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Roman Around… Rome

A couple weekends ago, I escaped Berlin to Rome – my first visit to Italy and, naturally, my first visit to the Vatican City.

It was a short, four-night trip, with a lot of activities crammed in. Perhaps too many activities, but ultimately I think that I saw everything that one stereotypically goes to Rome to see: The Vatican, The Coliseum, and the Spanish Steps.

Rome from Bramante Staircase

Rome from Bramante Staircase

Friday morning started early with the Extended Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums Tour with Bramante Staircase and St. Peter’s Basilica tour. What we’d forgotten is that the tour is scheduled to last 4.5 hours. And it really lasted, I believe, just over five hours.

Bramante Staircase

Bramante Staircase

Our tour guide was excellent: An art historian, his instinct was to view the Vatican museums through the prism of art techniques lost and regained, pointing out the importance of perspective in the paintings, as well as the importance of sources of light. It made for a quite interesting tour as it relegated the tedious Catholicism stuff to secondary discussions. Certainly I came away from the tour knowing more about Catholics – one cannot help but learn about St. Peter – but what I really learned is that the Christians managed to forget a whole lot of artistic techniques that needed to be re-learned after they took over, and that it took a few hundred years to do so.

St. Peter's

St. Peter’s

The tour included “exclusive” behind the scenes access to the Bramante Staircase, which included, to be frank, excellent views of Rome.

Our guide’s talks certainly helped me understand the context – because generally speaking, my understanding of art (and, in particular, Christian art) tends to be pretty superficial. About the only thing I would have changed was the timing of the lecture about the Sistine Chapel: it happened long before we got there (probably an hour, if not 90 minutes), meaning that by the time we got there, I’d forgotten a lot of detail. And we only had ten minutes in the Sistine Chapel. In theory, people are supposed to be silent in the Sistine Chapel. In reality, I felt like I was in the Spanish Infanta episode of Blackadder, when the officials would shout “SILENCE, SILENCIO,” and so on into their microphones.

Largo di Torre Argentina

Largo di Torre Argentina: A cat sanctuary.

After leaving the Vatican, we grabbed lunch, and then wandered some more: Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, Largo di Torre Argentina, the Typewriter, and, last but not least, Fontana di Trevi.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain: Look at all those people! And it’s MARCH!

It was somewhere in there that I think I maxed out: ready to call it quits. We did push on and take a look at Trevi fountain – or, rather, the crowds surrounding Trevi fountain – before deciding to go back to our hotel. But then we made one more push to actually look at the fountain.

Trevi Fountain

Oh yes, and Trevi Fountain. No need to visit again.

If this is Rome in the low season, I hesitate to imagine what it must be like in the high season.

Coliseum

Coliseum from the stage.

Saturday we had a tour of the Coliseum, thankfully starting at 11:40, which meant we got to sleep in. This tour was the Colosseum, Dungeons & Upper Ring plus Ancient Rome tour – a mere 3.5 hours. Not so long, which was better for the feet. Unfortunately, the guide was not nearly as good as the first guide. He didn’t really have a comprehensive plan for the tour, which resulted in a slightly disjointed and self-interrupted tour. I ended up not listening to everything and instead imagined that I was Romulus, sucking at the teat of my Momma Wolf.

Coliseum

Coliseum from the third ring.

The coliseum, itself, was impressive: with our tour, we got into the backstage (or, rather, understage) areas as well as up to the third ring.

We left the tour and wandered off to the neighborhood of Testaccio, where we were scheduled to take the Testaccio Supper Stroll – but with an awkward amount of time to fill. Finding a café, we split a small sandwich and relaxed for a bit.

The Testaccio Supper Stroll was excellent – a group of ten, we went to six different restaurants/spots where we sampled a variety of foods and enjoyed a number of adult beverages. The tour guide was excellent – a local – he kept the group together. I think that it helped tremendously that the group got along. I found everybody fun to talk to, especially the two diplomats.

Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps from above

Sunday was the day for the Spanish Steps and wandering the city. I was, to put it mildly, a bit worn down. I ended up reading in the Park Borghese before returning to my hotel for an afternoon nap, and then another short wander.

Rome!

