Thursday, October 24, 2013

Becoming a Minion

I realize today that I almost don't care what season it is, I just like the transformations. Summer, I am sure, really is my favorite season, but I enjoy so much this transformation into autumn and winter (they're kind of the same thing, here in Los Angeles). Maybe this past summer truly was too hot; certainly in Italy during Europe's heatwave it was unbearably hot (a co-worker of mine even complained that London was too hot this summer, so you know that heatwave was intense!). The heat in Italy would suck all the energy out of my body to the point where I could hardly even move by mid or late afternoon. To me the best example of that was what I am going to describe.

I was in the Vatican Museums, and that means that I was actually in the Vatican itself, and naturally one of the things I wanted to see in the Vatican was St. Peter's Square and the Basilica (those are like the main things to see there). I was even wearing long pants (in all that heat), because the Vatican will not allow you inside the Basilica wearing shorts. So I was certainly prepared, and suffering in that preparation for a visit to the Basilica.

I was in the Vatican Museums, because I was following the very accurate advice that if you want to get inside the museums without having to stand in a line outside for three hours in Saudi Arabian heat without one postage stamp of shade, you need to reserve your ticket in advance. So I figured I would see the Vatican Museums first, and then go the Saint Peter's afterwards.

"They say" that to follow the full Vatican Museums route is to end up walking five miles. They also have an abbreviated route that one can choose to follow, instead, that takes visitors to all the highlights. But I figured that since I was there, for heaven's sake, I would take the full route. And yes, I am glad I did. I think in what appears to be typical fashion for me, I end up enjoying something peculiar and off the beaten track, while the normal "highlights" can bore me.

I believe that there are some women at work who now subtly hate me, or at least have serious doubts about my standing as a human being, because I told them that seeing the Michelangelo statue of "David" in Florence was a "meh" experience for me. Well, that surprised me, too! After all, I had put Florence on my itinerary just to go see the statue of David. So I certainly expected to be bowled over by it. But honestly, I saw it at the end of the hall (surrounded by several thousand visitors) and I really just kind of shrugged my shoulders. I'm not sure why, but I think it is because I have already seen a picture of that statue ten thousand times, not to mention hundreds of reproductions everywhere. Really, seeing it in person was no big deal. It really felt no different than if I had seen a copy of it at the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas (maybe I have seen that there, I don't remember). But yeah, there it was, pretty huge, and pretty solid marble, but it was still kind of a "so what". Okay, so I'm a Philistine (or some other kind of awful person).

There were some observations that I had upon looking at the statue of David, though, which I will share here.

People say that the statue is distorted, that David has a bigger head than he should have for the size of his body, and bigger hands, because Michelangelo was making a "statement", such as "the power of human intellect had now overtaken a simple faith in God," or something about "mankind's ability to remake the world" or whatever. And, yes, if you look at s straight-on photograph of the statue, you would think that the head was too large, and so on. But standing on the ground looking twenty feet up (or however tall that statue is) at his head, all the sizes are perfect. So I don't think Michelangelo had David's head "too big" to make a statement about human intellect, I think Michelangelo was an artist who understood visual perspective and ingeniously altered the more distant body part dimensions so that they looked perfect from where the viewer was standing.

This, by the way, was also helpful for the size of David's penis, that has long been considered shockingly small by people merely looking at a photo of the statue in an encyclopedia. But in person, that penis is closer to the eye than David's head (which had to be enlarged so that it would appear to be the right size when you see it from down below) and it is not a proportionally-too-small-penis at all, but one rather respectable for David, the Giant-killer.

Also, as long we are looking at that area (and who there isn't), I can't say that I am a huge fan of foreskins--sorry to all those people crying about how they were maimed when they were helpless little babies (although I thoroughly disagree with the concept of performing a circumcision without anesthetic, that's truly abusive) and now seek out surgery to make them "intact" again (isn't there something a whole lot more significant in life to worry about at this point than something like that?), so to my (Philistine) eye, a penis with a foreskin looks like the penis of an animal.

But Michelangelo, that artist! He made David's foreskin look like something truly lovely, like it was soft and sensitive and as pliable as a lily's petal, all wrinkled and kind of shy while at the same time manly and eager to please, how on earth did he do that by carving such delicateness out of marble! Now that amazed me, I will admit, and was actually well-worth seeing from an "art and skill appreciating" perspective. So I think if Michelangelo was making a statement about mankind with that statue, he was making it with that foreskin.

Or, even better than the foreskin, David's balls! Now, despite Michelangelo's skill with David's foreskin, I who was circumcised do not feel cheated, but I do feel cheated that I don't have those David balls. Those were like horse balls, or shotput balls; you could go bowling with those balls. They were as large as goose eggs and seemed to made of iron or steel. They seemed to be slung like pendulums swinging; I would almost go so far as to say that the slingshot-slung projectiles that killed Goliath were David's balls and all David had to do was stand there naked brandishing them and Goliath was a goner. That's how God helped David kill...he just gave him the best set of balls a man had ever had so that the lesser man simply gave up and said, "Okay, I give up, you, and all the people who come after you, win."

Okay, so maybe it looks like I got more out of seeing the statue of David than I was willing to admit, but my reaction wasn't like those two women at work, one of whom said the minute she saw David, she burst into tears, and the other one said that she thought the statue of David was the single most beautiful thing she had ever seen in her entire life and she just couldn't take her eyes off of him. Yeah, yeah, well, okay, it is a statue, don't go all Pygmalion on us or something. And I didn't think that a discussion on foreskin and balls would redeem myself in their eyes, so I just go on and let them hate me.

There were lots of other things in that museum in Florence that entranced me more, and I can say the same thing about the Vatican Museums, as well, where I really didn't have the patience to fully appreciate the Sistine Chapel ceiling (that Michelangelo actually hated painting), the seeing of which is the great climax of five miles of walking throughout museum corridors. And that was the hottest room of all, stuffy and suffocating, and kind of creepy in atmosphere. Filled with people craning their necks looking up at all the paintings (far too many of them, people or paintings), and benches filled with people studying all the details, all in perfect hushed silence, the only noise coming from the several guards that were constantly saying "shhhhhhhh!" If I lived in Rome, I would probably devote some more time to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but somehow in that heat and with my legs tired and by then in agony, it just seemed silly to pretend. I can appreciate the historical value of it, and it was cool to see the actual things that Michelangelo painted or sculpted, and I am sure that there would be legions of things in all those paintings to understand and appreciate, but I just wanted to go back to a cool place and lie down.

When you leave the Vatican Museums, you actually come outside of the wall of the Vatican onto a street in Rome again, and so for me to go to see Saint Peters was a pretty long walk all the way around that wall to the main entrance into the plaza. At that point, that distance seemed immense, and looking at my map, I saw that the walking distance to the entrance to Saint Peter's Square was the same distance as the walk to the subway stop, and I figured I couldn't do both of them, so naturally I chose the walk to the subway and back to my hotel.

So that's my point about how hot it was in Italy...the heat sucks so much energy out of you that while I was actually there at the Vatican, I simply did not have the energy to walk the distance to the entrance to Saint Peter's Square. So I just have to save that for some other time. Probably not for a summer, though.

So, I have been enjoying the simple pleasure of cold air blowing on me, mostly from the sudden change in season, but also when I open a window, or even, like last Monday, feeling the cool air blowing on me while doing leg presses with my personal trainer, the breeze coming from the ceiling fan in his gym.

It's suddenly gotten darker, too, so that I notice it, anyway; it's dark when I get home from work and I find that I am liking that. It makes my apartment feel secure and cozy, which is how it feels when it becomes Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

Halloween is first. At work, the Headmaster and the COFO decide a "costume theme" for the administrative team, the idea of which I partially dislike and partially like. What I dislike about that is that you can't pick the exact costume you might want to wear. But what I like about it is that the entire realm of costume possibilities is narrowed-down for you, so it is easier to choose a costume that fits within that theme. This year, their choice is characters from the movie "Despicable Me", which I never saw but I understand is very cute and all the kids love it. So I guess it's a good choice for a costume theme, except there's not a lot of choices within that theme, which helps if otherwise you had no idea at all. The Headmaster, of course, chose to be Gru, the main character who starts out bad but becomes good. (He jokes that he thinks his job there at the school has made him go in the other direction.) The COFO has chosen to be Dr. Nefario, and their idea is that basically everybody else becomes a Minion. Are they trying to tell us something by that choice in Halloween costume theme? Are we to be reminded that we really are just their minions? Look at the synonyms for the word minion: underling, henchman, flunky, lackey, hanger-on, follower, servant, hireling, vassal, stooge, toady, sycophant, servant, yes-man, suck-up, and boot-licker. Well, as employees, I guess that's all we really are. (I don't think anyone else is thinking of what that word actually means. They seem to think it simply refers to funny little cartoon characters, as if we were to play the part of flying monkeys or something.)

