Archive for September, 2009

When In Rome

Friday, September 25th, 2009

In stark contrast to Amsterdam, Rome is not full of memorable travelers. I have been here for 4 days now and yet connect with anyone who carries a high caliber of common character. In chatting with a friend over the Internet he said “That’s the problem with places like Paris, Rome, London, Etc. They are watered down with weekend warriors. People who aren’t interested in meeting new people. People who are set in their ways. A lot like home when you think of it.”

But the sights in Rome are enough by far to keep your attention for a few days. This post and many others in Italy will be made available online withing the next few days.

At the moment, I am in a party hostel that is going off. Not conducive to reflection.

Chao !
PS : The Spanish RULLEEEEEEEEE

I’ll explain later

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Breath, Stretch, Shake, Let Them Go

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

This is my pathetic attempt in describing one of those days that you just had to be there for. This post might crash on it’s face, but I think you’ll like it.

I’m on a high speed German train (my favourite) in Amsterdam that is on it’s way to Rome. I am completely shattered from last night’s experiences. I am weak. I was shaking all through breakfast. My eyes are inexplicably white, considering that I had only 2 hours of sleep last night. I’m hot in the face, but I don’t feel sick. I’m typing considerably well, considering that I’ve been dropping things all morning. Yesterday, in a single day, I decided that there was a third place I could consider living other than America and Japan.

This was my second time in Amsterdam and the reason I came back was to meet up with a few friends that I missed the last time I came here. Mainly my friend Dave from England (that I met in New Zealand), but also Sanna, the Dutch gal who I walked the Great Wall of China with. Who I would meet in the process was the real adventure.

An Aussie, two Slovenians, a Romanian, a Finn, and an Israeli walk into a bar………..

Sounds like a joke right? Not when you are traveling :) These were a few people who I had met in my hostel the night before Dave arrived. The most clever, the Israeli. The most arrogant, the Aussie. The Most talkative, the Romanian. My favorite life lesson from the night, “Yes, I know.”

The 24 year old Romanian girl was old friends with the 29 year old Israeli guy and she was making jokes about him. Everything she could find; she poked and prodded. “Look at his big Jew Nose.” “He has such a small head.” “His ears are huge.” and all he would reply with was “Yes, I know.” accompanied with a subtle smile.

You see, he had wisdom far beyond his years. He knew the phrase to end any criticism, argument, or bully. “Yes, I know.” and then there was nowhere left to go. I wished so badly that entire cultures and nations could adopt this. It’s simplicity seared directly into my long term memory. But it takes true confidence and self worth to use this tactic.

Just as the wisdom was shinning, the Aussie drops an entire pint on both of my shoes, instantly soaking me in the 50 degree night. He was too drunk to hold his beer. Instead of apologising, he thought it a better idea to try and have me stay by insulting me. “Aww come one mate. Don’t be a pussy. Be a man. Look at me. I’m Aussie. I got a little wet and you don’t see me crying. Come on, It’ll dry.”-In his most lazy and uneducated (don’t believe me? He asked the Israeli if “most of the people in Israel were Catholics”) accent.

“Yes, I know.”

I then walked home to get some rest. The next day was going to be the best day in Europe yet.

I started with breakfast. Sitting to my right were three young Israeli girls and their mother at the table. To my left were the two Slovenians from the night before. Dave was sitting across from me. Before sitting down at the table, one of the Israeli girls asked if she could join us. I jokingly said “Yes, but you are going to have to stay on your side of this.” As I placed a salt shaker between the two of us. She laughed as her two other sisters filled in. When the mother got to the table, the girls chattered in Hebrew with her. She looked at the salt shaker for a split second and snatched it off of the table, like only an Israeli would. We all had a laugh. I promise that you and I would have simply moved the salt shaker forward to gain more space. It’s proven time and time again, that the Israelis are an out of the box thinking people.

After breakfast we went to the park with the Slovenians for what else, but to smoke a joint. (Well, everyone, but me). We laughed as I tried to learn Slovenian (which is an epically hard language to learn.) But it wasn’t too bad because they spoke perfect English.

Later, we went to a square with the Slovenians to watch some live music. Up on the stage was a band playing Snow Patrol songs so well that I seriously wondered if we had stumbled into a major concert. When the band switched over to Cold Play songs, I realized that it was really just a great cover band. Somewhere in the middle of the laughing, dancing, lights, and trams that practically drove through the concert, I felt like I was outside of my body, watching the events unfold with great appreciation. It wasn’t the classic “appreciate it once you don’t have it.” The grass was not greener. It was all here. I thought to myself, “Ya, I could do this more than for just a few days.”

Next we went to meet up with Sanna who has just returned back to Holland after traveling for 9 months through Asia. She and Dave got along just great. But both of them are such competitive talkers, that I ended up just enjoying some silence from my own voice. They went back and forth in heated debates. In a moment, Sanna broke eye contact with Dave and flashed me look. In only knowing her for 5 days in China, I knew exactly what the look meant. “I am so sorry that this Dave guy is talking my ear off. I wanted to catch up, really.” But she couldn’t resist a healthy debate. So weird that I could tell all of this, but I guess context helps quite a bit too.

After we chatted with Sanna, we decided it was time to do something really touristy.

