Thursday, August 6, 2009

My stupid web site

After years of complaining about how there are too many steve baker's in the world, so nothing about me ranks on google (this is particularly embarrassing given who I work for), I decided to finally make my own web site. This is partially because there are many other steve bakers who could be confused with me and do have web sites, including the one at, who is also a software engineer in the bay area! I'm just writing this post so I can link to my new web site and increase its ranking for the phrase: steve baker.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Last year we visited Trondheim (very far north, in Norway) in the middle of winter.  We had a 7 hour stopover in the Amsterdam airport.  The airport is quite close to city, so we were able to leave our luggage and visit the city, which we had never been to before.

Our flight back home also flies through Amsterdam, and we thought we had a 5 hour stopover, which is just enough time to walk around a little and get lunch before returning to the airport.

In Florence a few weeks ago we took a Tuscan cooking class (which I think we didn't write about, but it was a lot of fun).  There was a 40ish couple in the class that randomly brought up that they had been to Amsterdam for a week.  I give it a 50% chance the guy was in finance because he was dressed nicely and they lived in Connecticut.  (ha!)  He also had a slight brooklyn accent that he hid pretty well, until I asked him, "Are you originally from new york?", after which he got all excited and launched into "fuggedaboutits" and demands for "kawfee",  Anyway, we kept trying to pump them for tips about other things we could do in Amsterdam.  Our conversation went something like this:

Couple:  "Of course you have to walk around and see all the canals"
Us:  "Right, we did that."
Couple:  "You have to see the marijuana parlors"
Us:  (Nodding, we already saw that.)
Couple:  "You have to walk through the red light district."
Us:  "Yeah we saw that too."

At this point they were stumped and we shifted conversation.  Later I steered it back:  "Did you do anything else you'd absolutely recommend in Amsterdam?"

Couple:  "Oh, the Anne Frank house was really interesting."
Us:  sighing, "We did that too!"

Apparently we are power travelers because in our five hours in the city we did everything they could remember from their one week trip to Amsterdam.  (Maybe they were doing a lot of drugs and didn't want to tell us and were too drug addled to remember anything else.)

The odd thing about Amsterdam is that despite its reputation to Americans (because of the marijuana parlors and the red light district), we thought it was quite beautiful and a charming city.  I was actually unimpressed with the "seedy" areas since there are much largier and seedier areas in American cities.

It seemed like such a nice cityl We're sure there were other things we could have done.

Unfortunately when we checked into our flight this morning we found out we only had a 2 hour layover, so now we're stuck in the airport.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

trip to olympia

A few days ago we made a day trip to Olympia, the sacred grounds where the original Olympic games were held.  It is on the complete opposite side of the Pelopenese from Tolo, where we were staying, so we knew we had to get an early start for 3 hours of driving there, and then 3 hours of driving back at the end of the day.  

We thought it'd save time and be nice to have a picnic at the Olympic grounds, so the night before we bought a whole bunch of supplies.  You can get fancy European meats and cheeses in the US, so we were most excited about buying these treats cheaply in the small supermarket.  We bought 3 kinds of lunchmeat, bread, mayonaise (surprisingly, they had Kraft, but we bought another kind), a big sack of fresh olives, and a bottle of wine.  We also saw what looked like spreadable cheese with a picture of garlic on it.  How could we not buy creamy cheese with garlic? (especially since there is no one else to comment on our breath?)  

Driving to Olympia was a no holds barred, full body effort.  We got a stick shift car, so we got to practice white knuckled turns while down and up shifting constantly to go up hills, around bends, and to re-accelerate.  (More properly, I got to practice while Marisa tried to not vomit in her seat.)  I've never seen this done in the US, but in India we admired how the drivers honk ALL the time, ostensibly to warn other drivers, scooters, pedestrians, and passing elephants about the soon-to-occur dangerous maneuever.  We noticed a few people in Europe honking around bends, so I took this practice to its logical extreme, as seen in this video:

It made me (us?) feel much safer to honk constantly, because Greek drivers don't seem to care what lane they are in, so we were a bit worried about getting hit head on while rounding blind turns, even if we stayed in our line.  

On the way we saw some beautiful mountain towns and views up the valley.  We actually appreciated the views more on the way back when we were less stressed out about having enough time in Olympia.

Three hours later, we arrived safely in Olympia.  I was feeling exhausted from the effort of the drive, though.  I don't think I've ever felt so tired after 3 hours of driving.  It was only 11:30, so we planned to head straight to the museum to first learn about the ancient site.  After that we'd picnic and then walk around.

