Friday, October 30, 2009

Learning Lenny

Stevie Ray Vaughn is known as one of the most accomplished electric blues musicians ever to have come from the United States and certainly from the great state of Texas. He was the original John Mayer as far as white American blues rockers are concerned, both of whom have shared the stage with B.B. King and Eric Clapton. Vaughn, however, seems to be a fading star on popular radio only 19 years after his untimely death. It can be argued that his one crossover hit was "Crossfire" from 1989.

The blues has rarely been a genre that has drawn my attention or interest. I simply couldn't relate to music that only ever lamented lost opportunity. Hard rocking blues a la "SRV" (Stevie Ray Vaughn) was even further away from my preferred styles of music. Vaughn's style matched his persona, hard edged, hard living and hard charging. Come to think of it you'd think it would have been right up my alley!

A recent Saturday was only the second full day of opportunity to play with my new digital camera and try new photographic techniques and styles. It would be a nice day to visit the Laurel Land Cemetery in Dallas, Texas, just south of downtown. The cemetery of choice in Dallas for glitterati is Sparkman-Hillcrest where the saying goes "Bury me at Hillcrest overlooking Nieman-Marcus (at Northpark Mall just over the eastern fence). Tom Landry, Mary Kay (Ash), Mickey Mantle and Greer Garson rest here but only one nationally recognized name lies at Laurel Land: Stevie Ray Vaughn.

The weather couldn't decide if it was going to rain or clear up into bright Autumn sunshine. In Dallas in early Fall count on getting both. The objective for the camera was "macro" photography, or the taking of very close-up shots of floral subjects - no better place than a cemetery. And I can pay my respects to Mr. Vaughn who has a unique place of honor on the grounds. The Vaughn Estate owns a small traffic island in the middle of a crossroads where Stevie and his parents rest in peace by themselves. Some biker fans were there ahead of me and, not wanting to disturb them or be disturbed myself I looked for interesting subjects to try out my fledgling camera skills.

Circling back around the bikers had gone but two 40-something guys in an SUV had beaten me to the punch. I discretely tried to find more subjects until they had departed when the most haunting thing occurred. Stevie's music started to play, a slow, gentle, lilting melody wafting through the air over his grave, teasing and tossing the balloons, flowers and leaves strewn upon his facing stone. Had the cemetery installed speakers to continually play his music and invoke his spirit? What WAS that song? The moment may have been a tad disconcerting but the song was simply gorgeous.

It was "Lenny," an ode to his then wife. And it was not coming from the eternal ether but the SUV. The two 40-somethings were playing it with the windows rolled down in tribute to their icon as they gazed upon his marker. The marriage ended and Stevie became yet another musician gone too soon at the age of 35 but in the strangest of ways his music lived on that day and captured a new fan in me.

The hard charging songs of his catalog remain beyond me but "Lenny" and another even more powerful musing, "Riviera Paradise" are two songs I might never have discovered otherwise.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Shower the People

"What's a Navy shower?" My Dad was in the Army and I had never heard of such a thing. My buddy Rhys, his father and I were sitting around the dinner table and talking about travel experiences from around the world when the Mr. Navy veteran mentioned that he was "trained" on Navy showers and still takes them today.

"Oh, no....I couldn't do that," says I, spoiled American landlubber that I am. Turn the water off while sudsing? "I need the shower to keep the room warm so I don't get cold" I whined. Besides, given my upbringing in military housing, often with only one full bath for a family of five, I'd learned to take showers in less than 10 minutes' time, a habit I maintain to this day.

"Were ya in there long enough for the water to find ya?" my mother often asked?

Who really thinks of the shower experience as a major memory of any particular journey? I've come across some pretty interesting facilities in the many different hotel rooms and homes I've stayed in around the planet and over the years. I've shared a bath in Australia and London, usually at a hostel, bed & breakfast and the dormitory of Connaught Hall, University of London.

The most beautiful, if slightly disconcerting shower of my life was in Tahiti where the shower was outside but surrounded by a wall at the back of my "half-beach" (half on the sand, half over the water) cabana at the Moorea Pearl Resort. One small, flourescent looking lizard looked up at me from a safe distance, head all off to one side and wondering what the hell I was doing mixing soap with his perfectly good drinking water.

A friend's efficiency in the 8th arrondissement of Paris featured a shower stall off to the side of his one room apartment - the toilet was a shared affair out on the landing of his floor. This shower was about six inches of raised concrete in a square maybe three feet across with a shower head and completely exposed on all sides save for the ring above the head that held the curtain. One false step and the entire room could be sprayed. I wasn't then and am not today a small or medium sized man. Thinner then, maybe, but still a healthy 6'4" and on the good-shape side of 200 lbs.