So we were in the sex show sitting at the cramped bar that set a 10 foot perimeter to the smaller than life stage. As the first dancer came out, I looked at Dave and said “Is this just a strip joint? I didn’t come all the way to Amsterdam to see something that I avoid at home. I haven’t been to the strip joint since my 18th birthday that was a total novelty.” Dave replied with “Really? I go all the time.” Just as the girl is dancing on stage, two girls sit next to us at the bar. I looked over at them and said “Where are you from?” They said “Philadelphia.” “Ahhhh, that answers my real question of why you are here. The answer, I am assuming, is the same as ours. To do the touristy thing and check it off your list of things to do before you die.” (I don’t actually have a list by the way. Lists are work, and I am retired) “Ya, exactly. You can’t go to Amsterdam and NOT go to a sex show.” One of the girls said.

We spend the next few minutes completely ignoring the show and remarking about how disappointed we will be if is no actual sex on stage. We were on the same page. All of a sudden, the dancer brings a volunteer up on stage and proceeds to conduct the “tape measurer act” where she proceeds to pull literally 30 feet of cloth measuring tape out of her vagina to Bonjovi’s song “Living on a Prayer.” The four of us pounded on the bar and screamed with glee. Fist pumping and singing along to the music, I yelled “marry me” at least 12 times. “Now that was worth my 25 Euros!” “I just want to know how she fit all of that up there.” Were some of the comments that we were shooting off at the stage.

For as big as you picture this place, make it twice as small. We were cracking up the bar tenders. Enjoying this experience with a few members of the opposite sex who were my same age made it just a tad bit less soul crushing.

The next act involved a gal who I could dance much better than, but I sure couldn’t draw a penis on the chest of a volunteer with a magic marker jammed up my vagina as well as she could. A few more shouts from the 4 manned peanut gallery “My little artist.” “She’s so talented.” “Was that an original work?” “Best profile pic ever!” “Don’t wash your chest man! Tattoo over that shit!”

The next act involved three volunteers and one of them ended up being a real asshole. Somehow, the argument got down to the dancer taunting him into showing the audience his Penis. The bartender/DJ, a heavy set 45 year old women who was super nice to us because she realized that we were being respectful while having a good time, was on the microphone taunting the asshole. The four of us in the back of the bar were screaming “we want to see some non professional cock on the double.” (Ya, what happens in Amsterdam…… Just gets posted on the Internet to damn my character for all eternity :)
“I hope it’s tiny” one of the Philly girls said. “Me too. Teach this asshole a lesson.”

Eventually we all break him mentally and he pulls it out. The crowd goes wild. It wasn’t even average sized. I yell out “Dude, your going to be impotent for at least a month after that beating!” “You’ll never use the public urinal again!” I’m surprised that I didn’t get fought for that one. The crowd goes wild.

“Well this has been great, but where is the actual sex?” Said Dave. Just as he says this, two performers make their way to the stage. They proceed to have sex in 5 or so different positions. All of which without a single expression on their faces. It was grim. You could tell that it was a job. They were practically counting the pumps until they were free to leave the stage. The bar tender said “They do this show 9 times a day, you’d count the pumps if you were in their shoes.”

Next came the tape measurer girl again and we realized that the whole show was on a 30-45 minute loop. I proposed to leave to a different bar, but the girls wanted to watch the tape measurer lady just one last time. Dave and I realized our school boy error and agreed to pay homage just one more time. I know what you are wondering and the answer is YES, it was just as impressive the second time. :)

But believe it or not, this was not my favorite section of the night. As we left the sex show we passed through the bouncers who were groomed like porn stars (clean cut, not too short hair with a lot of jell in it. Leathery tanned skin. And a clothes that didn’t even attempt to fit correctly, as if they were going to be ripped off any second anyway.) But they were Dutch and that meant that they were overly helpful and courteous. Wether at a coffee shop, or a sex show, Dutch people are just charmingly mellow with a slight sweetness in their voice. It doesn’t matter what they look like, they are all have the same tone in their voice.

I feel safer in Amsterdam that I do at home. Just as I felt this way, three very large black men were walking our way on the side walk. They were dressed like gangsters and Karry kind of freaked out as she passed by them. It was the classic, “each person tries to step out of the way at the same time, and leads to an awkward shuffling at each other. Only one of the men just stood still when it got to that critical point, to let Karry just get squeeze through the hole in between him and his two other friends.

This is how I saw it of course, because I am completely infatuated with the Dutch culture. She, thought she was about to be mugged. Her and her friend had only been in Holland for less than 24 hours after all. I felt I had to tell her that she had nothing to worry about here. She was so safe around these people that she might has well be in Thailand. But I can’t blame her. They were huge.

We arrived in a bar called San Fransisco where we had a few drinks and Joints. Low and behold, an old man from Washington DC that I later named George would own me. He was high on something or other and took a special liking to me. “You are so disgusting with those wild accusations!” He said in a muddled voice, as he started spitting out random statistical facts. “Columbia is the 3 largest producer of bananas in the world. I was a professor in the 70s. They threw eggs at me. I had access to all the information.” I love the crazies in Holland because they are still harm less enough to fuck with. “Blue whales have been extinct for 30 years. The population of San Diego is 1.3 million”

“Excuse me sir but you are wrong.” I Said “It’s 1.7 million.” This set him off. “NO, No No No.” “How dare you make these accusations young man, you consider yourself a US citizen. Have you ever even read the constitution?”

