Tuesday, April 26, 2005
The first one was "White Noise", starring Michael Keaton. It's a movie about a guy whose wife dies, and then he's starting to get messages from her via the TV. Yes, it IS that stupid. A waste of time that was not made any better by the couple in front of me, who were talking and commenting throughout. For more on what should be done about such people, read my old piece on Movie Theatre Etiquette.
The other movie I saw was "Be Cool", starring...well... half of Hollywood. The main characters are played by John Travolta and Uma Thurman, but there are tons of other great names here - James Woods, Vince Vaughn, Harvey Keitel and Danny DeVito to mention just a few. The story is to a tiny degree a follow up on "Get Shorty", in that it follows Travolta's "Chili Palmer" character. In "Get Shorty" he was a loan shark from New York who made it big in the movies, in "Be Cool" he wants to go into the music business instead. He finds a young talented artist, played by Christina Milian, but then has to cope with competing studios, Russian mafia, gangstas, etc, etc. It's a movie well worth seeing, but I couldn't help thinking that with such a great cast, it ought to have been even better.
Sunday, April 24, 2005
Friday, April 22, 2005
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
The story is about a Mexican woman, played by the drool-inducing Paz Vega and her daughter, who have moved to the US. Vega lands a job at the house of a famous chef, played (if you can call it that) by Adam Sandler. Conflicts arise as both sides start meddling with each other's internal affairs. It's not a great movie, but I thought it was worthwhile, and not as sickeningly sweet as I had feared. There is one hilarious scene where Vegas (who hardly speaks a word of English at this point) and Sandler are having a fight which her bilingual daughter has to translate. The kid, played by newcomer Shelbie Bruce, is a natural acting talent and should be headed for stardom based on that one scene alone.
Ok action movie about an interpreter at the UN who overhears a conversation about the planned assassination of a head of state. Fairly good acting by Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman and it functions well as a story. The only thing that bugged me was the numerous misunderstandings (or maybe it was intentional propaganda) about how the UN (does not) function. Still, worth seeing.
Again, a movie I had my doubts about but which turned out to be ok entertainment. A bit too sugary at times of course, but also genuinely funny throughout, not least because of the bumbling character of Albert James. Will Smith does his usual thing, while the talented Eva Mendes leaves you wondering why anyone has ever even heard of J-Lo.
Hide and seek
A complete waste of Robert DeNiro, Dakota Fanning and time. 'nuff said.
Thursday, April 14, 2005
Wednesday, April 13, 2005
Who should I vote for?
Your expected outcome:Conservative
Your actual outcome:
|Liberal Democrat -48|
|UK Independence Party 24|
You should vote: Conservative
The Conservative Party is strongly against joining the Euro and against greater use of taxation to fund public services. The party broadly supported the Iraq war and backs greater policing and ID cards. The Tories are against increasing the minimum wage above the rate of inflation, and have committed to abolishing university tuition fees. They support 'virtual vouchers' for private education.
Take the test at Who Should You Vote For
"My beloved blue, furry monster -- who sang "C is for cookie, that's good enough for me" -- is now advocating eating healthy. There's even a new song -- "A Cookie Is a Sometimes Food," where Cookie Monster learns there are "anytime" foods and "sometimes" foods."
"Truglio said "Sesame Street" also will introduce new characters, such as talking eggplants and carrots, and offer parodies, such as "American Fruit Stand." Even guest stars will address healthy activities, such as Alicia Keys talking and singing about the importance of physical activity."
"Even politicians have gotten into the act, filming public service announcements with "Sesame Street" residents. In one taping, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist taught Elmo to exercise -- jumping up and down. In another, Sen. Hillary Clinton and the small red monster discuss the various textures and tastes of foods.
But what about their position on Cookiegate?
"Even Cookie Monster is learning to control his cookie cravings," Frist told me by e-mail. "His sage advice opened our eyes to the simple joys of a tasty cookie and now reminds us that moderation is the key to healthy living.""
Goddamn health fascist! If the Schiavo case didn't do it, I hope Cookiegate is the last nail in the coffin for Frist's 2008 presidency bid!
PS: Notice how I've tastefully avoided making any jokes involving the word "vegetable".
Sunday, April 10, 2005
I drove to the girls' hotel and made another perfect parallel parking outside. We then went downtown to find a place to fill the tank and locate the open AVIS office. After the compulsory detour, this time caused not by me taking the wrong turn, but a street that suddenly became a one-way affair, we came to a gas station just a couple of blocks from the AVIS office. The station was an automated self-service thingy, with possibly the least rational electronic pay arrangement I've yet to encounter. Next to the pumps was an electronic pay terminal (only language: Italian) where you either prepaid by coins and bills OR by a prepaid gas card. You then went and pumped gas for the correct amount. If you should happen to pay for more gas than your tank could hold, you didn't get a cent back.