The trickiest thing about most showers in Europe, though, are the hand held shower heads quite popular on that side of the Atlantic. They can rotate in their pincer-like holding units and slide up and down the stalk to adjust to the height of the user which can be a good thing but actually holding one while trying to wash and rinse? What's the purpose of holding the thing to begin with?

Then I discovered that some other showers didn't have a shower curtain at all, as in the home of a French friend of mine who lived north of Paris. This one was really frying my brain as it was only a large, claw-footed tub and the hand held shower thingy. I'm half-sitting, half-crouching in this tub and holding the shower head trying my best not to shoot water to the far wall of the bathroom and failing miserably in the process.

In a Munich hotel the very deep tub had only a clear, hinged glass "partial" that only extended half-way down the length of this porcelain bunker of a bathtub. Water again goes flying out the back while I'm spinning in circles, forlornly trying to keep myself soaked and the room dry.

The ultimate experience was once again in Paris at budget hotel where the shower was the entire bathroom, with the shower spigot positioned on the wall above the sink and the drain in the center of the floor between the toilet and the vanity. Yup, hand held shower thingy. And me lowering the lid on the toilet so water wouldn't spray on to the seat and people thinking that I couldn't aim.

If I hold on to the thing then I can't effectively scrub. If I turn it upside down bidet-style then water shoots up my nose and my, well...that's another story altogether. If it's only meant to be held while rinsing then why can't it just stay in the pincer-bracket like any normal American shower? And if it never leaves the bracket then why make it hand-held and detachable at all?

I don't get it, but I gotta use it. I'm heading back to Europe next year!

Gotta go!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Pinch Me!

Is it really happening? Am I truly about to go on vacation? These and some other questions have been on my mind pretty much since I bought the plane tickets back in March. The biggest question I have been pondering lately, however, is exactly when does a long-anticipated vacation become a reality.

Certainly it's real on the last day in the office and just as real upon driving away from home or stepping on to the airplane, train, or boat that will soon put much mileage between hearth and holiday. For some the adventure becomes a reality when the final destination is decided upon and the initial planning stages have commenced. For others it is only real when the front door is locked and the plane is in the air.

As mentioned I purchased my ticket back in March when air fares to the South Pacific were going at fire sale rates. Indeed, they haven't gotten much higher in the seven months since then but I played my hunch correctly in getting in a near rock bottom levels that have not been seen again. Yay, but with seven months to go before V-Day the time in between served only to school me in what so many go through each and every year: that vacation is a once a year thing that takes all year to save up and prepare for.

So here I am on the cusp of the big event, not quite believing it is finally here and also counting the minutes and mentally "checking out" of work as much as I'm able. Most major projects are on auto-pilot, I've written the instructions for my back-ups while I'm out and, most importantly, finished all the major reservations for my vacation in just one day. Yes, one day.

Traveling alone makes it easy to set up cars and hotels. The bills are paid, the mail service to the house has been suspended, the clothes are bought and the iPod playlists are set. All I have to do now is survive this short week at work, keep my mouth shut and respond to any request with as much decorum and good cheer as I can muster! For me, it seems then that the vacation is now officially real.

I decided on New Zealand and Australia all the way back in February and bought the ticket the following month. That didn't make it real because the plans were seven long months and a few financial challenges away. Just dreaming about going of course doesn't shed any reality on the venture, either. I've put in the hours at work, the money away in savings and the time in planning; now that it is less than five days away and all the reservations have been set, yes, pinch me, it's real. It's finally here, I can't wait and it is certainly shaping up to be all that I would hope for.

Just don't ask me how excited I'll be after boarding the plane, waiting for the cabin door to close and when the 747 finally backs away from the gate!

Gotta go!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Not From Round Here, Are Ya?

As a Black American the very first time I truly noticed I was different was probably around the 3rd or 4th grade. From pre-school through the 2nd grade I was the only Black child in my classes but kids at that age typically don't notice such things; they tend to have more important matters on their mind like popsicles and recess. The world around me began to take on color in a deeper understanding right around my 9th birthday.

One weekend I found myself part of a tour group to the Black Forest in Germany which included a stop in the ancient walled university city of Tubingen. I'm walking around like a typical tourist, gazing upwards instead of ahead of me, staring at the high walls and battlements, all the while wondering in amazement how our tour bus managed to fit on some of the streets in this town. When I finally looked down towards a normal eye-level view for a nine-year old I discovered all manner of local people staring at me.

In the early 1970s the Black Forest in what was then West Germany was the equivalent of West Virginia in the United States: hard working backwoodsmen not aware of or concerned with the outside world. The war skipped over this large tract of southwestern Germany because there was no industry here, concentrating on Stuttgart instead, a major industrial city and the gateway to the region. In the post-war years some tourists came and went for the intricate cuckoo clocks made there but not in large numbers or from particularly diversified backgrounds. It was the very first time my mother explained to me that some of them had never seen Black people before.

