Rotterdam: Thoroughly Modern Citizen M

I had heard a lot about the architecture in Rotterdam, with one striking example being the yellow cube houses (Kubuswoningen). As soon as you exit the train station they are right there, and continue across the street right to my Hotel. The smaller houses, designed by architect Piet Blom, are single family units, with one being used as a showcase house for tours. There are two large ones that have been converted into hostels. I was unaware of that when I was booking this trip, but maybe next time. StayOK Hostel.

TThe location of Citizen M couldn’t be better. Although it is across the street from the station and Foodhallen, the hotel is through a breezeway and faces a courtyard with a small harbor, so it is sheltered from the hustle and bustle. I asked for a room with a view and they looked a little pained and said they wished I had checked in earlier. I made mention of my long day and she kindly dug up a fantastic room for me. The room was rather small. If you are traveling with someone else, you had better like them enough to be right on top of them. The view from the bed that was nestled in front of the giant picture window made me feel like I was in a nest, so I was very comfortable.

The only weird thing is the bathroom, which is a kind of giant plastic insert with the toilet and shower enclosed. I would not want to be sharing that bathroom with another person.

There are a lot of shared public spaces for hanging out in the hotel, and Europeans seem to make use of them more than we do in America. The room was super high tech with an Ipod that controlled the drapes, the tv and the lights. My mother would have hated it. But I was into it, and I enjoyed curling up watching the almost first-run movies.

It was getting late, but again, I love Europe’s late night dinners.

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Off to Rotterdam, Dammit!

The train station in Haarlem was beautiful, with mosaics that looked almost socialist.

There was some confusion in the Haarlem ticket office about how my Eurail pass worked. I had to run back and forth between the office and the ticket taker. When it was finally handled, I rushed off to my train. When i arrived in Rotterdam an hour later, I realized I did not have my backpack with me, only my rolly bag and a shopping bag with snacks and magazines. I called the train people from the Rotterdam station. You can imagine how time-consuming and useless that was. So I got on the train heading back to Haarlem.

It was not in the lost and found in Haarlem even though I was certain I left it in the office. No one had seen it. They called the train people too, and after 20 minutes of the woman on the phone questioning me and writing down all of my info she said, “We will not be calling you.”

Why not?

“That train has arrived at its final destination and the bag is not on it.”

It’s not on the train. It’s in the station. There is no way to let me know if my bag is found at the station?”

“I’m sorry. No.”

After 2 hours of frustration I did the logical thing and went outside to cry. Then, just like in a movie where the hero/lost puppy/girlfriend reappears just as all hope is lost, one of the people from the office came out to get me. And there it was, on the counter.

I had left it on the floor while I went back and forth dealing with my ticket and a guard had assumed it belonged to an employee…because its not like anyone else would have luggage at a train station…and he put it in the room with the employees stuff.

I arrived back in Rotterdam too late to do anything that day, but I did handle a lot of frustration on my own without calling Bob and leaning on him for support. So I feel good that I am becoming more independent, which is one of the things traveling is supposed to teach you. Also, never set your stuff down, and count all of your bags repeatedly. Lesson learned.

Well, since I did have to take 3 train rides, here are some pretty pictures from the train.

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I amsterdam: Touristing in the City


On Sunday I wasn’t planning on doing too much, but the sun was out for the first time since I arrived and I couldn’t waste it. We take our sunshine for granted in Southern California. I decided to take a boat ride through the canals in Amsterdam. The boat docks were in Dam Square and it was crammed with tourists. It was like the worst of Disneyland and Vegas. Lots of cranky Americans. The buildings were beautiful, and the train station was stunning.

Since I arrived on impulse I hadn’t pre-booked so all of the open boats were booked. I had to take a semi-open boat which was like a greenhouse with windows. Every other bench did not have a window, but luckily the man in front of me didn’t mind me sticking my camera over his shoulder to shoot out his window. I recommend you book your boat tour beforehand.

The recorded tour was boring, and I started to feel like a kid whose parents were forcing him on horrible educational vacation activities. One note in the long boring talk of merchants stood out, “Although merchants did trade in slaves, they were never employed in Dutch households.” But you did pretty much invent the African slave trade and used them on your plantations in the Americas. Anyways, back to the pretty buildings…


I wandered around a bit on foot, but I couldn’t find the museum of black light art. It seems to have closed. And Poesenboot, a floating cat sanctuary is closed to visitors on Sundays. I got burned out and took an Uber to Foodhallen.



Foodhallen, in a converted tram depot, is similar to LA’s Grand Central Market, Vancouver’s Granville Island and Philadelphia’s Terminal Building. It does not have the grocery-like stalls of vegetables, cheeses and butchers that many other markets have. Most of the food, except maybe some scores from the bakery and charcuterie, are meant to be eaten in the large, communal dining hall. Being that it was a weekend, it was crowded, but people were happy to share their table and compare plates with each other.

