Saturday, November 19, 2016

Belfast

Three years or so ago, I had a conversation with Jody about our shared desire to visit Dublin. I had always planned that if I were to go to the Republic, that I'd also want to visit Northern Ireland, because the island can't be fully understood without seeing both. It went something like this:

"You are NOT going to Belfast. You'll get blown up."
"Maybe years ago. There's none of that anymore."
"Aye there is! I'll show you the news story from last week..."

So when Jody magically forgot about his unfound worry and asked if I'd like to join him here for a UFC event, I jumped at the chance.

We arrived yesterday at Belfast International Airport, which is well out of town, but got lucky in randomly being picked up by a good-natured taxi driver willing to give us a wee tour and a history lesson on the ride to our hotel.

He drove us through one of the areas most impacted by The Troubles, describing the bombings, the marches, and the police presence that had been there, in both long gone by and recent years. For much of the city, the division is represented by Shankill Road (the Protestant / Unionist portion) and Falls Road (the Catholic / Republican side). These two major streets run parallel and many of the cross streets have large gates in the middle that the police close at night in a symbolic attempt to keep the combatants apart. The incidents our driver described from recent years sounded less like the war waged in earlier times, and more like organised crime: things like coordinated control of businesses and transportation, beatings and intimidation. But while the tactics have shifted, the emotions and reasons behind it have not.

Our drive also took us by a few of the famous murals, beautifully turning events both proud and sad in the bloody sectarian battles to lasting art. Some of the murals near schools are being repainted by the children these days, in an attempt to help the battle lines blur and the hatred to turn to understanding. But of course kids are a product of the adults around them, so within this hope, there's also a resignation to the fact that you can only shrink the problem; it will never really go away.

The lesson ended with our arrival in the city centre, of which our taxi driving friend said, "It's like any city centre; no trouble, people just get on with it." And I've found that to be the case. Belfast is another enjoyable British city, with lovely people, and unwelcoming weather. Because it's been around freezing the whole time we've been here, Jody and I have tended to hole up where it's warm and not go out too much. I skipped the 20 minute walk to the Ulster Museum today, opting to stay nearby and instead visit the Titanic Memorial Garden, the (just opened for the year) Continental Christmas Market at City Hall, and the Victoria Square Shopping Centre... with just a quick break for a pint of Guinness at Fibber Magee's.

Now I'm back in the hotel room, keeping cosy and watching sports all night while Jody's off writing about a bunch of fighting that makes no sense to me. And we're both heading back out of town tomorrow, sadly.

Sure, there are reminders of Belfast's dangerous past here and there -- we can see the Europa Hotel, famously the most bombed hotel in Europe, from our window -- but generally there's a great spirit in this town. I'm glad I made it here, and I hope to get a chance to come back.

Belfast

Three years or so ago, I had a conversation with Jody about our shared desire to visit Dublin. I had always planned that if I were to go to the Republic, that I'd also want to visit Northern Ireland, because the island can't be fully understood without seeing both. It went something like this:

"You are NOT going to Belfast. You'll get blown up."
"Maybe years ago. There's none of that anymore."
"Aye there is! I'll show you the news story from last week..."

So when Jody magically forgot about his unfound worry and asked if I'd like to join him here for a UFC event, I jumped at the chance.

We arrived yesterday at Belfast International Airport, which is well out of town, but got lucky in randomly being picked up by a good-natured taxi driver willing to give us a wee tour and a history lesson on the ride to our hotel.

He drove us through one of the areas most impacted by The Troubles, describing the bombings, the marches, and the police presence that had been there, in both long gone by and recent years. For much of the city, the division is represented by Shankill Road (the Protestant / Unionist portion) and Falls Road (the Catholic / Republican side). These two major streets run parallel and many of the cross streets have large gates in the middle that the police close at night in a symbolic attempt to keep the combatants apart. The incidents our driver described from recent years sounded less like the war waged in earlier times, and more like organised crime: things like coordinated control of businesses and transportation, beatings and intimidation. But while the tactics have shifted, the emotions and reasons behind it have not.