A ruin in Park Borghese

Monday was the opposite: I went off and my partner in crime took a nap. I ended up back in Testaccio where I invested in some lovely Italian meats and wandered for awhile. Eventually I headed back to the airport and back to reality.

Rome was worth it.

Four Movies in a hectic life.

Sorry about my blog silence, but life’s been super busy at work.

In addition, my free time has been super packed with activities, to the point that whenever I’ve had down time, typically I’ve taken naps, read books, or otherwise vegged out.

That said, I did squeeze in four movies in February, all of which were great in their own way, three of which are nominated for Oscars, including best picture.

The first movie I saw was La La Land. Make no mistake, I think this film will win the best picture award, not because it is the best picture but because Hollywood loves an insider film that exploits insider jokes and allusions. That’s not to say that I think La La Land was a bad movie, but rather that it’s an OK movie, geared for insiders. It was a nice escape for a couple hours, but it wasn’t something that really affected me in either the short or long run.

Next up was Manchester by the Sea, which I think ought to win the Oscar for best picture. It’s hard for me to imagine that any of the other films nominated are better done: the characters were believable, the story engaging, and the visuals excellent. I found myself caring deeply for what was going on in the film and it was a film that I found myself pondering over the next several days.

While in the Netherlands, I saw Lion, the based-on-a-true-story film about a 5 year old boy who got lost in India and was subsequently adopted by an Australian family. Years later, using Google Earth, he identifies his hometown, which he returns to in order to reunite with his birth mother. I’ve seen the film and read the book – both are moving and, in their own ways, tearjerkers.

However, the film ended up annoying me: during the closing titles we see video of the actual Saroo Brierley with his two mothers. Not do diminish Dev Patel’s fine acting, but he is both substantially taller and much whiter than the actual man. It’s not clear to me why the hero of the film had to be so much taller and so whiter than the real person: surely there’s a fine actor who looks a lot more like the real Saroo than Dev Patel. Ultimately, it is a good film, but it is not a great film.

The last film I saw in February was Call Me by Your Name – which is about a 17 year old American boy who falls in love with a 24 year old man, while at his summer home in northern Italy. Here’s the funny thing: immediately the opening titles faded into a villa somewhere in northern Italy in 1984 and three lines of dialogue were uttered, I suddenly realized that I had actually read the book years ago – I actually found the book on my shelves as soon as I got back home. The film was two hours well spent, with it capturing the essence of the book extremely well.

It also had the hottest sex scene I’ve seen in a movie in a long time: Elio, the 17 year old, is killing time by eating peaches – he digs his finger into the peach, pulls out the stone, then he idly reaches into his underwear with the peach, using the peach to get off, before putting the peach on his side table and dozing off. Oliver, the older boyfriend, comes into the room, wakes him, realizes that Elio has used the peach, and…. Let’s just say that it was a good thing that I didn’t need to stand up at that point in the film because I was excited.

Call Me by Your Name was released in 2017, so it is not eligible for an Oscar this weekend, but I hope it is on the list in a year. But I have my doubts. Hollywood is too conservative to appreciate a love story of this nature.

Hopping West Across the Pacific

Leaving Honolulu meant leaving the 50 States – and since I chose United Airlines Flight 154 – I was going to get a whole lot of flying in that day.

Reboarding at MAJ

Reboarding UA154 heading west from Majuro.

UA 154 is the westbound Island Hopper, going from Honolulu to Majuro to Kwajalein to Kosrae to Pohnpei to Chuuk to Guam. The non-stop westbound flight takes about 8 hours. The Island Hopper takes 14.5 hours.

But I wasn’t going to go the whole way – given that I was taking the Island Hopper, I wanted to get off the plane, which I did at Pohnpei, Micronesia.

Not to get too far ahead of myself though: the trip is a long one – and while I’ve had long flights before, this is different from typical long haul flights – the first bit is something like 6 hours, but bits after that are about an hour each (give or take). At each stop – except one – you’re allowed to get off (or maybe required).