An eruption goes out across the bar. I had been owned. He was not going to take my communist shit for one second. But this bar was closing so we had to find another place. We went all around, but it was 3:30am on a Sunday.

“City that never sleeps, this is bullshit.” Dave said. “Uhh I think that’s Las Vegas.” We walked up to a few clubs that looked pitch dark inside. We asked the bouncer if it was open, and he replied with a sweet “No.” as the lights on the dance floor periodically flashed behind him and we could see a packed dance floor. “But it looks like it’s actually going off in there?” I said. “Ya we don’t let anymore people in once it hits 3am.

We tried to talk our way into several clubs until finally I was able to crack one of the bouncers and we were able to get in just long enough to dance our faces off to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”

After that it was 4am and there wasn’t a single bar open, so we went to the park in the Museum district to climb the giant “I Amsterdam” sign. As we climbed up onto some of the letters, there were some local kids that politely and sincerely yelled “Please get off of the letters. They are not designed to be climbed on.” We wanted some pictures so we kind of ignored them and their cries became a bit more desperate, “Please! That damages the letters!” We jumped off and felt terrible, but still hung out. Within 5 minutes the locals were ready to leave and climbed the sign themselves, jumping from letter to letter.

“Those sons of bitches! They were so convincing!” “We’ve been duped!”

The another local guy came bye and jumped on the letters with us. He must have been on something because he was belting out all sorts of things at the top of his lungs between singing an impromptu song about being on the “I”. (You really had to be there for that). We all proceeded to play in the children’s playground and hurt ourselves profoundly on the dew soaked half pipe in the neighboring skate park. We made it back to the Hostel at 6:30am that morning. And in 2 short hours, we are reborn. I am off to Rome, Dave is back to work at his IT career in England, and the Phillie girls are off to finish their very American, 9 day, super circuit of Europe, only to return to chase and cultivate their careers.

Easy Come.

Easy Go.

“Breath, Stretch, Shake, Let [them go].”

As I’ve said before “I am learning that this year has become one big long exercise on how to let fantastic people enter and exit my life.” Call it a way to appreciate impermanence.

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Switzerland

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

On my way to Switzerland I stopped in Koblenz (Germany). When I was there I stayed with some friends that I met on a boat in Australia. Though I only knew Ranja and Domenic for a few days, they welcomed me into their home. This is the speed of travel in full force. That is, the speed that you build trust and friendship. Koblenz is a small city that is famous for it’s castles by the river. It is also the place where two major rivers of Germany combine. In the summertime, this town is littered with dozens of touring buses. From Frankfurt to Koblenz is a surprisingly beautiful train ride. I lost count of castles on the hillsides that overlook the rushing river. The other major unique feature of the land are the vineyards. With German precision, the stocks of the vines are proped up on hillsides that are nearly vertical. I never knew that grapes could be grown this way.

When I met Ranja and Domenic at the train station, I was surprised with a distinctive Australian accent. They just came back from living in Australia for the better part of a year, but when I had seen them last, Ranja had a mid western American accent and Domenic had a German accent. Ranja’s accent was so perfect that I would have pegged her American (half a year ago). Now I would peg both of them Australian. This was a shock.

They lived just outside of town and had to use the autobahn. They said “What do you want to do while you are here? Wanna go 240 on the autobahn?” Without hesitation I said “YALETSDOTHATRIGHTNOW” all in one decisive word. They told me that we would break some speed records tomorrow morning, on the way to breakfast, when it was light out ( a good idea).

Since Ranja just got back from traveling, she was temporarily living with her parents (as many of us travelers tend to do). Her parent’s house was something out of a modern art museum, complete with life sized raven stature in the front window, looking out at prospective visitors.

The next morning, we screamed down the autobahn going nearly 240Km/hour in a small BMW. A very German event indeed. While on the road, we spoke about the state of healthcare in Germany. They mentioned how many Turkish people live in Germany and how much of a strain it is on the social systems. “Like the Mexicans in America.” Ranja said. It turns out that my friends from abroad are not all liberal as I had previously presumed. “Uggghhhh, they are everywhere. One of them comes in and then just brings their huge family over with them.”-Ranja was not happy.

I kept my thoughts to myself about the difference between America and Germany. And for the record, America gets ALL of it’s greatness from it’s immigrants. Thats a safe statement. Considering that we are all from somewhere else if you just look back a few generations. I am am not going to even get into the mess of how we treated and still treat Native Americans. That I could go on for days about.

Next I was off to Switzerland. I got to Bern (the capital) to stay with Selina, another friend who I had met in Australia. Selina didn’t let me pay for one thing during the entire 4 days I spent in Switzerland. She told me that I was the first person who actually came to see her in all her travels.

This is a common occurrence. People tend to make plans to meet back up and never really follow up on them. So, when people actually come to visit, it tends to be a celebrated event for many people.

Selina works in Immigration for Switzerland. She told me “God, there are so many Germans here. It’s like everywhere you look. I see how many visas we give to them everyday and it is like a plague. They all come here to make higher wages than they can in Germany.”

