Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas

No cards this year. Just didn't get around to it. I've only been back for a month and a week, and it seemed like something has been going on since I've been back. No the best excuse, I know, but an accurate one.

When I got home from work the other day, a package from was waiting for me. It was a book I wanted, so I figured it was a gift. However, there was no gift card, and the "bill to" address contained my name and address. "Oh God, did I go online while drunk and order this and now have no memory of it?" I know someone who that happened to. A box of books arrived from amazon one day, he had no memory of having ordered them. When he went to "my account" online, he saw that he had ordered them in the early hours of the morning after he had been on a binge.

Had I done the same thing? It was possible. I've been known to send drunk mass emails, especially after someone famous has died. But I have not been that drunk (ie to the point of not remembering the events of the night before) in a long long time.

I went online to see if I had indeed ordered them, only to discover an email from my sister Erin. The book was a gift from her and my sister Julie (whew!). For a moment I thought I might actually have to change my lifestyle. That was close.

Hope everyone enjoys the holiday season and here's wishing 2006 is an improvement on 2005.

Monday, December 19, 2005

T-shirts in Rome

While walking down a street in Rome, I passed a tourist shop with t-shirts hanging outside. One in particular caught my eye: in silver sparkly letters, written in a pretty cursive, were the words "Germany Jews." "Germany Jews?" I thought. "That's a pretty ballsy t-shirt to wear. Not the sort of thing I expected to see in Italy. Maybe the East Village or Williamsburg in Brooklyn, but Italy? Maybe it's the name of a punk band. I haven't heard of them before..."

I looked again, only to discover that what the shirt really said was "Armani Jeans."

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Same But Different

For those who don't read the comments section, this is from the "Images of Morocco" feedback:

"Julie said...
Sad to think that American style clothing is replacing ethnic diversity. Someday we'll all look the same, eat the same foods, etc. How boring!"

It seems Julie is a little uncomfortable being assimilated into the Borg. We can help her with that...

Okay, maybe not a good idea to start this with Star Trek references. I'm not the first one to point out that religious fundamentalism and global capitalism both have the same ultimate goal: worldwide conformity. Everyone joined under one system. A marketing success is something bought by the largest number of people possible. A fundamentalist is convinced that their belief system is the One True Way and isn't happy till other belief systems are eradicated. This isn't hyperbole, but history. Neither capitalism nor fundamentalism has much use for peaceful coexistence. As far as I'm concerned, the worst case scenario would be a leader who is both a former business executive and a religious fundamentalist.

One of the reasons I went to Europe was I wanted to be the "other" for a while. I like being around people and places that are different from me. Alien. Foreign. But they weren't foreign. I was. There are tourists who want to travel but want things to be as similar to home as possible. I heard them in Europe complaining about the food, the prices, the laundry service, etc. I want the basics to be the same (ie I don't want to hunt and kill my own food, but go to a market or cafe) but I want said basics to be different enough so that common everyday tasks become interesting again. Familiar dish, but new spices.

It's not just that the lack of diversity is boring, although it is. It's also a system of control. If you aren't aware of differences, you accept the status quo and soon lose the ability to conceive of something better. One of the horrifying aspects of Orwell's 1984 that's usually forgotten is the way Big Brother is eliminating words from their language, eliminating diversity of expression. Language is connected to thought and if words don't exist to express an idea, than the idea itself doesn't exist.

If kids in the Atlas mountains want to wear Yankees caps and Chicago Bulls shirts, that's fine. For them, that's diversity. It may be as much a kick for them to wear US-themed clothes as it is for me to dodge mules in a millennia-old medina. Perhaps the shirts in some small way give them a different way of thinking, hopefully opening their minds to something beyond acquisitiveness. I still dig the differences, such as how odd the Mickey Mouse slippers looked. Sometimes it's more interesting when people get it wrong. If we are moving towards a Monolithic Culture, we're not there yet. In fact, it seems like there are more subcults and strange strains in world culture than ever before. It's the opposite of the Dark Ages: there's such variety that there's no way of keeping track of it. Who knows if it will last? History doesn't travel in a straight line. It moves like a drunk finding his way home from the bar on payday. But to end on a happy note, here's a picture of Jeff Koons' topiary dog standing guard in front of the Guggenheim Bilboa.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Images of Morocco

"So, how could Morocco not be your favorite place?" a girl asked me at a Christmas party on Saturday. This was after I had raided the mixed nut bowl of its cashews but before I had gone down the fire escape and climbed the fence in the backyard to crash (almost literally) another party*. The people at this other party were standing around a bonfire wearing the ugliest Christmas sweaters you can imagine: one had blinking lights on it and another had a stocking, complete with gifts, sewn on the front. I had taken it upon myself to discover if these sweaters were on purpose. They were. They were having an ugly sweater contest and even asked for my opinion. Gimmicks like blinking lights and stockings were impressive, but they couldn't match the horror of the winning sweater. Even so, while expaining why I chose that sweater, I still felt the need to be as polite as possible to those in deliberately awful clothing.

Similarly, I wanted to warn Giselle about the disappointments of Morocco (diarhea, getting treated like a walking ATM by the locals) without squashing her interest in going. God knows I would go back if the opportunity arrived. I think one of my greatest disappointments is that I did not take more pictures. A fascinating land completely unlike our's, but I only got a few shots and a little video. Being sick in bed for a day or so will do that to you.

*Reading this sentence, I've just realized for the first time that I am not someone who should be invited to social events.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Images from the Sevilla Cathedral

Built in the 15th century on the site of an old mosque, the Sevilla Cathedral was created in a spirit of showing off, a celebration of Christianity's victory over Islam and the region's growing economic power. It is the largest gothic cathedral in the world, and in my opinion its beauty gives St. Peter's a run for its manna. The cathedral also contains Christopher Columbus' tomb, although there is some controversy as to whether he is actually buried there.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Mary's Milk

Here are some photos of paintings that depict the Virgin Mary either sharing or squirting her milk on others. For more on this motif, please see the entry "Prado, Pt III" dated October 26, 2005 and the comments it inspired.

As always, thanks to Fenway Partners, Inc. for the camera, although I'm sure they didn't expect it to be used for this.

Artist and painting, from top to bottom:
Pedro Machuca "Virgin with the Souls of Purgatory" 1517
Alonso Cano "The Miraculous Lactation of St. Bernard" 1650
Juan De Vivar "Appearance of the Virgin," 1545
Rubens "El nacimiento de la Vía Láctea"

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Memories of Morocco: Rabat

I didn't post much about my time in Rabat previously, probably because that was where I became sick and spent much of my time there in bed. But after reviewing videotapes and photographs this weekend, I was reminded of the city's beauty.

Rabat is the capital of Morocco and perhaps the most Westernized of all its major cities. It has wide, clean streets lined with palm trees. Imagine if a suburb of Los Angeles became Islamic and you get the idea of what Rabat is like.

There is a strong police presence in Rabat due to the fact that the king's palace is here as well as the parliment. The fact that Morocco has a king is not commented on or discussed. It never came up once in my break-the-ice discussions with Moroccans. "So what is the country like?" However, his picture seems to be everywhere. Handsome, silent, he watches over every shop I went into. I don't know whether this is by his choice or the shopkeepers.

After checking into my hotel I ambled to the coastline. I had a strong need to see the ocean, which was a deep azure, crashing with powerful waves but relaxing to watch. I noticed that there was more pieces of tiles on the shoreline than seashells. Across the road from the shore was an Islamic graveyard. All the graves face towards Mecca. The graves' cement base and headstones made them look like little beds, which, in a way, they were. From a distance the graves looked like writing, the individual lives now creating a message on the hillside.

As I headed back to my hotel, I saw a large mob outside the parliment building chanting something in Arabic. They were facing down a line of soldiers who looked quite young. Their uniforms didn't seem to fit - too big- but the large guns they carried suited them just fine. It was obviously a demonstration of some sort, but since I can't speak Arabic, they could have been demanding free dance lessons for all I know. With the words "Wrong place, wrong time" zipping through my head, I decided to head down a sidestreet. I heard a noise and saw the crowd starting to disburse...towards me. The kept turning and looking back at the soldiers, moving with the same ordered chaos as cattle. I picked up my pace, wondering if I had just vacationed to some growing insurrection. I could still hear the protest when I got back to my room. Tired, I laid in bed, waiting for and fearing what I thought would be the inevitable sound of gunshots. But I fell asleep while waiting, and when I woke up, it was like the demonstration had never happened.

Later that night another crowd gathered, and chanted, outside the same building. But I noticed people walking up and down the street ignoring the demonstration, so I figured this wa as much a fixture as the palm trees and fountains.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Cinque Terre Pics

After arriving in Florence and checking into my B&B, I went for a walk and stopped in a cafe. This cafe seemed to be part of some business or company - perhaps a delivery service or messenger center. If you walked past it, you never would have thought it a cafe. I only found it because I saw someone coming out. But it was filled with people which is always a good sign, and didn't seem pretentious.

If you were casting a movie and needed two people to play young thugs, your search would be over as soon as you saw the two guys working in the cafe. This isn't to say that they were thugs but that they had that certain aura of "don't screw with me" about them. Speaking in fractured Italian I ordered a snack and a beer. Some of the regulars left, and the older of the two men started quizzing me. Where was I from, why was I in Florence, was I a student, etc. I told them I wasn't a student, but I was traveling around Italy. They asked where I had been and where I was going. "Rome..." "Oh, yeah, Rome" they nodded at the inevitability of it. "Naples." "Yeah, Naples" they shrugged. "Cinque Terre." "Ahhh," they cooed in unison "Cinque Terre." They said it so wistfully, almost melting at the words, as if they were describing Shangri-la.