I tried the famous bar snack, Bitterballen, but I wasn’t too into it. More about that later. Italian food and tapas are big here. I loved the little open-faced canape-like sandwiches from Basque Barra de Pinxtos. Pinxtos differ from tapas in that they are speared with little toothpicks, usually affixing meats and seafood to bread.

Belgian friites with mayo are a popular snack, as well as shavings of Iberico ham in paper cones. I even splurged by having a beer and taking some little tarts home. Wait, that didn’t sound right…

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I amsterdam: Just Hangin’ in Haarlem

DSC02236 (Copy)I wanted to stay local and do some laundry on Saturday, so I found a laundromat and stuffed my clothes in the reusable grocery bag I had bought at the market. If you ever do want to “blend in” with the locals I suggest you buy a local grocery store bag. Almost everyone spoke to me in Dutch.

A really nice girl at the laundromat showed me how their system worked, then recommended a nearby bakery to while away the time. Banketbakkerij D&P is a small bakery and chocolate shop, so I bought some candied citrus dipped in chocolate with a little cayenne for the people back at work. They had a menu of broodjes which is a roll, and it can mean a sandwich or a burger or anything on or near a bun. I ordered without knowing what it was, and it turned out to be a nice egg and cheese sandwich on delicious, fresh bread.

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When I got back to the hotel, the park next door was having a big antique flea market. Everyone was so accommodating when I asked to take pictures of their wares. I think they were flattered that I admired their staging, which they had obviously spent some time and thought on.

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One man demanded a euro to photograph the table, then insisted I take his picture. Afterward, I gave him a 2 euro coin and told him to have a beer on me. I expected him to refuse, but he took it and asked, “That’s all you’ve got?” I am beginning to love Dutch people.

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There are some old toys that are so intensely happy that they look creepy. My friends the Guerenas collect trippy toys and there were so many of them that I wished I were their personal shopper. The kid on this box is not really into this tea party

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DSC02239 (Copy)IMG_9501 (Copy)I couldn’t take this doll home because I would have had to buy it its own seat on the plane.

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I took this pic for my friend Donna..

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I did buy this evil-looking manic dog. How could I not?

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I also had to buy this crying baby doll. Because what little girl wants a doll that is so miserable? The lady at the stall tried to show me some happier dolls and i insisted, “I want it because its crying.” That caused a nearby shopper to burst out in laughter and I felt I had met a kindrid spirit.

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There was an Indian restaurant on the corner across the street from my hotel, imaginatively named Restaurant India Corner. The owner was really nice, and they had insanely hot samosas. The shrimp curry wasn’t too spicy, but was flavorful. The mango ice cream was mind-blowing. As seems to be the rage in Haarlem, it was deconstructed and had delicious smears of raspberry and flurries of coconut.

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Haarlem is a great little town for a romantic getaway, to just wander and look at pretty buildings, window shop, walk in the parks and eat in cute little restaurants. During tulip season it explodes with flowers, and there is a very picturesque windmill that I didn’t visit.

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I amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum

Mechanical flowers installation at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam from Studio Drift

After Banksy, I went to check out the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam’s modern art museum. As pretty as they are, I did not fall down these stairs.

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They are featuring an exhibit called “Coded Nature” from Studio Drift, two Dutch artists who create installations based on their shared love of science fiction and technology.

From Studio Drift:  Coded Nature, shows an overview of 10 years exploring fluctuating relationships between nature, technology and mankind. In addition to early work, the exhibition features new and previously unseen work. In total, the presentation comprises eight room-filling installations, together with a selection of films, sculptures, prototypes, and models. The show will run through August 2018.

Drifter, “a floating concrete monolith measuring four by two by two meters.” This sculpture not only floats in space, but it does drift around the room. I asked the guard how it is held up. He replied, “It’s a mystery to me too.”

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Fragile Future Chandelier can be adapted to fit any space. This one is Fragile Future Chandelier 3.5. I really like the way the lights on the right wall balance the piece.

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Another whimsical exhibition were the dioramas of Stefan Tcherepnin, inhabited by “The Mad Masters.” American artist and musician Stefan Tcherepnin captures moments in the lives of four furry monsters.

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“Freedom is Recognized Necessity” will be on view through August 12, 2018. “Featured are artworks from the Soviet sphere of influence, acquired by the Stedelijk after the end of the Cold War.” This totalitarian art from the time of Brezhnev features slogans from political leaders and images of heroic workers.