There wasn't clear signage for parking.  After a minor argument about whether we could drive on the road pointing to the museum (it looked like more of a pedestrian access path), we drove up it and parked the car directly in front.  After we'd spent a few minutes parking the car and got out, a woman ran out of the building, "You can't park here!  And the museum is closed until 1pm!"  There is no predicting museum hours in countries that take afternoon breaks.

We decided since I was already famished we might as well find a spot to picnic, so we kept driving up the road and were amazed to see the old Olympic Stadium to our right, past a wrought iron fence.  There was a perfect spot to park the car right across from the stadium, so we got out and picniced right above it.  The stadium below provided some entertainment because tourists kept coming in and doing goofy things.  One large group of teenagers came in and staged a footrace.  As Marisa notes in her photo caption below, I kept yelling "Vittorio" at the racing teenagers below.  I'm not sure, but  I thought that might be italian/latinish for Victory.

Our food tasted great, at least to me, because I was so hungry from driving and from a small breakfast.  I slathered large amounts of mayonaisse and an even larger amount of spreadable cheese onto bread, accompanied by the meat and olives we'd bought.  The garlic from the cheese was the dominant flavor, though.   Marisa finished before me but half an hour later I was still eating.

I'd started to slow down and was no longer ravenously hungry when I prepared another piece of bread, covered with cheese.  I took a bite and realized it didn't taste good anymore.  In fact, it tasted kinda bad.  "This doesn't taste so good anymore.", I said to Marisa.  She laughed, because she likes to laugh at how I get sick from overeating.  (mixed with concern over my health)

"This tastes like something familiar...  hmm..  it tastes like butter!"

"Maybe it's a buttery cheese", Marisa responded.

"Let me look at that package and see how many calories are in it."

I took a look at the label on the front.  Underneath the picture of what looked like cheese and the garlic cloves I saw anew some Greek lettering we had previously ignored.  It read, "βούτυρο".

I had a hooked on phonix moment where I sounded the label out..  "Boooo tuurrr oooo.  Oh my god, Marisa, this label sounds like butter!  This is butter!"

We (mostly I) had eaten an entire tube of butter.  Probably 10 tablespoons, at least.  I felt pretty sick, scraped all the remaining butter off my bread, and finished the rest of the meat and olives.  We proceeded to the museum, stomachs heavy with 2000 calories of butter.

On a side note, I have been surprised and impressed with my ability to read (if not understand) Greek words.  This probably sounds stupid to anyone who has been to Greece or knows Greek, but it's easy to sound out Greek words if you already know the Greek letters, which many people do.  I learned almost all of them in math and science classes.  For example, with "βούτυρο", the important letters are beta (b sound), omega (o sound), tau (t sound), rho (r sound, it looks like a p).  Marisa points out that even frat boys know Greek letters, since the fraternity names are all in Greek.  This may be the only advantage of being in a fraternity, other than becoming really awesome at drinking games.

The Olympia museum was I think worth it for learning the context for the site, but I don't remember many interesting artifacts from it.  They provided lots of history that we wouldn't have otherwise known.  (for example, how important religion was to the original games, which was why they were eventually banned as pagan by a christian bishop)

The site itself was amazing to walk around.  The complex is quite large and surprisingly complete.  Many of the buildings had fallen over, but I don't think we'd ever seen so clearly fallen columns before.  For example, in this picture you can see exactly how the column support fell over:

Many of the foundations were still standing, and you could imagine how the athletes would have used various spaces.  Marisa took this picture of me pretending to wrestle in the wrestlers courtyard:

There were many other interesting parts of the complex, including baths where the athletes would get massages, stretch, and bathe.  It was filled with temples to various gods.  

Personally, I thought the neatest part was the runners stadium, where they'd hold several hundred meter races.  The arch through which the runners entered the stadium is still remarkably preserved.  You could imagine it sorta being like when they run into the Olympic stadium now, or when basketball teams bust through the paper arch covering when coming onto the court.  There were treasury houses for each Greek city state lining the road to the entrance, so the athletes could walk past symbols of their respective cities.  They also had statues of athletes who cheated, as a reminder of the eternal consequences of a tarnished reputation.

In the stadium I staged my own race and did 15 laps while Marisa walked the course.  She had the good humor to take some pictures.

Greece - a History Buff's Delight

Athens was almost as amazing as Rome. In terms of history, Athens is at least on par with Rome - the ancient Greeks left just as many ancient ruins behind in Athens and the surrounding area as the Romans did in Rome. Other than the ruins the city is mostly ugly though - lots of squat, concrete buildings and graffiti.