White Americans traveling to Finland for the first time won't necessarily stand out until their American English tells the story for them. How many Black Americans can say they have traveled above the Arctic Circle in Lapland, pictured here during the Midnight sun, or at least are interested in going? I've heard and read much about the ritual of a Finnish sauna with birch saplings and reindeer steaks in the dead of winter and am curious about experiencing it for myself. Maybe the good people of Helsinki have seen a person of color visiting their home town but I'm not so sure the citizens of Rovaniemi would be able to say the same.

Those types of cultural extremes, of course, aren't necessary. I've often said that simply being Black does not mean I wouldn't stand out just as much in a predominantly Black neighborhood even in the United States much less a foreign country. Most likely and at a minimum my manner of dress will be different from that of a native of Bahia, Brazil and that's before my lack of Portuguese skills gives me away completely. I'm also willing to bet that my complexion would be different enough from someone in Central or Southern Africa to indicate my being "not from around here."

Absolutely none of these differences should matter to the curious soul on foreign shores. If there is the will and the means then by all means go with the expectation that no matter the weather the welcome itself will be warm and the culture kind. Bring your best and don't worry about the rest.

Finnair runs three flights a day from Helsinki to Rovaniemi so maybe I'll bring a bottle of Texas mesquite barbecue sauce to go with that reindeer grille!

Gotta go!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Today is The Day!

In a rare Thursday posting I am wishing all of you safety, happiness and good health. No, it's not THE holidays but it is the official start of my long-awaited and much anticipated "holiday" in New Zealand and Australia. Today is the day!

After months of waiting and weeks of pre-planning I still find myself this morning running around tying up loose ends. I forgot until this morning that I still needed to buy a decent pillow for the flight and the hotels. Long days at work meant being up today at 6AM to get laundry done before I can start packing and I still have to cut my hair And Mother Nature never disappoints in bringing two days of rain to the Dallas area to play havoc with American's flight schedule to Los Angeles!

Don't worry, be happy. It's October in North Texas: images like this are not exaggerated or uncommon. They're mesmerizingly beautiful to watch so long as you don't have to work outside or have some place to be. I have and I do.

I nixed the idea of a half day at work both in anticipation of the perfect storm: bad weather, flight delays and any chance of a last minute fire drill in the office. It's raining as I write this, American is a great airline but notoriously bad in operating on time in bad weather and "one-more-thing-I'm-on-my-way-to-a-meeting-and-need-a-quick-and-dirty-report" at work will easily add up to a full day of "As long as you're still here...." Not! I told them they could call me as long as I was in the United States but no more than that!

So here I sit at 7:45AM waiting on the laundry to dry so I can pack for a flight that doesn't leave until 5:00PM. A friend is taking his lunch hour to drive me the 10 minutes to the airport which further helps me get ahead of any delays out of Dallas. My tickets were purchased separately so missing one means neither airline will do anything to protect my itinerary. I've got a free pass to the Admirals' Club so I do not mind whatsoever potentially sitting in LAX for up to 10 hours if that's what it takes to make this all-important flight to New Zealand.

"How long is the flight," I have been asked by one and all. "Well, take-off out of LAX around Midnight, hook a left and then 12 hours straight on 'til morning," I borrow from "Peter Pan." Some roll their eyes at the poetic license while others groan at the thought of the combined flying time. I've done the trip several times before and, as I may have mentioned, refuse to truncate the world based on time spent getting to interesting and uniquely beautiful environs.

Not much more to say from this side of the Pacific other than I've been barely able to contain myself this entire week! I may do the odd posting while I'm away but I'm truly looking forward to simply getting away for several days. Something may pop up, though...ya never know!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Vaseline Visa

It took all of about 5 minutes online to complete. From the comfort of my home office, no trip downtown to the consulate or embassy or worse, having to mail off sensitive documents, hope they get there and hope again that they come back in time for the trip itself. No standing in line, praying that all the documents and photos they'll need are on hand and in order. No pulling the wrong forms, filling out the right ones incorrectly or trying and failing to print legibly.

None of that. This was an "ETA," otherwise known as an Electronic Travel Authority, issued by Australia. Somewhat cold and impersonal in not having to interact with a human being but I'll take that trade off for indifferent government workers, crowds, lines and the fact that I didn't have to go anywhere or mail anything off before my upcoming vacation. I mean, literally five minutes of my time and I'm all set for my paperwork to enter the land Down Under. Of course, I'll bring a printed copy of the approval just in case.

I consider my passport to be of greater personal value than my driver's license. To be able to come and go freely from my country and in to others is truly closer to a God-given birthright than simply being a citizen of any one country. Where I do have my passport, which allows me to enter and leave my own nation, some countries also require a visa which is their permission to actually cross their borders. Strange, but there it is.