The region has that sort of effect on people. The pictures don't do it justice, but I hope you like them anyway. The first two pics are from Monterosso, the most northern of the five towns. The other three pics were taken on the trails that link the towns.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Pictures from Paris

A huge "thank you" to Fenway Partners, Inc. for the camera.

Taking photos went through several phases on my trip. When I first got to Amsterdam the excitement of being overseas led me to take pictures of everything. I don't know how many redundant images of the canals I ended up taking and later deleting. While my camera had a memory card that could hold over 400 pictures, this isn't really a lot when you consider I was traveling for two months in some of the most photogenic cities in Europe.

The second phase consisted of me taking pictures of things/scenes that I wanted to remember but felt I wouldn't be able to accurately describe in my journal. Which explains why I got home and found a picture of a street mime in Barcelona sitting on a toilet for spare change.

Finally, as the memory card became more than three quarters full, I began focusing on things that I wanted pictures of. What would I want hanging on my wall, even if it doesn't really say anything about my trip or the place? I began to use my videocamera to tape street scenes and get a general sense of a place and the digital camera to capture images I liked in and of themselves. So my final shots are of mortuary reliefs with cool looking skeletons and eerie shots of buildings at night.

Below are some photos of Paris. The City of Light has gotten short shrift (so far) in this journal so I thought I would remedy the situation with some pictures.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

No Sleep Till Brooklyn

Yep, I'm back in Brooklyn. Not only was my apartment not robbed while I was away, but my landlord fixed the light in the bathroom.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Rome again, Rome again, jiggedy jig

I'm back in Rome for a little over two days, before I catch my flight to Amsterdam on Wednesday, then fly from Amsterdam to Newark airport on Thursday. Being in Rome is a nice buffer, a transition from my last two months of travel and my re-entry into the US. I'm getting a dose of multiculturalism. My B&B (and this time it is a genuine B&B, meaning I get breakfast as part of the deal and a bathroom to myself so I don't have to piss in any bottles) is in the Little India section of Rome. I had no idea there was a little India in Rome, but one of the reasons to travel is to learn things. When I walk out of my B&B, it takes me a moment to realize that I am in Italy. More cultural exchange: I'm writing this in an "Irish" pub, where everyone speaks Italian and they're playing Jay Z. on the stereo. I'm sorry to hear that Jay has 99 problems, though I am relieved that a bitch ain't one of them.

I'm using this time to wrap things up. Rather than do any new sight seeing (or is it site seeing? Kate, you would know better than anyone else.), I've been trying to find gifts for people. Not to go offtrack, but I just realized that "sight seeing" is a little redundant. It's like saying "I went to the concert and did some 'sound hearing.' " Can you tell I'm writing this while in a pub? I have to - they won't let me drink at the computer center. When I was in Morocco and objected to my guide to only seeing stores and shops, he brusquely asked me "What's the matter? Don't you like shopping?" Well, frankly, no. I like wandering around and if I happen to see something either for myself or someone I know, I like to buy it. But going "shopping" with a goal in mind frustrates and annoys me. It's why my Christmas presents ususally come with an apology. It's why I've worn the same suit to every wedding for the last two years, even though each time I get a wedding invitation I say "I really need a new suit. This old one is shot." I've enjoyed re-visiting spots in Rome, but yesterday ended in frustration at my inability to find suitable gifts for some people. Oh, I bought a book for myself, sure, but finding stuff for others? Forget it.

During this transition period, old habits are coming back. Spending time in Irish pubs is one of them. Seeing something I want, not buying it, then regretting that fact and obsessing over the item, only to discover that I can't find it anywhere is another habit. I saw that British writer Alan Bennett has published a new book. His previous book "Writing Home" was one of the touchstones when I lived in London ten years ago. Seeing a sequal of sorts is now available while I am again overseas just seemed to fit. But I resolved not to buy anything for myself until I had finished buying for others. This resolve lasted half a day. I decided that I had another full day (today) to look for gifts, and I really wanted the book. I have two hour and an eight hour flights this week. Such a book would be the perfect way to spend the time.

As soon as I decided this, I couldn't find a copy of the book anywhere. This search eclipsed my search for gifts for others. I can only obsess over one thing at a time. Obviously the streets of Italy are not littered with English-language books, although their larger bookstores make a better effort to stock foreign language books than America's do. Finally, late in the day, I found a copy, and spent last night as an American reading a British author in the Little India section of Italy in a B&B rented to me by a Japanese lady. It is a small world, after all.

I spent today in earnest search of gifts. I went to the Trastevere section of Rome. It is west of the Tibor River, south of Vatican City. Small streets, generally ignored by tourists, more homeless than I've seen anywhere else. It does have a tourist info kiosk, so I stopped and asked if there where sections of Rome with little shops. Not fancy designer clothes boutiques (they're on Via Del Corso, and I made the mistake of going there yesterday) nor cheap souvenir shops (which are everywhere), but interesting little stores. The man at TI circled a few sections on a map, and he came through. I was able to find some things for others, see some cool stuff, and discover the Irish pub in which I am typing this.

Today, while shooting some video at the Roman Ruins and Cat Sanctuary, a little kid came up behind me and screamed. I don't know whether he was trying to ruin my video or set the cats scrambling. I looked over at he and his father, who laughed one of those smug parental "isn't my kid adorable?" laughs. I held the non-expression on my face and went back to looking through my videocamera. The only thing I could think to say to the kid was "don't be an asshole your whole life" but for once in my life, I kept my mouth shut. The cats also ignored them. Deprived of any reaction from two different species, the father and son quickly left. Since the cats hadn't changed position at all, I re-wound the tape to before the little bastard screamed, and began taping again.

As mentioned before, tomorrow I fly into Amsterdam, and then Thursday I fly home. I don't know if I will get a chance to get online in the next two days, so hard as it may be to believe, this is probably my last entry from Europe. Over the coming months I will update the journal with stories about my trip and maybe even some photos. But I just wanted to thank everyone for reading and especially for commenting. I wasn't too excited about this journal when the idea was first suggested to me, yet I have grown to really love posting here, and especially enjoy this format as a way of staying in touch with those who mean so much to me. So thanks again to everyone for joining in.

Oh yeah. Sorry, but I don't think I'll have time to get high tomorrow in Amsterdam. Everyone seems to love that story, and perhaps in the name of closure I should, but my flight arrives too late, and I don't feel like having the post-pot brownie hangover during an eight hour flight home.

Will post again soon.


Sunday, November 13, 2005

Cinque Terre, pt II

I arrive in Monterosso Al Mare, the northernmost of the five villages that make up Cinque Terre, and the one that Rick Steves rates as having the best nightlife. Which is probably true, although "nightlife" is a relative term. It should also be remembered that I am traveling in the offseason, edging almost into the closed-off season: appearantly a number of hotels and bars close for the months of December and January. I was a little concerned about finding a place to stay while there. While I didn't envision having to sleep on the beach, I woke up Friday morning in Siena with a vague anxiety about finding lodging in Monterosso.

This concern wasn't helped by the fact the town's Tourist Info office was closed. I had my guidbook and used that, searching for a hotel. I wandered into town and saw a giant banner strung across the town square. Some sort of festival, commemorating the 20th anniversary of something or other, was scheduled for that weekend. The banner had a picture of a stag on it, and someone had gone around town putting Viking hats with horns on all the town statues. I feared the festival was going to be something Nordic. If figured this would make my lodging search even more difficult. However, the festival was not what I thought it was (more on that later) and I found a room in the first hotel I stopped at. When I told the owner what I wanted, it seemed to take him a moment to remember that he does indeed run a hotel.

I wandered Monterosso and its beach, which didn't take long, because none of the towns of Cinque Terre are what you would call big. Most of them are homes and hotels surrounding a townsquare dotted with the sort of shops and services needed by villagers and tourists. A few minutes and you've "done" the town. However, this adds to the charm of the place, and induces a desire to aimlessly wander the same small area. When I got back to the main square, the festival was in full swing. I still don't know what it was commemorating, but it consisted of the older men in the town roasting chestnuts over a fire and drinking locally produced wine. Many of them were wearing Viking helmets. The ladies of the town sat on nearby benches, talking with each other, eating walnuts and shaking their heads when one of the gentlemen would get particularly boisterous.

I bought a bag of walnuts and asked about a glass of wine. The man I spoke to, who spoke no English, made it plain that there were two problems with selling me a glass of wine. One, it wasn't entirely legal and a local policeman was standing nearby, and two, even worse, they were out of cups. But he waved his hands to me to let me know everything would be alright and went off to find some more cups. When he returned, having solved the second problem, we both agreed to just ignore the first problem, as the policeman had wandered away.

So I stood in the townsquare near the fire, enjoying both it's warmth and the smell of the mixture of burning wood and crisp November sea air. I had never had roasted chestnuts before, despite how good Nat King Cole makes them sound in "The Christmas Song." They are delicious.

Someone had added Viking horns to the man on a nearby "Men At Work" sign. I finished my wine, saved some chestnuts for the next day's hike, and wandered off to find something more substantial for dinner. I ended up eating a very good fusilli dish on the large balcony of a nearby restaurant. About halfway through my meal, I heard the sound of a large group of drunk men "singing." Sure enough, the men from the festival marched by, carrying signs and banners. I later saw them comandeering a large table at a local restaurant, still in their Viking helmets.