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STEDELIJK BASE is the permanent installation of iconic works from the collection. The entrance to the base is unreal. Using quotes from people like George Orwell, Barbara Kruger designed the entire stairwell. There is a hidden bathroom door on the right.

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I did not fall down these stairs either, although it would have been somewhat poetic.

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The two paintings in this installation, “High Voltage Painting” by Martial Raysse and Elaine Sturtevang were painted four years apart, the first by Raysse and the second by Sturtevang with Raysse’s permission.

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A section of “Naked Girl Behind a Curtain” by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

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“Double Portrait of the Artist and His Wife,” Quappi by Max Beckman. After fleeing Germany after his expressionist artwork was condemned by the nazis, Beckman painted this portrait during an extended stay in Amsterdam on their way to the United States.

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Claude Raimond-Dityvon. Paris, May 1968. A lone protestor challenges a line of riot police.

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Pablo Picasso “Seated Woman with a Fish-Hat.”

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Billie Zangewa’s fabric work, “Midnight Aura,” which addresses globalization as well as self-discovery. The designs used are known as Hollandaise or Dutch Wax due to Dutch textile industry. I am unsure of what Hollandaise sauce has to do with textiles.

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I decided to leave the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum until my last weekend, as I can only not fall down so many stairs a day. There was a grocery store serendipitously next-door. I loaded up and took an Uber back to my room for a late night picnic.

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I amsterdam: A Day at the Museums

"Mickey Snake" from "Dismaland" installation. 2015. Fiberglass, Polyester Resin and Acrylic.

“Mickey Snake” from “Dismaland” installation. 2015. Fiberglass, Polyester Resin and Acrylic.

Friday was a cloudy day, and after another breakfast of eggs benedict I headed to the museums. I took the city bus, and the driver yelled at me for not understanding that you need a special card to wave in front of a sensor for the bus, and they do not accept cash, but you can use your ATM/Mastercard in a machine near the windshield, but only after the driver keys in the amount due on a little screen. I retorted, “Stop yelling at me! It’s my first time!” To avoid these little quibbles, I suggest you buy the City Pass ahead of time. It is good for public transport and museums and most of the tourist sites. This is not an advertisement or a sponsored post. I really wished I had the damn card I could just wave in front of the sensor.

After I arrived in Amsterdam, I stopped at Happy Happy Joy Joy. My hipster radar should have been going off at that name, but the chef is Julius Jaspers and I had read good things about the place. The interior was cool.

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I tried the Peking duck bao, which I expected to be in a folded-over bun like a taco. LA-style. Instead it was a cute little slider. Sadly, it was excruciatingly sweet. It reminded of a pulled pork sandwich. The shrimp har gao was good, but no better than most other dim sum places. It was a very small sampling from a huge menu, but enter at your own risk.

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I first checked out MOCO, their modern art museum located in a refinished old house. They were having an exhibit of Banksy and Lichtenstein. The mysterious Banksy started his graffiti career in 1990 as part of the Bristol underground scene. Since then he has gone on to create subversive art through sculpture, painting, installations and “actions” such as distributing fake UK currency bearing the likeness of Princess Diana. He has even written a book and directed a movie. But his primary medium has been stencil work. He said in an interview that he couldn’t spray paint fast enough and would get caught, so pre-made stencils gave him the ability to create intricate designs with quickness. The use of this medium has also helped him to become a prolific artist with a staggering body of work. Some people believe the quantity and scope of work points to a collective rather than an individual, although Banksy is always referred to as “he” by his friends and representatives. Some people have synched up the appearance of Banksy’s public works with the touring schedule of a certain rock band, but like the Residents, I ignore any attempts to out anonymous artists as I believe it takes the fun out of it.

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The museum also had a small exhibit of Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art from the 60s, which focuses on the melodrama and art of comic books and advertisements.

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Being that the museum is in an old house, there were narrow stairs coming down from the attic. I naturally slipped on them and fell down the stairs. It wasn’t too serious of a spill. I fell on my ass and went bump bump down a couple stairs. I scraped an elbow and had a sore bruise on my thigh for several days. The guards were extremely worried and followed me around for the rest of my visit, presumably to catch me? I had to lock myself in the ladies room. Later when I checked the tread on my sneaker the brand name printed there was ironically TRACTION.

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I amsterdam: Arrival in Haarlem

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I checked into my hotel in Harlaam, Carlton Square Hotel, late Wednesday night. The hotel is nicer and more boutiquey than I could tell from the website. The bed is so soft and cozy and the bathtub is huge. The hotel is next to a park with a big tree nearby for reading under.

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One section of the hotel had a Monopoly theme.

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One thing I love about Europe is the late dining hours. I was able to order room service, although it was a mixed bag. The shrimp cocktail was not what I expected. It was a jar full of tiny shrimp that tasted really intense and fishy. I know to some people and many cultures that is considered a good thing. I know my friend Tequila would have LOVED it.