Stranger still is the seemingly sudden new found wealth that countries have discovered can be had by charging for the privilege of entering their territory. A few go farther still by not only charging to ask permission by way of the visa application fee but charging again for the stamp of approval itself. Where it really seems to have gotten out of hand is the plethora of other charges that come with entering one country or another, on top of any fees and service charges the airline might want as well!

So far no one seems to have begun charging for potable water either onboard or at the final destination but, just as it is fast and easy to use, the Australian ETA is free as of this writing and cheapest to obtain via the do-it-yourself embassy web service at less than $20 to apply. I say apply because the service warns the applicant of no refunds if the request is denied. Otherwise, once approved, so long as the data entered matches that in my passport upon arrival in Australia I should be good to go.

There are some who grouse that ever-increasing fees from both the airlines and the countries we wish to visit will curtail travel in general. It certainly feels that way in the current economy and it also suggests that the fees will not go away once customers are flush with cash again. The truth of the matter from where I sit is that those who wish to travel even in these present times will do so, fees or no fees. And where today's fees are most likely geared towards simply maintaining cash flow, when the economy rebounds, the airlines, hotels, restaurants and attractions will probably raise or introduce new fees to help curb demand.

I just hope more countries who also require visas will catch up to the Australian example and at least make applying for a visa quick and easy, if not necessarily as affordable to obtain.

Gotta go!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Digital Dallas and Ft. Worth

My very first camera that I could truly call my own was a Pentax K-1000 purchased while I was in Jr. High. It looked so sophisticated and I was so proud of that little thing, not having the slightest idea or concern that it was by every definition a "starter" SLR. Knowing even less about setting my own aperture or shutter speed at the time, it served long and proud as little more than an under-employed "point and shoot" camera up to the day I left it in the airport at Dallas one afternoon. I was on my way to Honolulu at the time and did not discover the idiotic oversight until I was in San Francisco waiting for my connecting flight.

That was 1994 so I couldn't say that I didn't get more than enough life out of that trusty little Pentax. Not one speck of trouble did I receive over the 16 years it served me although towards the end I was certainly more aware of its limitations. The 18-55mm lens made it extremely difficult and uncomfortable to get anything close to a true close-up on a given subject and I had had no understanding of the different types of lenses or filters that were available to really exploit its limited features.

Enter the Canon EOS-10 that replaced my childhood Pentax. After discussing the options available I settled on a model that Canon was actually discontinuing in favor of something new at the time called the "Elan." I went with the older model because it was faster in sports mode, heavier and thus more durable for someone like me who tends to be rough with my toys. It was larger, too, which made it fit easier in to these bear sized hands of mine. I never did much with this one in the way of different lenses, either, spending most of its life learning how to truly use a camera of this kind. What I never did in lenses I compensated for with unique filters to heighten, enhance and alter subject images on command.

I loved that camera...still do. Except it, like the Pentax, is an "old school" standard film camera. Where my Pentax never saw a day in the shop for repairs the Canon signaled the end of its lifespan one vacation in with family a few years ago. I came back with 15 rolls of film from ten days in Hong Kong, Japan and Hawaii only to discover half of them were unusable. "Stop down" they called it, meaning the film never advanced properly inside the camera resulting in double and distorted images.

The decision to go digital stemmed from this incident, the ever faster digital world around me and an upcoming two week vacation in New Zealand and Australia. I did not want to be 10,000 miles away from home and not knowing if the shot came out, much less if I liked it or not.

I am now the happy owner of my second Canon, the SX-10. Camera technology "evolves" every four to six months so the clearance sign next to it didn't bother me. I'd never buy a camera if I waited for the "last word" in photo technology. The instructions said to take a few practice shots, "throwaway" pictures that I wouldn't expect or care much about before getting in to the serious work. These are some of them.

And if this one lasts 15 years like the two before it I will be fine for a while. But I'm taking the old Canon with me, just in case!

Gotta go!

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Optimist Bucket List - Item 4

My grandmother was born in 1901 and lived until 1993. Hers is a generation I have long admired not merely because of their propensity for long lives despite every warning and retraction from the Surgeon General on what is and is not healthy. Look at those years again - from 1901 to 1993. Now consider everything they have witnessed regarding the advance of technology and compare it to the developments of only the last 20 years.

There's no comparison.

By 1917 the United States was embroiled in the First World War with the Second, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada and Desert Storm to come. The car and the airplane had been invented and were in mass production by then. The telephone had been around since at least 1876 but television wouldn't come to the party for another 12 years. Try to imagine the social changes realized over such a lifetime or heck, just within the 60s! Pick the evolution of any of those over a lifespan of 90 years and then simply stand back in awe and wonder if such a concentrated era of invention and enlightenment will come again. More to the point, when? What is left?