I think, though (upon my reading up on Minions), that we, as employees, actually are pretty much like these characters in a good way. Our working world is quite different from the corporate world; we do have tons of work and we get it done, but in a very fun-loving and full-of-freedom way, so maybe these alter egos really are perfect expressions of us.

To become a Minion can be pretty straight-forward, I think, and at this point I now have almost all of the elements. I bought one of those full head and body-suits in yellow, and bought at a thrift shop some blue overalls. My hiking boots will make some good work shoes, and I have some black gloves. One can download from the Internet Minion eyes to cut out and incorporate into goggles. The trouble for me is that I can't see very well without my glasses, and with the yellow hood over my head, it is even harder to see. I realized today that maybe I could find some safety goggles that would fit over my regular eyeglasses that I could glue the Minion eyeballs in (they have places in the printed eyeballs where you poke holes so that you can see through the eyes).

Studying pictures of the characters, I see that they have a "Gru" company logo emblazoned on the bib of their overalls, and, of course, they all have mouths (with lips, teeth, and a tongue). But my real mouth will be covered by the yellow face hood, so I realized that I will have to make a mouth to put on the outside of the hood, and also outside of the hood is where I will wear my glasses and the goggles. I haven't figured out the hair yet, but I imagine something like nylon bristles cut from a little broom or something.

After work today, I went to a fabric shop to buy some felt squares--black, red, white, and yellow, for cutting out the logo and for cutting out the mouth, the tongue, and the teeth and some needles and thread to sew the pieces together and onto the hood and overalls. There at the fabric shop, I felt like I was "a woman", buying those things.

But directly next door was the Harbor Freight Tool store, so I went in there, now being "a man", to buy safety goggles for making the eyes. It's all for Halloween, but still it was fun seeing that tool store; lots of cool stuff in there. And yes, I liked the fabric shop, too. I can sew. I've made my own clothes sometimes. And I can make things like this:

So I guess it all evens out. Call me a "multi-task-ual".

When I came out of the tool store, the air had gotten chillier (cozier) and there were small leaves and seeds all over my car from the tree I was parked under--it's fall! In my car, I scrolled through the menu on my iPod and happened to land on some Christmas songs. So I listened to Christmas music on the way home, singing along with some of them. A month too early, maybe, but so what.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Crazy, Amazing Travel Machine

I’m always up for a bit of nostalgia, and yesterday was drawn to read an article entitled Eleven Things We No Longer See On Airplanes (which you don't have to click on, I am only providing the link as a courtesy to its author), but it was all about stuff that was either before my time, or I never experienced even if I lived when it was available, so I couldn’t feel emotional about any of it. Most readers of that article who left comments were bemoaning how horrible air travel has become in the modern age, whereas my response would be to write about what I enjoy about air travel.

However, when I began to write this piece and search for illustrating photographs on the Internet, my eyes were opened to the fact that if people are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for first class travel on some airlines, they can have stuff like what this article mentions again, nowadays. So it's all about money now, and I am sure, always has been. That what people actually are bemoaning, if only they could see it, is that the general public is now able to fly when, a generation or two ago, it was only an elite portion of the populace who could afford to do so. And this broadening of the chance to fly most likely includes the majority of those moaning about it. As for me, despite the current availability of a lot of these luxuries, once again, I do expect that I will never experience any of them, even if I actually would want to.

Here's a run-down of those eleven items:

Sleeping Berths:


I had had some vague notion that there were some airlines that offered sleeping berths in some past era, but I hadn't known that they were on a regular airliner and was also available for coach passengers. I think that this happened for a short time on what I admit is a pretty spectacular kind of plane I had never heard of, a Boeing "Stratocruiser", that, according to this website, existed in 1945, which was before I was born. It also wouldn't surprise me if PanAm Clippers also had sleeping births, but I don't know about that.

The Boeing "Stratocruiser" was a double-decker airplane, so built-in was a lot of room for their various features:

What I did know about was how amazingly luxurious the German dirigible, the Hindenberg was, the pictures of the interior of which really surprised me when I think of this as "air travel"! For example, here is a photo of the dining room on the Hindenberg (dining room? not just a tray table that you fold down?):

And here is a passenger lounge:

But one can see that travel on a dirigible was more like being on a cruise ship, not what we normally think of as travel on an airplane. For example, on the Hindenberg, passengers could promenade along large picture windows and even open them to the outer air.

This was in the late 1930s, so, of course, it was way before my time as well. And the tragic, spectacular explosion of the Hindenberg pretty much destroyed the dirigible as a method of passenger air travel. But I think that if something like this existed today, I very well might work hard to save my money to be able to pay for travel on it, at least once.

And of course, instead of sleeping berths, they had tiny private cabins:

This, in a way, reminds me more of train travel, that I have done, including sleeping compartments while traveling the length of Mexico and also traveling in Europe across the countries of Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The only time I ever had a sleeping compartment on a train in the United States was when I was a little boy, the family took a train trip from Asheville, North Carolina to St. Louis, Missouri. The only thing I remember about that trip was the train going on a bridge over the Mississippi River, and some vague memory of a canvas curtain that closed off the sleeping area.

I remember my adult sleeping compartment on a train experiences much better, of course, and it is a wonderful way to travel. But this blog piece is about air travel; nostalgia for trains is a different subject.

But no excuse for sleeping compartments aboard airplanes nostalgia if you have lots of money, since you could have something like this on Singapore Airlines:

If you can't afford an entire sleeping compartment, you nevertheless can have a sleeping berth on Quantas:

Or something a little less luxurious on Thai Airways:

I can't really sleep very well on an airplane, although perhaps if I were in a private compartment or at least a sleeping berth, maybe I could. However, I can sleep at home or at the hotel once I get there, and I am not so blasé about airplane travel that I am happy enough to simply sleep through it. My whole inner clock is kind of messed up, anyway, so it's not like I have some kind of strict schedule that I need to stick to. So I can read, or watch another movie on the "On Demand" entertainment system, or simply relax and listen to my iPod.

Passenger Lounges and Pianos

Those were two separate entries on the Eleven Things article, but I lump them into the same thing--a space on the airplane where passengers just hang around like they are in a cocktail lounge while drinking, conversing, playing video games, or singing along with a piano. Hummm...I don't think travelers these days would really want to do that unless they were traveling with a group of friends. Strangers don't seem to be too happy meeting one another in today's era. What is available today on Air New Zealand for a lot of extra money is this kind of thing:

Instead of singing along with strangers, the modern passenger seems to want to shut himself off from everybody else in a private area with his "On Demand", which provides movies, television shows, and video games. So if we are to have nostalgia, it would be for a certain social attitude among travelers, not the loss of a place to congregate on an airplane.

One of the typical complaints of those who commented in that article had to do with children...they spoke of strangers' children kicking their seat back the whole way across the Atlantic; that somehow the presence of children among the travelers was what made the experience intolerable and therefore these "cocktail lounges" of an earlier area were, in my view, by default an escape from traveling children. Well, maybe so, although I have traveled quite a bit (on vacations, not business travel) and rarely, if ever, have I found children to be a problem. And I have even traveled with sixty-six sixth graders (ah, there's a potential "666" for you!) when I chaperoned school trips, and found them to be more delightful than a lot of the adult travelers.

On my last several vacations, nearby children made the trip even more fun that it might have been. For example, when I flew back from Hawaii, there was a little girl sitting in the seat across the aisle from me. Mostly, she sat there quietly reading books that her mother had thoughtfully brought along for her (I've seen that good parents understand what accoutrements can help their children pass the time). Sometimes she would watch cartoons on the TV, all at her choice and command (she figured out how to master that remote control device pretty quickly!) and would laugh charmingly at all the antics. Other times, she would carefully munch on snacks that her mother furnished her with, not spilling very much and not making a mess. At other times, she and her mother conversed between themselves, taking the opportunity to share quality time with each other. When I finally decided to speak to them a little, I asked if they were going back home from a trip to Hawaii, or taking a trip from Hawaii. The mother said that they were going back home to Los Angeles. So I asked the little girl what she had liked best about Hawaii, and as quick as a wink, she answered with a smile, "Swimming!".

"Oh, of course swimming, I liked that, too!" I answered. "But you swim at home, don't you?"

"Oh yes, but the hotel had a big slide!" was her explanation. I have learned on my various travels that that is a must if you have children with you on a vacation--stay in a hotel with a pool and a good slide. I experienced this with my nephew and niece when we went on a cruise from Los Angeles to Mexico. Even though the swimming pool was full of ice-cold Pacific Ocean water and therefore useless (another reason to prefer swimming in Hawaii, the ocean water is wonderfully warm!), it had a long, convoluted slide that the kids loved and they spent most of their time on that cruise enjoying that slide over and over again.