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I had a serviceable steak friites, and a very modern cheesecake.

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I slept well, woke at 11am and enjoyed a fantastic eggs benedict at the hotel’s restaurant, Bar & Kitchen Zocher, on a patio overlooking a park.

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I wandered through the neighborhood…they had nice little thrift shops and eateries. Here is a great thrift store find, but way too big and heavy for my luggage.

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When I came back to the hotel the guy at the front desk looked at me weird and I felt paranoid. I recognized the symptoms of culture shock, so I went upstairs and went back to bed.

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In the evening, I went to the Grote Markt (Big Market) at the center of town and looked around the 700 year-old square. It’s great to sightsee in the summer here, since the sun doesn’t go down until after 9pm.

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I noticed one of the little restaurants was packed, so I figured Fortuyn must be good. I had a really nice, chef-forward dinner. I asked what was on the chef’s 3-course prix fixe menu for 39.50 Euro, and the waiter told me, “It is a surprise.” You have to take a risk sometimes, right? The meal started with an amazing plate of Beef Carpaccio with white asparagus, fresh tomatoes, pepitas, avocado and Parmesan. The dish perfectly highlighted the eco-friendly hereford cows the restaurant sources.

Beef Carpaccio

With the second course I drew the short straw. I’m not a big fan of lamb, but the lamb chops accompanied by roasted sweet potato, friites, a squishy cooked eggplant and salad were of the highest quality. I didn’t want to insult the chef or waste such good food, so I actually ate all of the lamb, and it sort of grew on me. They cook in a Spanish josper oven, which uses charcoal, and the lamb was enhanced by a gentle smoke flavor.

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The dessert was just spectacular. It was deconstructed, as has been the trend for a number of years now. Raspberry ice cream and custard were accompanied by a rich pastry cream, fresh raspberries and a sweet fluff that was almost like cotton candy. It was garnished with a paper-thin slice of candied orange that cracked like glass under the teeth.

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Freak Valley Fest in Germany: Another European Adventure Begins

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After visiting Italy last year, I figured it would be years before I had another opportunity to travel. It’s really expensive. But then Bob’s band got scheduled to play a festival in the western part of Germany and built a tour around it. Years ago, when Bob went to England, I tagged along because he had a week after to hang out with me, and his travel was free. With Italy I planned to meet up with the band every 3rd or 4th day, but it didn’t work out. This time I’m not even pretending. I will go to the festival, which is one day, and travel Holland and Germany alone just because I have an excuse.

I would not have chosen to go if the flights were $888 – $1200, which they were when I started looking. But after a few days of messing around, I found a RT flight for $516. So, cool! I decided, I will stay for maybe 10 days, in cheap hotels, can do. But then I saw that the end of Tulip season will be a week after I get to The Netherlands. You can’t go all that way and miss the tulips! I stretched it back as far as I could, leaving in Mid-May. Giving me a 3-week trip, because Freak Fest is in the beginning of June. The tulips may still be gone, but I will have given it my best shot.

I decided to only stay in 2 places — Amsterdam and Berlin, then to the festival. I didn’t want to lug my heavy bags across train stations like I did in Italy. I am no longer a backpacker hopping casually from place to place nimbly-pimbly. Then I started looking at hotels. Amsterdam hotel prices go crazy in the summer. The hostels were over $100. With 4 – 8 people on bunk beds in the room. Although some of them were interesting, like the Botel (I was into it, but reviews said you have to take a ferry then a long walk every time you come and go).

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Then there is Train Lodge. It might have been super cool if I were in my 20s and traveling with a friend. But reviews said the beds were so uncomfortable that in the morning it felt like you had been hit by a train. Other descriptors: Nasty, terrible, cold showers, cramped…Yeah…I’m out. Trip Advisor reviews and photos are indispensable when it comes to booking a place.

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Oh, and I also considered a place full of pods, lit with neon, in case it wasn’t futuristic enough. 21st century people storage. If you didn’t have to share a pod with a rando, it might be ok. But it is a little Soylent Green for me. It’s called City Hub Amsterdam, and it was already sold out. At $160 a night.

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I decided I am just too old for hostels. I can’t do it. I need my sleep when I travel or I’ll get sick. I started looking at places with private rooms and shared bathrooms. There is a place called Hotel Not Hotel with some trippy rooms, if you can call them that. You can sleep in an old camper inside the large hall, or in little mini houses built in the hall. Upstairs there is a fun feature…rooms that are hidden behind book cases. In Amsterdam. Home of the Anne Frank House.