Recently while in Los Angeles on business I took a friend on a quick tour of the area which included time in the early evening at the Griffith Observatory overlooking the Greater Los Angeles Basin. The view was spectacular as there was a surprisingly clear evening sky above the City of Angels. Probably the most impressive exhibit displayed the size, lifespan and heat ratio of the Sun compared to other stars in the galaxy. Betelgeuse, the yellowish star in the upper left corner of the constellation Orion, pictured here, was the largest orb in the exhibit yet there was a caption that said if it were scaled properly it would be one and a half times the size of the room we were standing in while all others were exactly the scale they should be. Gaack!

Whether or not there is life beyond our planet, WHEN will space travel become available to the masses, as ordinary a routine in daily living as taking the bus? We fret and worry over each shuttle launch, as concerned with weather reports and tarot card readings every time a shingle shakes loose. And other than launching yet another eavesdropping, GPS navigating or phone switching satellite the gamut of experiments still run in the "What is it like to peel an orange in a weightless environment" variety.

Routine travel needs a destination so that means a colony on the moon or nearby planet has to happen in order for space travel to be more than just once around the park. All that is well and good, I'm only asking when. And for something other than reducing the flying to time Australia. I'm talking about going in to space, traveling through outer space and arriving somewhere else in space, somewhere other than Earth.

"Honeeeeey, I'm going to Mars for a conference." "Bring something back for the kids!"

I was born in the age of jet travel. Planes have gotten bigger and made to fly farther but they don't travel any faster. My generation has witnessed the digital age, from CDs to cell phones, cable and imaging technology (cameras). It's allowed us to compress time and information while increasing our productivity yet across the planet we remain at the mercy of fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine. Huh?

Even if it is at the end of my lifetime, which seems more and more likely, I'd like to be able to book a ticket to the moon just for the sake of going, the same as I would hop a flight to New York for no other reason than dinner and a show.

And if the Vulcans happen to pass by and stumble across our warp signature, well that's perfectly fine with me, too.

Gotta go!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Not Easy Flying Queasy

Ten days before my vacation starts I called the airlines to confirm my reservation and to see if there might be a better seat than the one I'd reserved for the Pacific crossing, 52A, a window on the left hand side. The reservations agent informed me the seat map was now under "Airport Control" which seemed pretty far out for a flight that was not oversold and probably not even full.

I have to have a window. I'm a sight seer when I fly and I prefer to snuggle against the sidewall instead of my neighbor's shoulder. I have to see as well as feel the sensation of take-off and to watch the wing flap whenever there is a good patch of turbulence. Additionally,the stars at night, high mountains, fireworks from the air or even Christmas lights across an entire city are each beyond words to describe. I enjoy spotting landmarks on the ground or trying to find ships at sea, maybe even another airplane, as seen in this picture here. I was on United in a 747 flying back from London to Chicago and we passed this Northwest DC-10 heading to Detroit somewhere over Canada.

Why the fuss? Unbeknownst to many there is in fact a physical difference in terms of the flying experience if not the dimensions of the seat itself. In my experience the ride just where the wing joins the fuselage is the "sweet spot," the smoothest on the plane. It's also a question of being "positive" to the center of gravity during flight. Airlines like to "attack" the air at a modest upward angle, anywhere from 1-5 degrees "positive angle" from a pivot point somewhere between the leading and the trailing edge of the wing. On take-off, being forward of the wing brings the sensation of stepping up in to the air with the airplane instead of sitting behind the wing and feeling like I'm about to scrape my neverminds on the ground before lifting them and me safely skywards.

The worst part, however, is during the flight. Super-long airplanes like the old DC-8 Super 60s or any "stretched" model such as the current record holder, the A340-600 shown here, have a tendency to "fishtail." Flight attendants on the "Stretch-8" would often say they felt that they were dancing down the aisle as they swayed to the rhythm of the airplane sashaying from side to side through the air. Add up all that bootylicious hip swinging plus the up and down bump and bounce of take off and normal flying and...I'd rather not.

No, the fuselage won't open up like a twist can of biscuits, so calm down. I've got about 17 hours of late evening and overnight flying in front of me to get where I'm going so indulge me a little perspicacity in picking out where to plant me backside.

Besides, don't forget who gets off the plane first!

Gotta go!

Monday, October 12, 2009

What to do with 40 Thousand?

Frequent flyer miles, y'all, not dollars. I passed the mileage needed for a domestic US ticket long ago. Boring. What I'm trying to decide is where in the world to go with my qualifying miles at the 40k level?

I have never been to Italy. Let's just let that one lie there, writhing in agony for a little while.

Siiiiiiigh. Gaaaaasp. Wheeeeeze.

Ok, now let me explain why. I'm a history buff and no country in Europe compares to the mother lode of history that Italy holds. All of those "once in a lifetime" tours barely scratch the surface as seen through the dirty windows of some tour bus on a "highlights" trip through traffic more than anything else. I also no longer work for the airline industry which would have allowed multiple visits for a relatively small investment in money at least as far as air fare is concerned. So why is Italy suddenly coming in to focus now?