Most history nerds have a favorite - the ancient Greeks or the Romans. My pick is the ancient Greeks. As a democracy-loving American it's hard to not be impressed by the people who invented democracy more than 2,000 years ago. The military made Athens rich, it was powered by free men, and therefore free men deserved a hand in government decisions. It's a testament to their greatness that they treated men this equally given that democracy went out of fashion for the next 2,000 years after the decline of ancient Greece. (Steve's note: i don't really love democracy. We have too much democracy, which is why we're constantly bothered with stupid propositions from the state on matters about which voters are unqualified to make decisions. America's founders consciously did not want to emulate the idiotic athenians, ha ha! We stood on the spot where socrates died because the people democratically voted he should die! Marisa's counter-point: I realize democracy is not perfect but I don't think all of our readers, or at least the precious few that have made it this far into the post, are interested in a debate about the relative merits of democracy. So I'm oversimplifying. Forgive me.)

The Acropolis and the Parthenon, the greatest ancient Greek ruins we have, sit on top of a steep hill and can be seen from anywhere in Athens. The Parthenon (the main temple) is quite large and its columns are well preserved. Between the building itself, its location and its age, it is awe inspiring. I couldn't get over the fact that people knew how to build such a massive and beautiful structure in such a difficult location over 2,500 years ago, using basic tools of no more than stone or bronze.

Athens also has a really nice archaeological museum with exhibits on the Greeks and the Mycenaens (more on them later). The following is one of the most famous statues. It's nearly 3000 years old. We've seen the progression of the art of sculpture during our trip, and it's amazing how well shaped this statue is:

Olympia is the site of the original olympic games. It's a massive complex of temples and athletic facilities. It's several hours away from Athens (in the Pelopennese) so most tourist don't make it there, but it's a lot of fun. The Greeks were really into athletics, as we quickly learned at the museum exhibits where at least 1/3 of statues/monuments depicted athletes or athletic competitiions. Athletes make good warriors, after all. Olympia started as a temple complex where the main gods and the god of victory (Nike) were worshipped. The Greeks seemed really into the concept of victory based on the number of Nike statues we have seen. Anyway, the olympic games were originally a spiritual event, a way of worshipping the Gods and their relationship to athleticism/victory. They started with a single short distance sprint event and gradually evolved to include things like wrestling, running in combat gear and longer distance runs. They also served wider purposes such as a way for people from around the Greek world to meet and do business, a time to temporarily halt fighint, and a constructive channel for the competitive spirit. Olympic victors became famous (i.e. the subject of many sculptures, carvings, etc.) and sometimes made rich by their leaders back at home. Steve will write more on Olympia later.

Coming back to Athens, one crazy thing that happened was that we saw 2 separate sets of people doing hard drugs in broad daylight. One was snorting something and one was shooting something. The one shooting something was within 200 ft of a bunch of nearby police officers. Our hotel clerk told us drugs are illegal and if the police see these folks they would arrest them. But these folks are just really punk rock, I guess they don't care. We're told Greeks are passionate about freedom - was this a surprising manifestation of that passion? I'm not sure. Note that we never felt unsafe in Athens. My guide book says violent crime isn't a big problem. People seemed defiant, but not violent.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Myth and Modernity in Tolo Greece

We will probably write more about what we've seen in Greece for the last week.  For the past 4 days we've been staying in Tolo, Greece, which has been a good place from which to explore the Ancient sites in the surrounding Peloponese.  We will probably write more about those.

I think a different story gives best the flavor of this part of Greece.  On two separate days I went running in different directions from town.  The first day I ran south, along the ocean.  I ran through orange groves, which are in bloom about now.  The smell is so strong that when we were driving through the Peloponese, at first we thought we must have spilled perfume in the car.  It wasn't until we opened the window when we realized that everywhere around us was filled with the smell of flowers.

Tolo is not known for anything special.  It's not even in our Greece guidebook.  We only stayed there because the all the hotels we called in the town we wanted, Napflio, were full.  However, within a mile I saw a rocky outcropping jutting into and above the shimmer blue ocean.  At the top and along the sides were stone blocks covered with thick vines, barely perceptible signs of previous human work.  As I ran along the road towards it, I noticed there was a small sign explaining the site.  It apparently was the site of the ancient town of Asine, which was briefly mentioned by Homer in the Iliad.  He described it "Asine, commanding the deep wide gulf", when saying how it contributed men to the invasion force of the Trojan war!

I ran on past the sign, through an overgrown path, and up some crumbling stairs carved into the stone.  Some of the stairs were still impressively preserved, 3000 years later.  

At the top was a small room or watch tower, looking out over the ocean.  This casual encounter with myth, especially when you don't even expect it, is what makes Greece seem so magical.  I'm sure that undoubtedly the force feeding of Homer to many American students contributes to the amazement at coming across such things.

On the second day, I ran north.  I had to run above and through the town of Tolo, which is beautiful.  From our hotel I could see a road running up the ridge of some northern peaks, so I decided to aim there.  I hoped I could run northwards towards Nafplio.  At least, if I scaled the ridge, I might be able to see Nafplio.

