Saturday, December 29, 2007

So exactly how does a trip come together?

In an effort to both practice my travel writing skills and to document my next trip to Europe, I thought it'd be interesting to start from the beginning, the very genesis of a trip. That point in time when I realize where I'm going and how it materializes from there.

My sister and I had been aiming for April 2008 because of her vacation from school, and we were absolutely certain that we would be hitting cities with Vermeer paintings, as we are continuing our "Quest for Vermeer", which is our attempt to see all of Vermeers paintings, in their natural homes (ie - not on tour in exhibitions). Originally we had considered the crazy idea of flying on Aer Lingus to Dublin, spending a day there to literally, see the Vermeer at Ireland's National Gallery, and then continuing on to Paris. That was all quite possible when Aer Lingus' fares were a reasonable $700 around Thanksgiving. Those fares disappeared, as did our ability to get to Dublin for a reasonable cost. So then we looked to other cities that might have a Vermeer to see that were near Paris. Since we are hoping to visit all four German cities and 3 UK/Ireland cities with Vermeers on their own separate trips, the obvious choice is then Vienna.

Now, I'd visited Vienna in 2003 and was more than happy to say I'd been there, done that. I just saw what I wanted to see (in the rain), got yelled at by a waiter for not eating the largest wienerschnitzel in the world, lost one of my favorite gloves escaping a scary homeless man on a tram, and went on to Prague, which I enjoyed so much more. However, when I toured the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Vermeer was on loan to Tokyo, so I'd missed it. And part of the "Quest for Vermeer" rules is that we, as sisters, need to see the Vermeer paintings together. So even if I had seen it in 2003, I'd need to revisit anyway.

So with these destinations and dates in mind, I started watching airfare. And at first it was not looking promising. My sister travels on a teacher's budget, so whatever we can save in airfare and hotel will give her more money to spend on the niceties of European travel. But the current US$-Euro exchange rate, at $1.50, does not help things. Finally, right before Christmas and at the end of my first week on a new job, a fare of $673 popped up for IcelandAir, which we'd traveled last year.

I scrambled to ask my new boss for the time off before the fare disappeared. Feeling slightly guilty for planning time off on Week One, I explained the time/fare situation and he understood. Phew! So we had airfare, and it was over $100 cheaper than last year!

I then turned the planning over to Dear Sister (DS). Since I have been to Paris four times previously, I only had one destination on my "to do list", and that was L'Orangerie Museum, which had managed to be closed for renovation since the late 90s. Ironically enough, it reopened in 2006, 8 days after I left Paris on my last trip there.

So it was up to DS to figure out how to split 7 1/2 days between Paris and Vienna. She needed to prioritize the sights she wanted to see and figure out what would be the best days to be in each city based on museum openings. She came up with a plan and we found very cheap airfare between Paris and Vienna (literally 10 euro plus taxes, which ended up being 75 euro total). So we were completely booked in terms of airfare. Then came hotel...

Again, sticking to a budget and being hit hard by the exchange rate, we had to rule out quite a few locations. In addition to the exchange rate, the hotel room rates had really increased since the last time I'd looked in Paris. It really is a finely-orchestrated dance trying to find hotels. DS got a taste of the insanity when she "balanced my guidebooks on my desk with Trip Advisor and Fodors open on the computer and another window open to look at the hotel's website." She was able to read how well she'd like a place by the way the rooms and lobby looked in the photo galleries as well as whether breakfast was included in the room rate and how hearty it would be. I followed these guidelines but double-checked with Fodors Travel Talk forum and Trip Advisor for solid reviews in the recent past.

After a few "no vacancy" emails from our top choices, we found a wonderful little hotel near the Pantheon for 100E a night for the first five nights and an even lovelier little hotel near the Eiffel Tower for our last 2 nights in Paris. For the one night in Vienna, we got a very well-situated and well-appointed hotel that includes breakfast for 118E.

So now all eyes turn to the guidebooks and formulating a plan to cover as much ground as we can without running out of gas or interest. It will be interesting to see Paris through my sister's eyes, since I've always been with my Mom or on my own. Thankfully, we share taste in (most) art and food, so that's half the battle. But I can't wait to show her what I love about Paris. And maybe, just maybe, it will work the other way as well. Maybe she will show me a side of Vienna I actually like.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Pets in Other Places

Anyone will talk about their pet or the animals they care about. If someone has a pet, I really believe that it is innately built into them to want to talk about it, getting that sparkle in their eye and becoming more animated as they think about their pup or kitty waiting them back at home. I learned during some recent trips abroad that this is also a great way to start to talk to local residents. What better way to bond than over a safe, happy subject. It’s more interesting than the war in Iraq and less threatening than "hey, how-are-ya?"

It was in Montepulciano that I first tried to break the ice with a resident by bringing her dog into the conversation. An elderly lady was sitting on a bench in the square with her cane in one hand and the end of a leash in the other. At the other end of that leash was a medium-sized (read: not threatening) mottled black and white mutt, of no specific breeding and with a set of teeth he was raring to use. As I approached her, I asked her in Italian "what is his name?" and she responded. As I reached down to pet him, the mutt snapped at me and the lady tugged hard on the leash in reprimand. And then came forth a lengthy story in Italian about said mutt, although I’m unsure of the details of the story because, while my Italian is good, I wasn’t quite prepared for more than his name itself. But she smiled, patted the pup on the head and I wished her a good day. And we went on our separate ways.

On a subsequent trip to Italy, I was really missing my cat and it was only the second day of the trip. I can cure most symptoms of homesickness, but not missing my boy. I can’t call him, email him or hear his voice to make me miss him any less. So stopping by the cat sanctuary at Largo Argentina in Rome was probably not the smartest move I could have made. The cats there are obviously well-tended to. While they don’t have the firm, round, bulging belly of any of the well-fed cats in my family, they looked clean, well-kept and safe. Some were missing bits of tail or paws from past troubling encounters, but the nearby shelter was doing its darn best to keep them alive and well. And it appeared to be a success judging by the way these cats lolled about the ruins of the Senate where Julius Caesar was assassinated. My lingering at the cat sanctuary ended up being more significant than seeing Caesar's final destination in this life and appreciating the fact that these amazing ruins st ill stood amidst a modern city block. Upon entering the shelter, the tell-tale smell of "shelter" hit me and the tears started to well in my eyes. Inside here, under the sidewalk of Rome, more cats waiting to be adopted and loved wandered about with the run of the place. One, a tiger a bit too thin for my liking but with a striking resemblance to my boy, started to follow me around, a reminder of who I'd left behind at home. A volunteer at the shelter came up to me and when she smiled at me, I began to cry in earnest...

"You do such good work," I said.

"Thank you. Do you miss your cat?" she replied, to which I could only nod in the affirmative.

"Ah....," she said, "when did he die?"

"He didn't die, I left him at home yesterday," I said, feeling a bit foolish for being so emotional only 36 hours after leaving home. But she put her arm around me and said,"many people come here when they are missing their cats at home. It is good that you love him so much." And with that, she introduced me to some of her favorite feline residents. I ended up buying a potholder and wooden statue of a cat and told the volunteer to keep the change from my 50 euro bill. Those cats were going to eat on my dime (or euro) that night. It was all I could do to make myself feel as if the visit at the shelter wasn't wholly selfish.

On that same trip, I came across a cute little grey and white guy who was mewing and mewing his way around a street in Trastevere. An elderly woman was talking to him as I approached. I asked her in Italian if it was her cat and she replied "Non, non ha casa" (No, he doesn't have a home). And then she said what absolutely broke my heart..."Ha fame" (He's hungry). So I asked her what he eats, as I'd just passed a shop about 2 blocks back.

She replied, "Mortadella". Well, I want to feed this cat, but no way is a homeless cat eating mortadella (although I suspect it's cheaper in Italy proper than it is at home!) So I told the old lady to wait with him and off I went, returning to the shop. I grabbed a foil pack of cat food off the shelf and paid at the counter, refusing a sack since it was for the cat just outside. I hurried back and peeled back the foil, dumping the food on the ground for the cat. The old lady smiled and wandered off. The cat devoured about half and then a second larger cat appeared. Another neighbor appeared and fed the second cat "the cheap stuff" and admonished me for buying the good, expensive stuff. Agreeing that it was rather expensive, I smiled and picked up the empty packet and turned to throw it out in a barrel a few doors behind me. When I walked back that way, my little grey and white friend was across the street working an American couple strolling up the other side, mewing and mewing and breaking their hearts. Apparently, he's an accomplished performer.

Perhaps this is an inherited trait of mine. My very own mother spent our day in Pompeii walking around the ancient ruins and turning on the faucets for the homeless dogs. It started with one and then word apparently spread that the lady from America was turning on the water. And the dogs, they began to come from miles around. At one point, she looked like the Pied Piper of Pompeii, with a circus of dogs following her from tap to tap. I'm fairly certain they liked the attention more than the actual watering itself, and I think my mother did as well. Pompeii's water bill may have suffered a bit that month for her efforts though. And on her first trip abroad, my sister and I made a point of photographing all of the cats we saw in Holland, each of which seemed to be living a life more like our cats at home than those cats in the sanctuary in Rome. We saw one sitting all tall and proud behind a lace curtain in a lofty suburb of Amsterdam and another on a table in a closed empty resta urant, and neither would nod his head or shift his eyes at us in acknowledgment. Ah yes, cats are the same everywhere, with their lofty pretenses and affinity for posing for photos.

I'm convinced that the cats I encounter really do enjoy being doted on like I do. In Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, there was a tortie cat walking around the ramparts on his own, and he came right toward me when I said "How's the big boy doing?" Maybe he doesn't understand English per se, but the tone of voice and affection it implies is enough to get him change his course and come to me for a pat. And it does me good as well, because if I'm 3000 miles from my own four footed friend, I can get the same unquestioning purr from a furry friend abroad and it almost makes me miss my boy just a little bit less. Almost.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

New computer bliss

The dreaded finally happened to me last week. I suffered some whacked out combination of trojan horse and spyware hijacking that my 5-year old Dell just could not recover from. Not for a lack of trying, however. I spent, literally, four days on the phone with a combination of Dell and Microsoft tech support folks (all very helpful despite their insistence to begin their workday at 7:00 a.m. on my four day weekend between jobs!). Finally, after four days and utter physical and mental exhaustion, I gave up and ordered a new Dell. I clicked the "Buy" button on the first day of my new job and five days later, on a Saturday, my mother called to inform me that the delivery had just been made, the new Dell had arrived at their house.