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THE ANNE FRANK HOUSE

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Of course I booked that room, because it was so crazy. Just no self-awareness at all. Or quelle horror–are they real places where Jews were hidden as well? Like, “Every house here has a hidden room from the German occupation. That’s where the kids sleep when my brother comes to visit.” Nevertheless, I cancelled the reservation. It was just too creepy. I also decided not to visit the Corrie Ten Boom House. The book, The Hiding Place made a big impression on me as a kid. But Tripadvisor showed pictures of people posing and smiling in the crawlspace and hiding place behind the wall, which I found incredibly tacky. I don’t think I will visit any WWII sites. I don’t think I can handle it.

So I decided to stay just outside of Amsterdam, in Haarlem. Haarlem is in the center of the flower district, so I won’t have to book a tour to see tulips. If there are tulips. But I was still going to have to cut Amsterdam short and spend some of the time in another place, even though they have so many museums I want to see. So I am spending a few nights in Rotterdam, an ultra-modern, design-focused city near the sea. So it will still be the Netherlands, and anyways, I will have to go back to Amsterdam for my return flight anyways.

I’m going to work full time, plus freelance, and sell all of my records. Along with our tax return, hopefully it will be enough. I spent so much in Italy, which was only 2 weeks, so I will have to be super-careful. luckily it looks like there are a lot of cheap eats!

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Arrivederci Roma! Trastavere

Trastavere hotelMy friends recommended the Trastevere neighborhood, so I got a room there for my last night in Rome. They loved the area and wanted to move there. I could instantly see why. It was the first place I visited where the Italian people were out of their tight jeans and puffy jacket uniform. The homogeneity of Italy was less pronounced, and there were people with pink hair, gay couples and POC.

I had the Uber driver drop me off at Paris, a restaurant where I wanted to lunch. But they are so popular the sign-up sheet was filled right until closing time. I wandered towards the road and it looked really desolate. It was one of those “Why didn’t I have the driver wait? Why am I here? Why is my luggage so heavy?” kind of moments. I serendipitously stumbled upon Cave Canem. I was seated in a cozy basement dining room with brick walls and white tablecloths. Everyone was chatting away in the bustling room, and I found the rhythm of the language comforting.

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I had not yet tried Pasta Amatrice, which is a Roman specialty. I also ordered an artichoke, Roman-style. They are very delicate young artichokes that are fried, and even the thistles are tender. That is one dish I have never seen replicated. The Pasta Amatrice was bucatini with guanciale, or cured pork cheek, and Pecorino from, unsurprisingly, Amatrice.

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My room in Trastavere had a staircase even more formidable than the room we had stayed in near the Vatican. Thank goodness there was an elevator. A scary elevator, but an elevator nonetheless. The room was comfy and served its purpose for one night. I might have felt claustrophobic if I had been staying for a long time. There was a giant bath, though, and the hallway was cool. I wandered a block up to the Piazza San Calisto and snagged the last available table at Cajo & Gajo. It was a hip little place with good pizza.

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For dessert, they passed around a huge jar of shortbread cookies. I fell in love with those cookies and when the server noticed my ardor, she offered to take a picture of me with it. Thanks for the great time, Italy! I hope to see you again!

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Italy: Pompeii Where is All the Porn?

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When Pompeii was first being excavated, one of the scientists noticed that some of the earth was soft, like ashes. On a hunch he poured plaster into those spots and they came out people-shaped. Much later after X-rays came into use they were able to see people’s bones inside of the plaster. I had seen pictures of rows of people and even a dog frozen in time. And, as I mentioned before, I expected pornographic frescoes. I once wrote an essay about porn and used Pompeii as an example of the earliest porn. In reality, the first porn was probably on a cave wall, but I digress.

I walked around for a while in the dusty ruins, not finding any sexy frescoes. I should have read Wikipedia first. “These frescoes are in the Suburban Baths of Pompeii, near the Marine Gate.”  I started following a tour group around and they led me into a courtyard full of huge, breathtaking art. There were giant statues that seemed to have broken in the most visually pleasing way possible, almost as if on purpose.

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See the cluster of teensy tiny people?

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As I walked towards the back of Pompeii, the crowds disappeared and the land became verdant. There was one last building with some beautiful faded frescoes that looked like wallpaper. One of them was even done in an Egyptian style.

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So, in the end, I saw a lot of amazing ruins, great sculptures, two dead people and no porn. I guess you have to take a guided tour or visit the Hidden Museum in Napoli for that.

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Italy – Pompeii: Non Me Toca!

Sometime in the early 90s i had to write an essay about pornography, so i wrote about Pompeii. Ever since, I have wanted to visit these historic ruins. Since I wasn’t into the guided tour of the Vatican, i decided to see Pompeii on my own. Uncharacteristically, I had not thoroughly researched this part of the trip. And they did not have maps. And let’s face it, by this part of the trip i was pretty burnt out on antiquities anyways.