The stop you’re not allowed to deplane from is at Kwajalein since it’s a US military base. You can only get off if you’re a solider or if you have an invitation to visit Ebeye Island, a neighboring island that is part of the Marshal Islands. I actually tried to figure out how to visit Ebeye, but The Republic of Marshall Islands apparently doesn’t want visitors to visit Ebeye. Perhaps it’s because the Republic of Marshall Islands appears to be a US puppet state, and Ebeye is the world’s fifth most densely populated island that also happens to be a slum.

However, I did de-plane at Majuro – wandering its tiny airport terminal for half an hour or so before re-boarding my flight. The excitement lasted about, oh, 5 minutes. I only bought a newspaper from the little stand inside the gate area.

I chose not to deplane at Kosrae – but that was because I was under the impression we were only going to be there 20 minutes. My plane had to get repaired and it ended up being a tiny bit longer – enough so that I wished I’d gotten off the plane.

sashimi

I had sashimi for dinner my first night in Pohnpei — one of my favorite dishes.

As for Pohnpei, I got off the plane for three days—arriving Saturday, November 19th, departing the Tuesday the 22nd.

Tuna Omelet at South Park Hotel

This is the Tuna Omelet at the South Park Hotel.

A couple of overarching statements to make: First, Food is extremely expensive, except for fish. Anything with fish is not only inexpensive, but delicious. I wandered a couple of supermarkets and was happy to know that I wasn’t having to buy food there. The only place I’ve been where food is more expensive is Barrow, Alaska.

Kepirohi Falls

The Kepirohi Falls on Pohnpei.

Second, I chose the wrong hotel. I doubt any of the hotels on Pohnpei would meet so-called Western-standards. Mine was not geared toward tourists, but rather geared toward business and other long-term travellers. Thus I won’t bother to mention exactly where I stayed – the mismatch wasn’t obvious to me early on, and I was pretty laid back, but ultimately I later realized that I wasn’t that happy with the tour guiding services and that I should have stayed at a different hotel.

Nan Madol

Nan Madol is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Pohnpei. it’s called the “Venice of the Pacific.”

Regardless, though, Pohnpei is beautiful – and I wish I’d had more time to explore (and the right tour guide) its wonders.

Pohnpaip Petroglyphs

The Pohnpaip Petroglyphs are really an amazing site — although I think my tour guide didn’t really get it..

I was actually sad to leave behind its excessive greenery – making my way to Guam.

Skies from UA 154 (TKK-GUM)

UA154 is chasing the sun from Chuuk to Guam. It makes for some spectacular photos.

I spent two nights on Guam – I’d set it up for recovery and for laundry: when the United Airline flight works, it works. But when it has issues, you might need a day or two before you’re back on schedule. So, two nights in Guam seemed appropriate. I even went to the same Laundromat that I went to the last time I was on Guam, although that turned out to be a mistake because the machines I used did not really spin out the water, so I had to dry my clothes for excessively long periods of time.

Two Lovers Point

Two Lovers Point on Guam.

For me, Guam was a slightly surreal experience: clearly I am a tourist when visiting Guam, but I didn’t behave like the typical Guam tourist: I did laundry, I went to three grocery stores looking for one thing (Hawaiian coffee), and I visited the University of Guam (bought a T-shirt, arriving during the 35% off logo wear sale by pure chance). The only legitimate serious touristy thing I did was go to Two Lovers Point.

I left Guam on Thanksgiving – heading to Beijing, via Nagoya and Seoul.

That was a very long day.

Nagoya Airport

Coming in to land at Nagoya Airport, Japan.

Stateside in November…

After Cape Town, I headed north and west – flying from Johannesburg to Washington Dulles. Non-stop it is 8,134 miles; one-stop (without getting off the plane) in Accra makes it a mere 59 miles further – but the trip takes a very long time.

Virginia Tech Graduate Life Center

Perhaps the only building at Virginia Tech that is made of bricks.

The goal was Blacksburg, Virginia, home of friends and of Virginia Tech. It was also my plan to watch Hillary win, with a tacos, Skittles, and Tic Tacs party. I think the less we say about election night, the better – America, if not the entire world, is going to have a very rough four years ahead.

