinks he wants to see you naked, and how much New Money you have spent not being naked. On nights when it has been rented for a concert, and admission is open to all paying customers, the bouncers feel resentful, the way Orval Faubus felt when he had to integrate Arkansas’s schools. The security man who harassed me was of the Hard Ass With A Pony Tail variety. When I went in, he recited to me what was forbidden and I said, “‘Nall Right,” in what I thought was a very friendly manner, and he didn’t understand that dialect of English and thought I was threatening him. Note to self: no more dialect. I’m realizing now that I don’t even know what dialect that is. My mother said it, I say it. She’s from Minnesota.

“Forest Swords” was advertised as electronic. They meant, electronically amplified. The sound is better than that at the Fillmore West fifty years ago, barely. Concrete power plants have high school gym acoustics. The light show was primitive. They haven’t even enough respect to project it upon a screen. The projector (which Lindsay said was new) is aimed at a big metal stairwell back of the stage. The stairwell ends at a door about three meters up, which is painted to look like a speaker. But you’re looking at a stairwell illuminated by a movie, and basically you can’t see the images that the light show jockeys worked so hard downloading.

The fact that the effect of a discotheque hasn’t changed in fifty years makes one wonder if humans don’t actually like that sort of thing.

Berghain’s real life is as a sex club. There is a big statue in the entry way of a guy with a funnel and a tube in his mouth. Lindsay says the rest rooms have been designed with this in mind. There are odd ice sculptures of orgies under the glass topped bar, except the bartender told Dave they were made of sugar. You could look on the Internet. That’s where you usually find photos of things you aren’t allowed to photograph.

Kevin told a story of his friend in the back room on the evenings when Berghain is a back room bar: They take all your clothes and write a number one you. Kevin’s friend told him: “As a Jew in Germany I felt very uncomfortable having all my clothes taken from me and a number written on my arm.”

Just so. At the Forest Swords concert, there wasn’t anyone in the audience who wouldn’t fit in at an AfD rally. How does that enforce itself? The people here aren’t overtly racist, if you were to ask them. But they are 110% white like me. Seriously: how does the color of your skin influence what kind of music you want to listen to?

Anyway we left before midnight and got back to Thomas’s about 1:15. It had been raining lightly from Alexanderplatz north. Opening a stuck door in the rain = apprehensive. Fortunately the other key on the ring was for Bibo’s house next door.

Another thing Kevin said: “You can learn anything in Berlin except German.” I read in the Guardian that 38% of the people in Europe speak English. Obviously in Berlin, much higher. If you speak to them in anything but English, you are insulting their English. Just don’t say ‘Nall right.”

“Mädchen Ohne Abintur” is still brilliant.

Friday Ray flew to Romania. I went with Bibo to a friend’s art opening on Friday, and on Saturday borrowed her bike and went on a ride through the countryside. Google Maps was inclined to choose excessively challenging trails to ride on, and sometimes I had to disobey it.  At one point I was looking around in a large forest park for a tree to hide behind and pee.  It was a challenge because the forest was full of people looking for mushrooms on the weekend.  The bike seat could have been a bit higher, so my thighs were glad I could take the bike on the train back to Berlin. I joined Lindsay and Kevin and Sebastian for a snack followed by some great craft cocktails.

The Red Dotted Line

The fastest way to drive from Kutna Hora to Szczecin was to go back the way we came, to drive on the freeway through Dresden to Berlin and then Northeast to Pomerania. But we’d already been there, and besides, East German autobahns are not magic little slices of hyperspace, at least not this month. We decided to drive north along the Neisse and Oder rivers and the westernmost parts of Poland. It looked like there might be some parts that were freeway, and there were, but only parts. We drove through some towns with major industries and some towns with crooked roads.

The Polish highway people are building freeway overpasses using culvert technology. They lay down half pipes and cover them with dirt and put the road on top of the dirt. I suppose this must be cheaper.

We stopped long only once, for lunch, at a place that had a slight web presence in the way of reviews. Dave used Google Translate on the menu. It worked out fairly well. Duck breast, and goulash soup. The duck breast had likely been frozen, which is not a bad move with duck, as it can be stringy.

When we got to Szczecin, we checked in to the Ibis Centrum and went out to find dinner. The tourist industry in Szczecin has performed an interesting bit of ostension: they have taken the colored lines which have occurred in tourist guidebooks since Mathew of Paris invented the AAA TripTik, and painted them onto the ground. If you have your tourist map in hand, you will shortly pick up a red dotted line on the sidewalk, which goes to all the places the paper goes, and the same numbers appear on paper and in life, along with explanations in key languages on little signs, illustrating fragments of the city wall and the old post office building and the castle etc.

We went to the castle and found a fancy restaurant, Na Kuncu Korytarza, of the Celebrity Graffiti tendency. Write on the walls and we won’t erase it if it’s clever or you’re famous. Being close to the Baltic, we felt justified in ordering fish: pike soup and pickled herring. Also fresh squeezed orange juice, since we hadn’t found any yet that day. Not in the same dish. They also had kasha in pirogi which seems redundantly starchy but it’s tasty.