Also on that trip to Kauai that I was coming back home from, I had taken a Zodiac raft cruise of the Na Pali Coast, which was, for the adults, more of an experience in brutality than it was seeing the beauty of that spectacular cost. It was six hours of intense bounce bounce bounce on the waves and getting the face smashed with splashes of wave water every few seconds, so it was impossible to actually see anything. Just holding on was a constant effort, so by the time the whole excursion was over, I felt that I had been waterskiing the entire distance from Los Angeles to Sacramento up Interstate 5.

The only person on board who was dry, in total comfort, and actually could see everything was a little boy who was given the king seat in the very center at the back of the raft, where he didn't need to hold on, where the ride was smooth, and no water ever splashed him in the face. (The captain of the raft explained that that seat was normally there for an elderly passenger, but since there were no one elderly in this tour group, the little boy could have it.) But this boy kept asking the captain how long we had before the trip was over. Finally in exasperation, the captain asked him why he wanted the trip to be over so fast, wasn't he enjoying the excursion. The boy answered that yes, he was enjoying it, but he was eager to get back to the hotel. "What's back at the hotel that you like so much?" the captain asked. The boy's mother answered, "He's eager to get back to the swimming pool slide. The hotel has a spectacular one."

On my flight to Tokyo, which was an extremely long one, there were several children on board, mostly Japanese, every one of them a delight who were either smiling or else laughing. Even their parents were laughing, with the children; a plane filled with families in which all the parents and children were having a ball being together, what's to complain about?

Last year, flying to Tahiti, sitting next to me on my left was a Frenchman who never once spoke one word to me or even acknowledged my presence in the slightest. Mostly he played some imbecilic road racing video game on his iPad that involved wildly steering his iPad as if it were the steering wheel of a race car. It was an effort to block him out of my awareness, but I managed to do it.

However, across the aisle from me, one row up, was a blonde woman holding a blonde baby boy. Although I never spoke to either of them, I determined that they were Norwegian, based on the near-whiteness of their blond hair and from whatever I could pick up from the Scandinavian-sounding language she used whenever she spoke to either the baby or to her husband to the right of her.

The baby boy simply relaxed quietly in the security of his mother's arms, but whenever he turned his head so that he saw me, he'd give me this huge, glowing smile, which, of course, I would return to him. He was a thousand times more pleasant to have as a neighbor than the man sitting next to me with his iPad video game. The boy had this very cute little plastic giraffe that his mother had pulled out of her purse which he grasped eagerly in his tiny fingers. This particular choice of a favorite or comforting toy amused me and made me like him even more. Every once in a while, he would drop it, as baby's would do, so I, who could easily reach down and pick it up (and it would have been difficult for his mother to), would put it back into his awaiting fingers. Whenever he did that, he would smile even more, which enchanted me so much that, of course, every time he dropped it, I'd pick it back up for him again. Only once or twice did his mother turn to look at me apologetically, but I simply smiled at her and gave an expression that I hoped communicated, "Oh well, what can we do!", and since I obviously didn't seem bothered, she wasn't going to be bothered, either. I am sure that if I got tired of this, I would just stop picking the giraffe up for him. However, as it was, I was so relaxed listening to songs in my iPod and feeling excited anticipation over my upcoming trip to French Polynesia, that playing this game with the baby was part of the pleasure. Ultimately, he fell asleep, dropped the giraffe one more time, and when I picked it back up, his mother took it and stuffed it away back into her purse.

Champagne In Coach:

Well hell, you can have champagne in coach, you just have to pay for it like you pay for wine or beer, or some other alcoholic drink (with the cute little bottles). I don't have to pay double my price of a ticket just to have a few glasses of free champagne. Too much alcohol on a plane makes me feel kind of woozy, anyway, so I'm actually happier with just a soft drink or maybe coffee.

Table-Side Meat Carving:

I guess the idea here is "fine dining". I certainly don't have to have a roving meat-carving station, I don't demand that at a restaurant, so why should I have to have it on airplane? And can you imaging how long the food service would be, then? The worst thing is that airlines discourage you from using the bathroom during food service, since there is no room for both the food cart and passengers trying to squeeze by. So anything that speeds up the food service is fine by me.

Maybe I am too plebeian instead of being a "fine diner", but I honestly don't really get all the people who complain about "airplane food". I guess my feeling is if somebody is going to hand me a tray of food, I'm going to eat it and enjoy it; I not only didn't have to prepare it, myself, I also didn't have to clean up afterwards. And anyway, I haven't seen what is so bad about it. I've enjoyed the airline meals that I have had and am kind of fascinated by all the little trays and compartments and everything is wrapped up and decorated with the airline's logo, and so on. It tastes fine to me.

However, if you want your meal on an airplane to be like eating out at Lawry's Prime Rib (admittedly, a fantastic restaurant), then please take the train or go on a cruise, or fly Qatar Airlines:

Flight Attendants In Hot Pants and Airline Fashion Shows:

These two were separate categories in that article, but they're more or less the same thing--nostalgia for a certain mode of dress among flight attendants. Honestly, I can't really care. They're all just uniforms--do I care how the meter maid who is giving me a parking ticket is dressed (do I even notice)? Should all the fight attendants be hired away from Hooters? And do you really want them taking up time having two or three costume changes mid-flight as apparently they did on one airline that is now no longer in business? (One uniform for the boarding phase, another uniform for the food-serving phase, and yet another uniform for the nighttime restful phase of the flight.) Hell, why not have stripper flights or nudist flights, or instead of putting in a piano bar, why not install some poles for stewardess pole dancing, or maybe some tables and chairs for lap dancing?

Looking at the stewardess uniforms in that Braniff ad, those are all clothes from the sixties. I could have nostalgia for the sixties that such clothing reminds me of. Now, if they only had stewardesses that had costume changes like Jayne Fonda had as the sexy 41st century astronaut super heroine in the movie Barbarella, which was from the same era as that Braniff ad, then I'm there!

Instead of working to beautify the stewardesses, the current version on Virgin Atlantic is providing beauty treatment for the passengers:

Peruvian Art:

I remember Braniff Airlines, they were the ones that had the noticeably bizarrely painted airplanes, as if they had all been designed by Joan Miro. They were kind of cool to see at the airport, but now in an era when you mostly get on board an airplane through a boarding bridge, you don't ever really get to see much of the outside of the plane you are getting into.

I did happen to ride Braniff once, from Los Angeles to the National Airport in Washington, D.C., and it was one of the most comfortable flights I have ever flown on. But that was due to a fortunate accident of the seat I was given. The configuration of that particular Braniff plane was that there was one row of seats at the very back, like you would see on a bus. I had the very middle seat, which meant that there was nothing in front of me but the entire long aisle of the plane. Never before on a plane had I had such legroom! Better than one could ever get in first class! I will never forget that particular flight, but the painting of the airplane had nothing to do with it. They did have cool leather seats, though, so I give (gave) Braniff points for being innovative instead of conforming to the "standard" of other airlines.

I guess if you want an innovatively decorated airplane nowadays, your best bet would be Virgin, who not only has an unusual purply-red interior, their color palette changes slowly with the time of day, from more energetic color to more restful. And this is available regardless of class.

A Window At The End Of Each Row Of Seats:

What they're really talking about here is how airlines have added more rows of seats to their airplane interiors than were originally designed, thus taking in more income per flight but screwing up the "one row, one window at the end of each row" original design. As I don't like being claustrophobically squeezed into a window seat (and especially not now that so many airlines have purchased those tiny short-hop jets for their localized flights, such as Los Angeles to San Francisco, where they're so small inside you feel that you are stepping into an MRI machine instead of an airplane fuselage), I haven't even noticed where the window is. You can't see too much out of them, anyway, except a bank of clouds or occasionally a dark mountain. Maybe coming in for a landing, you get a quick glance of some lights, buildings, and then squeak, you hit the runway. For me, it's the aisle, all the way.

That being said, I do remember quite fondly a day (once in my life) when there really were windows on an airplane that you could enjoy looking out of. It was on a prop plane on a now-defunct airline called Capital Airlines that used to fly around the eastern portion of the United States. I don't know whatever happened to them--that link shows several photos of crashed airplanes, so maybe they had too many airplane crashes.

But you can see in this picture how they had huge, oval windows from which you could enjoy watching in great detail the entire landscape as you flew over:

The very first time I ever went on a airplane flight, I was a junior in high school and the family went on ahead to our home town of Asheville, North Carolina, where we were going to be for our summer trip, but I had to stay behind a few days to finish a chemistry class I was taking in summer school that summer.