On the plus side, Blacksburg really impressed me. I don’t know what I expected in visiting it, but what I got was a city that reminded me – in positive ways – of Bloomington, Indiana: it seemed to be a charming, wooded, hilly, university town. The friends were fantastic, the weather perfect, and I had a great time.

Cascade Falls

Cascade Falls — a lovely hike near Blacksburg.

From there I made a mad dash across the country to Seattle. It was my first time in Seattle and I think it is safe to say that I’ve not really been in Seattle, but I did go to dinner with an old (young) friend and then to a Pansy Division concert.

Pansy Division is a terrific gay punk rock band – and the only band I’ve ever seen three times. The first time was a Rhino’s in Bloomington – a crowd of perhaps 200 people of all ages. The second time was at some bar in Indianapolis: I’d managed to convince four of my Bloomington friends to go with me—and when the concert started, I was responsible for more than half of the audience.

The Pansy Division concert was terrific – although the band performing before them was pretty shitty – disguised by being VERY FUCKING LOUD. I’d wished that I had earplugs.

Mount Rainier

My only view of Mount Rainier came as my flight to Denver departed.

Four hours after going to bed I was awake again, heading to the Seattle airport and a short hop back to Denver. The next 7 days were spent visiting family and friends across the Front Range, including lunch with a guy who works for the University of Wyoming Foundation.

A week later, I was on a plane heading west to Honolulu – one of the worst places in the 50 United States. I was there for 14 hours, holed up in a US$230 a night hotel. The next morning I got the sweetest possible sight of Honolulu – the view as one leaves.

Departing Honolulu

Departing Honolulu on an early morning United flight heading west.

Next stop: many stops.

Cape Town: One of my favorite cities on the planet

November was spent going around the world, with my first stop being Cape Town. I had two goals: quality time on the beach and visiting a township.

Sandy Bay Beach

Both were accomplished: I spent a day at Sandy Bay Beach. Although I’d picked a B&B close to the beach – Chapman’s Peak Bed and Breakfast – it was still quite a hike up and down to the beach. A better day, though, could not have been asked for. The sand was perfect – comfortable – and the sun warm.

Sandy Bay Hike

The second goal was accomplished with two nights at Lungi’s B&B in the Khayeltisha township. The stay was quite the experience – I was the “mlungu” – the white man. The funny thing is that, although I was there well over a month ago, I am still processing my visit: Apartheid lasted for 43 years – the consequences will last a long longer than the policy. My trip included a tour of the township – visiting a local daycare/preschool, an artist, and a flower shop where all the flowers were made of cola cans.

Khayeltisha

Lungi's B&B

Khayeltisha Flower Shop

Khayeltisha Flower Shop

It was sad leaving Cape Town – I could see spending a lot more time there, taking a much longer vacation.

November 2016, in Brief…

November 2016 has seen me in Cape Town, Virginia, Seattle, Colorado, Pohnpei, Guam, and Beijing. I have hundreds of photos to go through and those should appear shortly.

But I write some thoughts about Beijing.

This was my first visit to mainland China (I’ve been to two other Chinas: Hong Kong and Taiwan), and I went in with only the expectation that it would be cold. Which it was – not horrendously cold, but coming from 28° weather in Guam, meeting 3° weather in Beijing was a bit of a shock to the system. I was prepared with a winter coat, hat, and long underwear.

I spent Friday and Saturday in a tourist bubble, being guided by Joe of Beijing Walking on two private tours. Let me just say, before I forget, I unreservedly recommend Joe as a tour guide. He’s personable, worldly, and has a sense of humor that works with mine. It never felt awkward, it felt more like long walks with a good friend.

Friday was Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and other assorted tourist attractions, including an acrobatic show. Saturday was a trip to two un-touristic bits of the Great Wall. The trip out of the city was a blessing: Saturday the pollution in Beijing was incredibly thick: I could barely see across the street out my hotel window and I was coughing continuously (which I’ll attribute 75% to the pollution and 25% to the fact that I’m getting over a cold from earlier in the month).

To me, China needs to do two main things in order to become what I would think of as a solid first world country.

First, China must deliver safe, clean, drinking water from the taps. If South Africa can deliver safe, clean, drinking water from taps in townships, then China can do it in Beijing. Even America gets this right (I suppose with a very visible exception in Flint, Michigan, which only serves to prove the rule).