Over the past year and a half I've managed to rack up 40,000 miles through work and personal travel on American Airlines and the AAdvantage frequent flyer program. I live in Dallas, my family is back east in the Washington/Baltimore area and recently my employer has sent me hither and yon from California to Florida and back. Add in my vacation to Australia and I've earned my way in to an "off-season" economy class ticket to any city served by American in Europe. Of the nine countries they serve, Italy is the clear front runner.

I grew up in Germany and have been to Belgium, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Switzerland and Spain. Russia is high on the list but not until they come to their senses regarding that astronomical visa entry fee. That leaves Italy. The question is and has always been, however, how to see as much of everything this phenomenal country has to offer?

For me, some of the points of interest include but are not limited to:

Sicily - Everything from the Greek settlement at Syracuse to the Allied landing beaches at Gela. Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Venetians and Phoenicians, among others colonized and fought over this heart of the Mediterranean. All left their mark and a uniquely blended culture behind.

Monte Cassino - The abbey at the heart of the Axis "Winter Line" holding the allies south of Rome and truly one of the most international battle scenes of the war, including a Syrian brown bear named Wojtek who was trained to carry live ammo. The area is ringed with cemeteries and memorials to fallen soldiers from Poland, Germany, France, Italy and the Commonwealth Countries from England to New Zealand by way of Indian Ghurkas. The Americans are farther west at Anzio.
One of the hardest fought campaigns of the retaking of Europe and who knows about it or goes there? And the added shame is that it's an easy day trip from Rome, less than 80 miles away.

Rome, Naples, Capri, Pompeii, Pisa, Florence, Venice, Milan, The Vatican and the other "no-brainer" major attractions. I mean, logistically it simply means flying in to the southernmost point of interest and working north or vice versa. It's having the time to do all of that which presents the daunting challenge.

Any one of these possibilities can take a bare minimum of a week to fully explore and discover. There's not much IN Florence that needs a week but most will say that it deserves a week simply BEING in Florence and absorbing the atmosphere. Divide the country in to genre tours - art & architecture, history & archaeology, politics & religion or food & wine and the time requirement still adds up to weeks and months at a time. I don't want to regret leaving a single stone, scone or bone unturned.

Then there's the expense. I haven't set foot in Europe since 2002, my last trip being to Amsterdam. The economics of not being able to afford going were largely due to being under-employed for several years after September 11th. Today the economics have everything to do with merely wanting to stretch a historically weakened dollar. Italy has never been particularly cheap to visit and the exchange rate between the dollar and the euro have only made things worse across the continent. I've been exploring the Pacific Rim instead, where the dollar still goes a pretty good distance.

Italy is certainly a nation worth repeat visits but I also have to balance that natural desire with an equally compelling wish to see as much of the rest of the world as possible.

Have you noticed yet that I didn't even mention Sardinia? All I know is next year in the "off-season" I may for the first time set foot in the boot of Italy. At least the ticket is already "paid" for.

Gotta go!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Wandering in Wisconsin

I found myself heading to Milwaukee, Wisconsin one early Sunday morning in the middle of a three-week business trip around the country. Having once lived in Chicago the extent of my travels in Cheeseland included Kenosha for dinner at a German restaurant and one weekend at Lake Geneva, a popular lake retreat for suburban Chicagoans and locals alike. Much of Wisconsin remained undiscovered country.

I'm of the mindset that no matter what team is your personal favorite, a trip to Lambeau Field is about as compelling a pilgrimage for a true fan of football as traveling to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. As a fan of the Dallas Cowboys the idea of going to Green Bay, site of the infamous Ice Bowl, was one born entirely of respect for the game and the history. I am in no way a "Cheesehead," counting the Packers as one of the Cowboys' three great sibling rivalries.

In 1960 the Dallas committee owned the rights to "Hail to the Redskins" and forced George Marshall to vote the Texas expansion franchise in to the league before they would sell the song back to him. The Cowboys were born and followed Green Bay's lead to the New York Giants to find a new head coach. Vince Lombardi went north to Green Bay in 1959, Tom Landry down to Dallas the next year know the rest.

Off to the northlands I went along I-43 for the two hour drive from Milwaukee and, upon arriving in this hallowed hamlet, the smallest NFL market in the country, I promptly got lost! I figured it was small enough and the stadium large enough to see that dead reckoning alone would do the trick. I'd passed a few signs that said "Arena Stadium" and dismissed those as belonging to some local community college or high school field. Those were the signs I should have been paying attention to all along. After driving along the waterfront I stopped in to a gas station and was told I was only a few blocks off the mark.