I remember as plain as day that the first flight was an American Airlines jet from San Francisco to Atlanta. I know I flew alone, but I have no idea how I got to the airport, or where I was staying just prior to that. Did I stay with the family of some friends during my parent's absence, and did those parents take me to the airport? I really just don't know, but I do know that I was alone on that airplane trip (and feeling very accomplished), that I could do this by myself and find my way to the flight change in Atlanta by myself, as well.

I remember how nice the stewardesses were on the American Airlines flight, and I was young enough to receive "first flight" gifts, such as "Captain's wings" and a beautiful photo of the kind of Boeing plane we were on.

In Atlanta, I had to change to this Capital Airlines prop plane, but that flight was even more fun than the American Airlines jet, because it really "felt" like flying--even the take-off felt different. I noticed that on a jet, the take-off was like being shot like an arrow, moving down the runway until it was all "full speed ahead" when the jet suddenly shot forward, tipped up, and was airborne. The prop plane, on the other hand, kept going faster and faster until suddenly it simply floated up, and then tipped higher to keep on climbing.

But the best part of it was looking out of that huge window where I could see everything. I think I was glued to that window the entire flight from Atlanta to Asheville, and coming into the Asheville area was completely beautiful. Coming in to a landing was more gradual than with the jet, too, so as the plane got lower, I could see more and more detail out of the window, until we got low enough, and especially as we began to circle around the Asheville airport, I could see people and their cars, and even watched a man mowing his lawn. Maybe it was because I was young, maybe because this was my first airplane trip, maybe because I knew it was going to a glorious vacation in a place that I loved, or maybe because I was alone, or maybe it was simply because of those huge windows like I have never had on a flight since, this one flight was the most wonderfully memorable one I have ever taken. All of these factors played a part, I am sure, but I am going to give the nod to the huge windows as being the most important factor of all.

A Seat Assignment In 22I:

Has anyone noticed that seat numbers are missing the letters "I", "O", and maybe also "Q" and "S"? Well, I never have and, more, I don't even really care. The author of that piece blames computers for that, in that there was confusion between "1" and "I", "0" and "O" and "Q", and "5" and "S", so those letters were removed from the "DEC" (Digital Electronic Corporation" alphabet. Well, I can see how those symbols would be confusing (and any change that would prevent my luggage from being lost is a big plus), but I wouldn't blame computers for that, but humans. Computers wouldn't mix any of those up at all, as the ASCII codes for them would be completely unique and not "mix-up-able", unless they are talking about some kind of visual recognition system that I don't know that they have (which, I suppose is possible, and maybe they do).

At any rate, this "change" is nothing to get upset about, unless those letters get removed from our alphabet entirely, but if so that wouldn't be the fault of the airline industry!

In the comment that I left at the end of that article, I mentioned that I had held onto my child-like excitement over airline travel, which I think is a good thing. Travel seems to be very stressful for people, and sometimes has been for me, but when I analyzed it, I realized that the worst stress is based on time. I don't like having to hurry, or to worry about not having enough time, or being late, or missing something. So my solution for that, when it is possible, is to allow myself a lot of time for each step. I am not interested in cutting it close. So, for example, my heart used to sink whenever I would see eternally long TSA lines. So now I allow a whole hour to get through security. I also allow all sorts of other cushions in my journey allowing for heavy traffic or other delays, so while sometime that means that I may end up at my boarding gate two hours ahead of time, that also means that I can relax and simply enjoy every step.

Often when a trip is over, or nearly over, I feel grief over how I had allowed certain stupid anxieties to block the full enjoyment of my trip. I had somehow allowed myself to be knocked out of the smooth flow. Fortunately, since I have become aware of this, I have gotten better, and have been better at letting myself go back to my child self where every detail is fascinating. My view of travel is an enhanced microcosmic view, which means that every detail is worth appreciating, so that the more I notice, the more enjoyment I have. And with travel, there are so many details you can see, so that I am surprised that people aren't fascinated, and thus happy, every second. Instead, they yearn for their established routine, whatever it is. I am not sure where their consciousness is if sleep is their main desired activity. But I have seen that...people who have gone with me on road trips who sleep until we get to some destination, missing everything on the road meanwhile.

Or one time I was on an excursion bus from Belize City to the Xunantunich pyramid complex that was almost on the border with Guatemala. We had a brilliant, highly educated, licensed tourguide who stood up in the front of the bus, facing backwards toward the row of seats and telling us about everything we passed along the way, including the flora and fauna, discussing Belize history and culture, and generally giving us a thorough overview on this country. She was very welcoming to questions, and so every once in a while, I would raise my hand and ask her one, which always led to a thorough answer. No one else seemed to be asking questions, so I kept on asking whenever I had a question (and there would be many), but began to feel a little guilty at, possibly, monopolizing her time. So after a while, I turned around to look back behind me from where I was sitting near the front, to see if I was possibly frustrating some other passengers, and to my shock, what I saw was that every single person on that bus except for me, the tourguide, and the bus driver, was sound asleep! For them, what this excursion was about was simply seeing the pyramid at the end of it, and the whole rest of the six-hour journey (round trip) was just the necessary "travel" to get there, but it, itself, was of no value at all. The actual truth was that most of what I got on that excursion came from the trip itself. Sure, the pyramid and other buildings were great to see, but the understanding of them had come from the tourguide's lecture beforehand. And, of course, now the people began asking their questions, very stupid ones, because whatever they asked about had already been discussed by the tourguide during the bus ride. I wondered what it must be like for her to be imparting all this knowledge to a bus full of sleeping people? Maybe I was a bother to her, for if I hadn't been there, she could have simply turned around, sat on the seat, and conversed with the bus driver; she wouldn't have had to work.

Actually, I am sure she enjoyed having someone who was interested in what she had to talk about.

Three random interesting things I saw on that bus ride: One was that every village we came to, children, chickens, dogs, people, bicyclists, elderly people, everything, might be out on the road, but the bus driver never honked his horn or slowed down from his rather fast speed. He simply plowed on ahead at full speed, to the extent that I was sure he was going to run someone down, but no, everybody simply got out of the way similar to how you may find crows pecking at a road kill and simply moving out of the way when cars come by. Second was I saw a full Amish man with a horse and buggy, with the Amish clothes, hat, and beard...the whole Amish regalia! I was like, whoa, and this, of course, was one of the questions I asked the tourguide. "You have Amish here?" She answered that yes, they did. That when the old-order Amish left Switzerland (this is why they speak German, by the way) in order to escape being burned at the stake because of their belief that they should not baptize children, but give them a choice to be baptized when they were old enough to understand what they were doing, they sought religious freedom in various places in the "New World"; America was just one of them, and here we had just seen how Belize was another one. Just this one sight alone broadened my worldview in a significant way. (It wasn't all America that was the haven for freedom.)

The third thing I saw...I said to her that I had heard that scientists in Belize were studying unique species in Belize's rainforest in search for a substance that may cure cancer. Did she know if they were having any progress with that. She answered that there was one particular plant that was very hopeful. "Here, I'll show it to you as we drive by," she said, and explained that it had a leaf with five "fingers" that looked like a hand. "There are several of them, now," she pointed out to me, and sure enough, there were several plants that looked like hands waving at us as we sped by. So I got to see a possible cure for cancer on that trip, while everyone else snored.

To show how stupid those fellow tourists were, at lunch I sat with a young man and a young woman who were from somewhere in Southern California, who wouldn't eat any of the food we were served. As I tucked into it, I was telling them how delicious it was. They said, "Oh, we won't eat that."

"Why not?" I asked

"It looks terrible; it doesn't look like Mexican food, to us."

"It's not Mexican food," I said.

"Well, it should be," they explained.

"Why should it look like Mexican food?" I asked. "We're not in Mexico, we're in Belize. It is Belizian food."

"Mexico, Belize, it's all the same," they said. "South of the border stuff."

People like that really need to just stay home.

But people who have to have "meat carving service" on an airplane are pretty much in that same category, in my view. "But you are on an airplane," I might argue.

Oh, another quick story about completely delicious food that some tourists will refuse to eat. I was on the magnificent two day Los Mochis to Chihuahua Copper Canyon Railroad trip, which takes you up into the Sierra Madre mountains where at the time, the only way in there was the train, or else on horseback. The Copper Canyon is nine times larger than the Grand Canyon, and except for Mexicans living in some of the little villages and towns along the way, such as Creel, where you stop for the night, the only inhabitants in that whole wild region are the Tarahumara Indians, who of all the indigenous people in North and Central America, are the least touched by the white man.

Nowadays, the Mexican government is starting to build roads up in there, but it is too dangerous to go on them because that region is also the hide-out of the Mexican drug gangs that smuggle drugs into the United States. This is terrible for the Tarahumara, who managed to survive the Spanish Conquistadors who wanted to enslave them (they escaped into this severely forbidding geography much in the same way that the Cherokee who escaped from the Trail of Tears forced journey from North Carolina to Oklahoma survived by going back to North Carolina and hiding out in unexplored coves in the Great Smoky Mountains), but now they have to contend with drug gangs.