About 500m up the road I had seen (1.5mi into the run), I came across a gate.  It had Greek words, but in English it said "No Pedestrians and No Vehicles".  I ran through, thinking that I could at least explore up a little before turning back.  About 5 minutes up, with the gate still in sight, a car of teenagers passed me in the other direction, smirking.  Apparently the road was somewhat open, even if we were all breaking the rules.

I assumed the road was some sort of public utility access road or a fire trail, as it was similar to roads I have run on in California.  In fact, the mountains in this part of Greece feel very similar to California,  They are very steep, dry, and covered in scrubby brush that easily catches fire.  As I kept running up the road, I saw an unfortunate amount of trash on the sides.  There were broken roofing tiles, discarded tires, and plastic containers.  I wondered if the teenagers were dumping that stuff up there.  It almost, but not quite, spoiled the view down 1000 feet to the town and the Mediterranean sea below.

I kept running up and had reached a point where I would turn over a ridge and would no longer be able to see the first gate.  I could see up to a second ridge, so I decided I'd continue to there and turn around at the top.  I wanted to see the other side;  perhaps Nafplio would be right there to the North.

I kept running up and noticed that some of the scrub was blackened, as if from recent fire.  I came across a second gate that had no text whatsoever except for a big emblem of burning flames.  That seemed very strange:  Did they intentionally light fires up here?  I also caught the disconcerting smell of something rotten, like old meat.  Maybe there was a dead animal nearby,

After another 5-10 minutes, I climbed another few hundred feet to the second ridge.  I eagerly ran forward to the turning point, hoping to see a beautiful view to the North, all the way to the end of the bay jutting into the Pelopenese.  After all, the previous day I'd stumbled across 3000 year old ruins.  I crossed the ridge and was rewarded with a view of a... trash dump.  That explained the threat of fire and the smell of decay!  It was disgusting.  The smell was horrible, and there were hundreds of birds circling around eating the rubbish.

I've never heard of a trash heap on the top of a mountain.  I would think the wind would carry the smell to Nafplio or to Tolo and ruin vacationers' time.  We never smelled it from town or our hotel, though.

That nicely illustrates the constrasts in Greece.  On the one hand, everywhere you turn are ancient monuments.  There are so many that it seems that the Greeks can't keep up with maintaining them all, nor do many of the ancient places even get any tourists.  There was no one else at Asine, and the one sign was lonely and old.  Stewarding that history must be a large burden.  On the other hand, there is modernity everywhere, including trash heaps on top of mountains, the newest cell phones, cars going 105mph on the ahighways, etc.

Piu Venice

Marisa already wrote a pretty good description of Venice, but I feel obliged to add a few tidbits.  I'm probably more naively enchanted than she is, since as she likes to point out, I have a fascination with all things maritime.  I'm not sure if this will be interesting or not.

Venice is bizarre.  It is 1000 years old.  Built on former glory and filled with booty stolen from its former mediterranean empire, it exemplifies the greatest irony of the crusades, in which the blood and booty thirsty crusaders decided to sack a *christian* city, Constantinople (now istanbul).  They got a little sidetracked from the Holy Lands, evidently.  They carried the treasure back to Venice.  With that treasure they built an improbable city literally on the middle of the ocean, by paving over marsh and canals in a series of low-lying islands.  Many paved streets in Venice are called "Rio", which to those familiar with latinate languages will easily recognize as meaning "river".  (Think Rio Grande.)  That's because that particular street used to be a river, but was slowly converted to land.

I don't think this improbable city would have really been able to continue without tourism.  It is quaint and gorgeous but extremely impractical.  You have to walk everywhere within the city, unless you have the advantage of having a boat.  We'd regularly see delivery men struggling to move pallets of food and drink up and down steps over canals to get to their restaurant or business.  I personally am not sure I'd even want to live there.  Besides it being so clearly expensive, the other problem was that it's a very contained space.  From our hotel I'd need to run nearly a mile to get to a park.  Everywhere else in the city the only place to walk or run were tiny lanes about 5 to 10 feet wide.  It felt pretty trapped and oppressive, despite being so beautiful and appealing because of the canals and the buildings.  It would be impossible to train for a marathon in Venice, unless you like running 1 mile loops for 3 hours.

Still, it was awesome, which I mean literally.  It's awe inspiring to be standing in such a strange and improbable city, which is in true fact slowly sinking into the marsh beneath, while tourists roam above buying $3000 coats at the Armani store.  (We did not buy any $3000 coats, although I kept pointing at them in the display and joking about buying them to Marisa.)  The boat transportion was also very exciting.  One thing that would have made it better was if we were able to rent boats.  We like to canoe or kayak around and have done so in many places.  It didn't seem possible in Venice, though, which was very surprising.