Sometimes not knowing the language adds to fun.

Cinque Terre

Thank you to Gretchen Egolf, who first suggested I go to Cinque Terre.

I should try to make this fast. I notice when I do get online, I spend more time responding to people's comments and answering emails than I do posting entries on this journal. I also have to catch a train in about half an hour, and once I start writing an entry, it's hard to know when to stop. "Give an Irishman a chance to talk and you'll never shut him up" as it said in Mad magazine many years ago.

I spent the weekend in Cinque Terre, a group of five small villages along the coast of the Ligurian Sea. If Italy is a boot, they'd be close to the kneecap. The villages are linked by train, and even better, a series of trials you can hike. The trails run the gamut from an easy walk on a sidewalk alongside the water to a rather challenging trek through the mountains alongside vineyards. The trails aren't difficult in that they are on crumbly ground, but the journey up the mountain can feel mighty steep. At one point, I found myself breathing heavily. Normally, I try to hide this, but as I was alone, I let the loud breath come freely. If someone had heard me, I'm sure they would have wondered who got an iron lung so high up on the mountain.

But the views on the hikes are incredible. The good trails take about an hour and a half. I took about two hours on each one, simply because I kept turning around to enjoy the view. When you do reach one of the towns, it is a thrill to walk from wilderness into a little community, where people are kind, and you can have a nice lunch of olives, a sandwich and a beer for less than five euros.

to be continued

Thursday, November 10, 2005


D'oh! I used up all my internet time responding to emails and comments on this webpage. Let me be brief:

I'm in Siena right now, which I love. A medieval town that has not changed that much in its architecture or layout. Florence has the great museums, which Siena does not (its main museum still has a huge sign outside for an exhibition that ended October 18th), but Siena has the charm. Just wandering the streets, especially in the early evening, is a pure pleasure. There's a cafe/bar that has a tiny terrace on their second floor. From there, you have a perfect view of the main square. I've been having my morning cappucino and my afternoon beer on this terrace, watching the show as people mix on the square. I'm completely at peace here.

Tomorrow I am off to Cinque Terre, a series of five small towns on Italy's west coast. Sunday I'm back to Rome, then Tuesday it's Amsterdam again, and, one week from today, I fly back to the States.


In any case, I may not get a chance to post again until I get to Rome, so I just wanted to give everyone a heads up.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Invisible Cities

When I was in Venice, I found myself thinking about a book I had read many years ago, "Invisible Cities" by the Italian author Italo Calvino. In the book, Marco Polo describes to Kubla Khan the various cities he has seen in his travels. It isn't a novel so much as it is a collection of poetic prose pieces, a catalogue of imaginary places. There was something about the eerie, misty beauty of Venice, especially at night, that made me think of Calvino's book. I had to keep reminding myself that I was in Italy. I knew I was in Venice, but it didn't feel like part of Italy. I figured this feeling made sense, given the old line about how Italians are loyal to their town first, their country second. For much of its history, Italy was a series of city/states, feuding with each other and anything but united. Venice is different from Rome which is different from Naples which is different from Sorrento. It made sense that an Italian would right a book about various towns.

On Saturday morning I am killing time, waiting for the Uffizi museum to open. I walk around a plaza, turn a corner and what do I see? A sign advertising an art exhibit based on..."Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino. "That's an interesting coincidence" I think. Later that day, I stop in a bookstore that stocks English language books. I stop in every bookstore I pass anyway. It's how I know I'm more bibliophile than reader. I like to look at books, even if I can't read them. In any case, I find a copy of "Invisible Cities." On the back cover, a critic is describing the book and says "but Calvino is really only writing about one city: Venice." Another coincidence, although I chalk this up to Calvino's evocative skill as a writer and my lucky guess as a reader.

Today while wandering around, I pass the "Invisible Cities" exhibit and decide to stop in. The artist, Pedro Cano, has created a different watercolor painting for each city described in the book. As I walk along, one of the paintings looks like Morocoo. Interesting. Another is of a fortress that resembles the castle ruins I hiked along in Sintra, Portugal. Okay. But one picture stops me dead. It is exactly like a photograph I had taken while climbing the stairs in the Guadi Cathedral in Barcelona. Not similar, but exact. The same composition, as if the painting was done from my photograph. I notice more Arabesque-style buildings, the type that I saw in Morocco. But I'm used to, and enjoy, odd coincidences, so I shrug it off.

When I see the painting of the Nazarenes, I get a little freaked out. (See my entry of October 15th, in which I discuss my fascination/obsession with the Nazarenes). It doesn't say "Nazarenes" but the two eyes, peering through holes surrounded by white, with a white triangular figure in the background, make it obvious that that's what they are. Next to it is a watercolor that features the head of a baby doll. When I was in Rome, there was a secondhand shop that had filled their window with the parts of babydolls. Some arms and legs, but mostly heads. I took a picture of that.

I was beginning to feel like I had wandered, by chance and odd coincidence, into a gallery that depicted pictures of my travels for the last two months. It felt seriously weird. Yes, many of the paintings had no connection with my trip, but the ones that did were very close.

There is (thank God) a rational explaination for this. I discovered the artist was Spanish and had travelled a great deal, doing the pictures from his travels. So he might know about Nazarenes, and Moorish architecture and Moroccan culture. But the sequence of chance events that led me to this gallery were too eerie. The similarities were too close. The way that it seemed to sum up my trip, at a time that I am also summing up my trip, was too unsettling. This dissolving of the line between the inside and the outside, between what I am thinking about and what exists outside of me, was just a little too much.

I've had similar experiences in the past, and I've learned to live with them and enjoy them. There is something about a pattern in your life that transcends your own control that's...interesting? Something to contemplate? But while it is happening, it is creepy beyond compare.

I'd like to point out at this point that no, I am not insane. Yes, walking into a gallery with pictures that depicted what I've been seeing for the last two months did happen to me.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Venice's Water

The canals in Venice reflect the sky, and imitate whatever color the sky is. No surprise there. On overcast days, you see waves of white that calm and vanish on the horizon to meet the white sky. If it was any brighter, it would hurt to look at, but as it is, it is beautiful in its blankness and motion. It is like watching undulating snowbanks.

But when it is sunny and clear, the water has a pale azure cast. It doesn't quite glow and isn't as brilliant as the water in the Blue Grotto, but it is still like a jewel to behold. The advantage is the canals are all around you. You don't have to take a bus, pay a fee, then take a rowboat to see the color for a few minutes.

It's a question of whether you want to have to journey and make a special effort to have a peak experience for a few minutes, or whether you want the less intense beauty integrated into your daily life.

Another Religious Motif Up For Discussion

While not as prevalent or as interesting, I've noticed several depictions of Mary Magdelen as being covered in hair, almost as if she's wearing a dress made of hair. She looks like Lady Godiva. Can anyone chime in on what this means? Is this part of Catholic legend that Mary's hair grew and grew after Christ's ascension and she stopped wearing clothes? It's not just medieval images. There's a portrait by Titian that shows Mary M. draped in only her hair.

Granted, it's not the Virgin Mary's Magic Milk, but I'm interested in how the Church depicts the few women it deigns to notice. Interested in a healthy, scholarly way.


I'm at the Bargello today, home of Donatello's statue of David (a fey little giant-killer). There is a tour guide who speaks English with a very heavy Italian accent leading a group of middle-aged ladies along. She, her group and I are in a room with lots of small decorative sculptures, the products of workshops and schools from the Medici era.

By one case, she announces that it holds "the twelve lovers." This strikes me as odd, considering the statues inside are of men wrestling with each other, animals or monsters. She says it several times, and I finally realize she is saying "the twelve labors," as in Hercules. Got it. That changes everything.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


I stop in an English-style pub in Florence. There is a sign saying they offer wireless internet to their customers, and I see several unattended laptops. Great. I'll have a beer an go online.

So I'm sipping a John Smith and answering my email, when a voice behind me says "Excuse me." I turn and ask "Oh, were you on this?" "Well," he replies "it's my computer." I literally hit my forehead and apologized. He was nice enough to let me finish the email I was typing.

Yes. Free wireless internet, provided you have a laptop.


Arrived in Florence on Friday, and while there certainly is nothing wrong with the town, it seems to mainly be a support system for its museums that honor Florence as the hub of the Renaissance.

One nice thing about traveling during the off-season is that sites that are normally packed are more managable. There is a reservation system in Florence where you can call ahead and reserve a time to enter their more popular museums, and thus bypass long lines to buy tickets. Which is a good idea, but they charge you 3 euros for the service. When it is crowded, 3 euros is a bargain, but otherwise, forget it. I called and made reservations, but when I got to the Uffizi and the Accademy, I saw that there wasn't any line and just bought a normal ticket.

So I saw Botticelli's "Birth of Venus." Similar to seeing Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, you realize that it's a good painting, but not so good to explain its status as an icon. I really think such status rests on the fact that both paintings are fairly simple and can be appreciated immediately as images rather than as works of art. In other words, there's not much more to be gained by seeing the actual artworks that you won't get from a good photo in an artbook. So they are infinitely reproducable in addition to being immediately accessible. You "get" them instantly. You don't need to spend any time contemplating them, Mona Lisa's famous enigmatic smile notwithstanding.