Whenever the train would stop at a village, Mexican women and children would get on board and walk down the aisles of the railroad cars selling home-made tamales that they carried in buckets covered with cotton cloth. They also sold ice cold Coca Cola in small glass bottles. Those "Cocas", as they called them, were so refreshing, and the women and children were so sweet and the tamales smelled so good that I had to get them. They had pork, chicken, and sweet corn filled tamales, so I bought all three kinds. I ate my fill on that trip of fantastic village-made food, where they had even grown the corn that was used to make the masa harina. The people selling this food were doing well...most of the people on the train were enjoying these treats, but there were several American tourists who kept yammering, "I wouldn't eat that if I were you, you will be getting sick for sure."

You know where I got sick on that trip to Mexico? Not from eating tamales hand-made by Sierra Madre village women, but from having a margarita made in a very elegant American-clientel hotel in artistic San Miguel Allende, a town famous for wealthy American expatriates.

One of the things I like about myself is that I like so many things. I felt a resonance with "lecturer on love" Leo Buscalia when he said that you should like things. "People are always talking about how much they hate," he said. "They hate this and they hate that. Stop hating everything so much. Love things, instead." He said that like it is a choice, and I think it is. And a smart choice, at that, because hating everything just makes you unhappy. So why do it? Change your standard, and your expectations.

I'll end with mentioning one of my favorite travel pieces I had ever read. It was a newspaper column by writer Bob Green, who was among the frustrated and stressed crowd of travelers at Washington, D.C.'s Dulles International Airport, riding one those big-wheeled shuttle buses that cross from one terminal to another. Mostly people stand in those shuttles, there are very few seats (not enough for the crowd), so they are standing there, hanging from straps or an overhead bar like on a crowded subway in New York.

Green noticed a casually-dressed black man up front with his little boy. They didn't seem like all the other passengers at all, who were business men, lobbyists, various government types, and so on whom you might expect to see in the Washington, D.C. urban area. The boy was beside himself with excitement over all the activities surrounding them, planes going by, other shuttles, baggage carts loaded to the gills with suitcases.

What's that man with that hose coming out of that truck doing, Daddy?"

"Oh, he's giving that plan fuel. Look what it says on the side of that plane, 'British Airways', why that plane is going all the way across the ocean to England, they're going to have to load up with plenty of fuel for that trip."

"Look at that plane moving way over there, Daddy!"

"Oh, let's watch him, he looks like he is ready take off. Wow look at that, see how fast he is going!"

The boy starts clapping with excitement as the jet lifts up off the ground with a roar. "Daddy, where do you think it's going?"

"No telling son, it says 'United Airlines' on it. It could be anywhere in the whole world. Maybe China, maybe Africa."

Green realized that these two weren't passengers at all, but that the father was spending his Saturday to take his boy on an excursion that didn't even cost anything at all...that to them, the airport was like an amusement park filled with fascinating wonder and the shuttle bus, a nuisance for most of the passengers, was actually like a Disneyland ride for the little boy.

Someday, that boy will be taking a plane somewhere, maybe to China, maybe to Africa, and I imagine that he will still have the same attitude of excitement that he had riding that shuttle. Because he learned how to see it with all with wondrous eyes, so every piece of it is a pleasure and a fascination.

I feel that way about all the steps that I will have to go through for my upcoming trip to Italy. The quick neighborhood drive to the LAX Van Nuys Freeway Flyer facility, where I will park my car in the huge parking garage there. Then there will be the hour-long (sometimes 45-minutes!) smooth ride in the Freeway Flyer bus down the diamond lane on the 405 to the terminal, getting there way faster than I could in my car, and way cheaper than even if I parked at one of the off-site parking lots.

I will be getting off at Terminal 2, one I have never been in before, where Air Canada is, an airline I have never flown before. Presumably I will have my home-computer printed boarding pass with me, and when I check my baggage either with a skycap or inside at the ticket counter, I will find out that my luggage will be sent all the way to Venice, instead of me having to get it and take it through customs at each of the plane changes I've got ahead, one in Montreal and the other one in Frankfort.

Now knowing my gate assignment, I will then go upstairs to go through security. There may be a long line, but I have allowed time. Surrounding me will be other passengers, and if they seem friendly, I may ask them where they are going and we can talk about our various destinations. If it's a vacation, we all should be excited.

Sure, people hate the TSA, but I will joke with them (usually say something like "That's the ugliest photo you will see all day" when I hand them my passport, and they will laugh and say something like, "Well, you know, that is pretty ugly, but I have seen worse, much worse!" And then we'll laugh again. They'll probably say something like, "So, you're flying to Venice," so I'll have a chance to share my excitement over my upcoming trip, and then ask them, "So how about you, any travel plans for this summer?" Being treated like a human being instead of a despised obstacle, they will actually be part of the fun of the trip. And when I ask them to let me opt-out of the "naked" x-ray machine and have the pat-down, instead (because I don't want more of the radiation), they will call for a person to do that quickly instead of making me wait around, even though I do have the time even if I do have to wait.

But usually this gets you a kind of "first class" service...yes, you still have to take off your shoes and belt and everything metal and empty your pockets and fill up the trays, but if you do it without complaint or mouthing off (the TSA operator can't change the rules), they will catch all your stuff at the other side and take it over to a safe place where you can watch it while they give you the "the machine is safe" lecture, and then very politely give you the pat-down, explaining it to you every step of the way. It's pretty quick and then I am back to being dressed and with my stuff and on my way into the gate area.

By this time it is likely that I will be very early, which is fine, so I will look to see everything they have up there, what kind of gift shops, what kind of places to eat. I usually like to eat up at the boarding gate areas, even though the selections sometimes aren't very good (they aren't over in the Delta terminal in Los Angeles, but fantastic in the Delta terminal at the San Francisco airport), but maybe the Air Canada one will be better. It's part of the fun. Either way, I will relax and enjoy and have a meal and maybe buy something in one of the shops. It's my vacation, I can have whatever treats I want.

Ultimately, I will find a place to sit at my boarding area where I can read or people watch or listen to my iPod until boarding time. All this will be part of the fun. I mean, really, just think, I am on my way to two weeks in Italy! What's to not be happy about?

So, there's a lot to enjoy on the flight (flight attendants to be friendly to, snacks and food to eat, whatever I want to drink, tons of things to watch and enjoy on the entertainment system, maybe friendly passengers near me, and so on), and then there will be the plane change in Montreal. I have never been to Canada at all, and this doesn't really count, but it will be fun to at least see the airport in Montreal.

After the flight from Montreal, there will be the plane change in Frankfort, and while I have been to Germany, I have never been to a German airport. I wonder how it will strike me as different. Their train stations are certainly different (I love the beautiful chimes they have when announcing the arrival and departure of trains, so what unique things will I see at the Frankfort airport?).

And then there is landing in Venice, and taking a ferry boat from the airport to wherever in Venice I want to go, probably my hotel, even though I will be there way earlier than check-in time, but maybe they will take my luggage, at least, so I won't be burdened as I begin my exploration of this beautiful city. In Venice, I imagine every second will be filled with surprise and delight, and there certainly will be unique ways of getting around, such as the vaporettos and maybe even a gondola if I decide I can afford it, plus, certainly, walking along tiny inner canals and crossing over bridges and generally exploring all the unique possibilities of a place as unusual as this.

After Venice will come the high speed train to Florence. The only high speed train I have ever ridden was the Intercity 125 from London to Darlington in the Midlands, but now there are trains that go much faster than the 125's 125 miles an hour. So right there there is more than just being in Florence, there is the getting there on a super high speed train!

And all this was just the tip of the iceberg, because there is Seina and Rome and the Vatican and Naples and Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast and the island of Sardinia; all this getting around and seeing and eating and staying in beautiful places. So much to enjoy, explore, learn, and go crazy over.

All that is part of what I think of as "the crazy, amazing travel machine," all these things that are set up to get us from one place to another, everywhere in the world. It could be a supersonic jet, it could be some kind of a boat, it could be two feet. Me, and my little boy self, will be having a total blast. He and I have chosen to, and so we will.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Preparing for Italy

On the final day of the school year, last Thursday (this was the last day of out-service and even those of us who work in the summer got Friday, yesterday, off; the children had ended the previous Thursday and sixth grade graduation was the Friday of last week), I was discussing my trip to Italy (to be taken later this summer) with a friend who had once lived in Rome, when she told me that she had written for her friends a little guide of hints about visiting Rome. I asked her to send it to me, which she did, and which I read yesterday and really enjoyed a learned from.