Second, China must clean its air. Some pollution is inevitable – I get that – but China need not replicate America at its worst moments in development. It can make a leap over the stages during which people wear masks in order to filter the air while walking down the street.

These are, to me, the two basic things that China needs to get right in order to become a solid first world country.

There are a lot of other things China needs to achieve: improving driving behavior would be at the top of my secondary list. Traffic in Beijing is worse than traffic in Honolulu.

My October in a few photos…

I started October in Stockholm, exploring an incredibly beautiful city.

Linnégatan

My hotel was near T-Östermalmstorg, a vibrant part of the city. I’d planned to spend Saturday morning taking a free walking tour of the city, but the tour group was excessively large and there was only one tour guide, so I skipped out and found myself on Långholmen, a nice little island.

Långholmen Chair

On Långholmen I wandered around somewhat randomly and found myself climbing one of the hills – and when I got to the top, I surveyed the scene and thought to myself that an object in the distance looked like a chair – and when I got closer, it was. What a fantastic feature.

Taco Truck

Stockholm also amused me – near my hotel was a taco-truck – well, at least a restaurant using a neon taco-truck logo. In light of the presidential race in America, I should have had a taco, but I was never near my hotel when it was time to eat.

After Stockholm, I stopped by Leipzig.

Leipzig Markt

Leipzig is my favorite city in Germany. Or at least after it is after Berlin. It’s hard to explain exactly why – but it boils down to the fact that it’s a compact, walkable, fun city. The fact that I have multiple friends living there adds to it, but I liked Leipzig even back when I lived in Weimar.

Then, last weekend I took a walking tour of Berlin as seen by refugees – specifically Neukölln.

Shaam

The tour took just about two hours and was a bit rough in orientation. We started at Shaam, supposedly the favorite restaurant of Syrian refugees in Berlin – or at least of our tour guide and his friends. I learned a lot from the tour, but it was, at best, disjointed – there was a story to be told, but it ended up being muddled.

An Old C&A in Berlin

We even got to see one of the refugee shelters – at least the outside of it. Perhaps the first time I’ve looked at the exterior of a C&A department store and not been immediately repulsed by the contents.

18 Years: Matthew Shepard

For 18 years, October’s cooler weather and shorter days is a reminder that the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder is fast approaching.

It’s somewhat daunting to pause and reflect – how much I’ve changed. How much America and the world has changed. And how much has not changed at all.

I want what I write to be, in a sense, timeless. Something that somebody reading this 20 years – 100 years – from now could understand – yet I write this in a context of emotions going everywhere.

Matthew Shepard’s murder angers me. Thinking back on how I felt that October day in 1998 when I crawled into my closet on Braeside Drive in Bloomington, Indiana, is a scary. The emotions I felt that weekend, between hearing that a young man was beaten, left for dead, and his death on October 12, 1998, are still palpable in quiet moments. I never want to experience those feelings again.

At the same time, I cannot ignore the broader context around me today: when a bully is running for president of the United States of America. Each time I think that he cannot get any more outrageous and offensive, he manages to out do himself. I spent the weekend pissed off about his comments that reveal how he gets away with treating women.

So I vacillate – on the one hand, I am pissed off about Donald Trump. On the other hand I mourn Matthew Shepard. That is the context surrounding me as I write.

Strangely, I’d rather think about Matthew Shepard – Trump will be in the newspapers whenever I want to get angry.


For historical reference, see 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, or any of the many times he’s been mentioned on my blog via a search for Matthew Shepard.

My September… Düsseldorf

Wow… This month is flying by, and things are, at least for now, going pretty well.

I skipped out of town last weekend – driven out of town by the prospect of being within drum earshot (and only drum earshot) of a “music” stage set up to motivate the runners of the Berlin Marathon.

My destination? Düsseldorf.

Flying with Eurowings (well, Germanwings), and a highish end city center hotel booked at a very reasonable rate, I spent less than 200€ on these two aspects of my journey.

As for what I did in Düsseldorf – I went to the Neanderthal Museum, which is basically 13 kilometers directly east of the city, and relatively easy to get to on the S-Bahn, assuming you don’t mind climbing up and down steep hills on foot.