Not so with Michaelangelo's statue of David. My mother has metioned in this journal that when she saw it, she cried. While the statue didn't move me to tears, it is moving. We all know what it looks like. But the one thing that is never reproduced is the uncertain look in David's eyes. Seen from the front, David is looking to his left and seems to have either a calm or blank expression. But when you walk to his left and see him face forward, the expression changes. It is one (to my eyes) of doubt, of sadness. Granted, this might be my born in the late 20th century/interest in psychological complexity reading, but I spent time studying the face, and I can't see it any other way. It is not the face beautified by being God's instrument in slaying Goliath, it is not the expression of Renaissance humanstic pride in Man, but the face of uncertainty. The contrast between the ideal male form and the sadness in his expression makes this statue heartbreaking.

But perhaps I'm projecting.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Memories of Paris: Le Rock et Roll

As per Michele's request

It's a Sunday night in Paris and I'm at the Locomotive Club next door to the Moulin Rouge. A number of bands playing, and Nicola, a friend of my friends Bob and Michele, has invited me out to see the show. He's dj-ing between sets, which means I get to hang out in the dj stand above the stage. It has the best view of the entire club. Standing there, surveying everything that's going on below me, I can't help but think that I'm sure at one point on that fateful morning, Lee Harvey Oswald thought "You know, if nothing else, this really is a nice view."

When I heard the club was next to the Moulin Rouge, I thought the area would be touristy. It is, but not the sort of tourists I expected. That area of Paris is mainly strip clubs, sex shops, and the like. You have to maneuver around the guys standing in the sidewalk, trying to cajole you into their club as opposed to all the others. Fairly seedy, no pun intended, but nothing worse than parts of old New York.

But the club itself is cool. Nicola is explaining to me that there hasn't really been any rock and roll in Paris in the last ten years, and that the kids playing have had to invent it for themselves. Second Sex, Nicola's favorite band, is playing. They look like skinny French schoolboys playing at a high school assembly, but sound like the Ramones. It sounds good. I mention the sound and Nicola responds enthusiastically "That's what I mean! They've downloaded a couple of tracks, but most of this they've made up for themselves."

He also mentions a more disconcerting fact: No-one in Second Sex is much beyond 16. "Oh wait, the drummer just turned 17." I mention (actually, I yell above the sound of the band) that that makes me feel old. "No, no, it should make you feel young!"

At one point during their set, the guitarist has problems with his guitar. Instead of sneering or ignoring him, the other members of the band hurry over to help him out. Like I said, they were young.

Something else about the show that seemed odd: it began on time and stayed on schedule. Nicola had told me the show would start at 8:00, so naturally I should up around 9:30, only to find that I had missed the first three bands. I've lived in New York ten years now (my anniversary was this week - November 1st) and I don't think I've ever been to a rock show that began on time.

Another band takes the stage. They are the grand old men of the burgeoning French rock scene. They are around 22. Like I said, old. They are also serious, not as much fun to watch, and rather full of themselves. They end their set by throwing their instruments on the floor and knocking over some of the drum kit, leaving the audience to stare at the inert instruments while listening to the feedback created. Nicola is disgusted.

"Come on. I someone has to clean that up."

Between sets, Nicola plays old rock and roll, choice cuts from the 60s and 70s. At one point, he puts on a song and I see French kids do something I previously thought was impossible. They dance to Bob Dylan. More than that, they dance well and with style.

Lightning in a Bottle

I booked a B&B to stay at in Venice online. It was the same service ( that I had used in Rome and had great results.

The B&B in Venice was nice, for what it was, but it was no B&B. For one thing, when I got there, Roberto, who ran the B&B, informed me that the woman who normally came in the morning to cook had been running late, so there would be no breakfast. He knocked 5 euros off of each day's charge, which was responible. So it was a "B, no B."

Actually, what it really was was a bed set up in an extra room in their apartment. This didn't really sink in until I was lying in bed and realized what the deal was. It's not that I'm dumb, but you need to understand that the train from Naples was eight hours, ran a little slow, then I had to catch a train to the central Venice train station, then catch a boat, then find my way along the streets. When I booked online, it said to contact the B&B owner if you were going to be more than two hours late from your appointed time. I got there about an hour late and was happy to be there. Venice doesn't really have a nightlife. The city shuts down around 8:30pm, apart from restaurants and bars in some touristy areas.

So I was sleeping in the library of this family's apartment. The walls were lined with bookshelves full of books: Pasolini, Pirindello, Malmaux, etc. There was also a Jean Paul Sartre poster on the wall (no lie, and not hyperbole). I was pretty happy to be sleeping in a library, and went to bed.

Still it felt a little odd. As I may have mentioned before, I don't really hang around wherever it is I'm staying. I'm out sightseeing during the day, I catch a bite to eat at a restaurant or bar, and only return to the hotel or whatever at night to go to bed. When I returned the second night, I heard the family's child ask who it was at the door before the mother hushed them in to their room. Had the mother and father been running a B, not B out of their home and somehow kept it from the kid? In any case, I sat in my room listening to music on my iPod (Beta Band, Neko Case) until I heard the family retire. This took about an hour or so.

Except they didn't fully retire. The kid, who sounded 12 or 13, decided to take an hour long shower, beginning at 11:30 at night. Now, I heard the shower starting, and even though I had to go to the bathroom, I figured it was late enough that the kid would be done soon and go to bed. He was still showering at ten to twelve, and now I really had to use the bathroom. I decided to be polite and wait. He was still in there, water still running (the sound of which didn't help matters any) at 12:15. I could no longer wait. My stomache was bloated, round like a basketball. I was in serious pain and starting to worry that I was going to actually wet myself. I figured I had two choices: I could either go down to the street and piss in the canal, or find something other vessel nearby.

I had an empty 1.5 liter bottle of water that I had drunk, and periodically refilled at one of Venice's many water fountains. Yeah, no wonder I had to go so bad. Holding the bottle up to "little John" and aiming very carefully, I pissed into the empty water bottle. The sense of relief once I began was incredible and immediate. However, as the bottle began to fill and I showed no sign of slowing down, I began to worry what I would do if I had more piss than bottle. Empty it out the window and start again? March into the bathroom and dump it on the kid's head? Happily, I finished with a little bit of space to spare in the bottle.

Another ten minutes after that (there's no way I could have lasted that short amount of time) I heard the bathroom door open. I waited a few minutes to make sure that no-one in the family would be lurking around to catch me with my bottle o'piss, then dumped it in the toilet.

I am happy to report that the B&B I am staying at in Florence is a legit B&B. Although I have noticed that it's billed as a "Bed & Bed." It doesn't provide breakfast either, but there are two twin beds in my room, so I guess they are telling the truth.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Bottom of the Boot

I've been gorging myself on charm these past few days, whether it is in the beauty of the land or in the genuine warmth of the Italian people. Real charm, beauty that has a lightness and ease to it, as opposed to intense beauty that you have to work hard to achieve or appreciate. The sight of three women, all beautiful and stylish, ages 30something, late teen and maybe eight, riding a Vespa together. Not the ersatz charm which you find in an American greeting card store. (My apologies to Jack Vail in case he's reading this). Yes, souvenir stands in Italy sell cutesy crap, but the foreigness of it makes it fascinating and strange to me. I know: it's not foreign, I am.

I've been in Sorrento since late last week, and have been taking easy day trips to explore the surrounding sites. Friday I was in Pompeii, Saturday I took a trip to Amalfi, mainly to experience the bus ride along Italy's winding coast, Sunday was Naples and today I was on the isle of Capri.

Capri is beautiful. However, this late in the season, there is a fine foggy mist that clings to the island. I probably like fog more than the average person, but on Capri, it can play havoc with two of the better tourist excursions: the blue grotto and Mounte Solaro. I got to the island a little after 9:00, then spent a couple hours wandering around, hoping more of the haze that clung to the mountaintop would burn off. It never really did, and I got impatient, so I took the chairlift to the top shortly before 1:00, then spent an hour writing in my journal and admiring the soft smeared view and thinking "Okay...Vesuvius is out there somewhere..."

After hiking down the mountain along a beautiful but at times slippery slope, I decided to head to the blue grotto. There is an opening within the rocks on the isle of Capri in which the sun's reflected light creates the most intense enjoyable asure blue on the floor of the grotto. You have to take either a bus or a boat to get there, then pay for a rowboat and admission to the grotto, and you're inside for maybe five minutes. Is it worth it? After getting off the bus, I stopped and asked a British couple who were in line for the bus what they thought.

British Couple's Review of The Blue Grotto
It's bloody expensive, and you're only inside for maybe five minutes.

Me: But is it worth it?

Well, it's a once in a lifetime experience, and if you're never going to be in Capri again, it's worth seeing.

I have nothing to add to the British couple's review, except that the blue is an amazing sight, and I know the video I shot won't do it justice. However, I'll be happy to show people the video for free.

Getting back to Sorrento from Capri was quite an adventure. The island's two towns, Capri and Anacapri, are on the mountain and most transportation returns to one or the other. I knew the last boat left at 7:00pm, so I had to get to the port, buy my ticket and be on the bus by then. By the time I was done with the blue grotto and was back in Anacapri, it was 4:30. Now, there are lots of buses that run between the two towns, but not so many that run to the port. When such a bus finally did come, I had to squeeze myself on and stand on the steps by the bus door. We left a number of people behind who don't share my Plasticman-like morphing ability, or my New York "screw you, I am getting on this bus" personality.

As we spiraled around the tight corners and curving streets of the island, all I could think was "I really hope these doors don't open." I shouldn't have worried. Someone's luggage was blocking the doors so that they couldn't open, which made for a bit of an operation when someone wanted to get off the bus. But finally I made it to the port.