Afterwards, we continued on the red dotted line down the waterfront past handsomely reconstructed and dramatically uplit government buildings, through a square commemorating the city’s part in the Solidarnosc revolt. It is in the form of a skate park, or that’s its current nighttime use. In America, Solidarity would be a distant memory by now, fit for epithets such as “That’s so ” or “You’re history.” In some historical times, being history was a goal, not an insult. I think around here they keep memories alive, for use in the manufacture of future wars.

Nearby was a monument on the tourist map honoring one of Poland’s great national poets, Adam Mickiewicz. The accompanying description says that in 1821 he wrote a poem called “Four Toasts Raised by a Certain Chemist in Honour of the Radiant Creatures” or “Viva electricity!” for short. This poem long antedates Faraday’s apocryphal comment to Gladstone about the utility of a newborn baby. It marks Mickiewicz as considerably prescient. The radiant creatures are specifically light, heat, magnetism, and electricity, whose precise relation would not be delineated by Maxwell for nearly a half century. Writers are not often impressed by the right things. Vonnegut once said (archly, mocking the voice of the critics) that you couldn’t be a writer and understand how a refrigerator works.

For the next three days, Wednesday-Friday, Dave worked and Ray wandered about the city. Each day began at Coffee Point for coffee, tea, orange juice, and whatever little pastry was on offer. It was never a wide selection. Then, we could experience traditional Polish culture as practiced by the students at the art college across the street. The first day there was a boy with four girls and he wasn’t flirting with any of them. If I need to learn Polish gaydar, I will start with him.

(Polish people don’t seem ludicrously gendered, regardless of how obsessive their political leaders are. The oldest written sentence in Polish is, “Day, ut ia pobrusa, a ti poziwai,” which means, “Come, let me grind, and you take a rest.” It sounds like a farmer offering to help his wife in the kitchen, which by the standards of 1270, verges on trans.)

Wednesday, I followed the rest of the red dotted line. We both ended the day by meeting in a beer hall underneath the old City Hall, which is now a museum. Wonderful brick pillars and arches, wonderful unfiltered wheat beer which came by its slight banana overtones honestly, from yeast, rather than cleverly marketed fingernail polish remover as in the more modern brew-and-adulterant pubs of the Bay Area. Not that there is anything more wrong with chemistry than with any of the radiant creatures.

On Thursday, I decided to see if there were old post cards to be had in the antique shops of the town. There weren’t. Looking in junk shops, you become aware of how thoroughly the German history of the town has been erased. There isn’t even any German junk. One tiny metal swastika. Although founded by Slavs and forcibly converted to the Church of Rome by Poles in 1124, the town of Stettin was part of the Holy Roman Empire from 1181 on, and majority German by the time it joined the Hanseatic League in 1278, even when the Swedes governed at the time of the 30 Years’ War. This all changed after World War II. Poland was picked up and moved West. The Germans became refugees in the DDR and Poles from the territories seized by Russia populated Szczecin and rebuilt it Polish. The buildings in the old town are in the old style and in the new parts, Communist blocks, and in the newest areas, Capitalist blocks.

Thursday night, Dave’s coworkers Alicja and Todd had dinner with us.

Friday, I visited the cemetery. Surely you would find Germans there. Not many. It’s a giant graveyard; perhaps I was in the wrong place. Both days were accomplished with walking, for the most part:

The thing about Poland is not their zany “l” with a line through it. The thing about Poland is, HOW DO YOU TELL IF A DRIVER IS GOING TO STOP FOR YOU? About 85% of the drivers here in Szczecin follow California rules — if a pedestrian is detectable on the same block, they recoil like a slapped mutt. Even 95%. But 5% is too great a risk to take, walking in front of a car whose driver thinks no more of your presence than that of a wafting leaf. All the old ladies with their Wyzinski’s Meat Market bags know instinctively which kind of driver is the next car up, just as Parisians can sense dog shit beneath their feet while fiddling with Gauloises, iPhones, or each other. Dave and I have been honked at a couple of times. The only safe thing I can figure, is always to tailgate a local across the street.

As in Germany, I don’t see a lot of crossing on a red light at crosswalks, despite the indefensible practice of having staggered green lights when a street is divided by a trolley island, which is all the streets that you would be concerned about. Red light, Green light. Why is that such a complicated bit of traffic theory?

Friday night, big dinner with the whole Avid Szczecin crew. They speak English a lot, as there are a Turk and Italian on the team. How odd to think that someone sitting across from me at the table, and who works for an American company, could not legally enter America just now. I haven’t read the news this morning. Maybe Trump and Erdogan have patched up their differences.

There weren’t any reservations made, which meant we had outside seating in the brisk winds of early autumn at the same beer hall we had eaten two days ago. Later on, we moved to another place where an indoor table for 12 or 14 could be assembled.

On Saturday, we went back to Coffee Point for the last time and finally ordered an Amerykaner cookie. They aren’t very good. Wikipedia says they are based on a Black and White cookie, of some age. We then drove to Berlin, a drive similar to going from Sacramento to SF.