I decided to write her a thank you note about it, and how it had helped me, but as I was writing to her, I had the idea that my response might be an interesting entry for this blog. So here it is, very little changed from what I wrote to her, so please excuse its personal aspect, which I think doesn't intrude very much into the things that I have written for other readers to read.


I really enjoyed reading your guide. I like that photo you have on the cover of the Coliseum—-it makes it look exciting, but I also see the crowds! I will definitely take advantage of the "line avoiding man" selling the ticket that you recommended. Talk about crowds—-I saw a video on-line of the Trevi Fountain and the immense crowd around it was about fifteen rows of people deep. I think throwing the coins in the fountain bring you these "prizes", because it is more like a carnival game—-you "win the prize" if you actually get the coin into the fountain from way far back where you have to throw it (and backward, over your shoulder, to boot). So it's not so much the magic of the fountain that makes these things come true, it is your skill at the "Coin Toss".

You mentioned three coins and I never knew about three of them (but then I remembered there was that movie, "Three Coins In The Fountain"). So I decided to research it see what "bound to be good" thing the third coin was going to get you. It ends up that the whole thing is all scrambled and different versions get you different things. With most of them, the first coin ensures that you will return to Rome. However, there are some versions that have returning to Rome coming from the second coin, the first coin is to bring you romance (although in most versions, romance comes with the second coin). I can see how romance could come first, since Rome (and all of Italy) is just so romantic. Even I am supposed to be able to find romance in Italy, according to one of my sisters (although she didn't say the "even you" part, that's my addition). She simply said, "Keep your eye out for a lover!" Well, miracles do happen, sometimes. But anyway, I could see how romance could come first and then you would really want to come back, especially if the romance was with an Italian instead, of say, a tourist from Russia. Not that that couldn't be a romance, but that it would maybe make you want to go Russia, not back to Rome. There was a woman I met on a cruise (it wasn't a romance, because she was with her husband) from the Ukraine who was very taken with me and she (and her husband) insisted that I take their address and phone number because I was so welcome to go to the Ukraine and visit them. (The Ukraine has not yet gotten onto my visit-wish list, though.) So one, does, of course, meet people from all over the world. In fact, I wouldn't be going to Italy at all this time if it hadn't been for bonding with the newlywed Italian couple during my trip to Fakarava last summer (where they were finishing out their honeymoon), who insisted that I come to Rome to visit them. But they kind of let that thing slide (as I knew was always a possibility); this whole year, they only wrote me (answered) two e-mails, although in each one they continue to insist that I had to go to Rome this summer and stay with them. However, meanwhile, they had a baby in April, and they didn't write me back until two weeks after I had booked everything by myself without getting any clear confirmation from them. I don't know if I will even see them at all; in this recent e-mail, they said that they spend the month of July "on the coast" (wherever that means), but maybe could "drive back to Rome" to see me if they knew when I was coming. I think I will send them my itinerary and hotel information so they can figure this out. But I hate the idea of interrupting their vacation. It would be cool if "the coast" for them meant the Amalfi Coast, then I could see them down there, but somehow, I think where they go must be closer to Rome, because they have spoken of some place where the tourists never go. But we'll see.

Now, regarding the third coin (and, by the way, it turns out that the "three coins" of "Three Coins In The Fountain" were all the first coin of three different women), it gets even more muddled. The third coin could bring you marriage, (after the second or third coin brought you romance), or it could bring you divorce (which, logically, could follow marriage, or it could follow romance, meaning a divorce from the spouse you had prior to having the romance in Rome!), or, kind of boringly, the third coin could bring "charity", although it didn't specify charity for whom. Maybe your romance drives you in the poor house (spending money wildly on "la dolce vita", so now you need charity? Or the spouse you have divorced took the house and everything else you owned so now you need charity because of that? But probably they mean charity for others. However, all the coins are actually for charity anyway, as all those coins are cleared out regularly and given to charity. And I guess doing something like that is essential, for, judging by the crowd of people I saw in that video, that fountain would be completely filled up quite quickly!

This charity angle is actually quite smart. One of the best uses of coins I have seen was at the Faaa Airport in Tahiti. Right at the spot where you board your international flight, they have a big box where you can deposit all your left over South Pacific Franc change that you no longer have any use for and that you cannot exchange back for U.S. Dollars (currency exchange places will only exchange back paper bills). They specify that it is for a children's charity, and one really would like to get rid of all that heavy and basically useless (at home) change, anyway, and this is for a good cause. Now, if only Tahiti would spread the legend that coins deposited like that will ensure the likelihood that you would come back to Tahiti (the more coins you put in, the greater your chance of a return visit), they would be rolling in charitable donations, I would think, like coins in the Trevi fountain!

It's funny when I think about it—-I am normally a "I want to go as many different places as I can" kind of a guy, so "going back" to a place is not normally on my mind. I would look for someplace new to go to. However, thinking back on my traveling life, I have actually gone back to a few places. And Tahiti was one of them, and that was last year. Kauai was another one, when I really felt that I should go back to a Hawaiian island I hadn't been to, I nevertheless was specifically drawn back to Kauai, so that's what I did, instead. I would definitely go back to Kauai even again, and, in fact, really do plan to (I want to kayak and camp along the Na Pali Coast). Many years ago, I went back to Sweden. Actually, I had been there several times. That was my uncle's main residence each year (he also lived in Helsinki, Finland, and Dana Point, California during other portions of the year), and when he died, I was executor of his estate. Doing that work brought me to Sweden twice, the second time I was there, I lived there in his condo for several months. I did a lot of touristy things while there, it wasn't just all work, but still, I consider those "working" trips, not vacations. But I met some people from Northern Sweden while I was there in Stockholm and made friends with them, so I ended up going back to Sweden twice, as real vacations, to see them. So, two vacations back to Stockholm after the several months I had lived there, and two trips to Northern Sweden (which also included visits to Stockholm) to stay with my friends.

London, and then Midlands England were also places I went back to. I had made friends with people from Darlington (in the Midlands) when I was traveling in Mexico, so I stayed with them twice in England, with repeat visits to London both times.

I for sure will be tossing two coins into Trevi fountain. But the third one, I'll have to think about that….

Going back up to where I mentioned the Coliseum, I think Italian (or Latin?) is such a hard language to write, because there is no good way that I know of to remember which letters are written double. I always have to look up how to spell cappuccino (or is it "capuccino", or "cappucino"?), and the Coliseum is another one (is it "Colisseum" or "Collisseum", etc.?). Even one of the cities I am staying in on this trip, I have to look up its spelling every time: Santa Maria Navarrese (in Sardinia); it is hard to remember that it has two r's, but all the other letters are single. Italian seems to be filled with words like that.

I am so glad you explained what "pepperoni" is in Italy, because THAT is most likely the kind of pizza I would have ordered, and I really don't like to eat chili peppers! (At least, not a lot of them.)

Peculiarly, it wasn't until I was in the middle of planning for this trip that I became clear that pizza actually was a genuine item of Italian cuisine. Somehow along the line, I had gotten the impression that it was some kind of an American creation that wasn't eaten in Italy at all, you know, like chow mein (that apparently is not genuine Chinese food but is a bizarre American creation) or, oh, I don't know, "chips and salsa" is probably not genuine Mexican food (I imagine that they would eat regular tortillas, not something crispy). I do understand that the Italians do not have the milk- or other flavored-with things versions of espresso except in the mornings (with, or as breakfast), that only Americans will order, say, a cappuccino or a "latte" in the afternoon. The waiter or bartender will serve it to them, but they find it to be very strange. But regular plain old espresso, it would be served all the time, any time after a meal, and what would be strange would be to not have that after a meal. So I am glad to learn these little variations on a cuisine theme and also what things are called in Italy versus the American version. A "latte" is simply a class of milk, for example, whereas our "latte" is called a "café latte" (and for mornings, only). So I need to make sure that I eat like an adult—-no cappuccino past breakfast, no meal without vino, no meal without ending with an espresso.

I also never quite understood the deal with all the courses, the Antipasti, the Primo, the Secundo, and all that stuff, and was always kind of embarrassed whenever I went into a fine Italian restaurant here in America ("Am I supposed to order something from each of those courses, I can't afford that!"), but now I understand how it works. It's interesting how big of a trendy deal it is among Italians, now (especially the young and hip), having what we call "happy hour", but for them is called "Aperitivi", where one can actually have a full meal with a series of appetizers for just the cost of drinks. My Lonely Planet Italy guidebook said that is because of the terrible economic straits that Italy is now in, a lot of people (especially younger people) simply can't afford to eat out in the traditional way very much any more. I loved it when the guide book said, "Leave it to Italy to find a way to put the glam into recession." Sue Nihiser, Linda Polan, and I, have become fanatics about "happy hour", here. Well, Sue and Linda have been that for a long time, but for me it is new. We usually are able to get half price on certain wine, beer, and drinks, and discounts on a whole list of different appetizers that we can explore and share. It's really loads of fun, dining out costs less, and, for me, it's a way to get out of the rut of always wanting to order the same thing all the time. It seems that chefs are the most creative when it comes to appetizers. So, in my bid to be careful about spending money in Italy—-in another words, I am a budget traveler (but for sure I will treat myself to some splurges), it is good to know about the possibilities of this "aperitif" thing. Of course, since Italy really is the food capital of Europe (if not the world), I won't be crazy about "budgeting"; I do want to take advantage of what so many visitors say is the best thing of all about Italy, the great food!