DSC04612I went into the small museum to try to get the lay of the land, but their big model only showed thing like “Here is the Forum. Here is the Shrine.” It did not say ‘”Here is a fresco of a priapis. Here is the dog trapped forever in time.”

I left the museum via the back door and soon discovered that it only led to an exit back to the parking lot. Heading back to the museum, I see an old Italian woman and a British tour guide screaming at each other. The British woman was yelling, “I can’t understand you! Speak English!” Which strangely enough, did not make the screaming Italian woman speak English. They were blocking the stairs and I wanted no part of that scene, so I waited. But then I saw the Italian lady move aside to allow two park employees to pass, so I headed up the stairs.

Quick as a flash, her talon shot out to stop me. She clotheslined me and I nearly fell down the stairs. Then she started grabbing at me and screaming at me in Italian. I got the gist that she wanted to see my ticket. The “ticket” was a little paper receipt, and I had a purse stuffed with two week’s worth of trip receipts. I wasn’t going to start digging in it and lose my balance and fall down those stairs. So I yelled in Italian/Spanish and gestured, “No…I don’t believe you work here. They don’t hire crazy people!”

Then every time she screamed, “Show me your ticket!” I screamed, “Show me your laminate!” Finally, she yelled that it was over there, and she pointed to a small outbuilding. I said, “Fine. You get the laminate and I’ll give you my receipt!”

She started down the stairs, and I ran into the museum. But I knew she wasn’t going to let me get away with that. Looking for a sane employee, I ran into the bookstore and shouted, “There is a crazy person coming!” I immediately discovered as I looked into the eyes of 3 teenagers who must have been interns, that if you yell about crazy people, they assume YOU are the crazy person.

A lady who was clearly a “fixer” showed up and tried to pacify me in English. Then the old lady came in madder than hell that I had tricked her. She reached around the fixer, scratching and clawing at me. I yelled “Non mi toca!” Over and over again, which is a weird pidgin I made up for “Don’t touch me.”

Finally, I dug out my receipt, the old lady went away and the fixer walked me to the front door. I asked her which way I should go to see the frescoes and dead people trapped in time. She didn’t understand, so I put a shocked look on my face, held my arms up as if to shield myself and froze in place. She said, “Ohhh they are over there” and indicated the left side of the road.

There are ruins everywhere, and little buildings, I saw a few frescoes and carvings but I was not that impressed. Yet.

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Italy: She’s Gone to Capri and She’s Not Coming Back

IMG_0798When I was little, there was an ad for Capri Cigarettes showing an elegant woman on a balcony smoking and staring off into the distance with the tagline, “She’s gone to Capri and she’s not coming back.” That ad enchanted the part of me that has always wanted to run away from home. Now, many years later I finally ran away to Capri.

I have had the Blue Grotto on my bucket list since the age of 21 when Pietro, an Italian sign painter I worked with showed me pictures of the stunning cave. He also used to shout, “Fungula! Fungula! Fungula!” every time he messed up a sign, but that is neither here nor there. Capri is a volcanic island, and in many places limestone caves have formed in such a way that light travels into the water in one place and radiates up from another, causing the water to glow an ethereal turquoise. Nowhere is this effect more stunning than in the Grotto Azule. Boats take you to the entrance of a cave where you have to get into a little rowboat and lie down flat to enter. The littlest bit of wind and the boats won’t run.

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I asked the front desk at my hotel if the Blue Grotto was open, and they had no idea. They said there was no one to even call. I found that very hard to believe, but I had to accept that this hotel was not going to spoon-feed me the way the others had. A man handing out pamphlets on the dock told me that the grotto was open, so I took the ferry to Capri. When I arrived at the little tour office on the dock I was devastated to learn that the Grotto was, in fact, closed. They had another boat tour of the island but I didn’t give a fungula about anything but the Blue Grotto.

Besides the professional tour company, there were also independent tour guides, which basically means a dude with a boat. One of these guys, recognizable as a sailor by his watch cap, started trying to talk me into going on a tour of the island. After all, there is also a green cave, and a white cave. I tried unsuccessfully to explain the concept of a bucket list to him in Italian before walking away. But I walked around the harbor for a bit thinking, and besides there being nothing else of interest on the island, I decided it was foolish not to accept anything less than a perfect experience. I reminded myself that it’s not about the goal; it’s about the journey.

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Since it was off-season no one else was biting, so I had a private tour for far less than it should have cost. The boatman, who I would later learn was named Ciro, was kind of grumbly at first. But it was a beautiful day to be out and it was clear he loved showing off his island. Once he caught me saying, “muy” instead of “troppo” he started speaking Spanish to me and we made do with a trilingual patois.

