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.