Wow. Apparently it’s all relative in Europe. There is always a richer fish and there is always someone who wants the chance to live in their pond. The pot calls the kettle black and then complains about the heat.

What’s next? Is there some place that the Swiss wish they could work? Actually yes. Lichtenstein is a place with even higher wages and better quality of living. The Swiss try and work there all the time. It seems that the name of the game is “the smaller the western European nation, the more desirable.

I spent my days in Switzerland in Bern, Zurich, and Interlaken (which is a beautiful town that is situated between two huge mountains and two beautiful lakes. While in Interlaken, we spent the majority of the day foraging for wild berries. Growing wildly in plain sight, black berries, raspberries, blue berries, and strawberries. The most interesting of the 4 where the strawberries which grew to the size of capers. With such small size, these things packed a perfect punch of sweetness. They were never sour and very tender.

When we got back to Selina’s apartment, we she cooked me some traditional Swiss food including something that was similar to fondue. She used spices that I had never heard of. One of which is apparently only available in Switzerland. “Aromat” is, as far as I can tell, crack. The powder doesn’t actually taste like anything when you eat it directly, but when sprinkled on something it is said to “bring out the other existing flavors and amplify them.” The Swiss use Aromat like Americans use Salt or Pepper. She said that it contains something that is used a lot in asian food that is said to be bad for you (I presume MSG). But it doesn’t taste salty at all and MSG (as far as I remember) is a form of salt.

Anyway, Selina gave me three large packets of the stuff to take home that don’t expire till 2011. Everyone can come on over to my house and try it out. I know what is going to happen though. I am going to get stopped and searched in an airport. I can see the headline on yahoo news now….

“Man gets detained for illegal Swiss seasoning possession. The American was in possession of enough of the substance that it is implied he had intent to distribute. When interpol agents conducted a deeper investigation, it was confirmed on his website that he intended to distribute the substance.”

More about the history and current situation in Switzerland. Swiss speak 4 major languages based on the region you are in. Since they are so central, they have Swiss versions of each of the languages in their bordering countries. There is Swiss German, Swiss French, Swiss Italian and a native language from many years ago. They are kind of on the shit end of the stick in a sense because the neighboring countries consider the Swiss version of each language a gross bastardisation.

I consider Swiss German to be a more melodic version of German. They seem to be singing a song when they are speaking. Their tones go up and down (as the Norwegians where supposed to). I asked Selina about getting a Swiss Bank account (for the novel value) and she said how most everyone in her family are in banking.

She said that there are current pressures from the EU to join. I asked her if they ever would and she said “We won’t have a choice soon. They are claiming that they will essentially boycott us from all trade if we don’t join. We are not self sustaining in that sense, so we will have to join soon. I hate it. Our quality of life will go down. All of our assets will be spread across the poor nations like Poland and Bulgaria.” She went on to say “As soon as a nation Joins the EU, the price of everything goes up for them and the wages don’t follow.” This claim has been made by everyone who I have met in the EU.

The water in Switzerland is said to be some of the best in the world. So much so that they have fountains in the middle of the street that are drinkable. They are just extensions from the river without treatment. Bern has a small town feel for a capital city.

Tomorrow I shoot all the way up to Amsterdam to meet up with some more friends. Then after 4 days, I shoot down to Italy. I should really keep count of how expensive the trains would have been without the rail pass. I think I would definitely be more than my around the world ticket.

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Say Cheese, You are now in Paris!

Monday, September 14th, 2009

God I’m glad I came here. It crushed nearly every stereotype (especially the negative ones) I had about this place. Parisians, simply put, are charming. There persistent greeting culture reminds me of America. There food ranges from bland to masterful. Their style isn’t any better or worse than any other country. Their women are not particularly beautiful nor ugly. But their city. It. Is. Art.

From the first greeting from the train conductor, the Parisians have been extra kind. Now, if you don’t speak French in a restaurant (in my experience) instead of taking a snooty tone, the waiter might smile at you with the quiet implication that he or she finds it cute that you can only speak one language. Then they will help you along the stretches of the menu. Even the children will playfully jump out of your way if you need to get past in the supermarket.

The weather in September is remarkably similar to Southern California in the Winter (cold in the morning and sometimes boiling by noon). The touristy spots are still crowded (though I simply can’t imagine how bad it is in August). The Luve (spelled wrong- who cares?…. that was rhetorical) is not a museum at all rather a palace the size of a small city. I went to several museums and to tell you the truth, they are all beginning to look the same. I think I am done with them unless they are on a particular subject that I find interesting before hand. Something needs to have been accomplished in this museum. I don’t want to look at pretty things anymore.

Paris is a city that sleeps in way past 9am. In fact, most of the shops are still closed (during the week) at 10 am. But when should you really be outside in Paris? At 7pm this place begins to really pop. Everyone is outside walking around, chatting with each other, and beginning the celebration of eating. The streets wreak of roasted chicken. I find myself intoxicated with the sweet smell of a honey reduction glaze.