I was like a kid on Christmas morning, scampering down the stairs in footed pajamas, racing to see what was left under the tree by Santa Claus. Only I was wearing Lands End boots and plaid flannel pants and had to jump in the Camry for a 3 mile ride, and I knew what was there waiting for me. I'm just trying to tell you how excited I was. Pretty. Darn. Excited.

Because only people who love computers like I do know what it's like to crack open the box and fit the right plugs into the right holes and crank a brand new PC up for the first time. And the smell of fresh plastic that hits me every time I walk into my office. Heavenly.

And I swear, this time, I'm doing it right. Not that I didn't before, but I'm not going to load programs I'll never use. I'm not going to visit potentially scary sites that might give me another Trojan Horse. And I'm not using Symantec Internet Security again. Not for anything, but I was fully protected and still got wiped out. I'm taking recommendations for new protection (AVG is the leader thus far). My old Dell didn't owe me much, I'd used it way beyond what its useful life was, and I'm adapting quite nicely to my 19" wide screen flat panel monitor. But that old Dell and I traveled a lot of miles together here on the desktop. It's in a computer lab now for an attempted back-up of some stuff I think I want. After that, appropriate services will be held for my old friend. Arrangements to follow.

Boston -- where incompetence rules supreme

I've come out of my new job haze (sorry to be so lax in blogging, new job takes precedence and all of mental energy, apparently) to speak up, again. It seems that in addition to about 20 inches of snow, incompetence has taken hold of Boston and won't let it go. Let's rewind through the past week, shall we?

Early last week, our local meteorologists predicted a late-week storm that was to be the precursor of the jim-dandy of all storms later in the weekend. All of us hearty Bostonians shrugged off the threat of the late-week storm, we've been there, done that. And after all, they were saying it was to be a mere 2-4 inches in the Boston area. That's nothing to a native. Fast-forward to Thursday, when we got clobbered with snow from noontime onward, causing just about every non-essential employee to be released from work simultaneously. The gridlocks that ensued in the train stations, highways and city streets was insane. A commute that usually takes me an hour door to door took...two and a half hours. But that's not the least of it.

The powers-that-be at City Hall, Beacon Hill, the media and private enterprise are all pointing fingers at each other over exactly who is to blame for the gridlock and nightmare commute. City Hall says employers shouldn't have waited for the State of Emergency before letting people go at 2 p.m. Beacon Hill says City Hall should have acted sooner. Everyone says the meteorologists should have forecasted more accurately. And private enterprise is like, "huh, we're just doing what we're told." So there.

On a micro level (because you knew this was going to come back to me, didn't you?), standing in North Station, shoulder-to-shoulder and chest-to-back with my fellow rail commuters, I found myself cursing the train crew. The public address announcer kept making announcements declaring that "All trains are running at or near scheduled times." This despite the fact that it was 3:40 and I was still waiting for the 3:15 to begin boarding. I guess that "at or near" is subject to interpretation. This really should be no big surprise to any of the daily commuters who are subject to the scrolling marquis boards at all the train stops, which regularly announce that
"All trains are running at or near scheduled times.....Monday, November 27, 2007 4:25 a.m."
Except that it's Friday, December 14, 2007 7:25 a.m. when I'm waiting for said train that is allegedly running at or near schedule. Which leads me to believe that the veracity of the message board needs to be examined.

Later on the same day of said commute from hell (I was one of the lucky ones; there were reports from other members of the Battis family which indicated that a commute from Salem to Beverly -- about 4 miles -- took nearly an hour), we were "surprised" with over 8 inches of snow. Nearly double that which was predicted. I suppose if the meteorologists took a page out of the MBTA's book and just forecasted that snowfall would be "at or near" 1-20 inches, that would about cover them in any eventuality and I would have nothing to gripe about.

But here's my any other position at any other company, both the meteorologists and the MBTA announcer would be fired (if not shot) for their continued failure to be right and do their jobs accurately. How many times do we need to suffer at their hands before something is done? We know from local history that meteorologists can get it right...hell, they used to cancel school the night before a storm based on Don Kent's forecasting ability. And he was right. Now, with all the technology in the world, they can't figure out the difference between 2 to 4 and 8? Yikes.

Oh and to top it off, the "jim-dandy" storm of the weekend threw us another 4-6 inches. Not nearly as nasty as the "pre-cursor" storm of Thursday. Another missed forecast. Tra-la, tra-la. Is no one else getting worked up over this?

I'm installing a scrolling marquis sign over my desk. It will continuously scroll
"Amy is at or near some level of productivity today."
We'll see how long I last.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Joshua Tree, 20 years later

Time flies. Twenty years went by in the blink of an eye. In that time, I graduated high school, college three times, got half-way through my Master's, moved out of my parents' house, traveled to Europe 19 times, had 10 jobs (at least!), fell in love three times, lost my grandparents and became a self-assured thirty-something who remains, to this day, a huge U2 fan.

I can remember awaiting the release of The Joshua Tree in 1987. It was the end of my junior year in high school when the single came out, and I can remember sitting by the radio waiting to hear With or Without You played for the first time on WBCN. I bought the cassette when the album was released and went to my first (of 32, so far) U2 concerts that fall.

The Joshua Tree (and its follow up Achtung! Baby) remains the cornerstone of my music collection, and oddly enough, the soundtrack to my life at the time it came out and I aurally devoured it. In recent years, hearing Where the Streets Have No Name live in concert moves me to tears. There is something about the phenomenal segue from whatever song preceeds it into the haunting sequencer and Larry's gentle cadence-driven intro that gets me every time. Long before Edge ever chimes in with his first notes, I have goosebumps. I'm smitten. It was the first song I heard U2 perform in concert, and the one song I've heard them perform every time since. Thankfully it's a staple, and hopefully it will remain that way. But the rest of the album, both the A-side and the B-side (for those of you who still remember when they ordered songs with the "sides" in mind), is incredibly strong and has withstood the test of time marvelously. It's one of the few albums from the 80s that I can go back to and listen again and again.

So here we are, twenty years later, and U2 has decided to remaster the album "as they intended it to be heard," says U2's manager Paul McGuinness. Now, why they didn't do this the first time around, barring lack of available technology that we probably have easy access to today, I don't know. But in the meantime, I bought JT on CD when album formats went to CD. So I'm already in this for two copies. And to further the additional funding on construction on U2's homes, I bought the $60 super deluxe maxi version today (but on sale for $45!), remastered with "rare" unreleased songs (shockingly, I had actually never heard them before), a DVD of a 1987 Paris show and the much-rumored-to-exist video of Red Hill Mining town. I think that alone is worth the price of admission, but I fell hook, line and sinker for the whole set. Which is why I say, I'm helping to fund a new room on each of U2's homes.

But I think more disturbing than my propensity to blindly throw money at this band like a crack addict looking for her next hit is the harsh realization that this is the first historic box set re-release for which I remember the original. Not only do I remember it, but I lived and breathed it. For years. And still do. That alone is making me feel my years today and realize as I look at their pictures that, as much as they have aged in 20 years, so have I. And that's downright scary.

So on the initial listen, I can't say that with my crappy iPod headphones and the PC CD-player at work I really hear a difference, to be honest. I will have to try it out on a home stereo or maybe even home stereo with headphones to appreciate the difference. And I can't really say the previously unreleased material is that great either. They sound unfinished and/or cut from the album for a very good reason. Which of course, they were. None are the caliber of Spanish Eyes or Silver and Gold or even Luminous Times, three songs which really, in all rights, should have made it on to that album. But there wasn't room on either the A-side or B-side for them.

For now though, opening the collector's edition box and reading the booklet and looking at the photos of the band then, and thinking of where they (and I) have been in the interim, is like being swept by an undertow back through the past. When all things, including their music, were simpler, easier and cost a lot less than $44.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Rome two weeks later, the lasting impressions

Now that I've been home and back at the grind for a bit, I thought I'd look back and see what lasting impressions I have been left with.

The Pantheon is quite possibly the most beautiful building I saw in Rome, or many other places, for that matter. I don't know what it was, but on this trip the Pantheon captivated me. It was my first stop the day I arrived and the last place I saw the night before I left. In a light mist, in bright sun and especially lit at night, it was just beautiful. I can't explain it, but looking at it gave me that feeling that I was truly somewhere special, ancient and mystical.

I saw some amazing art. Nothing in the world can prepare you to see the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo's Moses or "his" hand gripping Prosperina's thigh, as if the marble was really flesh made of butter. I can close my eyes and bring myself back to each place: as Moses' eyes met mine and I swore he was about to speak but for the crowds that came between us; as I turned round the spiral that is Bernini's Rape of Proserpina and saw the hand that held her back and her hand that pushed away; as I was able to stare open-mouthed and wander without a care or bother for another soul, neck craned upwards at the most mind-blowingly beautiful ceiling in the world. And that is not to belittle the Caravaggios and other mounds and mounds of art to be had in the city. These are just the ones that still lull me to sleep, captivate my mind and rock my soul now that I'm home.

And the food...who can beat the most delectable gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce that just melted away in my mouth? Why even try to find better paparadelle alla pesto or bruschetta alla diavolo (with a salami spread). And the red wine, which I have probably mentioned before, was wonderful, even if it was on tap. I won't elaborate on the gelato...what more can be said about Bailey's flavored goodness?

Ruins are cool. To be walking through a neighborhood that seems pretty ordinary and then see the ruins of an ancient theater or a column embedded into an existing facade, that's pretty cool. You don't get that in Boston and I wonder if it ever gets old to Rome's inhabitants.