After buying my ticket, I discovered, after immersing myself into a crowd the likes of which I have not seen in Europe since I went to a bullfight, that the previous boat to Sorrento never came, so now there were twice as many people trying to get one on boat. However, everyone was well behaved and in good spirits. There weren't any malcontents or assholes in my immediate area. Everyone made the best of a bad situation. Again, I managed to make it onto the boat, although I feel bad about the children and sick people I had to trample to get there. I stood on the back of the boat, watching our journey from Capri to Sorrento, admiring the darkness of night and the lights that decorated both destinations. I think I understand what it is dogs feel when they hang their heads outside the window of a moving car.

Final note: The pension where I am staying, Pension Linda, is run by a charming (that word again) older lady. I assume she is Linda, but the topic has never come up between us. Tonight when I checked in, her dog barked once or twice at me. The dog's name is Cuja, which is a little too close to "Cujo" for my taste.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Prado, part III.01

I forgot to mention Tiepolo. His paintings look like mid 20th century illustrative work, not dated at all. Found a book of his etchings. The man had mad drafting skills. Just incredilbe.

Will write more, but Sorrento is the land of expensive internet.

And thanks to Bill for digging up all the info about sacred milk...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Prado, Part III

It's hard to believe, but it was almost a month ago that I went to the Prado for the first time. It was on Sunday, October 2nd. In the interest of catching up, I'll post this (probably) final entry on the Prado, and then go have some gelato. Ciao!

It's hardly surprising that I liked the work by Velasquez, El Greco, Goya and Bosch in this museum. But the stuff that really excited me was by artists I was unfamiliar with. It was that great feeling of discovering something new, re-orienting yourself after encountering something and thinking "what the hell is this?" Below is a brief list. If any of the artists (Stacey, Andrea, Bob, Karl, Julie) or art scholars (Bill) who read this journal want to add any information, it would be greatly appreciated. As it is, I'm looking forward to getting back to the States and either buying or getting some books out of the library about the following:

- Nicolas Frances (1434-1468) created a giant altar that I loved

- "San Miguel de Zafra" by an anonymous Spaniard. Huge piece, similar to depictions of St. George killing a dragon, only it was St. Michael battling demons. St. Michael is in the foreground, while around him almost like a wallpaper collaborated on by Escher and Bosch, angels and demons battle.

- Tintoretto (1519-1594) I'm sure I'll see more of his work in Italy

- Bassano (1510-1592) Used rough sketchy images, which gave the images a "soft" look. Saw more of his work today. Very dramatic faces, almost to the point of caricature. His "last supper" has so much playing out on the faces of those depicted that it reminded me of Norman Rockwell, of all people. Not subtle, but I liked his work.

- Hans Baldung-Green (1484-1545) Las Edades Y La Muerta - Death and two ladies in an odd, gothic vertically composed painting in pale beiges. Looks very contemporary and like nothing else I know of from that era (though my knowledge is pretty limited)

- Rodrigo De Osona (1464-1518) "Christo Ante Pilates" Master of the grotesque.

- Berreuguette (1450-1503) "San Pedro" Vote for Pedro? Sorry, couldn't resist. Anyway, this is crazy Catholic art at its best. Large series of paintings that depict the life and death of Saint Pedro. Appearantly he was killed by a blow to the head with an ax. His portrait, the center painting of the series, depicts him with a halo, holding a book of scripture, and an ax protruding from his head. It's crazy and a great painting.

While we're on the subject of crazy Catholic art, there are several paintings in the Prado that depict Mary, the mother of Christ, squirting people with her breast milk. I am not making this up. This is one part of my Catholic education that was skipped. When I saw the first painting, I thought "that's odd." But by the third, I knew it was a motif. A crazy one. Several of the paintings depict Mary giving San Bernardo an eyeful. Mom - is this part of the legend of San Bernardo? Did he claim to have a vision in which he was squirted by Mary's breast milk? There's also a painting by Rubens, who I was surprised to discover that I don't really like his art. Too airy fairy for my taste. Too soft. There are exceptions, one of which shows Mary in the sky, squeezing her breast and the drops of milk that shoot out become stars in the sky, mixing the mundane, the religious and the cosmic.

It's just a motif I hadn't stumbled on before. It's rare in American galleries or museums that you see paintings of Mary breast feeding the infant Christ, although in Spain they're not uncommon.

Anyone want to comment?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Prado, part II

I arrived in Madrid yesterday and checked into the same hostal I had used before. I had returned to Madrid to catch a flight today to Rome (where I have arrived safe and sound, but that will be the subject of another posting). It was around 5:30pm by the time I got settled in Madrid, which left the big question: what to do now? I wanted to take it easy, and there wasn t much in the city that I felt that I had skipped on my previous visit. I checked my guidebook and saw that the Prado closed at 7:00, which would give me a little over an hour by the time I got there. Hmmmm. I decided it would be worth going, even for an hour, just to look at some of those paintings again. Plus I wanted to insure that my sister Julie and my friend Bob really hate me.

While there, a group dressed as people from some of Velasquez' paintings paraded by. This means they were dressed like early 17th century royalty. Not only dressed, but playing the parts to the hilt. The young girl, who led the procession was wearing one of those dresses that goes out about a mile from each hip, caught my eye and gave me a royal head nod. I nodded back, and later regretted that I didn't have the presence of mind to bow. She was followed by a Philip IV, who was jolly with his group, but gave me, the commoner, a haughty nod. I returned with a respectful nod.

Then they were gone, having quickly ascended the nearby steps. The only other person who had seen them in the hallway was a security guard who disappeared before I had a chance to ask her what the hell that was about.

The Prado was much less crowded late in the day. At one point, I had Goya's black paintings all to myself. It was a few minutes before anyone else entered the room. You could spend time with the paintings without being subconsciously hurried along by other patrons. I got to study Bosch's work some more. The miserable security guard, who had yelled at me on a previous visit for using a videocamera, was there. And she was asleep in her chair! I desperately wanted to take a picture of her napping, then send it to the Prado and get her fired. But I decided that Art brought out my better nature, so I passed on the opportunity.

Best of all, when I got to the Prado, I discovered (from a friendly security guard) that their hours had changed. The museum closes at 8:00pm, not 7:00.

I will write more about the work in the museum, particularly the stuff that I hadn't heard of that took my by surprise. More to come...

Friday, October 21, 2005


I´m writing this in Tarifa, a coastal town in southern Spain. I´ve only been here a day, on my way to Madrid to catch my flight to Rome, but this town seems to be one of those perfect, trouble-free spots on Earth.

The town is mainly made up of locals, many middle-aged and elderly, and surf bums, along with the shops that cater to them. I know I´m here in the off-season, but the townspeople and the surf bums seem to get along very well. It´s strange to see something so fundamentally American (surf culture) mixing among Spanish architecture. The houses are all the same blinding shade of white, which is unbelievably beautiful when set against the azure blue sky.

There is a sign in the internet cafe that reads "One person per seat. Please, thank you." It´s hard to imagine that they had a big problem with people sharing chairs or sitting on each others´laps while online.

Tarifa has an incredible beach. The sand is like refined sugar, the water rolls in in shades of blue beyond color, and there´s a perpetual breeze that makes it very comfortable to be here. This is what I needed after Morocco. I liked Morcocco and I am glad I went, but it was hard. Two of the things I was very conscious of and wanted to avoid happened to me anyway. One was getting scammed by my "guide" into paying insanely inflated prices for things, and the other was diarrea.

I had read that you should hire a guide when going to Fes´ Medina. The Medina is the old section of town (as in 1000 years old), walled off and filled with almost 10,000 winding streets and alleyways. It´s where people live, it´s the main historic center and it is also a giant marketplace. Being there is an experience like no other. Imagine being in an outdoor shopping mall, except the streets are maybe only 10 feet across and you have to get out of the way every so often to let donkeys pass. I had read that, without a guide, you´ll be inundated with would-be guides endlessly pestering you. The reason why everyone wants to be your guide is because they get a commission on anything you buy in their presence.

I hadn´t gone to Fes to go shopping, but my guide steered me to a series of tourist trap shops. First I sat through a hand-knit rug salesman´s pitch, which was interesting and the rugs were beautiful, but extricating yourself without buying something takes a lot of work. These are the people who invented haggling, they were the merchant class in Spain many years ago (before they got kicked out) and if there´s one thing they know how to do, it´s close a sale. My guide was no help, of course, because he wanted me to buy something so he would make money.

After the rug shop came the leather goods shop. I did buy a jacket here, but paid way too much (in Moroccan terms, not American) and have been kicking myself since then. Again, the salesman was doing everything he could to get me to buy two jackets, so I felt lucky I just got away with the one.

Then came the metal engravers. At this point, I didn´t have the patience to play along. I didn´t want a metal table or plates. If the salesman are supposed to be such masters at reading people, what the hell did they see in me that made them think for a minute that I would ever want a silver teapot that was vaguely in the shape of a camel?

It was a waste of a day. I returned to the medina the next day on my own, and discovered that it´s fairly easy to negotiate if you stay on the main streets. There are several color-coded paths through the medina, and plenty of tourist based "you are here" signs. It was frustrating because I knew about the whole tourist trap scheme and wanted to avoid it, and fell into anyway.