For the whole sha-bang, you are looking at a minimum of 45 Euros ($60+). But I wasn’t alone was I? (My parents are reading this post right now and wondering why I haven’t mentioned my Step Bother Patrick yet.) Well parents, I simply wanted to speak about Paris a bit before I let our wonderful family steal the show :)

Had I not spoken about Paris first, I would not have interest in mentioning it after speaking of Patrick’s life style. To catch the rest of my 85 up, my stepbrother Patrick is a fashion photographer who has been living in Paris for about 15 years now. I have been staying with him for the past 5 days or so and have gained great incite into the life of a fashion photographer in Paris.

(while I am typing this, I am on a high speed train to Frankfurt at the moment and it is absolutely flying. This time though, I am not paying 26 Euros and I have plenty of leg room as well as an electrical socket. I love the Germans!)

Patrick picked me up at the train station with one of his three motorcycles. We zipped along the streets of Paris in the highest style possible. Snaking our way through traffic and, in true Parisian fashion, lent ourselves to on coming traffic at times. We also did a little side walk driving, but I promise that all of these maneuvers were done with so much experience and care, that my heart rate never changed :)

Patrick is quite simply, a gentleman in ever sense of the word. He is as attentive as he is considerate. Always a thoughtful host. Always selfless and generous. But more than anything, Patrick is sincere. And that goes a long way in his industry. Ironically iconic when you think about the traits that he has emulated from his father, a lawyer in an industry that equally lacks high marks for sincerity.

I spent the last 5 days following Patrick around and observing the people who he interacts with and who he has chosen to surround himself with. At the end of day 5, he looked back at me (when we were on his motorcycle) and said “You pretty much saw my whole life. The apartment, My work, the bottle shop (his local watering hole), and the bike shop (where he hangs out with his biker buddies).

Patrick is 38. He currently shoots for Marie Clair Magazine. He lives a relatively modest life, yet not deprived in the least. He enjoys the simple pleasures that a Parisian does (fine food, conversation, and wine.) Neat and organized, he tends to have a personal system for most everything. He collects helmets that he buys online. Finds time to keep in constant contact with everyone via Balckberry, and knows both name and personal story of everyone in his everyday life from the Taylor to the superintendent. He lives in the north east side of Paris where all of his daily essentials are within walking distance.

I know what you are all wondering. What about the wild parties? Abuse of his power as a photographer with the models? No….. Never :)

Moving right along….

Patrick’s friends range from shy to pre-Madonna, but almost all of them are involved with either something artistic or motorcycles. (Wow, I can’t believe I am at peace with summing his friends up in one sentence. Perhaps one or two more.) …. Later

I got the pleasure of seeing every step of his job with the exception of the actual shoot. I got to tag along for casting call, location research, and all the shmoozing and coordinating that comes between. Perhaps the most interesting to talk about will be the casting call.

We went to the Marie Claire office which is situated just outside of the Paris city limits. No one cared that I was there to tag along, in fact, they were quite welcoming. After introductions, models began to pour into the room, one at a time.

The first thing I noticed was how emaciated they were. Sometimes in a bold stance and sometimes with posture broken, each one of them said hello and hand Patrick their portfolio. At this point, Patrick begins to separate himself from the crowd. He doesn’t just flip through the pictures; he makes some small talk. He wants to find out if the girl has enough social skills to work with him. In addition, he knows that a lot of these models are as young as 16 and are terrified to be away from home. “You can crush a girl so easily. For many of them, this is their first time away from home. For many of them this is their only chance to make any money for their family.” Many of them are from poor eastern European countries.

Some though are bold, even cocky. Some are dressed to the nines and some look like a train wreck. All of them have upper legs that are almost the same width as their calves (small) which is frightening in person. Most of them don’t wear a bra. Some of them have this combo with a loosely fitting tank top, providing for a bunch of flashing.

The longer the interview goes (as always) the better the chance the girl has for getting the part. Shockingly, in between each of the girls in the room, the stylist and Patrick bounce their opinions off of me and even take heed of my input. That was a real rush. I was opened up to a new world or standards. Too sexy and too commercial, were some of the criticisms that I heard that I never thought could exist.

Later I chatted with the stylist about what she was looking for. She said “There is a fine line between too shy and too pushy. Too made up and looking like a slob. We want to see that there is room for improvement. We as artists don’t want to see a canvas that has already been painted on.”

What a rough interview. They are encouraged not to sell themselves? When I interview I set my personality to “dominate” which is pretty easy to balance. But this is kind of like playing hard to get. One thing that is the same with all interviews (including casting calls) is that a genuine smile painted on someones face, when you first walk in the room, will get you both noticed and remembered.

Lets chat about food a bit more. When Patrick was doing a little less fun work, I was doing the touristy things. I stroll down the street, baguette (French roll) in hand. This will be my lunch, for the bread is just that good. I think of this as markedly non Parisian. To eat so simply. To not celebrate every ingredient in a complicated dish, over a glass of red wine and an espresso shot. But alas, I find other locals who have the same routine.

Later that night, Patrick took me out to a fine traditional French restaurant, owned and run by twin brothers. One ran the bar and the other was the cook. The food was exquisite. Duck liver served warm with a red wine reduction. Tender steak with a strong blue cheese-like sauce. A huge plate of cheeses and raspberry cream & butterscotch cream for dessert. I tried to pay my own way, but Patrick would not dare let me. My stomach was painfully full at the end of the night. There were a few friends that joined us for dinner. Some were bubbly and some were painted with fake French accents as well as a spoiled sense of entitlement. Rude at the dinner table, they all tended to their blackberries as a first choice over listening to the question they just fired off to the table.