I'm already feeling the draw to go back. Despite my best efforts to cover as much ground as possible, I left so many stones unturned that I need to go back. But I'd still go back and have my gnocchi, see Moses and the Ceiling, see Proserpina and will her to get away, stumble upon the ruins and live La Dolce Vita, Roman Style.

Loving Kid Nation -- still

I will spare you my complaints about snow, bitter cold and the fact that two weeks ago I was in Rome instead of stuck in a cubicle in downtown Boston. You're welcome. Instead I'll get back to tv...

With the Writer's Strike forcing most of my usual tv viewing into hiatus, I'm still left with Kid Nation. As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the most underrated reality tv shows of recent memory (after, perhaps, The Amazing Race).

I am guessing we are just over halfway through the kids' stay in Bonanza City and now I'm starting to wonder. The town council is forced to read this diary left by the previous inhabitants (who were unsuccessful at getting Bonanza City to work) and the council has to follow the directions left in the diary. I'm a little unclear on this because why would anyone in their right mind follow the guidance from people who have FAILED? Anyhow...

The kids are bored, so they were told to put on a talent show. It got boring picking on kids we didn't like on each team, so the teams were told to swap players. Now hold on just a minute, but some of these kids are in the 13-16 year old age range. I'm wondering why there's been no sexual experimentation here. I mean, according to today's media, they are long overdue. But we're not seeing it. I think that would go a long way to curing boredom and relieving hostilities. I'm just sayin'.

The kids still look pretty unkempt. Emilie looks like she hasn't showered or brushed her hair in, oh, 25 days. It's probably true. There is still some rampant mouth fungus running amok on the kids. One girl, who's been frying potatoes for favors (literally), has burn marks on her face from splattered grease, which she chalks up to "the job." Oy. I'm surprised scurvy and malnutrition have yet to set in since they appear to eat only starches and sweets along with root beer shooters while on camera. Not a balanced diet in the least. And I was horrified to see a recent challenge involved gum-chewing, which is not the most brilliant idea the producers had, what with all the orthodontically supported amongst the kids.

So I have no idea what's to come in the next four weeks. From the trailers, I'm seeing Nazi epithets being hurled, and we've already experienced some violence, idle threats and foul language. I'm hoping for more. This is riveting tv at its finest. You know it's good when your Dear Sister calls during commercial break and says "I hate that bitch, Jordan," and you have to remind her that Jordan's only nine years old!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Blogging from Rome...

Well, not exactly. I wrote this (as in pen on paper) while I was taking the train from Rome to Orvieto:

When you travel alone, you find yourself at times having conversations with yourself, or let's say having more profound thoughts than you might otherwise. I'm starting to notice these now and seeing how much they color my experience in Italy. For example...

Step over the bidet and into the shower. I am in the world's smallest bathroom (no, really) where there is barely room to get one leg past the bidet and into the shower, which, is tightly squeezed into a corner to such an effect that the doors need to be pushed inwards to get in. This is, of course, after you've stepped over the bidet. All of this makes for quite a challenge if you are visually-impaired, which I am without contacts or glasses while I'm in there to do what needs to be done.

While I don't necessarily need said bidet, I have decided that I need a towel warmer. Everywhere. On vacation, at home, at work. I've had them at my disposal in hotels before but have never used one. Apparently the reception desk controls the heat and the towel warmers in this hotel, and the three mornings it was on and I had nice warm towels after I launched myself out of the shower (and over the bidet), it was just heavenly.

My biggest crisis on this trip was hearing myself say aloud "what do you mean it's 1 p.m. and I haven't had any gelato yet?" Yes, I actually said that. And yes, I did drop what I was doing and find the nearest gelateria. In sampling 18 flavors in a week (well off my previous record), I managed to maintain at least a daily intake. But leaving it toward the end of the day becomes risky.

Everything tastes better with Nutella. The first day at this hotel, I was given two croissants for breakfast, so a couple little tubs of Nutella went well with those. Then all of a sudden it was one croissant and one big old hard roll, like a dinner roll. But the Nutella made even the crappy roll taste better. Nutella needs to be a household staple, methinks.

I hate cappucino, but I'm drinking it. My descent into "normal" (aka not macchiato or syrup-enhanced) coffee continues, having begun in Amsterdam (land of "would you like condensed milk for your coffee?"). With not a Starbucks in sight in Italy, I sidle up to a coffee bar and drink about 6 ounces of heaven in a cup. Sigh....

I hate wine, but I'm drinking it. Thanks to Bill and Tony, my eyes have been opened to red wine and I've acquired quite a taste for it, even the "nuovo" (aka 2007) that we were served!

About these relics...ok, I've been to over 10 European countries and have seen religious relics up the wazoo. There're the relics of the three magi, St. Catherine's head, St. Catherine's body (in two different places!), St. John's head, thorns from the crown of thorns (in several different places), pieces of the real cross, pieces of Jesus' crib, St. Peter's finger (or is that Galileo, which would make it not a religious relic?) My point here is, how is it possible that there are this many relics? I would think there's a limit to the number of thorns from that crown, and only limited wood on that cross or crib. How did so much of it get out there? Really?

I think that about covers my confessional for this trip. There are others (mainly about certain hot, young Italian priests worthy of a second look) but I'm afraid to put that into writing, at least in a public forum. Ciao!

Monday, October 29, 2007

So ready to go...

Well, here I am about 48 hours from departure. And I'm just tired. I am tired of work, tired of looking for work, tired of worrying about having work, tired about worrying about health crises, tired of dealing with family things (though not most of my family members themselves), tired of keeping the schedule I keep, tired of keeping myself together when I really just want a nap, even tired of doing Spinning profiles and going to class -- although I know I'll be fine once I get there.

I don't know what it is, but in the week or so leading up to vacation, every little thing becomes overwhelming. I think, hope, pray that this upcoming change of scenery is enough to breathe some life back into my weary head.

So I've stopped reading for the trip, stopped planning, even stopped packing. It's time to just go and let it happen. So I have chunks of days with no itinerary, I'm just gonna go with the flow. HORRORS! I might even relax. I might even {gasp!} have a siesta!

And maybe, after some gnocchi, gelato, campari, shopping, art, churches and a few hot Italian men (kidding!), I'll come back restored and a little less tired.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Italy, here I come

I've reached that critical point in the countdown to any trip where my departure day is finally included in the 7 day weather forecast. Granted, it says rain, rain and more rain, but if Roman meteorologists are anything like those we have in Boston, I should pack my bathing suit. Seriously. But just in case, I've bought an all-season, long, weatherproof coat. I figure that will cover me in any eventuality. Except maybe beach weather.

I've just exchanged enough Euros to hit the ground without running immediately for an ATM. I have stocked up on OTC remedies for all that may ail me (except of course campylobacter, which I encountered in Spain and hopefully will not meet up with again in Rome). I have compiled lists of sights, restaurants, internet cafes, train schedules for potential escapes from the city. I've confirmed my flights and hotel. I found subs for my spinning classes while I'm gone. I still need to cancel the newspaper and remind the credit card companies not to cancel my account when I make that first big purchase out of the country. But they probably still will. I found a converter to charge my iPod abroad, so I've loaded it with past seasons of The Office and will watch tv on my way across the pond.

So this is how my traveling mind works, organizing the trip into nice neat little segments. I have a rough itinerary, which looks something like this:

Thurs Nov 1
Arrive 9 a.m. – limo to hotel
Trajan’s Market
Capitoline Hill – Campidoglio, Musei Capitolini, Monumento Vittorio Emanuel, S. Maria in Aracoeli
San Pietro in Vincoli

Fri Nov 2
Baroque Rome Tour (9:30 – 1:00) [includes Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Palazzo Barberini]

Sat Nov 3
Roma Antica Tour (9:00 – 1:00) [Palatine Hill, Palatine Museum, Aqueduct of Claudius, Golden House, views of Roman Forum, Forum, Mammertine Prison, Imperial Fora, ends at Colosseum]

Sun Nov 4
Galleria Borghese Tour (2:30 – 5:00)

Mon Nov 5
Caravaggio Seminar Tour (9:00 – 12:30) [includes Santa Maria del Popolo, Sant’Agostino, San Luigi dei Francesi, ends at Galleria Pamphilij]
Private Vatican Museum After Hours Tour (3:15 – 6:15)

Tues Nov 6
Vatican Scavi Tour (9:15 – 10:45)
Tour St. Peter’s
Climb dome
Castel Sant’Angelo

Wed Nov 7
Free! Orvieto?

And we don't want to talk about what happens after, because it entails leaving Italy and coming home, and that's just something we don't need to think about just yet. I have much, much more to add to that itinerary, but those are the bare basics at any rate. I know I won't get to everything I want to, but I'll give it a try nonetheless.

This weekend I'll start packing, laying things out in piles and making sure all is in order. Sometimes I think the anticipation thing is the best part. Until I get there, sigh over something gorgeous and devour my first gelato.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Halloween candy hell

As I say every year, the descent into holiday eating has begun. This year, my Halloween favorites were out on the shelves in mid-August. I can honestly say that I was enjoying my first bag of candy corn in 2007 while reading a book at Long Beach in Gloucester. And it was over 80 degrees out. Craziness.

While the mellowcreme pumpkins are my perennial favorite, candy corn will certainly do in a pinch and the Autumn Mix, with its smattering of pumpkins amidst both candy corn and Indian corn, can serve a purpose as well (which is just to inject pure sugar into my system asap). I have no shame when I admit that I can eat a Big Bag (that's two pounds, available at Target for the bargain price of $1.99) in less than a week. Indeed, high school friends will remember those football games where I would indulge in a bag while sitting in the bleachers, approach the "almost-vomit" point, take a short break, and then finish it off. Time has not changed that behavior.

But as a chocolate lover as well, I was nearly ecstatic when I read that Hershey's is putting out a limited edition candy corn-flavored Kiss. Oddly enough, Hershey's doesn't promote this offering at all on its website. I wonder if they are embarassed to do so.