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This is where the sailors of Greek mythology were lured in “when their naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing” only to be dashed upon the rocks.

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There are places around the island with the luminescent water, and Ciro knew every single one of them.

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The Green Grotto

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There are large rock formations jutting out of the sea. One of them had an arch that looked kind of iffy size-wise and for some reason I shouted, “Do it! Thread the needle!” Even though I hollered in English, I think my enthusiasm got the point across and he headed for the arch. Or he had planned to go through the arch anyways. Whatever.

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As we approached the arch he cut the motor and reached for my hand. That wasn’t weird because he had been taking my hand to help me from one part of the boat to another where I would get the best view of whatever he had wanted to show me. But he didn’t sit me back down. He kept me standing next to him at the wheel. That was weird. But maybe he didn’t want me leaning out or getting my hand smashed between the boat and the rock walls we were floating through. The he started singing an Italian song. That was super weird. He had a lovely tenor voice and the acoustics inside the arch were great. He sang confidently and earnestly, holding his hand to his chest and opening his arm expansively like you see opera singers do. And he looked me in the eyes the whole time.

I had a big smile plastered on my face. You know that smile you get when shit gets weird and you are trying to maintain. When you are trying really hard not to laugh at someone who is being so genuine about something. I made it through the song, which ended as we exited the arch. Then he turned the boat around and drifted through the arch again singing another song. Holding my hand. I was dying. I have no video of this or because I was kind of frozen in place. Later I remembered that the boatmen who take you into the Blue Grotto sing to you. Maybe he usually does that and was trying to give me the full experience. Or maybe when an Italian guy gets you in a boat he just sings to you, like gondoliers do.

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I sat on the back of the boat for a little while and dangled my legs in the turquoise waters. I wanted to swim, but with my rotator cuff problems I was worried I wouldn’t be able to pull myself back onto the boat. This is Ciro (Cheer-oh). Note the watch cap that proves he is a sailor. Note the puffy jacket that proves he is an Italian. I asked him where I should eat and he told me to go to “The Yellow Virgin.”

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A funicular is a little railway that is pulled up a steep hill with cables, like the Angel’s Flight in LA. It wasn’t running that day so I took a little bus to town. (Funiculi funicula –yeah, really. That’s what the song is about.) After the magical waters of the Bay of Napoli and the gorgeous coastline, the town of Capri was no big whoop.

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IMG_0812I bought a little silver charm then asked the saleslady where I could find the Yellow Virgin. After she finished laughing she directed me down some stairs. When I sat down at the table I saw why she had laughed.

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I saw someone else eating the octopus salad and it looked so good I had to order it. Like the tuna tartare in Florence, it was wonderful, but just too much octopus for one person.

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I was fascinated by their trippy pizza toppings, like corn and potato chips, but I ordered a steak and it was delicious.

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The next morning I only had to look out of my window at the choppy waters to know the grotto would not be open. By the way, if you ever need to know if the grotto is open, you can check this website. Yes, I gave the brochure to the front desk. So, no Blue Grotto for me.

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But I had enjoyed a gorgeous day at sea, probably the best vacation day I have ever had.

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Italy: Parco de Principi Design Hotel in Sorrento

DSC04541Remember when I said I had excellent luck with hotels? The hotel in Sorrento was a fantasy, like when you see those gorgeous pictures in magazines while at your desk job and think, “Someday…” My someday was now. First of all, the Parco turned out to be a trippy 60s design hotel. From the website:

“Roberto Fernandes, the Neapolitan engineer, bought the land in 1959 and commissioned the architect Gio Ponti to transform the place into a hotel. The Parco dei Principi hotel was inaugurated on 11 April 1962 and since then has remained evidence of the absolute and joyful intuition of the engineer Fernandes.”

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Since this was going to be the trip of a lifetime I went ahead and paid a little extra to get the ocean view. It was worth every penny and a million more. I was on floor -1. Why would a hotel have floors with negative numbers? Because it was built into a cliff. So when I looked out, there was just ocean. It’s like the castle in The Count of Monte Cristo. If he had a view like this, what was he complaining about? When the hotel clerk showed me into my room I got choked up and teary. I think it embarrassed her a little bit. But this is the kind of place you dream about.

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IMG_0665There is a large pool created by sectioning off some of the sea with rock breakwalls and a jetty for sunbathing. It was closed since it was off-season, as was the oceanside restaurant and the swimming pool. But I didn’t really care.

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There was a shuttle to town but in Italy you have to eat before 3pm or wait until after 7pm, and since I was getting home from my adventures during the afternoon siesta I mostly just ate in the hotel restaurant or ordered room service. The food was good, but not amazing. Still, it always felt special because of the view.