I put 25 Euros worth of diesel on the car, and the last couple of Euros the pump almost wouldn't work at all, so I figured I was topping it off something horribly. However, when I got in the car again, it still showed the tank to be only about 90% full. Since the only money I had left was a 20-bill I just cursed the gas station and drove off.
We located the AVIS office quite easily, but we had some trouble finding a parking lot. In addition, the street we were on was a narrow one-way street, and every time I tried to back up to park (illegally) in the only open space along it, some car would come in the opposite direction and block us. Finally, I pulled up in front of a gate and parked the car, sweating and cursing profusely.
Once inside we again encountered impeccable service from the AVIS staff. I explained that the car probably was not fully tanked up, but explained the problems I had encountered with the pump. The man behind the counter accepted this without question, and even cut about 20 Euro off the price we'd been quoted Friday evening. He winked at the girls and said "special price for you", and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he meant it. As we stood there, an American woman from San Francisco came in and she started a conversation with my two shopaholic friends about possible outlets and cheap stores in the area. At one point the AVIS guy made some comments about how to get to a certain outlet, and explained "you can't miss it, there's always a long line of cars there", to which I replied "and all of them with female drivers". This got me a hearty laugh from him, and a killing stare from the others.
Finally, we walked a couple of blocks to the Central Station, where we had breakfast at a noisy cafe. I tried to order at the counter, but the staff would have none of this, and I was shooed over to a table. I had my doubts, since I couldn't see a single waiter anywhere in the room, but I sat down all the same. The ladies soon joined me, and by now, there was a waiter on the scene, a bald Chinese-looking guy. Fortunately, he was both efficient and English speaking and we soon had our sandwiches and croissants.
After breakfast we got in some last photos, hugged, and said our goodbyes. The bus ride to the airport, the flight home and the drive back to my house in a still wintry Norway were all rather uneventful, so I won't bore you, dear reader, any further by detailing it. I will, however tell you that I was feeling very sad to go, as I'd had a damn good time and would have liked nothing more than to just spend the rest of my Easter driving around Italy. For its numerous shortcomings, it is a nice country to travel in, with so much to offer in terms of culture, cuisine, history, nature and people.
Last, but not least, I was also sad to leave behind my American partners in crime, with whom I had shared so much fun and laughter over the last couple of days. This trip had not only provided me with summer temperatures, good food and lots of fun, it had also allowed me to renew my friendship with Ms K, and to gain a new friend in Ms S. So to sum it up in the modern way:
Return ticket to Milan: 102 Euro
Hotel: 175 Euro
Having fun with friends: Priceless.
After a little zen driving (some of you will be familiar with this concept - you pick a car that looks like it knows where it's going and just follow it) we were back onto the road we were supposed to be on. However, after a few minutes I spotted some signs for Como, and took off onto a highway at a much earlier point than the instructions had it. Still, I chose to trust the signposts, forgetting for a moment that I was now in Italy, not in Norway. We drove out of Milan, and the landscape soon became quite rural. It didn't take long before the first hills came into view, and the yanks became all excited even though I tried to tell them that these were not proper alps or mountains, mere hillsides.
Their excitement over the landscaped paled however when we passed a sigh that said "Diesel Outlet". I had to stop the car and turn back for fear of bodily injury, but fortunately they spent only five minutes there and didn't even buy anything. The rest of the trip was rather uneventful, as we passed through a succession of sleepy little villages. It dawned on me that we were probably on a smaller road roughly parallel to the motorway, and that this would save us the exorbitant tolls that the Italians usually charge there.
When we arrived in Como there were signs for the lake, but these ended abruptly (at least as far as I could see) somewhere in the middle of the city, and I had to rely on zen again. We drove a bit up a hillside and outside a fancy-looking restaurant we finally got a fairly decent view over the water. We did the photo thing and got back in the car to head for the Swiss border.
At the border we had to pull over, and our passports were inspected. In addition we had to buy a "vignette", a sticker proving that we had paid the annual Swiss road fee. This is a popular way for many European governments to suck money from tourists, but usually they offer short term fees at lower prices for people passing through. The Swiss, never known to give away money if they can possible help it, charges everyone 30 Euro regardless. On the plus side, the guards on duty all spoke English and were able to give us directions.
We drove on through a landscape of increasingly tall mountains, lovely little villages and silvery lakes. The sun was shining and the mood was very good. We hadn't really decided on how far into Switzerland we were going to drive, but I was hoping to convince the others that we should head for France, and drive down to Italy again through the Mont Blanc tunnel. We passed the city of Lugano since it was still a bit early for lunch, and headed initially for Bellinzona. However, I soon discovered that there were two routes - one southern and one northern - that would take us to Mont Blanc. Not knowing which one was the quickest, I stopped at a gas station to ask. When I entered, map in hand and a determined look on my face, one of the employees laughingly ducked and hid behind a shelf. The other employee was behind the counter, so I guess she didn't find a hiding place fast enough. None of them spoke much English, but they understood a little, and with the help of my horrible attempts at French, I was able to gather that one of the scenic roads up north was closed, and that if we chose this route, we'd have to spend much of our time in tunnels. I therefore decided to take the southern route and turned the car back westwards.