I found them at Target. Now don't get me wrong, I don't think there's such a thing as bad chocolate. If they weren't marketed as "candy corn" flavored, and I wasn't such a candy corn/pumpkin enthusiast, I might not have been as disappointed. To me, they taste just like white chocolate with an after-taste that I just can't place. To my sister, one word suffices: vile. I had a couple handfuls over the weekend, but decided not to finish the bag. There'd be no near-vomit point with these.

I've left the remnants out for my co-workers today, about a dozen men with typical men appetites. We'll see how fast they disappear, if they do at all. And I'll just revert to my mellowcreme pumpkins.

T-minus 30 and counting

So I am officially 30 days from Rome. Sigh. I booked this trip back in May, so you can imagine how interminable the wait has been, but if past practice is any indication, the last 30 will drrrrrraaaaaaagggggg.

Today I'm trying to dredge up some thoughts to help it go by faster. I'm still juggling refresher Italian lessons on the iPod and reading whatever I can get my hands on to bring me up to speed on Roman history. That said, there's still more to consider.

I've been fortunate enough to never need general anesthesia, however, the prospect of another overseas flight is enough for me to consider extending that medical tool to air travel. Seven hours to Frankfurt, ninety minutes to change and another two hours to Rome. How delightful if I could just get that happy pill and wake up alive and refreshed from a sound sleep in bella Roma? Alas, I am looking for ways to kill time while I'm unable to sleep (late afternoon flight, lesser chance of snoozing!) and then how to entertain myself for 11 hours on the ground before I can cave in to jetlag and let myself sleep in Rome? (I'm thinking visiting the "light" outdoor sites in Rome, like Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, Vittorio Emmanuel and Campidoglio...all spots that won't require a lot of thought, will be out in the daylight to help reset the internal clock yet are things I can dully check off the To Do list.)

But the excitement of tackling another large city and devouring it while feeding my senses is beyond compare. I've consulted maps, booked private tours and plotted a loosely woven and somewhat forgiving itinerary (I may fit Florence in yet!) Yet with the amount of art, architecture, ruins and sheer beauty awaiting me, my mind can hardly prepare for it. Then there's gnocchi, grappa and gelato, ah, yes, gelato, which awaits my sense of taste and smell. And to hear the rhythmic melodies of spoken Italian again, like a song I have to sing. Yes, it's all there and waiting. For me.

Just thirty more days.

Road shock

Somehow I managed to spend the entire summer riding indoors. Between the amount of classes I covered for other instructors and my own scheduled classes and then my inclination to only ride outdoors on days between 65 and 78 degrees and no humidity, my days outside this summer were few and far between.

So this weekend, with Saturday giving us a glorious 77 degrees, light breeze and blue skies, I hit the pavement on my hybrid. Outdoors of all things. It felt so good Saturday, that I suffered the slightly colder, darker and damper Sunday as well. And I realized that after two days and nearly 60 miles logged, I am suffering from road shock. Much like culture shock, road shock brought me to the realization that, no matter how hard we try to simulate an outdoor ride in our spinning profiles, we will always fall short in a few basic areas, yet, indoor riding also has its benefits.

First, we will never be able to effectively instruct how to find a flat road. I found about ten types of flat road on my short excursions this weekend. None of them required no work. Too often, we let our students get away with what I call "free-wheeling" that is, pedaling with virtually no resistance and indeed, pedaling to no where. I've tried to tell them that riding with so little resistance is akin to pedaling if your chain has fallen off. But if you've never ridden outdoors and never had your chain fall off, you'll never get it. Advantage outdoors.

Too, it's virtually impossible to explain the work involved in riding into a headwind or riding a false flat (looks flat, needs some legpower) without having them launch themselves into a full blown hill climb. I suffered about 5 miles of headwind yesterday, never felt as if I was on a hill per se, but my legs were jelly by the end of that stretch. Similarly, I also found about 5 miles of flat with the slightest bit of descent on it. I hit it in a big gear and took it at about 24 mph (amazing on a hybrid!). That's such a liberating feeling that I wish I could convey in my profiles! Advantage, still outdoors.

Hills are not so forgiving either. When you reach down for the resistance knob to make it less of a hill, there's no knob there and you're stuck with said hill. Yes, I did reach for it once outside and was dismayed to find it missing, perhaps a sign that I've spent a little too much time inside! Advantage, indoors if you're not into suffering.

The whole balance thing, you know, keeping the bike upright? Completely underestimated. Arms, shoulders, back and abs are all feeling it this morning, something they rarely do after weeks of spinning inside. Advantage, outdoors.

Concentration is a might bit different as well. Instead of being able to zone out and find my special place for the duration of the ride, I have to watch for traffic, dogs, potholes, gravel, automobile traffic and traffic patterns. Not quite as relaxing as on the inside. Advantage, indoors.

Doing my loop ride in reverse and laughing at myself when I realized why I always went the other way (it was much easier the first time around!) is something I can more effectively communicate in out and back profiles now. Advantage, even.

And snakes? Never a good thing, even in the roadkill form. Advantage, indoors, definitely indoors.

Finally, the soundtrack is missing. On particular stretches of flats, climbs and everything in between, I wanted to reach for the remote and turn up the music, or switch it to something more agreeable for the effort. But like the resistance knob, the stereo is missing too, leaving me with whatever melodies I could conjure up and stick with in my head. Advantage, indoors.

I'm hoping that in the coming weeks I'll be able to squeeze a few more weekend rides in before the temperature falls below my comfort threshhold. I'll keep looking for ways to share my joy and my pain found outside with my classes. After all, that's where the challenge lies for the spinning instructor.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Still ours...this is too easy

Comedians must be having a field day with the Bush Administration, or more specifically, George W. himself. It wasn't until I started to blog that I realized how much material he gives people who like to spout off about him.

Case in point: I wanted to blog this weekend but didn't really have the energy to think up something entirely interesting or creative. Then I read The Boston Sunday Globe and saw that W., our "Education President" was speaking this week about the "No Child Left Behind" Campaign that has been his futile education pet project.

He said: "Our childrens is learning."

Which then jumpstarted my synapses this lazy Sunday morning and got me thinking, didn't he already step in the proverbial grammatical poo about this program once before?

Ah yes, it was July of 2000 when he asked: "Is our children learning?" I guess now he's answered his own question. At least he's consistent (-ly wrong) with his subject/verb agreement. That's gotta count for something.

Now, my motivation for pointing these issues out is twofold. One, for those among us who are just sick and tired and generally fed up that this guy is still running our country and representing us in the world, I offer you the old adage, "if you don't laugh about it, you'll cry."

And two, for those Republicans among us (I know who you are and you know who you are, yet we've agreed not to discuss this): if you still see nothing wrong with the aforementioned gaffes, then I ask, no, beg of you, that when you vote next year, PLEASE vote for the right person, one who is articulate, intelligent and competent, all of which W. has proven not to be in the last 7 years. You owe us that much, we've been sitting here suffering through this because of your choices in 2000 and 2004. Cut us some slack this time! Please!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

General grumblings of the week....

Ok, so the whole Ahmadinejad visit scandal? No, he shouldn't have been allowed at Ground Zero out of respect for the families, although it being a public spot and this being America, who was going to stop him? I'm also fine with him speaking at Columbia. Hell, I'd probably have gone if I went to school there. Nothing like getting inside the mind of a dictator to perhaps learn something from our adversaries, which indeed, is one of the things we're in college for; you know, that whole "two sides to every story" thing? However, the lambasting that he took at the hands of the University's President? Not really necessary. He said what we all know, and do you really think Ahmadinejad cares what an American college president thinks about him? I didn't think so. I'm thinking the Prez was lobbing a pre-emptive strike to counter the demonstrators who thought Columbia was wrong to have the guy in to speak to begin with. Just a hunch....

Alec Baldwin hits the nail on the head though in his blog today ....Ahmadinejad does seem oddly familiar.

And now for Bill O'Reilly, who claims that eating at a restaurant in Harlem is just like eating anywhere else in [white] America. Good god, man...surely you know that that comment is only going to stir the pot. Or perhaps that is what you're hoping would happen (that's my guess). Makes for good blog reading while I'm bored anyway.

And finally, I've been thinking a lot about the greenhouse effect since Bill Maher had Bjørn Lomberg on to discuss his book "Cool It". Among other things, Lomberg pointed out that while we may lose Florida to higher ocean levels, and the Northwest Passage is finally wide open, this is not the climate crisis that it seems. While there are more heat-related deaths, there are far fewer cold-related deaths, so overall we benefit there. And while ocean levels are expected to rise 10 inches this century, that is the same that they they rose in the previous century, and that didn't cause nearly the concern. Lomberg dare says "we didn't even notice." So if all this is true, and what all the greenhouse proponents says is true, what are we to think? Lomberg suggests we refocus on things we can cure, like AIDS, poverty and hunger!

Friday, September 21, 2007

And he's still ours....

In Thursday's White House Press Conference, President Bush discussed why there hasn't been more progress in achieving democracy in Iraq.

He says:

"Part of the reason why there is not this instant democracy in Iraq is because people are still recovering from Saddam Hussein's brutal rule. I thought an interesting comment was made when somebody said to me, I heard somebody say, where's Mandela? Well, Mandela is dead, because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas."

Yes, Hussein was a horrible, brutal dictator, but I had no idea his brutality extended to the former South African President, who incidentally, is actually still alive.

File this under: Only 487 more days...

My Favorite Cities -- Amsterdam

In all of my travels, I have seldom fallen for a city immediately other than (Paris and Florence). But Amsterdam stands a chance of changing all that. I just visited Amsterdam for the first time in April, but oddly enough, I'm feeling this urgent draw to return.

Perhaps I had set low expectations for the city and my experiences there. I knew I'd have a good time traveling with Dear Sister, but I figured that that would be the extent of the good memories. I don't know why, but I just didn't expect to be so affected by Amsterdam.