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Their free breakfast buffet was spectacular, with homemade doughnuts and croissants. These doughnuts are filled with Nutella.

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Parco de Principi Hotel in Sorrento, Italy

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Italy: Roving Around Venice

DSC04393There were some things I had thought I might do in Venice — go the Peggy Gugganheim Museum of Modern Art or hit one of the tours to the smaller islands like Murano or Burano, but it isn’t the kind of place that makes you want to go on expeditions. It’s the kind of place you meander through. So I would pick a destination — like St Mark’s Square or the Murano Glass Factory — and just wander in that general direction window shopping and noshing along the way. Strangely enough, the more directionless I was, the more likely it was that I would arrive at my destination. Of course the secret to finding St Mark’s is to follow the groups of tourists.

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St. Mark’s Basilica was built in 829-836 in timber which went up in flames in 976. The current basilica, a Byzantine wedding cake of a building with five domes, was built from 1043 to 1071. There were renovations going on when I was there, so it was hard to get nice pictures without construction getting in the way.

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The Doge’s Palace, once a residence and now a museum, is connected to the basilica and is most notable for its Venetian Gothic columns and arches.

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There are cool buildings all over Venice, and little religious pictures and faces and figures built into the walls.

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Shopping

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IMG_0628Spaghetti Carbonara at Ristorante Trattoria Cherubino. It was very mild and rich.

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Pizza Face

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A lot of hideous stuff comes out of the Murano factory, like a giant glass parrot. I wanted to take pictures of them, but they were in small shops and I didn’t want to be rude. I did get a snap of this glass fountain that should just not exist.

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Tiramisu

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DSC04428DSC04336And what the hell is this weird Blaire Witch voodoo rock and paper man? he was hanging in an archway that was too high for anyone to reach and no way to climb down to hang it. Luckily there were no woods nearby to get lost in.

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Italy: Venetian Bucket List

DSC04419I had two bucket list items for Italy. One of them was drinking a bellini at Harry’s Bar, where they invented bellinis. I’m not really drinking much these days, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I imagine none of you are surprised that my bucket list includes food and cocktails. I aimed for the Grand Canal and just kept walking along the water until I found the ritzy hideaway. Luckily they had a seat downstairs because I had not thought of making a reservation.

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The room was reminiscent of old movies, with its white tablecloths and generous wood paneling. It has the feel of a fine yacht and I can imagine seeing Ernest Hemingway bragging at the bar. Service was gracious but not quite fawning. I ordered a bellini and a shrimp risotto. When you check something off of your bucket list a picture is in order.

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It turns out I don’t like bellinis made with Prosecco. It was cloyingly sweet. But the risotto, which cost $50 was heaven on earth. It was probably the best thing I ate on the entire trip. So this is what all of those other risottos were striving for. Serving is a BFD there and can’t be trusted to one person alone. Harrysbar2

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After I finished my plate the waiter tried to serve me the rest of the risotto in the dish. I guess it was that expensive because it served two. When I waved him off he was genuinely shocked. How could I not want to keep eating this ambrosia? This $50 ambrosia?

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I walked along the water and passed the little outdoor office where the gondoliers check in and out. One of them called out to me, “Hey! You remember me? The restaurant? We took pictures!!!” I had an idea. I really did not know how to get back to the hotel and was too full and lazy to want to walk around forever. So I asked him if gondolas are ever like taxis. He replied that they are not taxis, they are gondolas.

I asked, “What if, instead of a circular tour the gondola dropped me off at my hotel?” He turned towards a gondolier who was still with his boat and shouted something about “mi prima” and to give me a special deal.

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The guy called back, “I give you a beautiful tour for $80! Beautiful tour!”

I shouted back “I can’t afford a beautiful tour! How much is the ugly tour?” Then I had him because all of the other gondoliers were standing there laughing. So he knocked it down to $60. I told him that he didn’t have to sing. He also chose not to smile, but that’s what you get on the no-frills gondola.

This is the Bridge of Sighs. Couples in gondolas are supposed to kiss under this bridge and it’s a very pretty name for a terrible thing. Legend has it that prisoners had to cross this bridge on their way to be put to death. They sighed because the view out the bridge window was the last time they would see their beloved Venice.

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The thing about gondolas is that they are extremely comfortable. The seat and pillows were so plush. The boat gently rocks side to side and I was tempted to fall asleep rocking like a baby.

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As we passed under bridges people took pictures and I was kind of embarrassed to be alone in a gondola.

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 But then I realized “Hey! I’m full of $50 risotto and I’m getting a ride home in a gondola. I’m a BALLER!”

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