By now the yankees were getting restless, and wanted to get out of the car and walk a little. I put the pedal to the metal and we soon hit a lovely little town called Locarno. It was a sleepy little place with broad streets, some very nice architecture and even a small square with a fountain in the middle. Some of the buildings looked almost Spanish in style, and many of the verandas were almost overgrown with plants, vines and flowers. It all looked very pretty, peaceful and prosperous. We parked the car and walked a few hundred meters down to the shore of Lake Maggiore. Here we took a few pictures and then walked the last hundred meters or so into the centre of town.
We were all starting to feel a little hungry, so we sat down at a table outside a small lakeside restaurant. We got hold of a few menues, and I had to do a bit of translation, as they were only in Italian and German. (Switzerland, it should be noted, has no less than four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch, which is a more "Latin" version of Italian and is spoken by less than 1 % of the population. Everybody has to learn German, and the Germans have to learn French in addition. Most speak some English, and it is not uncommon for a Swiss to speak 3-4 languages fluently.)
I settled for a lasagne - always a safe choice, I've found - while the yanks wanted to try the pizza. There were a couple of words on the menu that I couldn't understand, and Ms S was greatly surprised when her pizza arrived... with a fried EGG on top. I should of course have remembered that "ovo" is Latin for egg, but I had forgotten. She looked at it with more than a little skepticism, but managed to eat around it and pronounced the pizza to be good. I had to wait a further 15 minutes for my lasagne, which I found both strange and rather un-Swiss in its sheer incompetence (I blamed it on the fact that this was, after all, the Italian part of the country). I found that food prices were somewhat higher than in Italy, but still not as high as in Norway. The lasagna finally arrived, and it was quite tasty. All in all, the lunch was a very pleasant experience, as we had warm sunlight, blue skies, snowy mountains and a calm, beautiful lake around us. In addition, there were lots of people walking past, so we had quite the street theatre to look at and comment upon.
After lunch we decided to take a little stroll around town, chiefly to look for Swiss chocolate. Now, I do think the Swiss make excellent chocolate, but I'm not all that impressed by it, since I find much of the Norwegian products every bit as good. But in the US, the Swiss stuff has an almost mythical status. Ms S had entertained us with a story of how she once managed to eat herself drunk on Brandy chocolate, and she was almost desperate to find some to bring home. We first tried to ask the waiter, but his knowledge of local merchandise seemed as lacking as his speed in serving lasagne, so we started to ramble randomly around the streets. The girls asked one of the locals on the street, but he hardly spoke a word of English. Still, being Italian, he was able to keep the conversation going for several minutes, gesticulating and laughing all the time.
Suddenly, Ms K turned and started walking the other way from us. I don't know if it was sheer luck, or if she'd caught a scent of something, but she soon located a fair size store selling nothing but chocolate. We went inside, and I think this was the closest the yanks had been to heaven - the only thing missing was shoes. We spent some time in there, browsing and marvelling at all the different varieties and flavors on display. I settled for a couple of good old white toblerones - my favorite chocolate - while the yanks bought lord knows how many types. Most of them seemed to hold some kind of liquor...
We drove out of lovely Locarno and after wasting five minutes on a wrong turn, kept going southwest along Lake Maggiore. The road was quite narrow and windy, more like what you'd expect in rural Alabama than in Switzerland. The scenery was still stunning - blue skies, snowy mountains and the lake to our left was scattered with little sailing boats and the occasional small island with maybe a castle (or the ruins thereof) or a big wooden house on. There were also plenty of houses pressed up against the mountainside to our right, and even quite large villas high up in the hillsides. Driving up there is probably difficult in the winter, but the view must surely be fantastic year round.
After a little while we entered Italy again, but the landscape and the roads didn't change any - the only significant change was that the signposts became significantly more confusing. We spent some time around a traffic circle where none of the place names given before entry matched any of the names on the exit signs inside the circle, quite a feat even by Italian standards. We eventually ended up on a road going towards the Swiss border again, and with the occasional signposts for the right places, but I still think we were probably going on a smaller road parallel to a much faster highway.