Our drive also took us by a few of the famous murals, beautifully turning events both proud and sad in the bloody sectarian battles to lasting art. Some of the murals near schools are being repainted by the children these days, in an attempt to help the battle lines blur and the hatred to turn to understanding. But of course kids are a product of the adults around them, so within this hope, there's also a resignation to the fact that you can only shrink the problem; it will never really go away.

The lesson ended with our arrival in the city centre, of which our taxi driving friend said, "It's like any city centre; no trouble, people just get on with it." And I've found that to be the case. Belfast is another enjoyable British city, with lovely people, and unwelcoming weather. Because it's been around freezing the whole time we've been here, Jody and I have tended to hole up where it's warm and not go out too much. I skipped the 20 minute walk to the Ulster Museum today, opting to stay nearby and instead visit the Titanic Memorial Garden, the (just opened for the year) Continental Christmas Market at City Hall, and the Victoria Square Shopping Centre... with just a quick break for a pint of Guinness at Fibber Magee's.

Now I'm back in the hotel room, keeping cosy and watching sports all night while Jody's off writing about a bunch of fighting that makes no sense to me. And we're both heading back out of town tomorrow, sadly.

Sure, there are reminders of Belfast's dangerous past here and there -- we can see the Europa Hotel, famously the most bombed hotel in Europe, from our window -- but generally there's a great spirit in this town. I'm glad I made it here, and I hope to get a chance to come back.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Zurich

Zurich makes me happy. Funny how Italy's leisurely culture made me feel angst and irritation, but the stereotypical land of punctuality and seriousness has me totally relaxed and contented.

The train ride here took 4 hours, almost exactly, and had some lovely Alpine mountain and lake scenery out the windows. Unfortunately, every time I got ready to take a photo, we'd pass a building or a bunch of trees, or go into a tunnel, and I'd miss it. A couple of times I just snapped away with my phone at random, and the results look like grim hills with a grey sky. Or a glowing sky because the clouds were so reflective. The one at right auto-adjusted the exposure so dark that it looks like it should be the cover of the next single by Modest Mussorgsky. So I guess I'll have to rely on my memory for the views. At least that way when I think I spotted a couple of glaciers in the distance, and saw some ibex grazing in a valley, there's no evidence to prove me right or wrong... so by default I'm right about what I saw.

Since I arrived in Zurich, I haven't done a whole lot. The downtown area is all easily walkable, so mostly I've just done that. I checked my guidebook when I got settled last night, but it informed me that all the museums are closed on Mondays, and I was too late to get into them before closing time Sunday. So there wasn't much left but to enjoy the city.

And enjoy it I have. It's so refreshing to be in a bustling city, to have busy people, going about their daily lives, doing their jobs, and being happy because this is a good place to live, not a good place to laze around on vacation. It's exactly the kind of place I like. People are in a hurry. The food is good, and made to be taken on the go. And nobody wants to talk to me or sell me anything. They couldn't care less what I'm up to. I love it here.

Today I took a good long walk all around downtown, took some photos along the water -- I don't know exactly which water... all of the water, there's a lot of lake/river/whatever-front in this town -- and then just sat and relaxed. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading a book, feeling the nice cool breeze, listening to the trams go by. And it was fantastic.

I have very little planned for tonight, and then tomorrow it's flights back to Seattle and real life.

I don't have the stamina for solo travel that I used to; I still love it, but I tire of it much more quickly now than I used to. I guess Jody's just made me more homey in general. So I'm glad that just as I was getting worn out with this trip, Zurich managed to recharge me.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

(Too Sexy for) Milan

OK, the title's clearly not true, but the stupid song has been in my head since I got here, and I couldn't resist.

Right before I left Edinburgh, Jody and I watched an episode of The Ricky Gervais Show in which Karl Pilkington said that if he could be any nationality, he'd be Italian, because it's so much more of a laid-back lifestyle. In England everyone's rushing around, but in Italy you can sit outside a café all day and nobody thinks it's at all strange.

Maybe that's why I'm not loving it here. I don't want to sit outside cafés all day. I like rushing around. When I first started travelling, I didn't have a lot of money, so I did it as cheaply as possible. I'd go out and walk around seeing the sights that didn't charge admission, and all my food would come from the supermarket. Or maybe some cheap takeaway, but I'd never spend time sitting around a restaurant, lazing over a meal. And it suited me. It's how I still like to travel. Maybe it's just habit, but I think it's more that it's just how I am. I may stay in nicer hotels now, but I still eat on the cheap, and I'll still only pay for admission to something I really want to see, which isn't much.