Those are my additional impressions besides those which Marisa has already written:

Hard Rock Cafe

Our hotel, by happenstance, was about one block from the Hard Rock Cafe in Venice.  We discovered it because our first night in Venice we walked from our hotel to Piazza San Marco.  After crossing one canal bridge and one block, we saw the Hard Rock.  We've traveled in more than 15 countries together but have never gone into a Hard Rock before, but for some reason this one was very inviting.  Partly it was because it seemed to have reasonable prices, as opposed to the rest of Venice.

We went in and expected to order only one drink before heading back quickly.  However, we were instantly entranced by the rock music videos on the wall behind the bar and the incredibly friendly waitress.  It's hard to explain, but when you've been away from the good ole' USA for 3 months and there's a video of "I can't drive 55" with Sammy Hagar wearing a 80s jumpsuit and goofily doing battle in a Mustang with the California Highway Patrol on I-5, followed by his arraignment in a courtroom and the subsequent rescue by his bandmates, you can't turn away.  The videos kept coming, and we kept getting more excited.  Assuming it wasn't a dream, at one point they played Hotel California, and we sung along shamelessly.  They also played some U2 (ok, this isn't american), Scooby Snacks (by the fun lovin criminals), and LA Woman (The Doors).  I guess we were missing home and didn't even know it.

Most surprisingly, the Hard Rock didn't even seem to have other Americans in it.  We were shocked that it was packed, and it was packed with Europeans of different varieties.  It seemed like the hip place to be for younger people in Venice.

On a final note, supposedly the hard rock chain was created because the owners couldn't find good american food outside of the US.  However, their menu is pointlessly limited to stuff that is actually quite easy to get all over the world:  burgers, steaks, etc.  The one thing that any self-respecting American should love and that is hardest to find outside the US is Pancakes/Flapjacks.  I crave them practically every morning.  We didn't have good pancakes for 2 months until Marisa made them in one of our hostel kitchens as a special treat.  (Yay Marisa!)

The Watered Down Sherry, or how the New World encounters the Old World

As Marisa described, one of the adorable features of Venice is that on the main piazza there are many cafes at which paid musicians wearing full white tuxedos play classical and other types of music in classical formats.  Many people simply walk up and stand to listen.   The setting itself is also beautiful because it's on Saint Mark's Square (Piazza Di San Marco).  Despite it being really old, the major view on the square is of the Cathedral, which is so ornate and covered with Byzantine paintings that it looks like it's fake.  We felt that if we walked up to it and smacked the rock, it'd be fake plastic that would sound hollow like at Disney, and if we walked around to the back we'd see plywood was holding it up.  (The walls were in fact rock and hurt when you hit them, and the building was 3 dimensional.)

Of course, you need to buy something to sit at a table or a seat at one of these cafes with the music.  One time after dinner we decided we'd buy one drink at an outrageous price (so large I would feel embarassed to share here) just so we could sit and listen in comfort.  We planned to nurse that drink for as long as we dared.  It was lateish (10pm), so we decided to order a Sherry for dessert.  Sherry is a fortified (extra alcohol) white wine that should appear yellowish to dark orange in color.  When it arrived we took a few sips and grew suspicious.  It was unlike any sherry we had before.  While we are not sherry experts, Marisa uses sherry in cooking, and we've indulged in a few previously, so we have some practical experience.  Plus, Steve took Wines 101 at Cornell Hotelier School Pass/Fail, in which they did a unit on fortified wines, including Sherry.  He passed, which may or may not mean anything.  This particular sherry tasted watery and was only pale yellow in color.  When we rotated the glass and let the sherry fall down the side of the glass, it left very small fingers, implying low alcohol content.  All previous good sherries we'd had were darker in yellow, and had viscous and thick fingers.  Also, very weirdly, it was not sweet, which most sherries are.

We debated for a couple minutes.  Normally we wouldn't say anything.  After all, when you're in a foreign country it's hard to know what's normal.  Still, in this case we felt pretty confident someone had watered down the sherry and the owner should know and that possibly we should get our money back.  We called the waiter over.  "This sherry is weird.  It's not viscous."

"Yes, sherry is viscous."

"NO.  This sherry is NOT viscous."

The waiter became flustered.  "No, no, sherry is viscous."

"si, si, capisco.  But this sherry tastes like it has aqua in it."

"Please.  Prego.  I will get my manager."

He went to fetch the manager, and we walked up to the bar to talk to him.  It felt pretty stupid to make a big deal about the drink, but it also feels pretty lame to be cheated with something crappy when you pay a lot for it.