These were the kinds of people who will eat your soul. These people belonged in LA. They asked questions to hear their own voice and then dove back into your ignored response to add some sort of blunt “Piece of advice” that was really just a rude outcry of their ego.

But those are the minority of Patrick’s friends, he does have sweet and sincere ones too.

I leave Paris with a sense that the Parisians are a lot less exotic that I had previously envisioned. This is a good thing. Though the city as a whole was a little boring as far as attractions are concerned, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay.

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Antwerp

Monday, September 7th, 2009

I am currently in a high speed French train that is the most cramped ride that I have had since Greyhound of Australia. This was (as far as I could figure) the only logical way to get into Paris. Otherwise it would be a whole day bouncing off of local trains routed through Germany. Because of this, I had to pay an additional 27 Euros for the mandatory reservation/supplement.

But that’s not what this post is all about. I just spent the last two days being guided around the city of Antwerp by my friend Patrick. I met Patrick in Australia originally and then bumped into him in Thailand again a few months later. He just got back from his 7 month trip about a week ago. Now it is back to work for Hewlett Packard. But he doesn’t sell computers or printers like you might think. He is an IT consultant. And HP is actually the world leader in IT consulting solutions (Who knew?). He has been working with HP now for five years. Working on all sorts of projects from the size that he manages completely himself to mega projects that 130 others like him try and bind together 3 of the world’s largest telecommunication providers. That big harry project, with 130 consultants firing at once, left a wake of 2 heart attacks and one seizure. High stress indeed. But what does Patrick get out of all of this. He gets to work from home, company car (2008 BMW 3 series), gas card, and expense account. Not bad right? I thought to myself, “HP treats their Belgian employees better than their American ones.” But that’s not exactly accurate.

Patrick is a Polish immigrant. His family came to Belgium when he was 5 years old. Patrick is casually fluent in 4 languages, then perhaps a dozen other’s that pertain to the computer. But Patrick isn’t the average computer nerd. He is highly social and contains a ton of leadership. Just what HP (and every other major technology company) needs in this day and age. But Patrick has been exposed to the world of backpacking and it’s freedoms. He is now motivated differently than the average American.

And why would I ever peg him as an American? He now, temporarily lives with his parents in Antwerp (and is looking for an apartment). So, when I stayed with him in Antwerp, it was with his parents in a house that looked remarkably similar to a house that you would fine in a suburb of America.

Patrick’s parents own a printing/PR company that is taking a hit that is completely equal to one that they would take if they were based in America. His Mom is a fiery woman that speaks and entertains at a mile a minute. When talking to me about backpacking, she said “You know, I could see myself doing something just like you. I could see myself just packing up and traveling the world for a while. Even with my family and my business. That could be nice for a while.”

I admired her ability to remove herself from her box and realize that she always has choices.

Patrick looked at me and said “The Polish is an eating culture. You’re going to have to eat what my Mom makes you.” I thought, “That won’t be a problem.” His mom made a huge breakfast of both Polish and Belgian dishes and of course the home made Jam from plums in the backyard. The most intriguing dish was Belgian though. It was a minced up raw meat spread. It was a raw meat paste that you spread onto bread and it was wonderful. In addition, there was polish cheese spread along with many other delicacies.

Once we were finished with breakfast, we went for a tour of the city. Patrick was actually super informed about the history of the city. He said “That’s usually how it is. If you move to a city, you learn about it, but if you are born here, then you take it for granted.” He went onto tell me about how the city got it’s name. “There used to be a giant who stood at the mouth of the entrance of the city. He would take taxes from everyone who wished to pass. One day a man came and refused to pay the taxes and as the giant reached down to kill the man, the man sliced off the giants hand and threw it into the river. An-twerp roughly translates to “Hand-weapon.”

Interesting stuff. What else is interesting about Antwerp? As far as unexpected value? 9 out of 10 of all the diamonds in the world pass through this little city. And which sector do they pass through? The orthodox Jewish sector. We rode bikes through the place and found tons of men with long locks of hair growing where your side burns are. It was truly an amazing sight. Patrick said that this community sticks to itself. They don’t mingle with the rest of Antwerp at all. They are not seen as a burden to the community because they are completely self contained. They only buy from each other. There is a store of every kind in this small community of only a few blocks. Outsiders are free to come in and buy from their shops, but you will never find them buying or even walking around in the rest of Antwerp.

They seem to be prospering as a community, but the houses they live in look run down to be honest. Patrick believes that they are just cheap and not interested in investing any money into their homes. I, of course, have no idea if that is the case or not. But I could in fact see that the area looked a little run down compared to the rest of Antwerp and that every 2nd store was in fact something handling diamonds. The world high commission on diamonds is here in this neighborhood too, so it doesn’t appear that they are running some cheap side show.

We went over to the city square for some Belgian waffles as well as Belgian fries. The fries are more exotic in the sense that they are not as well known in America. They are essentially French fries with a hearty wallop of sour mayonnaise and beef gravy. I know what you are thinking. This was very tasty.