And before you ask, no, we didn't visit the "coffee shops" and I didn't smoke any funny cigarettes. Hell, I didn't even know we'd been in the Red Light District until we returned and were looking at pictures. "Oude Kerk," my DS said, "that was smack dab in the middle of the RLD." Increduously, I looked at her. "Did you not see the woman lift her window shade at 5 p.m. to open for business? Did you not see all the outdoor urinals?" she asked. I guess not, I guess I had one of those alternative trips to Amsterdam...the ones without the fun stuff.

But anyway, back to why I love Amsterdam. First off, the canals are amazing. There are more canals and bridges here than in Venice, allegedly. And as limiting and overwhelming as I found the canals and bridges in Venice, Amsterdam's are the complete opposite. Here, they are manageable and digestible. They provided the atmosphere and mystique that I think I expected in Venice but found in Amsterdam. We had a stretch of inordinately hot weather in April there, but one late afternoon we walked the Jordaan district, following a self-guided walk over the quaint and picturesque off-the-beaten-path canals and found a cool, calm retreat from a day's sightseeing.

Certainly, Amsterdam offers up some wonderful art and history in its museums. We wondered at the masters in the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Rembrandthuis and Anne Frank House, as well as sneaking out of town to the Mauritshuis in Den Haag. And to be in Amsterdam during tulip season was just amazing; we saw colors and breeds of tulips that were previously unknown to us -- a feast for the senses we'll never forget.

But more of what I took away from Amsterdam was in the simple things: condensed milk in hot coffee; swallowing pickled herring whole; practical, sensible and clean public transport; the embrace of the bike culture; noticeable use of windmills, recycling and other forms of green living; kindness of strangers; appreciation for a good hot hutspot; the delight of a fresh plate of poffertjes covered in powdered sugar; the slow simmer and eventual eruption of a cherry jenever as it slides down. These simple pleasures are what I think of when I remember Amsterdam.

I found Amsterdam to be warm, welcoming and thoroughly enchanting, none of which I had really expected and all of which I am longing to return to.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

My favorite cities -- Florence

Florence, it seems, is a city that travelers either love or hate. No one is just "meh" about Florence. I am one who is completely smitten with this city that feels like a town in the heart of Tuscany.

Most notably, Florence is home to two of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen: il Duomo and Michelangelo's David.

I will never forget the first time I saw David. I had rounded the corner from the gift shop to the long hall which leads directly to that naturally lit rotunda exhibiting this man of marble. The hall itself is lined with Michelangelo's own Dying Slaves, human figures emerging from (or is it being consumed into?) the white marble; they almost become an afterthought in the lead up to the man himself. I was so transfixed by what I saw before me; he rendered me teary. This massive slab of marble delicately refined to human form seemed almost life-like to me. I circled him slowly, taking in every indent, every fold in his joints and every ripple of his muscles. His hands seemed captured in that split second between action and inaction. His eyes first seemed to be focused at some point off to his left, but when I sat in that space to absorb him from a distance, they seemed to be looking at me, as if to say "And what exactly are you looking at, anyway?" As if beauty like this is something we see every day. He is so lifelike that I half-expected him to step down from his pedestal and just continue what he was doing before I walked in. And this effect, this bringing to happens again as well. His effect is mesmerizing and alluring. He is part of why I go back.

But what of the gorgeous combination of rose and grey marble that makes up the facade of il Duomo, capped with its Florence-red brick. Only in Italy can a church be named for the dome that tops it, but in this case, it is apt. The dome is simply unforgettable. From a high vantage point on Oltrarno where I can see that it dominates the skyline, it is tantalizing. How can it possibly be so large and fit into such a space? The building itself seems squeezed between the buildings around it, even though common sense tells me that it's the other way around. The baptistery and campanile complete the matching set and make this area completely enchanting if only for their grandness and surprisingly astonishing use of color. Climb the campanile and confirm that yes, that it is not a illusion, the dome is as large as it appears, or climb within the dome itself and test your fitness to confirm its size. No, they don't make them like this anymore, especially at home. In fact, at home, they never did.

And after that, with time to breathe after the sublimity of these gems, I take in the Uffizi gallery, with its works by Italian Renaissance masters. Or the Brancacci Chapel with its cray-pas like brilliant jewel tones. This is a city where I am overwhelmed and consumed by the churches even after I've seen the biggest and the best in il Duomo: San Lorenzo, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella. Each has something to offer and is hard to resist.

But for a fan of Michelangelo, this city is a dream. There is of course David, but also the Bargello which houses his Bacchus; the Museo del Duomo with his later Pieta; the Medici Chapels with his Dusk and Dawn; the Uffizi with his Doni Tondo, a rare small round painting of the Holy Family; and of course Casa Buonarotti, which was for a short time his home and houses some lesser works and sketches. Coming from a nation where there is nary a Michelangelo to be found to a city where there is literally a Michelangelo at every turn, it is a pilgrimage of a lifetime.

Each time I'm in Italy, Florence lures me. Sometimes I can resist, other times I give in, but I am always glad that I did. She never ceases to amaze me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Rating the summer 2007 concerts

With the exception of our second Live concert this Friday, our summer of concert mania is over. We survived, although have probably suffered some hearing loss, long-term larynx damage and are slightly more insane than we were 5 months ago. But with no further ado, here are the rankings from best to downright hideous, which hopefully my dear sister (DS) will concur on:

1) Live/Collective Soul/Counting Crows -- DS would give this a 2/3 rating, because we evacuated the premises when the Crows' Adam Duritz started dropping f-bombs and miserably reworking the songs, but, as I mentioned earlier, Live more than made up for it. This band continues to deliver the goods and is exciting even after repeated viewings. Collective Soul was good as well, but just couldn't get out of the shadow of Kowalczyk and Co.

2) Psychedelic Furs/The Alarm/The Fixx -- DS would also give this 2/3 of a rating based on the fact that the Fixx's Cy was just plain weird. But for pure adrenalin and emotion, nothing beats that 45 minute set by The Alarm. And for pure nostalgia and the enjoyment of one of the most unique voices in music, the Furs had us won over.

3) Keane -- God, this show seems ages ago, back in mid-May. But this is another band we've seen every time they pass through...from arenas where they support U2, to small dance clubs and now the Pavilion, Keane always hold their own and put on an excellent show. They have a knack for putting together setlists that are perfectly paced and excellently presented. They're going to have to seriously mess up to get off our "must see" list.

4) The Police -- This was our most expensive ticket of the summer, so we were sort of expecting to be hugely disappointed. And Fenway is a hellacious venue to see a show, but when you were too young to see them in 1983 no matter how much of your allowance you used to bribe your parents, you have to see them when you can. The Police offered up a solid show with a near-perfect setlist. I was thrilled and not disappointed at all.

5) Barry Manilow -- For the showmanship and the nostalgia, this was a great experience. Personally, this show lived up to our childhood expectations. Like him or not, Manilow is a legend, and we were delighted with the performance.

6) Squeeze -- Squeeze would have rated higher with a better constructed setlist. They definitely delivered their hits, but the 25 minutes of dead time for newer (aka lesser-known) non-hits really sucked the wind out of this show. The last 20 minutes or so were pure-bliss for a child of the 80s.

In an effort of full and fair disclosure, there is an enormous gap between Squeeze and our next entry:

7) The Fray and OK! Go -- The highlight of this show was OK! Go doing "Here It Goes Again" even without the treadmills. That should tell you how pathetic this show was. The Fray has one album with only four songs that are really worthy of a second listen, and two of those are grossly over-played already. Yet they insisted on presenting a slew of new material for the half of the setlist. We were impatient and bored, so we left a show early, for the first time ever. That should tell you something.

He's all ours for now, but look at the alternatives...

So George W. went down under and managed to humiliate himself and us as we might expect he would anytime he's taken out of his playpen at the White House.

First, he referred to the APEC meeting he was attending as OPEC. Then tried to cover that by saying that the Australian Prime Minister had just invited him to the OPEC meeting. Which is all well and good, if Australia or the US were even members of OPEC.

Then, he thanked our Austrian (yes, that's right, missing the crucial "al" syllable there) colleagues for supporting us in Iraq. Right part of the alphabet, George W., wrong hemisphere. I'm sure it happens all the time though, they're used to it.

And just in case you wondered if this was all just a dream, W. headed off toward the wrong side of the stage and nearly plummeted to his death. The aide who caught him needs to be eliminated, post haste.

Finally, when the group shot for this APEC meeting was taken, the photographers must have said "Everyone wave with your right hand...." And so, look at our man (far right). How proud must we all be.

But what of our alternatives. In the recent Yahoo debate, the candidates were asked how they managed to vote to authorize the war. Their insinuation was that Bush had tricked them into voting for it with his false information. But as Bill Maher gently pointed out "So now you want us to vote for someone who's been tricked by.....George W. Bush?" Ay, there's the rub.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A great time to be a spin instructor

Those of you who don't do it don't know this...but summer is the worst time of year to be a Spinning instructor. Inevitably, as the weather gets nicer in April, May and June, your classes are decimated as people turn outdoors to ride outside, take up jogging, go out on the boat, stay late at the beach. It's understandable really, but my job goes on. As a result, I can have classes as small as 3 students, sometimes less!

That makes it hard to stay fresh, put together new rides, seek new music and stay on top of my game. I stuck with it through June and July but in August I did nothing but repeat rides. I didn't design anything new and even slowed down with the music acquisitions, legal and otherwise.

But last night, with the cool dampness settling in over Beverly and darkness coming at 7:00 p.m., I had a class full of familiar faces who hadn't been around since the spring. Personally, it was certainly good to catch up with them again, but as an instructor, it was stimulating to have a nearly full class again, to be able to work with their reactions and feed off their energy. It was a great feeling to deliver a solid ride to a group that appreciates it, get some of those "what, are you crazy lady?" looks from them as I put them through their paces and hear the feedback after a long, slow summer.

So it's back to getting creative and pushing the envelope with my terrain and my music. I like to keep them challenged and off-guard, but within the bounds of being safe and sound. Sure, their form has dropped off during the break, but it's giving me a starting point from which to rebuild. Today it's pouring buckets, which I hope translates to another capacity crowd in tonight's class.

Cheers to getting back on the indoor road.

A whole different sort of king

Barry Manilow has left the building.