Same with the diarrea. Well, I didn´t fall into that, thank God. But I had that it´s almost a given that tourists get diarrea in Morocco. I had been fairly careful in what I had eaten and only drank bottled water. Until I forgot and had a salad my first night in Rabat. Uncooked veggies: that´s a no-no. I felt a little ill after the salad, but the next morning felt good enough to see some sites. But by noon, I felt ill. I went back to the hotel, stopping off to buy some water and a Coke. As I climbed the stairs to my room, I thought I must look like a junkie trying to kick. Check into a cheap hotel in Morocco, lock yourself in your room with only water and soda. Needless to say, I spent the rest of the day either in bed or in the bathroom. Was my thinking I had soiled myself while high in Amsterdam a premonition?

So Morocco was hard. A fascinating culture with beautiful cities, but you realize very quickly how niave you are about the land.

Watching the sun set on the beach today, I felt very happy to be back in Spain, and looking forward to going to Italy. I´m only half done with my travels. I´m hoping that my time in Italy will be as easy as my walk on the beach tonight. We´ll see.

PS - Everyone make sure you tell me how nice my new leather jacket looks, cause God knows I paid enough for it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

My Dinner at Khalid's

I'm sitting at Khalid's house with Khalid, his wife and mother-in-law. Khalid's two sons are taking naps upstairs. We adults are sitting on couches staring at the food arranged on a low table. Today's fast for Ramadan has not broken yet, and everyone is hungry. I haven't eaten since breakfast. When the call goes out a few minutes before 6:00pm, Khalid sighs with relief. "Hear that? Now we may eat." Inside Khalid's living/dining room, the Muslim call issuing from the mosque isn't nearly as jarring or alarming as it is when you are on the street. There it reminds you of nothing so much as an air raid siren or a city of holy men chanting.

I met Khalid on the train from Tangier to Fes. He was very friendly, sharing his crackers with me when the fast broke that night, and eventually guiding me to a hotel close to the train station. "Avoid the cabs. They are all hustlers." After getting me to my hotel, he promised to set up a guide for me for the next day, and invited me to dinner at his home.

I know (ie have read) that this is both a common courtesy and an honor in Islamic countries and that they believe in treating strangers and visitors kindly. So one day later I am eating with Khalid's family. But it's not like being a guest. I'm just sort of there, eating. No special fuss. I'm not the center of attention in any way. It's as if my presence is common, everyday, instead of a once in a lifetime meeting.

Khalid's wife and mother-in-law do not speak English, beyond his wife's halting attempts to say her name and ask how I am. The three of them converse in Arabic, sometimes French, and there's only occasional translations into English courtesy of Khalid. Khalid's mother-in-law may be fairly old. Her face is wrinkled but her headdress makes it difficult to guage her age. Her bone structure, however, makes it evident that she was probably quite a beauty zhen she was young. There's something Eartha Kitt-esque about her, although she looks nothing like Eartha Kitt. I'm intrigued by the contrast between her face and her daughter's plump childlike face. But there's something else about the mother-in-law. She's wearing a sweatshirt that depicts "Teddybear's Nautical Adventures" ("Good Fishing!" is one of them. The Teddybear is using a pole rather than his paws). The shirt is so...unbelievable...beyond kitschy...that I can't stop looking at it. I just want to ask her what would possess someone to buy it, let alone wear it. But the smile it induces in me isn't just mocking.

Like many families, Khalid's watches television while eating. A few minutes of news, a bit of an interview program, and then an Egyptian show, which I think is a soap opera. The inexpensive sets, the bright video look, the fake beards and soap opera acting all remind me of an SCTV skit. At one point, the main character picks a small boy up by the scruff of the neck to address him face to face.

The food on the table is all room temperature (having been placed there during the fast) and is various shades of brown. There is a soup with corn in it, hummus, large hunks of bread, figs, something similar to an omlete pancake. To wash it down they have a sweet thick milk. It's so sweet that kids would love to have it for breakfast, but I only like milk in coffee and something about this makes my throat close. I eat something that resembles glazed calamari, but is in fact a sweet pastry that tastes of cinnamon. Delicious.

But why am I there? I appreciate the culture that invites guests to share dinner, but I keep wondering why I'm there. Khalid eats then leaves the room. I wonder when it would be proper for me to leave. I don't want to overstay my welcome, but I also don't want to dine and dash. Khalid reappears periodically, sits down, says something to his wife, then leaves again. At one point, he mentions that many European men come to Morocco to find wives. "Here it comes" I thought, expecting a line of Moroccan women to suddenly emerge from the kitchen and Khalid pressuring me to pick one. This is basically how I spent the day in the Medina with my shitty guide, but that's another story.

But no potential wives. As the women clear the table, I offer to help, knowing full well that a. I'm a guest and b. I'm a man. But my offer is not rebuffed. It is misinterpreted. After I repeat what I think is "I help?" in Arabic, comprehension dawns on the face of Khalid's wife. She then begins describing the layout of the house. I nod appreciatively, she goes back to clearing the table, and I return to the Egyptian soap opera.

Finally it is time to go. Khalid is going to the mosque for evening prayers. I say I will leave with him, if he could give me directions to walk back to my hotel. "No, you can't walk. Taxi." I exchange heartfelt thank you's to the women of the house, earning wide smiles. I don't know what else to do. I leave with Khalid.

It is dark out, even though it is only sometime after 7:00pm. On the street, Khalid greets a handsome teenage boy in a Diesel jean jacket, puts his arm around his shoulder, and begins talking rather intimately with the boy. It's a little jarring, but I should point out that physical intimacy between men that would never fly in America (holding hands, walking arm in arm, cheek kissing) is common among male friends in Morocco. The only word I can make out is "English." Despite his many kindnesses, I'm not sure I fully trust Khalid. Part of it is natural travellers' paranoia, part of it is because the "great guide" he found to take me through the Medina was more interested in getting me to buy expensive things in his presence so he could earn his commission. But that's another story.

We reached a small plaza. It was time for Khalid to say goodbye and go to services. He introduced me to the teenager, whose name he said so fast I didn't catch it, then invited me to break the fast again tonight. He explained that the boy would help me catch a cab.

We waited in the plaza for a few minutes, not talking. Eventually a cab came by, the boy negotiated with the driver, then held the door for me. I got in...and the boy got in the back seat. I never felt like I was in any danger. I didn't feel threatened or thqt this was a set up. Despite how "foreign" it is, Morocco feels safe. I just tried to figure out how what sort of tip I should give the boy when the moment inevitably came.

We got to my hotel. A day of translating Moroccan dirham into American dollars (which is easy: 10 dirham to one dollar) left me confused. Thinking it was ten dollars, I tried to pay the cab fare with the equivalent of 20 dollars. No, the cab driver and the boy explained. The fare was only a dollar. I got out of the cab, looking at my change, trying to calculate how much to tip the boy. But he just gave me a little nod of his head as goodbye, a half-smile, then walked away without looking back.

Thank you, Khalid. I called tonight to thank him and explain I would not be able to eat with his family again, but the phone connection was so bad that all he seemed to understand was his name.

Shukran bezzef, Khalid. M'a ssalama.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Road to Morocco

I should warn the reader that I am typing this on a French-style co,puter keyboqrd, which is different enough from American keyboards to make things interesting. I will try to catch my mistakes and correct them, but I can't guarantee anything.

Yesterday was a long day of travel. Sevilla to Tarifa was a three hour bus ride, then a 45 minute boat ride to Tangier in Morocco, followed by a four hour train ride to Fes, which felt like a four hour train ride.

No two Moroccans agree on the relative merits of their different cities. Some like Tangier, others dismiss it as "merely a port town." One might think Meknes is an underrated gem, wheras another warned me not to waste my time there. But everyone likes Fes. It is the heart of Morocco. (I haven't heard anything bad about Marrakesh, either. It's just a little too far for how little time I have in Morocco).

By Bus
The bus driver played an American and British pop radio station exclusively. Alan Parsons is the eye in the sky, Neil Diamond is a believer, Christopher Cross rides like the wind. One of the other passengers on the bus had brought a dog on board. Or rather under board, as the dog rides in a pet carrier in the luggage compartment at the bottom of the bus. The poor animal is quiet for most of the journey, but eventually becomes agitated and soon begins whining and howling. Its cries sound like far off screams, which most songs on the radio successfully drown out, although it can be heard during quiet songs. The cries add a particularly chilling counterpart to John Lennon's "Imagine."

By Boat
The ferry from Tarifa is the fastest way to get to Morocco from Southern Spain: 45 minutes vs. over 2 hours from Gibralter. It's billed as a "speed" boat, but it never feels like it's going fast at all. There's a gentle rising and falling, like being rocked to sleep. The waves outside the boat don't break -- white foam gathers at the crest, then disappates just as quickly. I keep waiting for us to pick up steam, but we never do.

Behind me, an Asian woman zith a British accent is discussing problems in her family with her male companion. Her voice has a sound like music in the otherwise hushed cabin. The boat ride is like being in a dream.

By Train
There are lots of small black plastic shopping bags litering the landscape for part of the journey. I assume they were used as trash bags. At one point, a huge flock of seagulls fly up, startled by the train. Their white feathers form a nice contrast to the black bags. Some donkeys graze on what used to be a soccer field, standing in front of the rusted goal posts. It looks like they were playing and decided to take a break and have a snack.

Children still come out to wave at the train as it goes past.

This month is Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. I'm on the train at sunset, when the fast for the day has ended. Two things strike me: one is the legendary generosity of Moroccans, who, even though they haven't eaten all day, are very eager to share with you, to the point of not accepting is considered an insult. I have a mini-feast of cookies, crackers and cupcakes with the others in my train compartment. I share my water, as it is all I have.