The manager walked up all haughty.  "This is good sherry."

We explained that we felt like it wasn't viscous enough.  He said, "Where do you come from?"

We cringed, fearing that by revealing we were Americans he would dismiss our "ignorant" concerns about Sherry.  I prepared to deal my Cornell Hotelier School Wine Class ace card, should the need arise.  We told him, "The United States, America"

He said, "Where do you get the sherry you have in the United States?  This is Good Sherry."

I replied, summoning old memories from class and the back of wine bottles, "Spain or Portugal."

He paused, apparently realizing we weren't complete idiots, "Well, this sherry is Tio Pepe.  It is the most popular Sherry in Europe."

"Why is it not sweet?"

"Tio Pepe is a dry sherry."

Marisa said, "Can you try it?  It tastes watered down to us.  I use dry sherry in cooking, and this does not taste like dry sherry."

He hesistated and scowled at us.  He seriously didn't want to try it and acted like we weren't worth his time!  He repeated, "This is perfectly fine sherry."

Marisa repeated, "Please, can you try it?  It tastes weird."

He poured himself a little glass, tasted with a scowling pinky hold, and then insisted it was perfect.  He eventually said that if we didn't like it we wouldn't have to pay, although he was clearly not happy while saying so.  Not knowing if we were right or wrong and worried about making a fuss over nothing, we said thanks and sat back down to enjoy the music.  We eventually left the money for the drink because we weren't sure if we were just being paranoid.

Later that night we googled Tio Pepe, and it is indeed quite different from normal sherry.  It is dry and is quite popular in Europe.  It has less alcohol than normal sherry.  However, the next day we bought another glass of it (for much cheaper) elsewhere just to check if it was the same, and we're 80% sure the second glass was much more viscous, had broader fingers, and tasted stronger than the glass we had bought that night.  Psh, it doesn't really matter, but it feels ridiculous because it seemed likely that cafe charges so much for things and then adulterates them.  Still, we got to listen to wonderful music in front of a 1000 year old Cathedral, so we didn't feel that bad about it the next day.  I guess ultimately this is another example of getting duped in a foreign country because you aren't sure of how things work.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Steve had a boy-like, giddy fascination with boats. Most of his knowledge comes from historical novels. From these novels he has learned to speak like a ship's captain or pirate, but he doesn't know much more than that. When he sees a boat he usually just starts talking like a pirate, shouts "ahoy" at them or says "look! a boat!"

We weren't planning on coming to Venice because it's really touristy and there aren't any top-notch sights here. But we did. And the first thing Steve said when we arrived was "how could we have considered not coming? There are boats everywhere!" And there are. Venice is a bunch of islands in a marshy area connected by lots of landfill. There are canals running through the island, building entries and streets accessible only by water, and bridge crossings everywhere. Cars are not allowed in this relatively large city. Pedestrians can relax and not worry about stop lights or getting hit. You can watch the various vessels in the canals, including lots of gondolas but also boats for loading goods, i.e. a boat full of beer unloading beer crates at a Venetian bar. You can see people climbing into their houses out of boats, and specialized construction boats taking building materials and equipment to the houses under construction.
From 20090501_Venice_Starred

From 20090501_Venice_Starred

From 20090501_Venice_Starred

From 20090501_Venice_Starred

Venice has a magnificent church that reflects the city's historical prosperity. Every inch of the ceiling of the massive St. Mark's Basilica is covered in gold mosaic. The mosaics shine so brightly and look so rich. If you like gold, glittery stuff, it's the most magnificent church I've seen. Too bad the people who built the basilica used it for the private worship of the doges (dukes) of Venice. Venice was very wealthy due to it's prominence in sea trade and at one point had an empire with control of lands in greece and (we think?) asia minor.

The other major highlight of Venice for me was the cafes in Piazza San Marco that have big bands (usually some mix of a piano, violinst, clarinetist, flutist accordian, and bassist) playing romantic tunes. It's so nice to sit (or stand - sitting and eating at these cafes is just about the most overpriced thing you can do, i.e. $14 for a Jameson whiskey, plus a $6 cover charge) in the sun, listen to the excellent music and watch tourists from all over the world.
From 20090501_Venice_Starred

From 20090501_Venice_Starred

Venice is a nice place to spend a few days, and we thoroughly enjoyed it, but I have to warn anyone who is considering going that it is the most ludicrously expensive place I have ever been (except for the hotel in Tokyo where a single American pancake cost $10).
From 20090501_Venice_Starred

From 20090501_Venice_Starred

From 20090501_Venice_Starred

From 20090501_Venice_Starred

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Child in India

We take most of our pictures with Marisa's camera, but sometimes I snap things with my phone and forget about them.  I was cleaning out my phone today when I came across this picture.