So Italy, I'm just not that into you. I don't want to go out to a café for proper coffee, I just want a quick cup of instant in my hotel room, to give me enough caffeine to start the day. I don't want to sit around slowly eating a big meal and sipping wine for hours, I just want to grab something and get on my way. And I want to walk quickly, to get to my destination, not take a leisurely stroll down the road like I've nowhere to be, and no one behind me does either. Also, when I went looking in my guidebook for places to visit in Milan, I immediately noticed that everything costs money. The Last Supper is a must see; it's amazing! It costs 8 Euro and you can only get in by booking in advance or taking an official tour. Nope. Thumbs down. I get why people love taking their vacations here, but it's so not me. My favourite cities in the world are London and New York, and this is pretty much the exact opposite of those places.

Which means that I didn't find much I wanted to see here, and nothing that I felt like paying for. It didn't leave me a whole lot of sightseeing to do.  So with the sad realisation that Italy and I want totally different things from a Saturday, today I slept late, and then took the subway to the Duomo, because it's evidently the main thing to see in Milan. And it was gorgeous. And surrounded by lots of other great photo-worthy stuff. But I could barely move in the square from all the football fans crowded into it.


Fans, fans everywhere
Turns out Milan is hosting the Champions League Final tonight, between Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. I love some good football fanaticism, and don't grudge these folk supporting their teams in such a big game. For about 3 minutes it was fun watching them wave flags and sing all their football songs. But then it became less fun. Because I couldn't go anywhere without running into scads of them, blocking the passage ways, taking in bottle after bottle of booze, and constantly increasing the volume of their singing. In every public space. I'm staying right by the Central Station, and needed to catch the subway there... but the square in front of it is hosting a celebration for the big game and swarming with drunk people. The subway cars were all crammed with shouting, laughing, singing dudes in their team tops. The Piazza del Duomo was an official fan zone, packing them in shoulder to shoulder despite the massiveness of the area.

I tried walking a few blocks away from the Duomo where there's a lot of shopping, but there was no let up of the crowds, and I'd had enough of the sun and 29 degree heat. So I made my way back to my nicely air conditioned hotel room, and am now trying to determine what to do with my evening.


If nothing else, the game'll probably be on TV...

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Venice


Italy. Of all the places in the world I've had on my list to visit, this wasn't one of them. It always seemed a bit too cliché, too Standard Issue American Tourist for me. My only real interest has been Sicily, since it seems to have its own particularly cool character, impervious to the tourist industry. But even that was mainly when I was studying Italian in college and thought I might have some minor hope of actually understanding what's going on and conversing with people.

Like in many universities, my undergraduate Arts & Sciences degree required a year of a foreign language in order to graduate. It could be anything you like, as long as it was different to what you studied in High School. I'd taken French from grades 7 to 9, but due to a clerical error, my transcript said that I'd taken German. So I could have taken French again for an easy A, but my real desire was to learn Latin. The basis for all the romance languages, the tongue used throughout all academia until relatively recently, who wouldn't want to study that? OK, what complete and total word nerd (ie me) wouldn't want to?

I made the mistake of mentioning this to my uncle who had been forced to take Latin as a young fella, and he set off on a tirade along the lines of only a complete and utter moron would study a nonsensical dead language when they didn't absolutely have to! What can I say, I was young and impressionable, so I believed him and went for Italian instead. Incidentally, years later my (just as nerdy as me) brother did take Latin in college, and loved it. 

Anyway, here I am in good old Venezia, and I don't speak a damn word of Italian. A friend of Jody's in Edinburgh a few days ago said, "I'm sure when you get there it will come flooding back." It hasn't. At all. I hear words that sound vaguely familiar and know that I used to use them easily in class everyday, but I can't grasp the meaning, no matter how deeply in my brain I dig for even that one single word. I only remember one phrase from class -- which I may be butchering here -- Tu rompi le palle! It literally translates to something like you're breaking my balls, but colloquially it means... well, about the same thing we use it to mean in English. And I don't really think throwing out that particular line will get me very far around here.