By now, Ms K had fallen asleep, and was providing Ms S and me with some entertaining snores. We were climbing higher and higher into the Alps, the mountains becoming craggier by the minute. We passed loads of quarries, some producing granite; some even seemed to have marble. After some time we hit a proper highway again, but closer to the border it narrowed into a pitiful rural route. There seemed to be some road construction going on, so hopefully they're doing something about it. The landscape was by now very alpine, with narrow passes and deep valleys where snow still clung to the hillsides, and some of the smaller waterfalls were still frozen. We passed into Switzerland again, and after just a couple of minutes, the roads improved considerably. The Swiss are master engineers, and we were highly impressed at how they'd blasted tunnels and built galleries into the mountainsides - broad, safe roads that enabled us to go fast, yet gave us an incredible view of the surroundings. Many places, ice taps several meters in length were hanging down on the outside.
After a series of tunnels and galleries, we came to a longer stretch of bare road. By now, we were pretty much at the top of some of the mountains, and there was snow all around us. We stopped at a restaurant/gas station to take some pictures (Ms K promising to name her firstborn after me if I would only please, please pull over), and the yanks went berserk with their cameras. Even a blasé Norwegian like yours truly found the view to be great, though mountains and snow pretty much run in my blood.
The road now went steeply downhill, and we crossed over bridges spanning horrifyingly deep valleys and canyons, and the view was just one series of breathtaking vista after another. The terrain eventually evened out a bit, and we passed through most of the Valais area on relatively flat roads, but always with the mountains in clear view around us. By now, it was getting darker, and I was pushing hard to try and reach Mount Blanc before nightfall.
As we drove towards the French border, the view in front of me was like some science fiction painting from a different planet. The sun was going down almost straight ahead of us - in fact, had already sunk behind the snow-covered mountains, and these were glowing in a reddish, almost pink color. The sky was still a dark blue, and several airplanes were making their way across it, leaving stark white trails of vapor.
At Martigny, the road climbed sharply up into the mountains again. To me, the narrow roads and sharp curves were quite familiar terrain - this is what much of Norway looks like, and the road standard wasn't any worse than in most rural areas at home. My two passengers, on the other hand were totally unaccustomed to this kind of landscape and seemed quite nervous, especially Ms K. I got what was later described to me as "the sista treatment" a couple of times, so I tried to slow down a bit, which led to a queue of about half a dozen cars forming behind us. After a while, the road went downhill again, and the yanks became even more terrified. It was probably for the better that it was by now almost wholly dark, so they couldn't see too much of our no doubt very steep and forbidding surroundings. Needless to say, I brought us all down safely and effectively, despite the whimpers from the sissy Americans.
The signposting in France wasn't much better than in Italy, so when we finally came to a small strip of hotels and restaurants, we weren't quite sure where we were. We parked the car and went to look for a decent meal, but the first place looked like shit and the entrance smelled, and the second place was full. In addition, Ms K felt she'd been unwelcome when she'd tried to enter an art gallery next to this last place, and was eager to get out of there altogether. We got back in the car and drove on for a while until we came to the famous ski resort of Chamonix, at the foot of Mont Blanc. On the outskirts was a traffic circle with highly confusing signs, so we weren't sure about the road. Fortunately, there was a hotel with a restaurant next to the circle, so I was sent on a mission to get directions and possibly scavenge for food.
I went inside the hotel bar, a warm, snug room with an open fireplace and a door leading to the dining room. The bartender spoke perfect English and was able to give good directions, and he assured me that our party of three would be more than welcome to dine there, even though we weren't guests. Soon we were all placed at a window table, perusing a mouth-watering menu. The hotel was named Eden, and to us it really became paradise. We were tired and hungry, and this place exceeded our expectations in every way. It was a bit pricey for us budget tourists, but not unreasonably so compared to the quality of the products and service we got.
The staff were all polite, attentive and friendly. Our main waitress for the evening turned out to be Swedish, so I had the opportunity to speak a little Norwegian with her (the yanks had been on me the day before, urging me to "say something in Norwegian!"). While we were studying the menus, she came out with bread and butter for us and drinks were served quickly. Ms S was mightily impressed with the bread - she pronounced she had a "thing" for such food, and the experience was further heightened when they brought out a plate with small pieces of toast and something that tasted like a creamy shrimp (possibly crab) salad for us to munch on while we were waiting for our food. We never saw this item on the bill.
I ordered a Beef Tournedos, and it was heavenly - tender and tasty. I joked that I could still taste the grass the animal had eaten. The pepper sauce, the potatoes, the vegetables... it was all just perfect. The ladies had starters and dinners, and were oohing and ahhing while they were still on their salads, so I gather they were happy too.
Since I hadn't had starters, I had room for desert (as if stomach capacity would have been a problem anyway) and settled on a lemon cake. It was pure perfection - a slice of lemon cake with lemon sorbet on top and the plate was liberally sprinkled with two strawberries halves and numerous raspberries and blueberries, plus a little chocolate sauce. It was topped off by a crispy biscuit thingy shaped like a spoon. It both looked and tasted heavenly. Meanwhile the ladies were having coffee, and were served various sweets - again on the house.