We left the TDBankNorth Garden on Sunday night at 11 p.m., fully sated and overdosed on his sugar as if we'd just polished off a bag of candy corn. And at 7:45 a.m. the next day, as I passed through the ground level of the same building, I was surprised to find nary a sign that he'd been. Not a tour bus, gear truck or scrap of poster that indicated he was here. But in my heart and in my head, I'd knew he'd been.

Wardrobe dilemmas not withstanding (I resolved that on my own, thankyouverymuch), I had a wonderful time. My inane ability to instantly recall obscure and not-so-obscure lyrics stood me well. Barry lost me on a few of his 50s and 60s cover versions, but when it came to a full-blown Manilow number, I was on it, at high volume. His lyrics and melodies are just undeniably sing-able, I dare you to pop on the iPod, sit on the train, at your desk or in your car and not sing along, at high volume. Or at least bob along or shake your booty!

Certainly, there was some Las Vegas kitsch and even a little more cheese. But you can't deny that this guy can 1) play, 2) sing and 3) put on a show. I don't think it's possible for him to put on a sub-par performance, but thankfully I don't have to find out.

To the older folks who sat behind us....No, I won't SIT DOWN, not during Can't Smile Without You, not during It's a Miracle and certainly not during Copacabana (my sister might even argue that the final stanza of Mandy is worth standing...). If you came to a Manilow show to sit quietly for those, you came to the wrong show.

To the band at my cousin's wedding last weekend, who looked down his nose at us when we requested aforementioned "Copa"....did you happen to notice that when you finally agreed to play Barry's version of Copa during your break that that was the only point of time all night that the dance floor was full? What's that tell you?

I consider my sister and myself fortunate to have seen Manilow now that he's signed on for eternity to a Vegas show and has sworn off national tours. We grew up on his music (we blame you for this, Mom!) and danced around the living room to his melodies (well, the last time I did that was...Sunday afternoon) so in a sense it was a celebration of good times past and bringing them forward to today when we just might need a little pick me up.

And lift us up he did.

Louis, hope this was your dream come true! Once I serve some time as a back-up singer, mine will be too.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Problem with House

I will fully admit, I am pathetically addicted to House, MD. I love Hugh Laurie in an a sick and twisted but wholly cynical sort of way -- he says what I think and gets away with it. I love how he treats patients, Wilson and the Cottages, as if his genius excuses the maltreatment. Late to the House party this past spring, I spent the summer voraciously getting up to speed on Seasons 1 and 2 and just downloaded and watched the episodes I missed from Season 3 on the iPod. As I said, I am hopelessly, pathetically addicted.

But I have my problems with House too. If you know me at all, you know I have issues with just about everything and House is not immune.

First, House is meant to be a diagnostic medicine genius. Patients come to him when there's no hope and/or when everyone else has given up on them. Somehow, House (almost always) comes through. He solves the case usually just in the nick of time, but not before he misdiagnoses the patient at least a half dozen times, usually almost killing them with inappropriate surgeries, drug treatments or his inane brand of humor. I know they have to fill an hour and having him solve the mystery in the first 20 minutes or so really kills the vibe, but I think after three seasons of this, I'd think twice before turning to House when all my other options are gone. You know, just in case this time he doesn't get it right.

Second, the opening minute usually sets the stage for whatever the medical dilemma is. We get to see who's sick and why. But a lot of the time, we're misdirected and someone else in this short segment is sick, injured or wounded and we realize about half-way through the show that we never found out why. What happened to the young father of the (eventually revealed to be ill) baby who fell down the stairs vomitting (yet is fine in the ER where they bring said baby), or whether the thug in the truck stop diner survived the head bashing the eventual patient gave him. It's almost a diversionary tactic, this "whooops, not him, him" stuff. Yet I sit there like a fool and always try to outsmart the directors...and I feel so smart when I get it right.

Lastly, I think it's time we got some for Cuddy. She's been playing the game with House long enough now, so whether it's Wilson or some new dude they add to the cast for her, I think she deserves a little reward of the physical sort. As long as it's not House himself (because he's mine). Because that relationship has the Niles-Daphne vibe to it, and we all know that Frasier went to hell once Niles and Daphne finally hooked up (plus he's mine). But it'd be good for House to have to watch it, as well as provide plenty o' fodder for him to one-line (and anyway, he's mine). Enough said.

But all my whimpering aside, as summer comes to a close and the countdown for the only really good tv drama begins (September 25th at 9:00 p.m. if you're keeping track), I only have eyes for one medical guy and he's not McDreamy, McSteamy or the George formerly known as a doctor. Nope, he's House.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Dodging the bullet

So, there is finally an outcome to my previous post about potentially being jobless. Thankfully for me, I have been transferred to another business unit at my company. A business unit that remains profitable and viable "at least for another 18 months", which is a good thing. So now I can carry on with the handful of pressing personal issues in the next 8 weeks without worrying about dealing with a new employer too. That whole newness thing is exhausting anyway and I just don't have the mind or the will to deal with it now.

So things are good, right?

In the words of Moby, "why does my heart feel so bad?" Honestly, I've never been through anything so emotionally draining. I've been through two mergers and layoffs before, so I should know how it goes. But I guess being a "survivor" is different for me. Now I see the faces on the stories that are being written without a paycheck to support them. It seemed that here, more than anywhere, everyone has a story: an older woman with cancer, a younger woman with a 6 year old son with cancer, a woman without a college degree who was a week away from 30 years here, several older people thisclose to retiring but not eligible for Medicare or full Social Security yet and certainly not an attractive prospective hire.

One of them, a 25 year veteran of the company, asked me "how do you feel now that you know" (that you're staying)? I replied that I felt guilty for being kept on when so many were going. And she replied "And so you should".

Really? You think so? My guilt was mainly self-inflicted, but to get a glimpse of how she might have felt about me was eye-opening, shocking and validation of how I already felt. I just can't explain why I feel like this.

So I am one of about 20 left here and I am anxiously looking forward to starting my new work. And I know today is a new day and it's time to look forward and not backward, etc. etc. I just wish it was easier being one of the lucky ones.

Is there a need for this many mattresses?

I don't know if this rage has swept the nation, but here in good old MA, there is now a proliferation of mattress stores. In Beverly (pop. 44,000) alone, there are three mattress stores within 1/2 mile of each other on the same strip of the commercial zone in the northern part of the city. And in Boston, the Buck a Book is now a Sleepys, the HMV music store is a Mattress Discounters, both in the Downtown Crossing area, which is populated during weekdays mainly with Financial District workers out on lunch and assorted tourists. Exactly what I would not think of doing either on my lunch break or on vacation, buying a mattress that is. Browsing music and buying cheap books and wrapping paper, both used to be on my lunchtime agenda.

So what's driving this shift? Why the explosion (which is up from zero in both cases) of mattress sellers? Has the demographic changed and it's been figured that 2007 will be the year that we'll all be replacing our mattresses. And how exactly does Beverly (again, pop. 44,000) decide which of the three to buy from? And why?

File it under conundrum, because it's slow today and I've nothing else to think about.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Blogging on the news

Lots of little things today...

The Brady Baby -- other than the fact that it was quite possibly the longest human gestation in history, or at least felt that way, why do we care about the spawn of Bridget Moynahan and Tom Brady? This pregnancy was followed like the British press follow a royal birth. But why? She's a former model with some not-so-great tv and movie credits to her name, he throws a ball for a living. Nothing special there. The one thing I can admit to, however, is that I am thrilled that Bridget opted to name the child Moynahan rather than Brady. Despite what Ann Landers says (that this kid will always be known as the "Brady baby"), I just can't stomach rewarding the elder Brady with a namesake when he was clearly taking calculated risks in the lead-up to the break-up, leaving poor Bridge "devastated" and, consequently, knocked up.

Really, it's ok -- so another Republican has been caught in some kind of unexpected sexual situation and he's found it necessary to steadfastly deny that he's "not gay and has never been gay" rather than equally vehemently deny that he solicited sex from a prostitute (albeit of the male persuasion). I find the latter troubling from a moral perspective, whereas the former is not the least bit offensive. I find it more troubling that the Republicans seemingly need to declare their innocence in the "Gay or Not" debate, when really, what does that have to do with how well they govern and represent their constituents? In a word, none. Yet, Republicans like Mitt Romeny are doing their best to distance themselves from this evildoer. Further, even if he did solicit a prostitute, does that change whatever good he's done for his district? This all harkens back to the Clinton era, when said Republicans actually tried to impeach Clinton for having "sexual relations" in the Oval Office. Not for some egregious national security breach or fatal mistake he made in governing our country, but for simply getting it on with a woman. Again, completely overlooking the effectiveness of the individual and souly focusing on the "wrongdoing" of having sex, whether it be with a male or female, is pretty narrowminded. Unless, I guess, you're a bible-thumping conservative in the Red States.

People from the South should pay too -- so now Massachusetts Transportation officials are thinking about charging south shore commuters for using Route 93 northbound. Well finally, it's about time. If you're from the North Shore, you pay just about any way you drive into the city, whether it be the tunnel or the Tobin, it's $3. Even folks out west get hit on the Pike, paying by the number of exits they pass. I'm sure South Shore folks will be all up in arms about this, but hey, with bridges crumbling around us, I'm all for making them pay their fair share as well.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Time for the serious dilemma

Ok, with all this talk about potential layoffs, job searches and the like, it's time to move on to the serious decisions in life, such as:

What does one wear to a Barry Manilow concert?

I've somehow managed to comfortably fit in at each of the dozen or so shows we've been to so far this summer. Live, The Police, The Alarm, The Psychedelic Furs, Keane, Chris Botti. At all of them, I've felt comfortably and appropriately attired.