So what was my original point? Oh, right, so I never planned to visit Venice. I always assumed it would be sort of cheesy and touristy, not at all my cup of tea. But I went ahead and booked it because I was already planning Milan and Zurich, so why not take a wee detour? Since then, people have been telling me how it's not anything like you'd expect, it's so beautiful, and not touristy at all. But I gotta say, I don't see it.

This place is touristy. Touristy as fuck, even. It's clear that the entire economy runs on people flocking here for their holidays and being very willing to part with their cash. It's exactly like Las Vegas, only older and wetter. Sure, there are some pretty things to look at and photograph, but there's much more dirt and graffiti and crumbling buildings. And the air smells like sewage all of the time. People complain about the scent of New York? New York is a cupcake shop compared to much of what I've walked through today.

On the plus side, I haven't seen a single car in the 24 hours I've been here. Just loads of people walking and boats! boats! boats! I very much like that aspect of it. The Grand Canal is right outside my hotel window, and while a lovely view, it sounds like a busy highway day and night. Which is essentially what it is, given that it's the fastest way for people move about the city.

I personally haven't really moved by water, apart from the Water Bus that took me from the airport to about 10 minutes walk from my hotel. Instead, the trusty rusty Fitbit tells me that I walked about 7 miles around the city in today's wanderings.


My plan was to walk to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which would be about half an hour's trek across the city, and stop for anything pretty along the way. As it turned out, I stopped for a pretty church 8 minutes in, and then became hopelessly lost. Google's directions through the winding streets of Venice were only marginally helpful, so after an hour (and a few more photos of churches), I finally made it to the gallery. 

The Guggenheim Collection is the highlight of Venice, for me. It's nicely arranged with indoor galleries around a sculpture garden, and a terrace looking out over the canal. My favourite was the special exhibition of Italian art from the 1960s, called Imagine. I'm always keen on modern art, but I really loved some of what they had in that collection. I spent a long time there.

Afterward, I found my way back across the city, making a few stops along the way, got some pizza and wine for dinner, and am now out of energy. It's beautiful weather today, but all that walking in the sun and the heat sapped my energy. So in my hotel room I sit, watching the sun go down over the Grand Canal, and listening to the band in the bar above me play muffled lounge covers of 30 year old pop songs.

As Thursday evenings go, it's really not bad.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Back in The 'Dam

Back in 2010 when I first visited Amsterdam, I wrote this:

Having spent several hours over the last 2 days wandering Amsterdam, I've come to one conclusion: I feel weird being a tourist here.... I could see myself living here, working here, but not visiting historical sites and taking pictures of buildings. I feel strange doing it, so I haven't. 

Funnily enough, going back all these years later, I felt the same way.

For roughly the last 20 years I've taken note of Henry Rollins' talking show tour dates, and seen him whenever I can, so when he was heading out to Europe for the first time in 4 years, I had to get to a show. Because Jody is a Bristol City football fan, we originally tried to arrange a trip to see a game and Hank's show in Bristol, but the date didn't work out. So instead I picked his Amsterdam gig, the night before my birthday.

I met Jody in Edinburgh on the 27th, and we hopped a short KLM flight over to Amsterdam on the 28th. And then did a lot of nothing. The night we arrived, I spent a long time looking for a supermarket to get us some provisions while Jody had a nap... and found nothing. I came across pretty much everything else: dentist, dry cleaner, bicycle repair, every kind of food restaurant imaginable, Starbucks, and enough weed cafés to come back to the hotel with a contact high, but nary a place to pick up some grocery-type foodstuffs. So we went hungry until we found a Chinese place for dinner before the gig.

Rollins was fantastic as always. It was Jody's first introduction to the man, and he thoroughly enjoyed himself, despite becoming dehydrated while having to stand for almost 3 hours of talking.

Also, Jody was on high alert and still almost got hit by a cyclist on our first night in Amsterdam. It's always chaotic with bikes, motorbikes, cars, and trams all coming at you, but he had the added Scottish disadvantage of looking the wrong way for traffic.