All in all our evening at Hotel Eden was in many ways the highlight of the vacation. The conversation flowed easy, there was a lot of laughter all round, and we were on the receiving end of some of the best food and service I've ever encountered - and I've stuffed food in my face in more than thirty countries! When the time came to move on we tipped lavishly and said our fond farewells to the staff, wowing that should we ever happen to be in Chamonix again, this would be our first destination.
From Chamonix, the road climbs steeply up into the mountains. I'd been here once before, in 1993, but had then approached from the Geneva direction, and in broad daylight. The view then had been stunning, but now it was too dark to see much. However, there was the hint of snowy mountain edges above us, and the stars were out, so it was still quite nice. After a brief detour (I seem to have a talent for them), we came to the tunnel entrance. Here, an exorbitant amount of Euros changed hands before we were allowed entry into the tunnel, which stretches for several kilometres through the whole mountain and ends inside Italy.
The rest of our 3-hour drive into Milan was spent in what could politely be called a sing-along, but which for the most part was really a sing-against, since we usually didn't know the same songs. When it comes to music, indeed culture in general, I am white. Pale white. My two favorite forms of music are opera and bluegrass, while I mostly detest jazz, rap, R&B and hip-hop. We whiled away the hours with humming, singing, playful banter and politically incorrect comments, and I think it's safe to say that fun was had all round.
We hit a couple of wrong turns once inside Milan, but considering the size of that city and the fact that the streets and signposts were made by Italians, I thought I did pretty well for myself. Ms K & Ms S were dropped off at their hotel at around 1AM, and I tried to negotiate the streets to get back to my own place. The problem was of course that the only thing worse than the traffic in Italy is the parking. In the evenings, all sidewalks of any width become parking lots. Not knowing the local rules, I drove around the block several times to find a seemingly safe place to park.
Finally, at almost 2AM, I pulled in at a bus stop, stunning myself by making a perfect parallel parking in the process. The fading yellow lines that marked the bus stop contained space enough for at least three cars, and there was a car in the middle, so I pulled in behind it, leaving the space directly in front of the bus sign open. I figured the car in front wouldn't have parked there if there was an immediate risk of being towed, but I was still a bit nervous about the whole thing. Unfortunately, the hotel receptionist on duty spoke no English, and was a complete moron to boot, so I couldn't get any local assessment as to the dangers of my parking.
To be on the safe side I walked back out to the car and put a note in the window explaining where I stayed and that I had only parked there because someone else had done so before me (ever the defense of little boys) and would they please, please contact me before towing my car away. Feeling marginally safer, I set the alarm for 8AM and finally went to bed.
Saturday, April 9, 2005
I met the girls at the Loreto underground station and we took the train down to the "Giardini Pubblici" - literally "Public Gardens" -, which my guidebook made out to be almost like an Italian version of Central Park. The park really wasn't much. The entrance area smelled like a public bathroom, the vegetation was rather sparse and the whole place felt quite small and cramped. The park contained a tiny anonymous building described as "a world-famous planetarium" by my guide, and a vast structure housing a museum of natural history. My co-travellers being girls they had no interest in looking at dinosaur skeletons, so we didn't go in.
We did however go to a small cafe in the park to get breakfast - croissants, sandwiches, coffee and water. It tasted quite good, and the experience might even have been a pleasant one if not for the fact that the area was besieged by a zillion noisy Italian school kids. Sadly, there were too many adult supervisors around for me to trip the little fuckers up and watch them fall face first into the mud, but oh! the temptation.
Afterwards, we walked through the rest of the park and there were some nice rock formations and trees on the way - I'm sure the place looks better in the summer. Still, it's barely a five minute walk in size, and we soon reached the other end, at which lay another of those vast palaces that seemed to be everywhere in Milan. We stopped outside to take a few pictures, and as if on cue, three mounted Italian cops came up to us. People started gathering and the girls got some pictures. Ms K even dared to stand beside one of the horses, while I wisely kept my distance - not because I have any fear of horses, but I'm used to these animals, and one of my truisms is never to trust a horse with flattened ears. It turned out I was right. The beast was clearly impatient, and was stomping the ground and shaking its head, so people quickly withdrew. The policeman tried to keep a macho posture and act as if this was nothing, but he was clearly having trouble controlling it.
We kept walking out of the park and after a few minutes of confused map reading (due to my useless guidebook); we finally found our way to the Museo del Risorgimento. This was quite a brilliant little gem of a museum, with informative texts in English. The topic was mainly the history of the Lombardy region from the invasion of Napoleon in the 1790s to the final unification of Italy in the 1860s. They had some interesting objects there, like regalia that were used when Napoleon was crowned king of Italy in the Milan Cathedral, and a hat he had worn during his exile on the island of Elba.
The staff was the only problem, since they hardly spoke a word of English between them, and it caused the morons a lot of trouble to figure out what we were asking for when we inquired if the last "e" in Bonaparte was silent or not. Honestly, how much IQ does it take to figure out what the matter is when three people are pointing at the written name and going "BonaparT or BonapartE" with a questioning look bordering on an insane leer? Honestly!