From Patrick to Patrick, I am now headed to Paris to visit my step brother, who is a fashion photographer. Now a bad life right?

Thank you so much Patrick for you and your families hospitality.

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I Am-Sterdam Invincible

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

It’s about that time where I will be catching up with the lion’s share of people who I have met Abroad. I am now officially in Western Europe. Not Central. Not Eastern. Not Scandinavia and Not Southern. But to start, I am in Amsterdam and I am visiting Zaza, a good Dutch friend of mine who I met 6 months ago in New Zealand.

Her travels ended over 4 months ago and she is just now getting used to the normal life of work and school. She showed me the city sparing no delight. Though I resisted every time, she insisted on paying for everything. We went to two museums and rented bikes for the day. The first museum we went to was, or course, the sex museum. Why not? We are in Amsterdam. This was kooky at best, but most of it was just a bunch of erotic art. Slap an oversized dick on it and you could see your art here too.

After that we went to the science museum, which was a 9 year old’s wet dream. I wish I had a place like this when I was a kid. All of the hands on science experiment type stuff that you can shake a stick at. The city was raining on and off and I had a little bit of a cold, so I was not enthusiastic to go dancing in it. Next we went to the red light district, which is a funny dynamic to say the least. Walking down the streets my little naive brain produced a cute little question. “Why are some of the windows draped closed? You’d think that they would want to be open for business during these peak hours.” A swift reply from Zaza “They are in the MIDDLE of business.”

Then there were the special coffee shops. They all reeked of weed. But I couldn’t understand why there were so many restaurants and snack shops situated so closely to these places. MAYYYYBEEE because people had the munchies? Now I think I’m catching on to this whole Amsterdam thing.

I was pleasantly surprised with the diversity that I found in Amsterdam. People of all shapes and sizes were spurting out dutch with phrases with cracked smiles. The people in my hostel couldn’t understand why I wasn’t hitting the special coffee shops for breakfast lunch and dinner. They couldn’t understand why someone would come to this town if they were not going to indulge in all of the unique legalitys here.

Back to Zaza and her coping with normal life. When we rented bikes, she told me that “It feels good to be a tourist again.” It’s a nice release, even if it is at home. This is were I felt invincible. I began to realize that 99% of the people who I have met abroad have now gone home from their big special trip. They are back to the grind, but I am a long way from home.

Speaking of long. You might wonder, when did I feel like I’ve been away fro a long time? About a week ago when I hit the 7 month marker. That’s when I felt how long it had been. But and I sick of it?  Not in the slightest. For now, in the traveling world, I feel like I am the chosen one. Where all else have fallen, I still solder on.

Even with the rain and my sickness, I am excited to the max. In the last month (Since I’ve entered the Schengen) area I have been to 11 countries! My pace will slow in the next month, but looking back, that is more than half the amount of countries that I had been to in my entire life (before I started this trip).

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Norwegian Hospitality

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Norway is, definitively, the most expensive place I have ever been in my life. It’s a good thing that I didn’t have to pay for accommodation for two nights in Oslo. Instead we stayed with Alison’s 3rd cousin Ellen, a tall and well educated woman who lives just outside of the center of town. Ellen lives in a house that is semi-connected with her mother Liv. Her 18 year old daughter Matilda lives at home as well.

Fact: Ellen is the best hostess that I have ever encountered. She took us under her wing, fed us, cultured us, and offered us anything our hearts could desire. I got to try a new cheese (I’m not a big fan of Cheese in the first place) that was awesome. Norwegian cheese is sweet and looks exactly like peanut butter. I could eat it by the pound, it was so good.

Speaking of eats, we are headed to Bergen tomorrow where we will be able to sample rain deer, wale (which I am oddly ok with here in Norway, but passed on for morality issues when I was in Japan), and some other very unique foods.

Oslo is magical. It is undoubtedly my favorite place in Scandinavia, but I suspect it is because of how warm of a welcome we have received from Ellen and Matilda. We went to 5 museums today including one that is a tribute to the old Norway where people dress and act in a traditional manner. We also went to the Viking Museum which was ultra impressive. My favorite museum of the day was the FRAM. This was all about the first boat to reach the north pole and its many expeditions. The best part about this museum is that it was built around the ACTUAL boat. This enormous bulbous creature is actually open to walk inside of and see how the living conditions were.

But the most impressive place I went in Oslo by far was the Sculpture Park. This is a must do before you die. Put it on your list, it is magical indeed. There are tons of sculptures of humans interacting with each other in almost every possible emotion and state. Wait till you see the pictures of this place.

Oslo is a place that I would love to come back to and stay for longer. It is a true gem. But if you are planning on coming here, be prepared to be crushed by the price of food. A can of coke here can easily be $5.

BERGEN

Bergen, the second or third largest city in Norway is magical. This is a port town on thew west side of Norway. I know I was refering to Oslo as magical, but this place is much more. Dozens of cutely crafted houses line the steep cliffs that lead down to the bay. The mouth of the bay is where we got to sample wale and rain deer. Wale tastes a lot like steak. When you look at the pieces they have on display, you think that you are looking at the world’s largest rib eye. It cooks to a dark brown while the center remains crimson (wait till you see the pictures). I thought to my self, self, you could eat a few pounds of this stuff couldn’t you?