Yet somehow, I'm thinking that this summer's standard concert uniform consisting of shorts, sandals and my Product (RED) t-shirt is not going to work at Barry. Nor will my day-to-day Talbot's-inspired wardrobe suffice. However, I'm not a spangly sequinned flashy feather boa sort of girl either, which is kind of the direction I suspect we might be heading. Did I mention we're sitting on the floor for Barry? So we'll be directly in the line of fire of a potential fashion disaster. Honestly, it was much easier deciding on a suitable dress for wedding-palooza this weekend: walk into Talbot's, pull it off the rack and buy it. Pret-a-portez personified. Even my "french mani/pedi vs. vibrant solid color" for the wedding-palooza went better than this. What's a girl to do?

I suppose if asked, my mother would say "go in what you feel comfortable." Yet somehow, I think I'd manage to stick out like, oh, I don't know a straight 30-something female with an uptight middle class wardrobe. But wait, you're right, that's what I am.

So, suggestions and advice greatly appreciated. If any of your sage wisdom includes either my Product (RED) t-shirt or a Talbot's sweater....huge props to you!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Two not-so-different musicians

Inevitably, children look back to particular experiences in their childhood and point to seminal moments or events that, at the time, seemed insignificant then but now have an entirely new meaning. This happened to me last weekend.

As a Father's Day present, I took my Dad to see jazz trumpet player Chris Botti. For background, you should probably know that Dad played trumpet when he was younger, and somehow, I'm unable to remember how exactly, so did I. I can promise you that my talent was barely noticeable most likely due to my lack of commitment and passion. But to this day, I have always appreciated the skill, commitment and sacrifice of talented musicians, and Botti certainly falls into that category.

Over the years, Botti has become a giant among men. I saw him a few times back in the early 90s, when his claim to fame was opening for or playing back-up to rock musician Sting. Even at that time, he always made me itchy to play the trumpet again (half seriously). His performances made me step back and realize that had I had the same commitment and drive that could have been me.

But fame or not, Botti remains a gentleman and there's much to be learned from him. As the headliner of this show (indeed, he was the only name on the bill), he had a supporting band of four extremely talented but virtually unknown musicans. On several occasions, Botti would step back from the stage, actually out of the spotlight entirely, and stand in the darkness, allowing the band or a soloist to play uninterrupted and in the spotlight on their own. Botti shows us that he's still modest enough and still remembers where he came from. He knows this means the world to these guys to be here and not be playing back-up, but rather shining in their own right.

Botti also found a young girl in the crowd who he determined was a musician herself, and actually a violinist, of all things. It seemed ironic, as he pointed out, that she chose violin in the day and age of Paris, Brittany and Lindsay. Botti, having dropped out of school to become a "serious" musician (because no "serious" musician is still in school while they're trying to make it), gave the young girl a light-hearted but profound lecture along the lines of "do as I say, not as I (or the fallen young pop princesses of today) do." I felt his message in the rows behind that girl and I hope she felt it as well. It just made Botti seem all-so-human and sympathetic.

I don't think 30 years ago I had any idea I'd be recalling my trumpeting experience with such fondness. At the time it was drudgery sitting in my room alone and plodding through "All My Loving", the Hogan Heroes theme song or the Burger King jingle alone. Really, the only reason I stuck with it at all was to be in band class with my friends. But there were the nights when Dad would come upstairs and play with me. It was that half hour or forty-five minutes of his instruction that I remember best. To you this might seem a vast exaggeration, but in my mind's eye and ear, Botti was different from my Dad only in his notoriety and fame. The sound was the same, the lessons were the same and the impression remains the same: a gentleman who cares enough to acknowledge, teach and love openly. And for that, I am forever fortunate.

Happy Father's Day, Dad!

Spoiled for choice in Rome

I'm in the mid-stages of planning my upcoming trip to Rome. I'm officially under 10 weeks away, and given what's going on in the interim (potential job change and family commitments), I am using this time to both distract myself from the ugliness of day to day as well as get as much planning done now while I can still breathe. September and October are looking kinda hectic.

So, what to do with seven full days in Rome? Here is what I am thinking so far:

The first day is kind of a wash. I'll be jetlagged and just waiting to sleep for the 14 hours before I allow myself to do so. So probably this is best spent outside in fresh air and (hopefully) sunlight. My hotel is located between the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon, so I am thinking I'll walk to see those, the Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona, merrily taking pictures the whole way (oh, I know you can't wait for that!) I'll also start the requisite gelato sampling and jewelry shopping. No sense in putting off the inevitable!

I have booked a private after-hours tour of the Vatican Museums (thank you, Beth!) so that is 4 hours on one day. I have my eye on guided tours of the Forum and Colosseum and separate tours of Bernini and Caravaggio sites. I also need to book a time at the Borghese Gallery. I will need to visit St. Peter's Basilica on my own and climb the dome, of course. I also want to spend some time in Trastevere, exploring the neighborhood and its many churches.

Churches...there's the rub. See, initially this trip was meant to complete my Quest for Michelangelo (see my earlier Quest for Vermeer post...I'm doing the same for Michelangelo). I had been to Rome once before, but only for a day, so I didn't really have the time to explore it properly, and certainly not see all of the Michelangelos I wanted to. Then I started watching the series Power of Art and this then became a trip in search of Bernini and Caravaggio as well. I mean, really, how could it not?

To fuel the fire, I bought a book called Holy Rome, which is a guide to all Christian sites in Rome written in anticipation of the Jubilee in 2000. For me, this is when the wheels started to fall off the bus. There are over 900 churches in Rome. Yes, I wrote 900. And once I started reading about each one, I started to find reasons to go to more than just those housing works by Michelangelo, Bernini or Caravaggio. Does it have outstanding mosaics? I'm there. Priceless frescoes? Count me in. Reported relics? Add me to the list. And if there's a picture of a church, interior or exterior, that just looks cool, the church gets bumped to the top of my list. I started circling all the churches I am interested in on a map so I could visit them as I encountered them geographically. I now have a map of circles. While I am apparently not circularly-challenged,


So now, 7 days is not enough, of course. Fellow traveler Beth tells me that she and her Mom started popping into churches whenever their fancy struck, but found it overwhelming. "Sometimes there are four on one square," she reports. Oy, the pressure! I'm seeing my potential day trip to Orvieto and Assisi vanish before my very eyes due to my overindulgence in churches. Ah yes, this is supposed to be enjoyable, right? For me, 90% of this is in the planning. I don't script every minute, but I always leave home with a formidable list of things I consider "must sees"...and I have to say, more often than not, I return home with most ticked off.

That is, until I re-read Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling which resulted in my adding Raphael to my list of artists I plan to pursue in the Eternal City.

Suggestions are welcome, as long as they don't include living there until I've visited all 900!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Living with uncertainty - workplace style

I'm currently experiencing the exhiliration (ha!) of working for an organization which is living on the edge of extinction, absorption or drastic transition. As thrilling as this may sound, it basically translates to the end of this job as we all know it, which, until we hear officially what the verdict is, renders the 8-4 workday wholly pathetic and depressing.

There's the rumor of the day, every day. Rumors have varied from permanent shutdowns on November 1st, September 1st (yikes!) and September 5th (which just came out of the mouth of our CEO who stopped by to chat with me) to acquisitions which may go on indefinitely. Then there's also the "who will be needed to stay on" arguments. Again, these depend largely on the method of dissolution and the timing thereof. But so far, everyone from the mail guy to the highest levels of management has justified their existence in every possible situation. And there is also the "what are we entitled to in either situation" question. Will there be severance pay? (yes, if an acquisition, no if a shutdown) Do we get COBRA insurance? Will our 401k match be made or fully vested? When can we collect unemployment? How much can we get? ($550 a week seems to be the agreed upon amount)

So as you can see, there's been plenty of work time devoted to the aforementioned discussions. Not to mention the illicit resume sharing and reviewing, clandestine calls to headhunters and phone interviews, coming in late from interviews, worrying about colleagues just months from retirement, or those too young to retire but too old to look for something new. All this done at the expense of any productivity.

It all makes for an exhausting workday and one I'll willingly escape. Anyone looking for a Business Analyst?

Monday, August 20, 2007

We ♥ Live

I'd say over our many years as avid concert-goers, Abby and I have seen upwards of 500 live shows, easily. We each have our favorites, and while not all are shared favorites, Live (or +Live+ the band) is one of them. Together, we've seen them four times, and somehow Abby has managed to accrue four more of their concerts on her own. So I think it's safe to say that we know that of which we speak when we say that Live (the band) puts on one hell of a show. And we have never, ever been disappointed.

We schlepped our now concert-weary butts up Route 93 to Manchester, New Hampshire on Friday afternoon. After suffering through yet another mediocre pre-concert meal, we had just agreed that over a dozen concerts in one summer, at our age, you know what, isn't such a great idea. Never again. So we also agreed that this would be a low key affair, and we'd sit in the stands for this show, not wanting to tempt fate and risk life and limb in another general admission crowd. So we did. And we comfortably caught the end of Collective Soul's opening set and even made it through most of the intermission while Live's crew set the stage for them. But suddenly, the excitement grew and as we saw cute little (and I do mean little) bald Ed Kowalczyk in the wings of the stage, we both subliminally -- or is it subconciously? -- agreed to hit the field asap. We tripped our way down the stairway to the grass and managed to get within about 25 feet of stage left. Right in front of a fifty foot speaker stack. Not necessarily the brightest thing we have ever done, but what a small price to pay....

As always, Live came to play and, perhaps fittingly in this minor league ballpark, knock one out of the park. While Collective Soul and the Counting Crows might deservingly be accused of phoning one in for the sake of riding the reunion tour wave, Live was there to do business. And do the business they did. We were breathless with their 70 minute set that perfectly set radio-classics amidst deeper intense cuts that were equally as infectious. We rode that energy and sang until we were hoarse. We squealed like 13-year olds when Ed waved back at us (although the thought "I wouldn't kick him out of my bed" probably isn't a 13-year old's first thought as it was ours). And we left that field and retreated to the stands when Live was done, thoroughly and completely deaf in our left ears, those which suffered from direct exposure to the aforementioned speaker stack.