On the outside, I managed to have my picture taken while sticking a finger up the nose of a big marble bust of Napoleon. I'm thinking this should become a future theme of my travels, since I've got a picture of myself doing the same thing with Lincoln outside his mausoleum in Springfield, Illinois. Now, I don't mean to be disrespectful, certainly not to old Abe, it's just one of these things you HAVE to do when given an opportunity. When we got out of the museum, Ms S announced that she would really like to see the famous Da Vinci picture "The Last Supper". We'd discussed it earlier and agreed it wasn't all that interesting, but the plea was now delivered in the tone of someone on the verge of going postal, so I didn't argue.
We tried to flag down a taxi, but to no avail. An American woman walked by and informed us that in Milan, you couldn't hail taxis on the street, you had to go to a taxi station. Fortunately, there was one just a few minutes away, and soon we were on our way to the church of Santa Maria della Grazie, where the picture was kept. Sadly, an Italian trade union for public employees had chosen this day to arrange a nationwide strike, so the museum part of the church was closed. I'm not sure if we would have gotten in anyway, since there was sign saying one had to make an appointment in advance. I'm just glad we weren't in the shoes of an older American couple who arrived a few minutes after us. They'd flown in from Istanbul, Turkey to see the picture, tickets in hand and everything.
We decided to walk from the church to the Cathedral, and the disappointment over the closed museum soon faded, as we passed a shoe shop on our way. I've never figured out what it IS about shoes that makes women go crazy, and I suppose that as a straight male, I'm probably not meant to either. Instead, I spent 10-15 minutes in silent agony while the girls quickly went through an impressive number of shoes in rapid succession. Ms S finally settled on a couple of pairs that to the male eye looked like any other pair, but which no doubt held some inner quality only apparent to the female brain - again, such as it is.
After this little shopping orgy/agony, we were ready for lunch and decided to try a bar-looking establishment. It was crowded, as we were now in the Italian lunch break, which usually goes from around 12:30-1 until 1:30-2 PM. This place didn't have any menus, not even in Italian, and I soon regretted the choice. I was taken to a glass display just around the corner from the bar, and had to choose between various unappetizing and unidentifiable plates of food. I settled on a fairly safe looking dish with meat and peas and managed to eat half of it. To this day, I still don't know what kind of animal it was, but I noticed a disturbing lack of dogs in the area.
We left the place with its highly disappointing meal, and crossed the street over to an ice-cream parlor to drown our sorrows in sugar. And let me tell you - if nothing else, the Italians at least know how to make good ice cream. I had a mix of lemon and strawberry, and it was pure heaven. Later we walked the last bit of the way to the Cathedral Square, which is considered Milan's centre and great public meeting place.
The Cathedral itself is an impressive building, and probably Milan's greatest tourist attraction. They started building it in the 1380s, and have been at it ever since, with customary Italian efficiency and planning skills. One of the most famous aspects of the structure is the front, which is built in several totally different styles, due to the long time it took to build it. In other words, people are flocking to see something that you would otherwise sue the contractor for if it had happened to any other building. Beats me.
While walking across the square we were accosted by several individuals who for some reason tried to put birdseeds in our shirt pockets or our hands (the place was full of nasty, filthy, disease-ridden pigeons and how I hate those flying rats). I quickly told every approaching seed carrier to fuck the hell off, and this seemed to do the trick, while the girls, being somewhat more polite, were harassed no end. I don't know why they were doing this, nor why they were so insistent, but I assume the whole scheme was a creative introduction to begging, which seems to be a major sport in Italy. Beggars are everywhere, and they can be damn persistent too. Personally, I'd pay good money for a hunting license on them.
We first walked around the Cathedral to admire the structure - it has over 2,000 statues on the outside and some gigantic painted windows. We could feel a cold draft coming from one of the open side doors, and when we finally went inside, it couldn't have been more than 10-12C (50-54F) in there. I almost had a laughing fit, as I spotted some kind of movable elevator thingy in the middle, (they were probably repairing something in the ceiling) and immediately thought well, there's a novel attempt at "nearer my God to thee"... uhm... well... I guess you had to be there...
Afterwards we had a highly overpriced bottle of water and a coke at an outdoors cafe next to the square, where we were once again accosted by beggars. We then went into the "galleries" in the building north of the Cathedral - a network of shopping arcades with brand names like Gucci, Prada and such. The girls did some window-shopping, while I bought a small pennant for my favorite Italian football team (Juventus of Turin, in the unlikely case you care). At the other side of the galleries was an open square with a statue of a rather Jedi knight-looking Leonardo Da Vinci. We dutifully took some pictures before going to catch a train to the railway station to inquire about rental cars for the next day.