The picture is both really cute and terribly sad.  The cute little girl with the impish grin is hanging off the back of our bicycle rickshaw.  While the driver was laboring up front, she kept putting her tiny finger over her lips to signal us not to say anything to the driver, who presumably would have been extremely angry had he discovered another 40 lbs of weight hanging off the back.  We shared in her little mischief and kept surreptitiously turning to laugh at her while maintaining conversation with the driver so he wouldn't notice.

After we stopped she hopped off and came around to the front.  She made a sad face, held her tiny hands up to her mouth, and said, "Chapati, Chapati"  (bread, bread)

We didn't give her anything, and it's impossible not to feel sad and a little guilty.  Perhaps we would have given her food if we had it, but all we had was money.  In her case, I'm not sure if she really was hungry.  As you can see in the picture, she is wearing bangles, is reasonably clean, and has decent clothes on, although like nearly all Indian children she is very skinny.  We did see many other beggar children who looked much sorrier.  People in India say you shouldn't give money to children because many of the children do have access to school and should be there, but if they get money and food by begging, they won't go.  Also, apparently just like in Oliver Twist, many of the beggars are in begging rings that are run by older adults.  Perhaps the cute girl was trained by an adult handler to hang onto the back of rickshaws to charm tourists.

In any case, I am glad we found this picture, because for some reason we'd been thinking about this little girl lately.  

Napoli, Pizza, Pompeii

Marisa already posted about Tuscany, but I thought I'd briefly fill in what we did before that.  Between our visit to Rome and Tuscany, we went down to Napoli (Naples) for two nights, mostly because we wanted to visit nearby Pompeii without feeling rushed doing it as a day trip from Rome.

We took the train from Rome to Napoli.  That itself was quite an event for the first half hour.  We took the second class extremely slow 3 hour regional train (the fast train is about an hour), and we got to the train station only 20min before departure.  It is very easy to buy Italian train tickets, so we had no trouble quickly buying a ticket and running to the train about 10m before departure.  Unfortunately when we arrived at the train we quickly realized there were no open seats.  People were standing between cars and we noticed so0me space near the slightly stinky bathroom, so I threw our giant backpacker bags down on the floor (I carry them both because of Marisa's knee problems).  This formed a seat on which Marisa could sit, while I stood next to the bathroom.  We were crowded into the space with maybe 6 or 7 other people who were also late and had no seats.  We stood there for 30 minutes preparing ourselves to stand for 3 hours next to the bathroom in the muggy heat.  Luckily, though, this was a regional train, so within 30 minutes probably half the people had gotten off at various stops outside Rome.  We jumped into the next car and were able to sit down in decent chairs for the rest of the trip.

We arrived at Napoli after dark.  Napoli has a bad reputation.  There is lots of mafia activity, and there is supposedly more than 25% unemployment and thus a lot of disaffected youths.  During our walk from the metro station to our hotel (which we had trouble finding), we definitely felt a little uncomfortable.  There were many disaffected-looking youths standing on all the street corners.  The center of Napoli is medieval.  It ended up being cute in the daytime, but after dark mostly we noticed that it was dark, the walls hang over you, and there's a disconcerting amount of graffiti everywhere.  It felt like a night and day difference from Rome, which seemed beautiful, inviting, and warm everywhere we went.

We ended up finding our hotel after a frustrating hour of walking.  The entry to the hotel itself was through an unmarked, thick steel door covered in graffiti.  But we checked in, and everything was OK.

Napoli is known for inventing pizza, and they are very proud of their local variety.  They are especially proud of Margherita, which is just tomatoes, mozarrella, and basil.  We got some very good and pretty cheap pizza there, although I think we had better pizza in NY at Grimaldi's in Brooklyn, and at a place we once went in Milan.  Our first night we ordered Margherita, because that is the Neopolitan specialty.  The second night we went out for pizza again but wanted to have something different, so we ordered Margherita con Panna, which means margherita pizza plus italian cream which they pour over the top of the pizza.  That sounds weird (pizza with cream on top is rare in the US), but we'd had it before, and it's quite good.

Some Italians (we think local Neopolitans) at the table next to us overheard us order Margherita con Panna, and they got really excited/disgusted.  They said loudly, "Con Panna!  No Con Panna!  MARGHERITA!"

We said to them, "Si, Con Panna!"  We had the impression they thought we were clueless tourists who weren't going to try the local favorite, but we didn't try to explain that we had just had margherita the day before.

Then, to our astonishment, one of them went up and ran after the exiting waiter.  "Solo Margherita!"  The waiter nodded back to them.  They'd just changed our order!

We frantically waived the waiter back.  When he came back over we said, "Con Panna!"