The other thing that strikes me is how fast it gets dark after the sun sets. It becomes middle of the night dark within fifteen minutes, literally. The full moon is suddenly out, and all I can think of are those old cartoons, when the sun zips down; the moon zips into its spot, and the sky goes dark like someone has flicked a switch.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Lost and Found

Ah, I have discovered Sevilla´s hip section. I had clues before - the anarchist bookstore with the very polite clerk, the hip hop clothing store with spray-painted murals on the walls - but after being lost in Sevilla´s winding streets for over an hour (not including time out for tapas and a beer), I have definitely found it. It´s in the Almeda de Hercules. The trow of grungy bars and their inhabitants could be straight out of Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Manhattan´s lower east side. So far away and it´s like I never left my neighborhood.

Much of the rest of the city seems given over to tourists and "nice people." I wondered if the young, scruffy and disaffected had a section of town to call their own, or if they kept to the outskirts. Wish I had found this area on my first night rather than on my last. After walking around town feeling out of place in my "House of Voodoo" t-shirt (especially around churches, which all seemed to have well-dressed congregations gathering outside each time I went by) I finally fit in. Except that I don´t smoke.

In some respects it was a productive day. I bought my ticket to Tarifa for tomorrow, and finally plotted my itinerary for the Italian part of this journey. I bought a plane ticket from Rome to Amsterdam the day before I fly home. But my biggest goal today, one that remains frustrated, was buying another Nazarene.

I don´t know what the Nazarenes really are, but I became obesessed wiht them since coming to Sevilla. As close as I can tell, they are a religious order affiliated with the Catholic Church, perhaps only with the Church of the Weeping Virgin. What fascinates me is their uniform, which look like Klu Klux Klans´ but with a really long pointed hoods. I saw some dolls in a shop window my first night here and thought "What the hell are they?" The hoods are sometimes in different colors. Sometimes the Nazarenes carry a giant cross, sometimes just a candle. I bought one from a shop on Friday, and think I offended the shop owner when I asked if he had any other colors. "Macarena" he said, referring to the section of Sevilla we were in, and pointing to the green hood. I guess it´s like going to an Irish store and asking if they have any orange sweaters. And yes, that section of Sevilla is where that damn song "The Macarena" gets its name.

So I got a little lost this afternoon, although Sevilla is such a pleasure to wander that the definition of "lost" comes into question. I stopped in countless souvenir shops, asking "¿Quiero Nazarene?" But no luck. Finally, I gave up and decided to concentrate on getting back to my neighborhood. Of course, then it happened. Like a zen riddle, as soon as you stop searching, you find what you were looking for.* I stumbled acrosss a store that makes Nazarene outfits and it was...closed. This is probably just as well, because might have been tempted to buy one and I don´t know how well it would go over in Brooklyn. Did I mention how much they look like Klu Klux Klan outfits?

I took a picture of the shop´s sign, which is suitably creepy, and went on my way...only to pass a toy store selling large size Nazarene figures for just 6 euros! The toy store was also closed, of course. I truly was trapped in some zen arena (which, by the way, is an anagram for "Nazarene"). After this, I swear I saw a car drive by that had a suction-cup Nazarene figure stuck to their back window. I decided I had had enough of the universe´s mocking, so I went and had a drink.

*It also happened when I was looking for the internet cafe where I am typing this. I had been here yesterday and was looking for it tonight. When I couldn´t find it, I decided to head back to the hotel...and then turned a corner and found the cafe.

Royale with Cheese

Little differences that I´ve noticed:

Many European toilets have two buttons to flush with, one small than the other. The smaller one uses less water. Makes sense.

In the hotel in Bilboa, the lights in the hallway outside the rooms were on a timer, so that they only stayed on long enough for you to get to your room. Less waste of electricity.

It´s difficult getting used to a language, Spanish, in which the lisp is featured so extensively. All that work by speech therapists and gym teachers, beating the lisp out of kids, turns out to be a cultural construct.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


It has started happening. My itinerary has begun forcing me to leave places before I feel ready. As much as I loved Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona, my last day in each location was marked by a sense of closure, of completeness. I knew it was time to move on. But in Bilboa and especially Granada, I have to move on before I am ready. Rick Steves suggests giving Granada "two nights and a day." Bullshit. I could stay herre a week and feel completely at home, and that´s with having seen the major tourist sites in two days. I feel I could emmigrate to Granada and be happy. It appears neo-hippies from all nations already have. The town functioned as a battleground between Islam and Christianity hundreds of years ago, so the architecture and the "vibe" of the town reflects the best of both worlds. It´s where Columbus made his pitch to Ferdinand and Isabel, who now lie in plain wood coffins beneath a beautifully carved stone crypt. It´s what I thought, what I hoped, Spain would be like. If I can´t make it to Morocco for some reason, I´m coming back to Granada. (Or flying to England. I haven´t really made my mind up yet.)

Two nights ago, I sat in a tea house and felt completely at peace. Last night I went to an Arabian Bath and felt completely at peace. Arabian bath: large communal hot pool, a cool room, and 20 minute massage included. I loved exploring the Alhambra, once I figured out their seemingly complex admitance policy.

Oh yeah. One of my typically bonehead moments proved a. how dumb I am, and b. how easy it is to get out an embarassing social situation by slapping yourself on the forehead when the people around you are cool. I had had two beers and two tapas (little bar snacks - bigger than hors d´ouvres, smaller than appeatizers) at a neighborhood bar. When I asked for the tab, the bartender, who looked like an ex-boxer, and, even though I don´t speak enough Spanish to be sure, seemed to be getting picked on by the other smaller, fiestier bartender (sort of like a small yappy dog intimidating a stout bulldog) rung it up on one cash register and told me the cost. When he did this, I swear I saw the same amount appear on the cash register closest to me. I assumed they were linked.

I gave the barman 10 euros, he gave me my change, which on inspection, seemed a little short. "Uh..." I said, looking at my change and the amount on the register close to me. He repeated the amount and the change several times, as if he was trying to teach a slow child basic math. "But..." I finally said, pointing to the register. "No no no" said the smaller bartender, pointing to the register that was actually used. The amount was slightly different, and the change was correct. I literally, and a little theatrically, slapped my forehead and repeated "Lo siento, lo siento," which is Spanish for "I´m sorry." The big bartender signaled that it was okay, and gave me a big friendly grin. He was missing his two front teeth.

Train to Sevilla

Yes, every time I write "Sevilla" I think of Bugs Bunny as the rabbit of Sevilla. "There/you´re nice and clean/although your face/looks like it may gone t´rough a machine."

The unfairness of it all. trains are very condusive to writing, in that they give you large blocks of uninterrupted time to think and relect, along with an ever changing landscape that triggers contemplation and meditation. However, trains are also the worst place to write, in that the constant jostling makes legibility near impossible.

There was piped-in music on the train. It was the sort of bland, easy, adult jazz with vocals that would have made Louis Armstrong say "This shit is not what I had in mind." At one point, a rambling song came on, and I was momentarily convinced that the conductor was singing through the p.a., making up a song as he went along. The Decemberist´s legionnaire´s lament, though bouncy, was not enough to drown this out, so I had to switch my iPod to Del Tha Funkee Homosapien´s kvetch about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Eventually, I go with the jazz vocal vibe and decide to listen to a superior example: Frank Sinatra´s "Come Fly With Me." Looking at the track listing, I formulate the idea of visiting each place he sings about before I die. It shouldn´t be too hard. London, Paris, New York, Chicago: already got those covered. Isle of Capri is scheduled for next month. That leaves Hawaii, Mandalay, Brazil, Vermont and south of the border. This will probably take several trips.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Little Bit More About Art

This was going to be a response to some of the comments about my "Bilboa" post, but I started getting wordy, and figured it´d be better to make it a post on its own.

Molly -
What amazes me is how unpredictable reactions to art can be. We all experienced "appreciating" art, or expecting to like something and find that, yes, as predicted, you did like it. But I´m always interested in when something completely overwhelms you, completely overrides your intellectual faculties, and makes you feel giddy and joyous, or, depending on the work, inexplicably sad and full of sorrow.

Peter Greenaway, a filmmaker who´s work I like a great deal, once said that you don´t have emotional reactions to a painting. Well, I do. Not every painting, but there are some that move me beyond rational explanation. There´s a painting by Van Gogh in the Metropolitan that shows a small child running to greet her father, who has kneeled down with his arms outstretched, ready to swoop her up. The painting is such a primal domestic scene, charming and warm without being sentimental, that it makes me want to cry. (This reaction might also be due to the fact that I know how unhappy Van Gogh´s life was. That a man who suffered so much could create such a vision of pure, simple happiness also makes me want to cry).

That´s something else that amazes me: the realization that someone made this. Someone used their hands, and some paint, and made something where previously there was a blank canvas. That´s part of my reaction to Bosch´s work. A person made those. Granted, a visionary with a wicked sense of humor and remarkable drafting and compositional skills, but still, he was just a person. People made the pyramids too, but that was lots of people. "Temptation of St. Anthony" was made by just one guy.

I knew I would like the Bilboa museum. I had seen photos and video of the museum before. I just wasn´t ready for the, what, ravishment(?) that I felt on seeing it. I didn´t even get to go inside, Stacey and Andrea, because the museum is closed on Mondays, and that was the only day I could work it into my schedule. But I didn´t care. For the record, Jeff Koons´ giant topiary puppy is in front of the museum, almost like he´s guarding it, and Louise Bougouis spider ("Mama") is behind the museum. I had seen both before, but it was great seeing them again in this context.