Now, we had only discussed this in the loosest of terms the night before, but as the day proceeded, it became increasingly clear that we all wanted to go on a road trip. The girls had told me about a cheap bus tour that their hotel had advertised, but we wanted more freedom of movement than such a trip would have allowed. We went around looking for car rental agencies, but the first couple of places we tried were closed on this Friday afternoon. Most of them also informed us they would be closed Saturday afternoon and all of Sunday, so we were getting a bit desperate when we finally reached the last company - AVIS. They were still open, bless their greedy little souls, and with English-speaking professionals who knew how to make a sale. We had tons of questions about all sorts of things (well, the girls had, mostly) and they were all answered to great and informative lengths. The price quoted us was quite high compared to US prices - around €125 (ca $ 175) for 24 hours is literally highway robbery - but divided on three it was still bearable. We didn't sign anything there and then, but we got them to hold a car for us until the next morning.
Feeling adventurous and upbeat, we then took a cab back to the hotel. We spent a little time discussing where to go the next day, and the yanks were almost giddy with excitement. We then rounded off with dinner at a relatively mediocre place - the food was ok, but the service sucked - and then we went to our old friend Achilles' place for coffee and dessert. The man himself was at the head of a table, probably entertaining a new group of customers, but he recognized us and got up to greet us as we walked by. The food and service here was as impeccable as it had been the night before, and we were all content and full when we finally said our goodnights and set off to our lodgings.
Thursday, April 7, 2005
I had left a still wintry Norway of freezing temperatures and snow so it was wonderful to step out into an Italian spring that almost felt like a Norwegian summer, with temperatures in the lower 20s (low 70s for you yanks). I managed to locate the bus into Milan without any difficulty, and arrived at the Central station on time. An immediate example of Italian logic, the central station is not, in fact, all that central and it is located quite a bit north of a station called "Northern station", which is much closer to the centre.
I took a cab to my hotel, a fairly low priced, yet not really cheap place considering its standard (or lack thereof). When I arrived, there were two young guys on duty, and their English was atrocious, despite the hotel's website promising "English-speaking staff". They did however manage to convey that the hotel's Internet connection was not currently working, thus providing me with two excellent reasons never to stay there again.
We'd agreed that I would call Ms K at her hotel sometime between 6 and 7 PM. I first tried calling from my hotel room. Now, the normal procedure is to hit a 0 for a local line out. I tried this, but nothing happened. I dialled 9, the usual number for the reception, but their lack of English proficiency made any attempt at conversation moot. I then tried to experiment with various numbers, but soon found that the buttons on the phone stayed jammed inside it when I pushed them. It was all extremely frustrating, so I went downstairs to call from the lobby.
Needless to say, the girls - being female - were not in their room at the appointed time. I cursed and muttered and went back to my room. Three more times within that hour I tried, but no one was in. I looked at the map and decided to try and walk to their hotel to wait there. On the way, I called the hotel from my cell, but there was still no sign of them. The walk was shorter than I had feared - about 25 minutes - and it was surprisingly easy to find my way around the streets, which immediately gave me a positive impression of the city. It also helped considerably that it was still quite warm, around 20C (68F).
At the hotel, I found that the girls had arrived a minute after I'd called them last. I rang them up from the lobby and they promised to be down right away - meaning about 15 minutes in MST (male standard time, which usually follows clocks -unlike FST, which follows the inexplicable logic, or lack thereof, of the female brain - such as it is).
Finally, the elevator door opened and Ms K stepped out. I almost didn't recognize her, since she'd now let her hair grow quite a bit, while I'd always seen her with a very closely cropped cut. Right behind followed her friend, Ms S - of whom much more later. They were both all smiles and we hugged and shook hands and did away with the usual pleasantries of travel details and such before venturing outside to hunt down some dinner.
After the compulsory indecisive loitering outside the first couple of places we came to (why is the first place never satisfactory?), K finally decided she wanted to sit outside. We found a place just up the street from the hotel and though it didn't have any menus in English, there were pictures of most of their courses, so we felt fairly safe. Apparently, the Yankees had had some surprises earlier in the day when ordering "pepperoni", which to the civilized world is a sausage, but which in Italy is the vegetable green pepper. (I'd had a rather nasty surprise myself a few years earlier, when some evil French had tried to poison me with a vegetable dish while I innocently expected spicy meat). In Italy, our pepperoni sausage is called salami. What they call our salami, I don't know. Possibly green pepper.
Being the cosmopolitan European, I'd bought an English guidebook for Milan - possibly the driest, most annoyingly pedantic guide I've ever read, with an overview map that covered so little of the city it was almost useless. Still, it was better than nothing. We discussed what we should do the next couple of days. K and S had initially asked me about going to Florence (the only place they'd bought a guide for) but since that was a six-hour roundtrip, we soon dismissed the idea. They were however keen to behold some mountains, as such topological features are rather scarce in the Atlanta area - indeed east of the Rocky Mountains. (Note to any hillbillies reading this: I love the Appalachians dearly; they're mighty purdy as hills go. Nevertheless, proper mountains they ain't, not to a Norwegian anyway. Now put down that shotgun and go back to sodomizing your goat or sister or whatever).