So imagine our delight when we remember that we see just Live and Collective Soul again in four weeks, closer to home, in a "real" (aka "has seats") venue. That'll mean a longer setlist from Live and greater distance from the band (awwww for us but probably better for Ed's personal safety). I'm hoping to have 100% hearing back in time for Manilow in a couple weeks, but for now it's just proof of our unfailing love for a band that never ceases to render us breathless. They've managed to reinstill our faith in excellent rock acts, especially after a summer of some pretty tedious shows. Which is why we still ♥ Live.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Now this is why I love Italy

Once again, our fellow Earth inhabitants have taken something that would be frowned upon otherwise and made it beautiful. Rome has taken steps to encourage the expression of love shown by and between its citizens and turned it into a beautiful public display of affection. A book and movie recently released in Italy planted the idea of lovers writing their names on a padlock, locking that padlock to the bridge and tossing the key into the Tiber. They were symbolically locking themselves together and literally tossing away the key.

When said expression of love started to damage the architecture and accoutrements on the bridge, politicians at first tried to eliminate the problem, but then moved to make it acceptable by providing safer (for the bridge) alternatives for the lock-ees. While some lock-ees find it more scripted and less romantic, others are glad that this form of communal artwork will remain.

I say Bravo. Here in Boston, said padlocks would either destroy the already decaying bridge completely or be continually disposed of by the city. But certainly not encouraged. Alas, I'd say our romantic wings are most likely clipped on an issue like this.

Either way, just another reason why I love Italy.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

When In Rome....(Or Venice)

So, Venice has decided that it's high time that rude, brutish tourists pay the price for their indiscretions. The locals who have to deal with tourists all the time are finally recouping punitive damages for having to do so by inflating prices on menus for tourists who irritate the hell out of them. After over 20 trips abroad where I've witnessed some particularly embarassing encounters between tourists and locals, I can't say that I blame them.

Look folks, I'm going to be blunt here. You leave this country to experience the culture and see something different from home. You're leaving home. Thus, you shouldn't expect it to be like home, and as guests somewhere else, you should treat your hosts and host's home as you'd want yours treated. You know, that whole "do unto others" thing? That applies outside the US as well.

That means not tossing your trash on the ground (now a crime punishable with a stiff fine in Piazza San Marco). That also means not YELLING at the locals in Paris because...gasp...they don't speak English. Despite popular myth, they don't understand you better if you just pump up the volume. (And really, do you expect to be yelled at by a Parisian when they visit Boston because you don't speak French?) And further still, this means accepting that there's no such thing as iced tea, nary an ice cube for your Coke, and no face cloths or shower curtains in the bathroom. Adapt, adjust and move on with your vacation. No amount of lamenting, complaining or griping is going to change any of the above. That's just the way it's done there, and just because it's not how you do it at home doesn't mean it's wrong. You won't perish on a week's vacation because you're drinking warmer than usual Coke. And you know what, if you let that influence your experience, then you're more shallow than I ever imagined.

So, what can you do to avoid being the disgruntled, brutish, rude tourist? Just a few simple things will help, not requiring much work on your part. Pick up a guidebook for where you're going. Any reputable travel author will tell you a few survival tactics:

Learn basic phrases in the destination language -- at least make an attempt to greet shop and restaurant owners in their language, even if they seem to speak English...then ask if they can speak English for you. "Please" and "thank you" in their language are a good idea too, regardless of whether the person you're addressing speaks English.

Learn how things you take for granted work over there -- how to buy train tickets, how to get gelato (pay first, then order, showing your receipt to the scooper), how to behave at the theater and on the road, how to queue for the Underground, what the money looks like and what the denominations are. None of this is rocket science, but you're completely ignorant if you don't learn this before you leave home.

Read about the scams and stay alert to them -- any guidebook or reputable online travel forum will warn you about gypsies, pickpockets and the seemingly nice looking local who helps himself to your belongings while he's chatting you up. Know them and then stay keen. You wouldn't leave your fanny pack unzipped behind you at home, would you??? (Oh yeah, and leave the fanny pack at home...)

In addition to these more obvious suggestions, let me add my own:

Research your hotels and restaurants -- you get out of it exactly what you put into it in terms of research. Don't expect The Olive Garden, it's really better in Italy if you know where to eat. Really! Hint: restaurants with names like "The Pilgrim" really aren't a good idea, despite how US-friendly they might seem. Break away from places loaded with Americans and eat where locals do (if you've learned some basic phrases, you will be fine if you at least try!) and savor the differences. You can live without the Big Mac for a week, believe me.

Use some common sense -- "ruins", by their nature (aka "old"), are run down, decrepit and probably dirty, so don't be surprised to see them as such; not all people of a particular country are sad, depressed or terrorists just because they don't want to move to the US with you; a cafe in Vienna or Paris might be a better experience than a Starbucks.

And lastly, don't do anything you'd be embarassed to do at home. Just because the breakfast is buffet style doesn't mean loading your pockets with rolls and jam for a mid-morning snack. As tempting as it is to extend an included breakfast into an all day brunch, it's really not attractive.

My inspiration for writing this post is partly selfish. You see, I automatically get lumped into the "Ugly American" category before I even utter a word abroad. Enough of you have gone over before me and paved the road with your behavior that I have to work extra hard to prove otherwise. Ok, it's a challenge, and I'm certainly up for it. But I think you'd get a lot more out of your experience if you at least made an effort and avoided a nasty encounter that will have you proclaiming from the hilltops "All Parisians are rude" when you get home. God knows, a lot of us seasoned travelers who know otherwise are sick of hearing it. And if you don't even bother to try, then I have no sympathy when you find yourself on the receiving end of a menu with grossly inflated prices.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Held Hostage on the T

After 12 years of commuting daily by commuter rail (surface train to the unitiated readers among us), you would think I would be used to this. But no. Just when I've settled into the complacency of departing and arriving on time, with minimal angst, hassle or fuss (and even with air conditioning so far this summer, knock wood), the T throws a curve-ball at us, and holds us hostage on our commute into work, providing us an extra 45 minutes to read, sleep, ponder the brilliance of wildlife in the Lynn marshes and marvel at just how wonderful it is to be alive and well and stuck somewhere between Lynn and Chelsea.

My commute this morning started out innocently enough. Like any other day, I left my house at 7:18 (a time scientifically adjusted based on summer vacation schedules, lack of school buses and benefits of lighter traffic volume on the .6 mile ride from my home to the sidestreet where I park) and expected to arrive at my desk at 8:22, all things being equal. Arriving at the depot, I noted that the scrolling marquis sign indicated that:

Due to drawbridge problems, buses have been implemented between Lynn and Chelsea.

[Again for the unitiated: this would be disastrous for the morning commute. Over 800 people on this particular train, which follows an even-more packed train only 6 minutes ahead. There's no way there are enough buses to "implement" to efficiently move this many people between Lynn and Chelsea by lunchtime.]

My heart momentarily skipped a beat but then I reminded myself that these newly installed signs are never accurate, usually scrolling false data or stale data left over from the weekend. Surely, I convinced myself, that must be it. I momentarily pondered my options for damage control, which were really either 1) run back to the car, drive to Wonderland and take the subway in, but I only had $2 on me and needed $4 to park or 2) go back home. As appetizing as option #2 was, I put the smart (ha!) money on the sign being wrong and persevered like the soldier with a work ethic that I am.

The train arrived on time, a good sign. But alas, I boarded and sensed the hostility amongst the passengers already on board. We proceeded, sloooowly, to Salem. After the Salem stop, I was apparently blessed by the commuting gods because the conductor hesitantly announced that "A train just went over the drawbridge successfully, keep your fingers crossed, we might not need the buses."

By this time, we were only about 8 minutes late, having staggered slowly to Salem. I might only end up about 15 minutes late. But again, that was wishful thinking. I may have dodged the bus bullet, but for some unknown reason, the delays started to pile up nonetheless.

Now, the T doesn't muck up often, but when it does, it is in such momentous proportions and for the most ludicrous reasons, that it baffles the brain. In this day and age, considering the stone-age quality of the excuses we are fed, it's amazing that the trains manage to move at all. Over the years, among the excuses we've heard are: signal delays due to ice, delays due to rain, delays due to wet leaves, railroad gates stuck, delays due to lack of manpower, and my favorite "traffic backup" (Credit to Paul for recognizing that these are straight tracks with no intersections with trains at no less than 6 minute intervals...where's the traffic coming from?). Are you getting the picture? Now mind you, it is virtually a straight shot from Beverly to Boston, with only one sharp curve coming into Somerville. So the wet leaves? Really, not an issue on a straight track. At least in my mind. But I digress...

So back to this morning's hostage situation. By Swampscott -- ordinarily 12 minutes into the trip -- I'd long finished my Globe and was immersed in my book. Fine enough, but the trip between Swampscott and Lynn lingered, and coming out of Lynn was mighty slow, yet we zipped over the drawbridge in question, only to begin to drag lethargically again approaching Chelsea after the drawbridge, coming out of Chelsea and into Somerville. Why the holdup if we'd passed the bridge successfully? Of course there'd been no public service announcement since we left Lynn, so we were all kept in the dark. I'd been reading so long that I'd lost interest in reading. People who had slept were waking up refreshed and ready for the long day and then began the flurry of phone calls to home and work to play the lame ass "Guess where I am?" game. I'll tell you where I am, I'm stuck on this damn train and it's cutting into my private time.

You see, I just have to work 7 hours, no more, no less. So ordinarily I'd get in at 8:22 and would be free to leave at 3:22 (no lunch) or 4:22 (with lunch) to arrive at work at 8:57 seriously cramps my style. I grabbed my venti iced coffee, ate my bagel and blogged for a while (hey, gotta get this gripe out of my system) and checked the MBTA homepage for any indication that this delay occurred. And apparently, it was all in my imagination because the only alert the T is touting on the Rockport/Newburyport line is the "Bike to the Beach" special they offer for the summer. This causes me to reconsider again my options for getting to work, none of which are at all appealing on a regular basis because, as I mentioned earlier, when the T is "on", it is "on" and runs like clockwork and with next to no stress. As with all the incidents that have happened before, I will take a cue from the T's website, claim temporary amnesia and forget that this happened at all, as any hardened commuter would.