The guys at the next table repeated "no con panna!" and started laughing.

Our waiter look at us for agreement, and Marisa, practically shouting with frustration said, "No, WITH PANNA".  (She wasn't really going to cry, but I think we were both afraid we weren't going to get it with panna.)  At this point our waiter nodded and walked away.  Later we did get the pizza with panna, and it was quite tasty, so it worked out.

We spent most of our day in Napoli visiting Pompeii, which was amazing.  Probably most people know, but it was a town buried under volcanic ash before the people had time to escape.  It was later discovered and dug up, and was remarkably preserved, unlike most Roman towns which were built on top of by later civilizations.  The bodies of the people there left cavities in the earth (filled with bones).  Archaeologists were able to inject plaster into the cavities, so when they dig out the bodies you get a replica of exactly what the person looked like as they died.  The result is really eery and quite creepy, as you see the death masks of all these normal people.  Despite it being creepy, the people at the site all seemed very respectful of the artifacts.

Besides the eery plaster bodies, the other impressive aspect of the town is how large and complete it is.  You can walk around and see the bakeries, the theater, the houses, and even a brothel in the center of town, which is decorated with still preserved lewd frescoes.  The town has been uncovered to the elements for awhile, so it has surely now decayed more than when it was first unearthed, but it still feels like walking around a real Roman town.  It was so large that despite spending 8 hours walking around and looking at stuff, we probably only saw 25% of it.

Besides Pompeii, the other exciting thing that happened to us in Napoli was... someone stole our credit card number and charged $4500 worth of clothes at fancy designer clothing stores.  Since we didn't have much access to internet in Italy, we only figured it out a week later when we checked our balance and saw the enormous charges on it.  The charges were easy to pick out because we certainly never spend that much money on clothes, in fact we don't really buy clothes unless absolutely necessary (okay, slight exaggeration, but we both hate shopping).  Ironically, that week was the only time during our entire trip when we did buy some nice clothes.  (We went to a store where I bought a sweater and Marisa got some new pants.)  We're still not sure how the thief was able to charge at the store, because our credit card company claims they used a physical card, but we didn't lose our actual plastic credit card.  It's completely possible for a number of people in Naples to have stolen our number, though, as many people had access to the physical card when we were paying for things.  We don't know if this is related or not, but one stupidity of Europe is that receipts often have the entire credit card number printed on them!  We try to shred them or keep them with us, but we may have left one somewhere.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Tuscany - Beautiful, Delicious and Historical Too

Tuscany has so much to offer. We spent a week driving through the region known for natural beauty, wine and olives, great food, historic towns and famous art.

Tuscany's beauty struck us immediately. The endless rolling hills are a patchwork of lush green fields (reminiscent of Ireland but with bigger hills, although it may only have been green because we were there in spring), vineyards, olive groves and forests. Stone farmhouses, hundreds of years old but beautifully restored, dot the landscape. Everywhere you go there are adorable, medieval and renaissance hill towns made out of stone. Almost all of the dwellings, hundreds of years old, are well maintained and cared for with personal touches like potted plants and shrines. It's a testament to the homeowner's patience, respect for the past and love of beauty that they prefer antique dwellings over modern comforts.
From 20090423_Tuscany_Starred

From 20090423_Tuscany_Starred

From 20090423_Tuscany_Starred

From 20090423_Tuscany_Starred

From 20090423_Tuscany_Starred

From 20090423_Tuscany_Starred

Food and wine take center stage in Tuscany. Wine tasting opportunities abound (we didn't do much), especially in the Chianti region. Restaurants feature wild game, especially wild boar; tender, slow cooked meats; fresh bean dishes; and of course delicious pastas. Tuscan restaurants know how to do meat (we don't like the meat dishes we've had in Italian restaurants in general, so this impressed us). The Tuscans are also very proud of their olive oil and use it as a simple dressing for salad, beans and bread (I failed to appreciate/get excited about fine olive oil in general, but there are clearly some people out there who get something I don't.).

Florence is the biggest and most historically important town in Tuscany. It was the base of the Medici family who funded a great deal of Renaissance art, and it's a highlight for art lovers. The Uffizi gallery in Florence is the most important gallery in Italy (according to our guide book, although Steve and I don't know enough about art to judge), and Michelangelo's David is also located in Florence. We really enjoyed both, with the help of a Rick Steve's guide with some great background on a variety of paintings and sculptures. We literally had no idea about art or any capacity to appreciate it prior to our museum visits in Florence. The city will probably always have a special place in my heart because now I am a sophisticate, whereas before I was just a crude American. (Note that the preceding passage has a healthy dose of sarcasm. We've gone to art museums before; we just usually get bored quickly.)
From 20090430_Florence_Starred