I discovered the needed intersection at, naturally, Lombardi Avenue and noticed a large green edifice off my right hand shoulder. Not quite as big as I thought it would be as I drove up to the longest serving professional football stadium in the land. Still, a pleasant chill ran through me as I gazed at the unassuming, quiet and yet somehow still energized building. I was and then again wasn't surprised to see tailgaters in the parking lot despite the fact there was no game that afternoon.

Tours were available for $11 every 30 minutes starting in the Hall of Fame on the lower level but I deferred; Cowboys fan, remember. Most of those names would have meant precious little to me and I preferred not to pay for a tour reminding one and all of Bart Starr's exploits over my 'Boys that cold winter day in '67. Still, the extensive pro shop was truly a model for other franchises, offering enough clothing and gear to cover every occasion, including custom jerseys stitched on the spot for truly discerning fans. Outside the stadium I saw the practice field across the parking lot between which players ride the bicycles of the youngest fans, a singular ritual among many created on these grounds.

Green Bay in the off-season of late Summer is a pleasant small town and the people friendly and accommodating, richly steeped in Upper Midwest accents, Packers green and hospitality. On game day I don't know that they'd be as welcoming to a Cowboys fan but for that one day in August, the football swords were sheathed for the plowshares of comrades. I'm glad I went.

Gotta go!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Whining at Wainui

In the remote Golden Bay region of the South Island a two-lane “highway,” #60, is the only thread to greater civilization. Rhys and I were on that road, circumnavigating the Abel Tasman National Park in search of the Wainui Falls. I’m a bit anxious because although usually good for stopping and taking in the sights I was trained from an early age to not let time get away from me, especially when it comes to making a scheduled service.

We’d already strayed once to view the well worth it “Pupu Springs” and now needed to get to Picton in time for the last hi-speed ferry across the Cook Strait to Wellington for the night. Rhys, though, is the tourist wanderer extraordinaire, quite happy to let adventure unfold at will on any road less traveled. The only thing on Abel Tasman Road around Ligar Bay is the remote village of Totaranui and what I hoped would be one spectacular set of falls.

Our hosts the previous night at the Garden Retreat had recommended the side-trip but warned us of the one hour hike from the main road (why is ANYTHING worth seeing always way an hour or more off the main road?). We started out from the car park across farmland before ducking thru a grove of trees and in to “the bush,” following the Wainui River, more like a decent creek, further upstream. We navigated some largish granite boulders and then came to a cold stop on the west bank about 15-20 feet above the running water. Strung across a 60-foot gorge was a bridge. A rope bridge. A “One-person-at-a-time” the sign says rope bridge.

I mean, please! A rope bridge? It moves!! Up, down, side to side, countering every foot step and hip sway, foiling any attempt to hold still! The first explorer had no means of getting across so WHAT was the motivation to keep going and find a way to cross the bloody river, good hearing??

Between fits of giggling, uber-chill Rhys snapped the only picture of me suffering this bridge like a skittish horse and, he says, “squealing like a little girl.” Oi.

Once across all worries of making the sailing to Wellington were summarily dismissed. We had reached the falls and they were text book, Bali Hai beautiful. Only a single 30 foot drop in to what seemed like an elevated collecting pool, it was the lush setting that made the entire experience. Under a blue sky and surrounded by deep forest green and lined with stark granite boulders with only the sound of the water. The only thing missing was the Swiss Family Robinson and a rope swing over the pool.

Hmm. A rope swing. I knew where there was some rope, too.

This was worth the long flight, the long drive, the long walk and the death march across that stinkin’ bridge. I chilled on a boulder and took it all in. Rhys, adventurous Rhys, however, decided to anoint himself by taking a plunge in to the ice-needle cold waters, hair and goose bumps standing up all over the man! Who squealed that time? Ahhh, revenge!

We missed our sailing by 10 minutes.

Gotta go!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Why Not Washington?

Firstly, congratulations to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for winning the bid to host the Olympics in 2016. I'm already tingling at the thought of the opening ceremonies with the samba schools putting on a serious clinic! One wonders how many Carmen Miranda knock-offs and in how many gender-bending varieties will we see! Will there be a revival of the old Don Ameche musicals accompanied by a rush on CDs by everyone from Antonio Jobim and Gilberto Gil to Sergio Mendes?

It's all only just beginning but, while Chicago goes home crying "Mama eu Quero," what about Washington, D.C? Exactly why is it that the capital city of the United States of America has never hosted the Olympic Games? The Olympics have been held in 12 capital cities around the world and in some cases more than once. Six different cities in the United States have had the honor, with repeats for both Lake Placid and Los Angeles but not once for the American capital? What does a city have to have or build to win the games?

International exposure and appeal? Please. Infrastructure? The Metro could use two or three cross-town lines which would certainly happen if the Olympics came to town but otherwise it does a sufficient job of funneling commuters and tourists in and out of the city and to popular attractions and venues. Dulles Airport handles most of the heavy lifting with major airlines from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East checking in so no issues here, either. Accommodations? Again, please. Now that 16,000 athletes, trainers and journalists have landed, eaten and been put up for the the night where will they compete?