We didn't make any decisions about Saturday that evening, but decided upon a rough plan for Friday. After eating and drinking, we stepped inside for coffee and to get some warmth, as it was getting a bit chilly outside. This being Italy, it was just as cold inside so we soon retreated to another place further down the street (one of those we had passed on our initial loiter). Here we found a warm, well-lit place with friendly and English-speaking staff. S was still hungry, as she hadn't finished her dinner, while I merely settled for a delicious dessert of meringue cake. After a while, the proprietor himself came over and talked to us, shaking hands and grinning all round. His name was Achilles, and he was Greek. Also, he was a born salesman. I got the feeling this guy could have made a handsome living selling air conditioners in Antarctica. As it were, he was doing a brisk business in the fur industry, with a factory in China and customers all over the known universe. That very night he was entertaining a big group of Spanish customers at his restaurant.
He became very excited when he heard the girls were from the US. He immediately started a vigorous re-telling of his adventures flying around in a tourist helicopter over Manhattan. He seemed to have business contacts and/or residences all over Europe - Greece, Vienna, Barcelona, London to mention a few, and had stories about all of them. He asked us what we were eating, only to launch into a lyrical description of a dessert not on the menu; I believe the name of the thing included the word "Montenegro". As drool was beginning to trickle down our chins, he ordered the staff to bring out three servings - on the house. While he retreated to his table of Spanish customers, we thanked him profusely - as well we should, the dessert was indeed yummy. Being full to the point of bursting and tired from a long day of travel we finally said our goodbyes and returned to our respective hotels.
My mission: To guide myself and two American "innocents abroad" around without, if at all possible, loss of hair, teeth, life and what little remains of my mental health. Result: Success on all counts.
Their mission: To buy as many shoes as humanly possible, taunt me mercilessly 24/7 and turn me into a part of the "sistahood". Result: Success on two out of three counts.
Background: Several years ago, I was stuck in Dulles Airport, waiting for a bus to New York. As I was sitting there, with my usual vacant goldfish-like expression, just idling time away, I spotted a tall, slim black woman walking towards me. At first, I thought there was something familiar about her, and I tried to recall if she was some actress or singer or such whose face I might have seen in print or on screen. She sat down next to me, and in five minutes, we were engaged in conversation. She - (I'll call her Ms K. - to protect the semi-innocent) wasn't anyone famous, but we still got along splendidly, and when I left to catch my bus, we exchanged email addresses.
We've stayed in touch with each other electronically since then and even met up briefly in Atlanta when I've been in the US on one of my epic car drives across the continent. Last year she informed me she was going to Milan, Italy with a friend to check out a shoe fair, and since Ryanair had just started flying cheap flights between Oslo and Bergamo, an hour away from Milan, I decided to fly down for a few days.
Tuesday, April 5, 2005
The Vatican Rag
First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!
Do whatever steps you want if
You have cleared them with the Pontiff.
Everybody say his own
Doin' the Vatican Rag.
Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional.
There the guy who's got religion'll
Tell you if your sin's original.
If it is, try playin' it safer,
Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
Two, four, six, eight,
Time to transubstantiate!
So get down upon your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!
Make a cross on your abdomen,
When in Rome do like a Roman;
Ave Maria, Gee, it's good to see ya.
Gettin' ecstatic an'
Sorta dramatic an'
Doin' the Vatican Rag!
The first one was The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes. Great acting, great costumes, great historical setting. I wasn't too familiar with the Shakespeare play from before, but the story didn't seem to have been unnecessarily modernised (read: fucked up beyond all recognition) by its makers. This may be due to the film being British made. Pacino in particular is great as Shylock, and I think the movie manages to balance the politically sensitive elements of Elizabethean era anti-semitism with a more universal story of desire, humiliation and revenge.
The second movie I saw was Miss Congeniality 2. I saw the first one in the US four years ago, and thought it was ok - nothing special but decent enough for killing time. To my surprise I actually liked this one better. Bullock is very good in this type of play, and I found myself chuckling throughout.
The third movie was Assault on Precinct 13, starring Laurence Fishburn, Ethan Hawke and Gabriel Byrne. The story was somewhat unlikely, but the action was good and I guess that's what matters for a movie watched around midnight...
The story is, as always, so-so, but the fight scenes, the blood splattering, the unnecessary violence and the special effects all contrived to warm the black, cold, coaly thing that passes for my heart. There's nothing like an unhealthy dose of senseless killing and maiming to cheer up yours truly, and this movie delivered!