Rain deer was remarkably unremarkable seeing as it came in sausage form. Thats right folks, I’m going to tell it like it is, If something Isn’t amazing, I’ll let you know (or just not mention it). Speaking of unremarkable, there was a 2 hour detour that we took on another train (on the way to Bergen) and it was highly over rated. It’s claim to fame was that it has the steepest decent of any train in the world. Other than that, it was rather boring. I think actually that you could blame it on the weather though. The weather in Bergen was been a bit of shit. It has rained a bunch. Enough to the point that when it starts raining the locals will say “Finally! I thought it would never stop being dry again!” in a wonderfully sarcastic tone. Well that wasn’t the natives, that was the worldly immigrants that work in the fish market.

When you are walking though the fish market, you will hear 7-10 different languages being used because the people who work on the boats and in the booths are from everywhere from Argentina to Zambia. It’s wonderful. Walking through the tents everyone wants to talk to you about where you are from (but in a ultra low pressure maner) and then they inevitably want to give you samples of wale, salmon, rain deer and caviar. Trout caviar is my favorite :)

There is a ton of spectacular hiking in and around Bergen. You can see some epic views of the city and surrounding fjords. Speaking of Fjords (the reason I came to Bergen), the weather didn’t permit it. That’s right, the weather was poring rain for the few days that we were here. Too bad. Put it back on the list. I’ll show you what I missed out on:

These two pictures are from Fjords that are actually not exactly where I was, but ones that I will return to eventually. Read the captions to find out more about them!
Preikestolen (The Pulpit Rock), Lysefjorden, Norway
"The Bolt", Kjerag, Lysefjorden, Norway

Norway was the most intriguing of all the Scandinavian countries and the most beautiful (from what I saw). All the capital cities main drags are about the same, but the country side are very different. It is likely that I have the most interest in Norway because of the people I have met and the extra time and places I saw. (But at the second that I am writing this section of this post, I am on a train going back to Oslo from Bergen and I promise you that it is the most scenic train ride you will ever go on. It’s way better than the 2 hour excursion.)

Before you go Scandinavia, please keep the 3 to 5 rule in mind. That is, you will spend between 3 and 5 times as much on an item of food (not particularly on housing) as at home. Sweden is the most reasonable of the countries then comes Denmark and finally Norway, but it is worth it. What’s really expensive? How about $60 for one course in a restaurant? Whale only costs $40 per pound.

I feel that I was skunked a bit in Norway because of the weather, but this is a place that I will be back to. If you are into the mountains and woodsy land (including tons of waterfalls and rivers), then Norway will be among the most beautiful places you will ever go. This place will stop your heart just long enough to remember you’ve got one. The Norwegians (among the rest of Scandinavia) will shock you in how perfect their English is.

Next time, though I don’t know how, I am going to stay here for a month.

Alright, in real time (of me typing this) I’ll tell you what I see: Deep, dark, placid lakes. Black rolling rivers. Puffy white wisps on tiny clouds, dancing along the surface of the water (we have a super high altitude). Steep green pastures that are dotted with trees and red & white houses. 300 foot waterfalls, thick forests. 1000 foot cliffs dressed in bright green. This is the kind of place that an author moves to for inspiration. Flooded patches of trees covered in moss. Wild red mushrooms. It’s overcast which is perfect. It ads the mystery. There are so many (I’m aware that this is an oxymoron) cosy cabins that are profoundly situated in idyllic isolation. This country is full of nooks and cranny’s that you will feel alone with nature. Next we ascend up past the tree line where the mountains turn white and don’t ever change for the course of history. This is all from the comfort of a train!!!!

Don’t forget, Norway invented the paper clip!

Tonight I fly from Oslo to Amsterdam. It was that or sit on a train for 40 hours (including two overnight trains costing $150 each (apparently my Rail Pass doesn’t cover those in Scandinavia)) , take a 16 hour ferry for $200 (and then have to take another 5 hour train, or take another 4 days getting back by taking my time. Time is not what I have a lot of (in Europe).

In True flash packer fashion, I fly (for half the price it would cost to do almost everything else. I am off to meet up with a few friends in Holland that I met in New Zealand. After that I will meet up with a Belgian friend that I met in Australia and Thailand. Then after that with Patrick my step brother in Paris. Then a German friend that I met in Australia. Then a Swiss friend that I met in Australia. Ya, you could say that my global network is maturing :)

BACK IN OSLO FOR A FEW HOURS

I’m back in Oslo for a few hours before my flight out to Amsterdam and of course, my friend who I met in Australia, Marthe, cooked me dinner in true Norwegian fashion. We talked about the price of food as well as some Norwegian stereotypes. She says that the reason food is so expensive is because EVERYTHING needs to be shipped in. She said that she often drives over to Sweden (less than an hour away) to stock up on food because it is so much more cheaper. Also, Norwegians are known for smelling like milk as well as sounding like they are singing when they speak. The milk stereotype comes from the old times when people’s diets consisted of mostly milk products. This is before, of course, the high speed super tanker that can bring in anything the heart can desire (for 3-5 times the price). Norway started with hospitality and ended on the same note. Thanks Marthe!

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