Fed Ex Field, home of the Washington Redskins with nearly 94,000 seats, is the de facto site for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Venerable RFK has hosted DC United, the local soccer side for years, with the new Washington Nationals Stadium handling baseball and softball. Choose between the University of Maryland, Georgetown University, Catholic University and George Washington University for tennis, ping pong, track and field and swimming. And that doesn't count Orioles Park at Camden Yards, M&T Bank Stadium or Johns Hopkins University up the road in Baltimore or even Byrd Stadium or Navy-Marines Corps Memorial Stadium as available options, either. The only thing that seems to be missing is a velodrome.

Of any city in the United States if there is no history or culture in DC, well....

Virginia has been equestrian country ever since it was a crown colony. Pick a field and you'll find horses, a rifle range or a golf course. I can't imagine a more dramatic setting for rowing than under Mt. Vernon on the Potomac. There is also the Chesapeake Bay with either the Naval Academy as a setting or maybe Fort McHenry, still guarding the Inner Harbor up in Baltimore.

So why has "DC" never mounted a successful Olympic bid? The last time around, in 2002 when the city tried for the 2012 Games there was a unilateral war in the offing which, sour grapes claim, torpedoed the bid right from the beginning. London won the games for the fourth time over bids from other would-be repeat capitals Rome, Paris and Moscow in spite of siding with the Yanks who had picked a fight?

I was in Paris when the early bidding for the 2012 Games were being mounted. Some Parisians didn't want the games for a third time because of the utter chaos it would bring to the city.

"Paris is choked with tourists in the Summer anyway," they said. "Why bring the Games to make it even worse?" Maybe some of the locals in Washington/Baltimore, a metropolitan area of six million people, feel the same way, given the notorious traffic in the city and on the Beltway on any given Summer day.

Rio doesn't have a Beltway much less anything close to the interstate system feeding Washington. There are two - count them - t-w-o subway lines in Rio with 32 stations serving over 14 million! Yet withall in all the years of the modern Olympic Games they have never been held in South America. It couldn't have happened to a better city and it's about time.

Same goes for Washington, D.C. It's about time.

Gotta go!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Vacation Anticipation

The last six weeks have been fairly stressful at work. Lots of traveling, short deadlines, long hours during the week and more than a handful of weekend hours as well. Then there are the standard conflicting directions and a small shouting match tossed in for good measure. I wouldn't trade it for the obvious alternative, let's just say that right up front. All the same, my long awaited vacation is just around the corner, only four weeks away and surely the longest four weeks of this year. It can't get here fast enough.

In 2007 I hated my career and the direction of my life so I packed up and moved halfway across the country to kick-start everything in a complete personal do-over. In 2008 after six months of unemployment I found the position I hold today but with virtually no discretionary cash I settled for a nephew's four-day wedding cruise to the Bahamas for the one and only vacation of that year. This year Qantas has been giving away tickets to the South Pacific and I copped one for myself to spend two weeks in New Zealand and Australia. More than any other vacation in memory this one is purpose-built to help me feel my life is slowly on track back to some sense of normalcy.

The view is Pukekura Park in New Plymouth, New Zealand. I'm looking forward to seeing it again.

I used to work for the airlines. That means that any given weekend I could be in any corner of the country and more than a few foreign ones while still being able to make it back to work on time Monday morning. Despite having to stand by for every flight I learned how to make the most of a weekend, a holiday weekend, four days over Thanksgiving and, the specialty of the house, turning three chargeable days of vacation in to nine. I could go anywhere in the world anytime I wanted.

I left all of that behind...voluntarily. "Civilians," as we called anyone outside of the business, were lucky to take short trips within their region of the country and save up big for one huge family vacation not including the home-for-the-holidays routine. I'm a civilian. And I'm still trying to figure out how well I am or am not adjusting to having to wait all year for that one big splash, if it can be afforded at all.

It's not necessarily polite in any economy to boast and broadcast long, elaborate or exotic vacation plans where others may not have the means or the time. That is not my intent. My own plans were severely jeopardized after a $1200 car repair bill came my way. All kinds of thoughts ran through my mind, up to and including cancelling the trip and swallowing the investment in plane fares already made. Kind of like "Apollo 13" when the center engine cut out prematurely during blast off, I hope that I've just suffered my one glitch for this mission.

When you're down to the last 100 miles of a long road trip those tend to be the longest as well. Can't wait for the journey to be over but still somehow almost regretting that it's coming to an end. Like anyone with time away from work in the offing, I certainly feel that I have earned this opportunity. There is much work to be done between now and then but hell, I'm already feeling like a fourth grader the night before Christmas.....can't half sleep!

Gotta go!