The next day, we slept much later than intended, as we usually do, so it was late in the afternoon before we started looking for things to do. I was interested in the Stedelijk Museum and its modern art focus, but I knew Jody's patience for art wouldn't go anywhere near far enough for it, and the Van Gogh Museum was the only other one nearby that stays open late on Friday nights. So that's where we went. And it was overpiced. And extremely crowded. But at least we got some live Dutch alt-rock to accompany our visit.

There's a reason I always opt for modern art museums; I walked by all the paintings surrounded by gawkers, and thought that's a nice picture, but nothing really grabbed me. Not until the last room of paintings from the last couple years of Van Gogh's life. Toward the end he finally started to get a little bit weird. Pretty pictures, meh. Weird, I like.

After the museum, I decided I wanted a doner kebab for my birthday dinner, so we picked me up a shwarma to go and a cheap bottle of prosecco (surprisingly good for
--> 3.79), and had a night in watching Spy. --> -->On Saturday, for our last day, neither of us could get motivated to do anything touristy. We did a bit of shopping and wandered through the Vondelpark, but it was too damn cold out to stay for long by the time we got started. Another quiet night in, and only 2 photos to show for my trip again.

So I guess the conclusion is that I like Amsterdam as a city, but I have no motivation to partake of anything it has to offer. If there's a next time, I just have to remember that it's a comfortable place to hang out, and not plan on actually doing anything there. Which kind of takes the fun out of visiting, doesn't it? Might as well just go someplace else.


Stedelijk Museum
Stedelijk Museum

Monday, October 26, 2015

Oklahoma City

I'm currently waiting at the airport to leave my 50th state.

We did it! Great job, everybody! High fives all around!

Ahem. So anyway. I've just spent a couple of nights in Oklahoma City -- Oklahoma being the last remaining state I hadn't visited. I arrived at the airport to pick up my rental car, and the man working the desk confirmed every stereotype in two statements:

1) I may have reserved a midsize vehicle, but everyone here drives either a truck or an SUV, so that was my choice (I took the SUV, still too big for my taste)

2) The steak here is the best, so I should go to The Cattleman and ask for the Presidential special; it's George Bush's favourite

But Rental Car Dude aside, I found OKC to be a pretty cool town with friendly people, lots to do, and a seemingly widespread focus on local products. Of course, we all notice what matters to us, so my experience was shaped by what I was looking for, and it wasn't a big steak (much as I do like a big steak).

After wrestling the SUV to my hotel, I went out for provisions and then spent the evening in watching sports. Which is how I would have spent it anywhere in the world. Nothing to report.

Sunday started with a rugby semifinal on TV and then a visit to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Unfortunately half of it was closed, in the process of changing exhibits, so I only got to see the painting / sculpture gallery and the Dale Chihuly collection. Both were perfectly nice, but there wasn't enough modern art for my taste. And Chihuly's glass... Well... It's pretty and all, I get it, but if I have never been interested enough to see anything of his in Seattle where he is from, then it probably won't turn me on in Oklahoma either.

The Oklahoma City bombing memorial was just a few blocks away, so I took a walk over and spent some time there. It's very well done, because while it does include the sad memorial to those who lost their lives, it also includes a real tribute to the human spirit and perseverance, particularly around the large tree that survived the destruction around it. It was balanced and impactful in just the right way.

All of that didn't take long, and I had no other plans for the day, so I stopped into a locally focused grocery store (Native Roots) downtown for a few things. Then I spent the rest of the evening watching Saving Grace, a fantastic, weird, dark TV show that I had forgotten about until I was wandering the city where it's based this weekend.

Today I checked out of the hotel and went right to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, because obviously it had to be done. It is a big building with way more Cowboy, Native American, and general Old West stuff than I could fit into my brain. It's not that I don't think it's interesting or an important part of American history, I guess I just can't relate. I'm a city girl and my ancestors are Europeans who came to this continent in its relatively recent past. But it is really an impressive place, so I was still able to spend around an hour there before grabbing a burrito from a local Mexican joint, heading here to the airport, and soon, back to Seattle.

And I guess I have to thank that one temperamental rental car: I'm glad I never made the day trip down from Kansas City to see just the corner of Oklahoma, because I would have missed out on all this.