Which I didn’t.

The museum is dedicated to Neanderthal Man – one of the first specimens was found near the museum back in 1856.

Unfortunately the museum was, at best, lackluster. I wish I could put my finger on what was wrong with it, but ultimately I don’t really feel like I learned anything, rather I got to wear a pair (well, three, given that the first two did not work) of headphones that I would plug into various jacks to listen to various bullshit.

Neanderthal Man watches TV

It took me about an hour, but then I returned the headphones and wandered the outdoor part, over to the site of the cave, headphone-less. I doubt I missed much.

Neanderthal Parking

What I can say is that last weekend the weather in Neanderthal Valley and in Düsseldorf was spectacularly nice. Perfect, actually. I could not have picked a better weekend to make my escape.

After I got bored, I returned back up the mountain to the S-Bahn station, where I waited for the next train to town, grabbed a bowl of authentic Japanese Ramen soup (Düsseldorf is famous for having Germany’s largest concentration of Japanese citizens), and found my hotel – where I promptly passed out.

Rheinturm & Stadttor

Mind you, I’d woken up at 0530 in order to catch my flight, so I think that passing out at 3:00 isn’t all that bad.

Rheinturm

After that, I wandered along the Rhine, watching people and watching the sunset. I took a lot of very nice photos of people, the Rhineturm, and the Stadttor. I even took some lovely pictures of the Rhineturm reflected on the Stadttor. Eventually I found a place for dinner, before passing out early after having read a few pages of a book.

Waling the Fence

Rhineturm

Sunday was, essentially, more wandering: down the Rhine, over a bridge, into a park-like area next to the Rhine, where I did some more reading, before heading back to the airport and my flight home.

Bridge over the Rhine

It was a perfect mini-break.

Something I need to do more often.

My Saturday in Berlin: Thai, Firefighers, and Kites

Kite Festival

Tempelhofer Feld, with people and kites!

The weather in Berlin right now is incredibly warm – mid September and the temperatures are in the upper 20s.

Saturday I hung out with one of my colleagues, hitting up Preußenpark and it’s weekend Thai food market. I’m not sure about the exact history of the market, but the long and short of it is that on warm spring/summer/fall weekends, it’s possible to get home cooked, authentic, Thai food in the park for a song. The dish below cost a mere 5€; a bargain.

Mittagessen...

Five dumplings: vegetarian, beef, pork, chicken, and (I believe) lamb.

In my experience, there are usually somewhere between 30-50 stands set up with a myriad of delicious options. The key is to bring a picnic blanket – when we were there yesterday, around 1pm, there were plenty of places to sit, but I’ve also seen it so crowded that finding a bit of open space is nearly impossible (as is finding your friends in the crowd).

Some of the booths at Prueßenpark

Some of the booths at Prueßenpark — there were a lot more than just these.

After that we headed over to Tempelhofer Feld, where we had two options for fun: watching firefighters compete to be Germany’s best firefighter or watching the kite festival.

Firefighter Combat Challenge Germany

Firefighters pulling the hose up to the top of the structure.

Both were excellent fun – and I have to say that the firefighter’s competition looked incredibly intense. The men were wearing their full uniforms, complete with helmets, jackets, oxygen tanks – and the race consisted of carrying a bundled fire hose up a stairwell (roughly the third floor), then hauling up another fire hose using a rope, then running down the stairs, using a hammer to knock something (I couldn’t tell exactly what) down a track, then they had to run a slalom down to grab a live fire hose, that they then dragged down the course to a “door”, through the door, use the water to hit a target, then grab a mannequin that weighted 80kg, which they had to drag 30 meters to the finish line.

Firefighter Combat Challenge Germany

After dragging the hose down the course, they went through the metal door, turned on the water and aimed for the target.

Firefighter Combat Challenge Germany

One of the contestants was 60 years old; here he is dragging his man down the course, getting encouragement from his competitor.

Some of them did it in less than two minutes.

Firefighter Combat Challenge Germany

The 60 year old after completing the challenge — gets attention from the support team and the Red Cross.

Wow.