Also, back to pizza, there is an awful woman who has a terrible website on which she rants about everything going on culturally in America, and one of her targets is "pizza", which she seems to put in a category like corn dogs at a carnival, or something. Like pizza is not a food that sophisticated adults should ever eat; to her, it is more like child-friendly junk food, like CocoPuffs cereal or a McNuggets Happy Meal. But I realize that pizza was a serious food item, for sure developed in Italy and a legitimate food creation. (Good to know that I should eat it with a knife and fork, in Italy.) It's possible, though, that after eating pizza in Italy, I may be ruined for having pizza in the United States! If so, then it's a "good" kind of ruin, though!

You wrote about bread being brought to the table. That reminded me of Mexico, where things on the table that we are used to having for free end up being charged for—that meant when they brought out a basket of rolls, you would find that they had observed how many rolls you ate, and how many pats of butter you used, and were charged for them. This also included how many sugars you put in your coffee, or how much cream. That was shocking to me as an American, but then when I thought about it, it did make sense, even though I disliked it. Here, we expect to have endless cups of coffee and unlimited soda refills. I am sure each tiny cup of espresso is charged for in Italy.

But after you warned your readers about the bread, I read in my guidebook in the section on "The Italian Table" that explained all the things about eating in Italy, that the charge for the bread is part of the entire "table charge" that you apparently are charged anyway. I don't know what all is included in this "table charge" (are we paying for the fact that we have clean forks and napkins, and water…well, I bet water is a separate charge, too), but I guess it would be good for me to find out. The guidebook made it seem that you would get this table charge whether you ate the bread or not, but it looks like you got some Euros removed from your bill by refusing the bread. Now, me, I probably want to eat the bread, as for so long it has not been on my diet, but then, neither would be cornettes (cornettos?), gelato, and several other things that I will be eating anyway, since they are so forbidden but now I would be in Italy and so I have an excuse to be bad. Anyway, since it looks like I will be walking all over the place, my body can probably burn up any amount of forbidden foods that I eat on this trip. (People expect to gain weight on a cruise, but on the 10-day Mexican/Central American cruise I took a few years ago, I ate whatever I wanted—-and drank whatever I wanted, too--and lost weight. I think that was because I was so much more active on that cruise than I am normally. I must have walked all the way around that ship over a hundred times, plus I was swimming, snorkeling, climbing steep pyramids, going on hikes through the rain forest, dancing in the disco, and just generally keeping on the move so much of the time. And Italy promises to be my most active vacation, ever.)

I love that word, "Agua Frizzante"! I'm going to have to have that all the time, because I would love to be able to say that word! (Normally, I would just drink "still" water.) When I was learning Spanish for my "vagabonding" in Mexico (three months of roaming around), one of my favorite words was "ferrocarril" (which means "railroad", and I did quite a bit of traveling on the Mexican ferrocarril). I loved how it sounded, the two trilled r's in one word, and also the creation of the word, itself, in that "ferro" means "iron" (as in the word "ferrous") and "carril" is "way" or "road". So that sounded so poetic and romantic, "the iron road" or "the iron way". I guess our "railroad" is really no different, but somehow hearing it come out of "ferrocarril" (rrrrrrrrr rrrrrrrrr) made it sound so much more wonderful. And guess what, Italian's "railroad" has the same derivation; well, duh, Italian and Spanish are both coming out of Latin; it is "ferrovia", so they have the same "ferro" for the iron, and then "via" for "road" or "way".

I see that I am now starting to get into the fun of these words, which makes traveling so much more enjoyable and enlightening. I remember that moment in Stockholm, when for a while I had been thinking that their words were so ugly. For example, the subway stop that was nearest to my uncle's condo was "Liljeholmen". Just a horrible bunch of mis-matched consonants (but it helps to know that "j" is pronounced like our "y"). And the street that my uncle's condominium tower was on, "Grenljusbacken". Ugly ugly ugly. However, I was there during the Christmas season, so there were many things oriented toward shopping for Christmas. There was a department store advertisement in the subway car, talking about a line of perfume and bath soaps that had "Lilje" as part of their name. In the advertisement was a photograph of a beautiful woman bathing in an elegant bathroom with lilies in crystal vases all around the room. I looked at that poster, hummm, lilies, the name "Lilje", I wonder…and looked up the word lilje in my Swedish dictionary and saw that it meant "lily". Okay, so what is "holmen?" It means "harbor". So my (formerly) ugly-looking and sounding subway stop name actually meant "Lily Harbor", and I imagined a field of lilies growing right by the beautiful water of the lake that my uncle's condominium was next to. In fact, the name of Stockholm, itself, is also a "harbor", in this case, "Timber Harbor" ("stock" is "timber"…you know the phrase "lock, stock, and barrel"? Those are the parts of a musket or a gun; the lock is the metallic mechanical part with the flint and trigger and so on, the barrel is what the bullet goes through, and the "stock" is the wooden part). In former times, the great northern forests of Sweden were its greatest resource, and trees by the thousands were harvested and the timber was floated down the water to Stockholm for sale to the rest of the world. So Stockholm actually got its start because it had a great harbor for receiving timber.

Posters in the subway (tunnelbana) also had advertisements with photos of candles in the windows, which is a Christmas tradition. Light is "ljus" and "gren" is a modifier that has something to do with Christmas, so "grenljus" are the candle lights that people put in their windows for Christmas. "Backen" means "to go up a hill". I stepped out of the subway car at the Lily Harbor station and began walking up the hill to where my uncle's condominium was, at the top of it. It was dark, now (which it had been ever since 3:00 PM, this being winter in Sweden), and as my feet crunched on the snow as I walked up hill, I could see the warm, welcoming glow of Christmas candles burning in every window, reflecting a peace and love as I trudged through the snow up the hill; I was experiencing the very embodiment of that street's name, "Grenljusbacken". The whole world of Sweden had opened up into being a world of fascinating natural beauty, and from then on, I translated the meaning of every street and place name, and it was like reading Emily Dickinson poetry everywhere.

I am now going to have to be doing that with Italian.

"Duomo". Gosh, everywhere there is a duomo, That was confusing me…why does every town have a major building with the same name? Florence has a "Duomo", Siena has a "Duomo", I wouldn't know if I had visited this "duomo" or that "duomo". Well, finally I learned that "duomo" means cathedral. Ah, now I get it! Well, of course, they all have a cathedral. Okay, so now it makes sense.

Anyway, understanding those things will make a big difference!

Boy, those magazine vendors sure are important! It seems that you can buy so many things from them—-maps, tickets, discount passes, why even magazines! And since I will be walking around so much, I will actually be able to easily buy things from them. "Magazine vendors can be your best friend!" ("Where is the nearest bathroom!" Whatever that phrase is in Italian….)

While I hope it won't rain while I am there, I would like to see the rain coming in through the open dome of the duomo. (There's a kind of a poem lying hidden in there with dome, duomo, rain, drain….)

For some reason, when I see the name "Capitaline" (as in Capitaline Hill or Capitaline Museum), it always makes me think of "Palpatine", as in "Emperor Palpatine", the evil ruler of the galactic empire in Star Wars III. And, of course, there is some sort of a connection, I am sure, between the Roman Empire and the epic of the Star Wars empire.

Come to think of it, that hooded man statue that you showed in your section about Campo de Feuri that had carvings representing all the executions that took place in that square actually looks like "Palpatine" (or I should say, Palpatine looks like him!) Look at this photo of Palpatine-—do you agree?

Okay, so for sure George Lukas spent some time in Italy! (Well, and of course he did…and for example, this gorgeous retreat palace on the Peaceful and Artistic planet of Naboo is pure "Lake Como":

and also this scene from that planet is very much like Venice:

It is clear that Lucas (or his designers) used real scenes from Italy to help fashion this science fiction futuristic world.

I think I will avoid the Campo de Feuri in the evenings, though (stabbing and shootings, looking for fights with Americans?)! I'm here to enjoy, not have an in-depth tour of a Roman hospital. I'm worried enough about pick-pockets!

Regarding getting around, my hotel is about a ten minute walk from the main train station (that I will be coming in to from Venice and then going back out through to Florence), definitely walking distance, which also is a main connection with the subway system (and other local trains). I figured that would be very good for my purposes, but today when I studied the subway map, I saw that most of the stops are in the area where I plan to be walking to anyway (say from the Coliseum and the Ancient Rome area all the way up to the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps area). Which according to my hotel's website, are all in walkable distances from the hotel), so I probably wouldn't even use the subway unless I get too tired to walk. However, I am very glad to see that they have a subway route that goes to (or quite near to) The Vatican, and I plan to go there, too, but I think it is too far to walk to. However, there were other interesting areas that if I had time for (such as the region that is called "Centro Storico" that has the highly recommended Piazza Navona and also the Pantheon), I would like to go to, but there is no subway for them! The guidebook gave directions to those areas by bus. I probably won't have time for them anyway, but I did see that there was a certain "hole" in the subway routes (like in Los Angeles!). So when you said that the public transportation system in Rome was terrible, that seems to be the case. (I'm not a real fan of taking busses, although I will if I have to. I much prefer subway systems.)

I have found that I am glad that I have an up-to-the minute Lonely Planet Italy Guide Book (which even talks about Italian government scandals!), even though I have done a lot of my planning with the simpler, more abbreviated Rick Steve's Italy guidebook, which I bought in 1999 (I figured Rome has been there since B.C., so a 1999 travel book should be okay!). It's good to have him zero in on the most important or popular things to do and see, but then to get more in depth with one of the other, newer books once the trip is narrowed down. For Rome, I have appreciated having a Frommer's book on Rome alone, also, and its walking tour of Ancient Rome and its one on Romantic Rome I plan to follow exactly point by point (my hotel in Rome is in the middle of a triangle made of one point at the train station, one point at the Coliseum, and one point at the Spanish Steps), and the small Dorling Kimbersley EyeWitness Travel book Top Ten Venice is a true gem (it's got a whole heck of a lot more than just "ten" things…it lists the "top ten" of about 40 different categories, and I was so pleased to see, after I already booked it, that my hotel was listed in that book as one of the top ten mid-priced hotels).

But updated information is extremely helpful. Rick Steve presents inter-city buses as the faster way to get from Venice to Florence, Florence to Siena, and Siena to Rome, faster than the train, but he wrote that (apparently) before there even were the newer Alta Velocita high speed trains, which are now the fastest way to get to these cities. These trains travel up to a speed of 300 km per hour (which converts to 186 miles per hour). The fastest train I have ever ridden on was the Intercity 125 high speed train in England, which, as indicated by their name, travelled 125 miles per hour, which I took from London to Darlington, which is about halfway up the island of Great Britain. That was pretty exciting. And in France, I first heard, and then saw, the amazing thundering bullet of one of their TGV ("tres grande vitesse") high speed trains, that apparently go at the 186 miles per hour speed that I mentioned the Italian AV trains do (although a Wikipedia article indicated that these trains can go almost twice as fast, but safety measures do not allow them to go faster than the 300 km limit). After experiencing that French TGV train go ground-shakingly by, I have wanted to ride on one, so it looks like I will be getting my chance to ride the same kind of thing in Italy. Riding one of those high speed trains would be a "destination" in and of themselves. If I had followed Rick Steve's 1999 advice, I would have planned on taking those trips on a bus! Yikes! (A bus would be much cheaper, though.)

In planning this trip, I was constantly having to battle out the choice between seeing a lot of different things versus seeing more in depth fewer things. Obviously, regarding Italy, itself, I opted for the "seeing lots of different things". I simply could not eliminate any of the places I chose to go to—-definitely not Venice, definitely not Rome, definitely not The Vatican, definitely not the Amalfi Coast, and definitely not Pompeii. The one piece of art in Italy that I wanted to see more than any other is the Michelangelo statue of David, so that meant that I had to go to Florence. And besides, "Florence" is the given name of one of my sisters, my mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother. They are all actually named Florence Nightingale as first and middle names, except for my great grandmother, whose last name was Nightingale. I was always told that the famous Florence Nightingale (the founder of the profession of nursing) was my great grandmother's first cousin, so they shared the same paternal grandparent (I think that means), so that's why they had the same last name. That was always presented as fact, that we were related to Florence Nightingale and that's why that name was always carried down through the generations. Now, I am not so sure about that. Maybe that was a fantasy…but I would like to somehow research that to verify the truth. For one thing, I'm not sure that the dates line up correctly…such as, could my great grandmother and Florence Nightingale have been in the same generation? I kind of feel that the famous Florence Nightingale was a generation (maybe two) older. Of course, we still could be closely related, but that my great-grandmother and she might not have been as close as first cousins.

Anyway, there was some reason the famous Florence Nightingale was named Florence, and I think it was because even though that family was English, they were living in Florence when she was born and so she was named after that beautiful city. (I will have to research that, too.) So if all this is true, then the name of the female line of my family from my sister back to my great-grandmother are all carrying a first name that came from Florence, Italy, so I should at least spend a day there!

The Rick Steve guidebook said that while Florence is incredibly wonderful during the day (the very essence of the Renaissance), it is kind of dull at night, but Siena, which is only about an hour's train trip away, is spectacular in the evenings. So he recommended spending a day in Florence, but sleeping in Siena. So that’s how Siena got on my list. Actually, I am more excited about seeing Siena that I am Florence. However, I am getting excited about Florence, because I have learned that the three things I want to see there [the Galleria dell'Accademia (where the Michelangelo statue of David is), the Uffizi Gallery, and the Ponte Vecchio (bridge) over the Arno River] are all in walking distance from the train station. Things apparently really are much closer together than they seem when we look at them on the map with "Los Angeleno eyes". So I like the idea that I can go to see such wonderful things but not have to hassle with travel distances and confusing (and unreliable) public transportation to exhaust me before I even get to them.

And finally, Sardinia….in my last three vacations, what I wanted was beaches in a tropical paradise, so last year I went to Fakarava (a coral atoll in the Tuomoto Island chain of French Polynesia), the year before, I went to Palau (in Micronesia, next to the equator and about 500 miles east of the Philippines), and the year before that, back to Kauai. I haven't used up my "fantastic beach desire" yet, so all this urban traveling in Italy and going through museums and cathedrals and the like was starting to depress me a little (despite how wonderful I know it will all be). So I remembered that Italy was on the ocean (duh), so just for fun, decided to do a Google search for the best beaches in Italy. I got a list of the top 10 best beaches in Italy, and nine of them were on the island of Sardinia. Looking at all of them, one really stood out as my clear favorite, the beach Cala Goloritze, so I decided I had to go there. If you look at this website (that's the hotel where I am staying on Sardinia) and scroll down to where they have "the beaches of Baunei", you will see pictures of Cala Gloritze and several other fantastic beaches that are all in a line next to each other up the coast. I will staying in the town of Santa Maria Navarrese, which, as you can see, is really the only town close to the coastline, because those northerly spectacular beaches are in a protected area like a national park, so there is no building or development close to those particular beaches.

A person can tour that whole spectacular coastline via boat tours (which I may do), but since the land is protected, the tour boats cannot land on the beaches. You have to jump off from the boat and swim in. Or you can hike in from the other side. The hike to Cala Goloritze is about an hour hike, but the hike, itself, is highly recommended. I'd rather be on my own instead going with a crowd of tourists and being dependent upon the schedule of a tour company. That is why I am renting a car, so I can drive to the parking area in the hills at the trailhead for that beach. (If I only wanted to go on an organized tour, I could simply take a bus down to Santa Maria Navarrese from the airport in Olbia.)

I realize, of course, that there is a beach at Venice (the lido, which means "the beach"), which might be kind of cool to go to, and also, of course, the whole Amalfi Coast. However, whether I will go to either of those beach areas depends upon what other things I will want to do, instead. I'm going to be in Venice for only two days, and Amalfi for two days. I'm not sure if I will have time for going to the beach, although it would be great if I could. But I am giving Sardinia three days (actually, a great deal of the first day will be getting from the Amalfi coast back up to Naples, flying to Sardinia, and then driving a rental car for two hours down from the airport in Northern Sardinia to Santa Maria Navarrese, which really shortens the first day, and then having to go to bed pretty early at the end of the third day because I have to get back up to the Sardinia airport for an early flight out of there back to Rome and Los Angeles, so really, Sardinia has one full day and two partial days) and that is intended to primarily be my special beach time.

That's funny what you wrote about the Roman taxi drivers not understanding tips and trying to give you the money back. That's almost worth using their services at least once!

So, once again, thank you so much for your very cool and useful tips, and I will be taking advantage of almost every single one! Your advice has enhanced my trip, and I really appreciate it.

All my best to you for a fantastic summer. I am sure you will love everything about your house when you make it the way you want it to be. Summer in your own beautiful back yard could be the best summer you ever had!