Mom, we´ll see what I think of David.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Appearantly, what I needed was to get out of Madrid. As soon as I saw the lush green mountains of northern Spain through the window of the airplane, I felt much better. The mountains were so reminescent of Scotland, Ireland, or even northeastern PA, that my spirit soared as we touched down. Even searching for the bus from the airport to downtown Bilboa was a pleasure. The air smelled so fresh, so clean.

Not that being in Madrid was a problem. It just felt bad going back, to the very same hostel as a matter of fact, after having been in Portugal. Madrid had inspired in me the conviction that the Spanish are not a particularly friendly people. After having yet another rude post-menopausal gargoyle cut in front of me, this sentiment was set in stone. Of course, as soon as I think nothing else about the Spanish, I was waited on in a tapas bar by the friendliest, nicest bartender imaginable.

It appears it may just be that big city Spaniards get on my nerves. I was tired and everything was bigging me. I was in the midst of a lot of travel, spending the majority of each day in a different city. This also accounts for why I haven´t posted too much in this journal the last few days. This past week, I have been in:

Thursday - Fatima
Friday - Lisbon
Saturday - Sintra
Sunday - Toledo
Monday - Bilboa
Tuesday - Granada

I enjoyed all these cities and appreciate the chance to get to travel, but it was wearing on me. I had also picked up a little cold in Portugal, which magically changed into Montazuma´s Revenge on the overnight train from Lisbon to Madrid. So I had little patience for the general rudeness of Madrid, nice bartenders notwithstanding. I got back to the hostel after a good day in Toledo and found that I was sharing a six bed room with five girls. Sadly, this scenario did not play out the way it does in movies on Cinemax. They were five very young girls, as in college age, as in those who use the word "like" as every other word in a sentence. However, to their credit, when they got up to go to dinner at 10:00pm, they told me I was welcome to join them. I thanked them, but said I had an early flight. I´m sure the invitation was simply a courtesy, but I was still surprised and flattered. One of those unexpected moments of decency that makes you happy, like.

I had reserved a room in Bilboa online, as I have throughout this trip. There´s something too unsettling about going to a town and not knowing where you´re staying that night, although lots of backpackers (and not just young ones) do this. However, booking places based on a brief online description is just as much of a crapshoot, as I discovered. I arrived in Bilboa for the day, and went straight to the Guggenheim Museum, the reason I included the town in my itinerary. I walked around the building for over an hour, then decided I would try to find my hostel, check in, and try to catch a few hours at the beach at San Sebastian. Well, "try" is the operative word.

Warning bells began tolling for thee when I asked the girl at the tourist info office about the address. She said the street didn´t sound familiar. She got a map of Bilboa hostels and pensions, and my hostel was literally off the map. The index mentioned it, then had a little arrow pointing to some mystery area beyond the map´s borders. "Here be dragons" is what they used to write on maps. But I thought "no problem." I´ve faced, and beaten, bigger challenges before. Figuring the bus station would be an easy common landmark, I went there and called the hostel for directions.

Well, the old lady who answered the phone was very sweet, but couldn´t speak English. Between my English and rudimentary Spanish, I couldn´t make her understand I had a reservation and needed directions. She kept saying her son would call me back. I couldn´t make her understand that he couldn´t call me back, that I didn´t have a phone and was calling from a public phone. After it became evident she had hung up on me, I wondered what to do. Much as I resented taking a taxi, I approached one several cabdrivers, pointed to the address and asked how much it would cost to go there. His puzzled expression at the address told me all I needed to know. He went to confer with the other cabdrivers and to try to reach a consensus as to the street´s location. He came back, told me it would be 5 euros. I thanked him for his help, but had decided that 5 euros each way to the hostel was too much, and the mystery location was more of an adventure than I was in the mood for.

Using the map the tourist office had given me, I headed to the closest location, envisioning a day of wandering around Bilboa, begging for a place to stay and finally having to settle for a room in some superexpensive hotel. As it turned out, the first place I stopped had an available single room. It cost about 1.5x what my orginal place cost, but keep in mind this means $48 vs. $30.

I got to my room and it was like a small hotel room. I had my own bathroom! My own towel! My own tv! All for less than $50! What had I been thinking, staying in hostels and sharing rooms that don´t turn into Cinemax movies? $25 hostel beds vs. $50 hotel rooms? Damn my Scottish ancestory, with their ingrained penny-pinching ways. (My apologies to any Mulhern relatives who might be reading this from the afterlife. Sorry.)

So, was this all worth it? I came all this way to look at a building I couldn´t even go in -- the museum is closed on Mondays. Is the Guggenheim in Bilboa worth the money to fly here (although I did get a cheap ticket) and the temporary aggrevation in finding a room? Oh God, is it ever. Geek that I am, I went to look at the museum three times yesterday, just to see how it looks in different light. I don´t regret a thing. It´s not just a building, but one of the greatest sculptures I´ve seen, and on my second viewing, I was so overwhelmed I almost accosted an Asian tourist to ask him "Aren´t you happy to be alive?" This probably would have freaked him out, but I don´t care. It´s such an incredible building, I could never tire of looking at it. Each approach reveals enjoyable new views and it looks different at different times of the day. It makes the people nearby act with a joy and freedom you don´t see around other museums. I love it. God, I´m so fucking happy to be alive.

Friday, October 07, 2005

I of Fatima

That title is for all you Camper Van Beethoven fans. Which, of all the people reading this, means Lynn and myself.

"I'll be interested to hear (or read) your take on Portugal" my friend Bob wrote. "I hear mixed things."

Yeah, I can understand that. From the little I've seen of the country so far (Lisbon and Fatima), it is definitely a land of contrasts. The people are very nice, very kind. Lots of smiles, and when they correct your pronounciation of Portugese, it's in a helpful rather than frustrated manner. However, I've been cheated out of change her more than in the rest of Europe put together (and that includes living in London ten years ago). Yeah, yeah, it's my own fault for not being careful, but is the trolley driver so hard up he has to cheat people out of 30 cents, or is that his little "fuck you, tourist?"

It is a country that seems to be experiencing growing pains, pains that it sometime shares with its inhabitants. One of the poorest of all EU countries, it benefited the most by joining the European Union. It gained lots of loan money that had to be allocated by 2006. This is good, in that thereºs some needed improvements being made that will ultimately benefit a lot of people. It's frustrating in the short term, in that basic services have changed so much in the country in the short term, and its hard to keep track. An elevator downtown, designed by the same man who designed the Eiffel Tower, currently has its baroque design hidden under scaffolding while it is renovated. They still charge over 2 euros to go up the elevator for the nice view of Lisbon, however.

I spent much of yesterday morning making my pilgrimage to Fatima. Fatima, for those who don´t know, is where the Virgin Mary is said to have made several appearances in 1917 to three children. She made three predictions, all of which have come true, although my translation of the second preditiction (Russia´s conversion to communism playing a part in the second world war) is one I would argue with. WWII was caused by Germany's slide into fascism and Japan´s colonial designs, not by Russia becoming communist. Other than that, I really have no arguments with the Virgin Mary, and would hope that if ever we do meet, this topic wouldn't come up.

When I was a kid, Mr. Jack, the annoying alcoholic who lived next door to my family for most of my childhood, gave us a book of weird phenomena published by Reader's Digest. (Mom - do you know the book I mean? Do we still have it?) The book covered the usual strange phenomena: Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, Aztec calendars...and the story of Fatima. Since then, it's been at the back of my mind to come here. I didn't envision that it would be such an ordeal. The bus station listed in my travel guide has since closed. No sign, no explanation. It's just gone. After searching for a tourist info kiosk, several of which that are listed on my Lisbon map (which I got from a tourist office in Lisbon, by the way) seem to have disappeared, I finally found one and got directions to the new bus and train station. I found the train station without trouble. The bus station, however, was half a block away and a little more difficult. Do you see what I mean about Portugal suffering from growing pains? Considering that some pilgrims have made the trek to Fatima on their knees, I know I shouldn't complain.

What is Fatima in 2005 like? Well, imagine several large parking lots that lead to a blinding white basilica. When the sun is out in Portugal, it is hot and can be blinding. The reflection off all the beautiful marble can make your head swim. The "several large parking lots" are there to hold the faithful, which can number in the tens of thousands at a time. Inside, the basilica is beautiful, white, clean, and despite its size, humble in scope. For something swarming with that many tourists and takes up that much space, it is a surprisingly peaceful spot.

Surrounding the basilica area, about a block away, the town of Fatima is undergoing a development phase not unlike Lisbon's. Think Sacred Suburban Sprawl, and you get the idea. There are shops and shopping malls, and lots of construction going on, mainly to build hotels to hold the faithful. It's tacky in the way that all suburban sprawl is tacky, yet not as vulgar as you might think.

Before going to the site, I stopped and had lunch in the Fatima shopping mall, which contains stores that sell religious things (no surprise) as well as stores that sell secular items (an underwear store, for example). The Fatima shopping mall has a movie theater. What sort of movies would be showing so close to where the Virgin Mary appeared, less than 100 years ago? "The Wedding Crashers" and "Bewitched," as it turns out.

Anyway, I stopped and had a salad and a small pizza. While I was eating, a group of 12 kids, all boys, obviously on a class trip, came in and took over the restaurant. They were your typical early-teen boys: loud and energetic, a little spastic and desperate to see how much pizza they could get for how little money. I have to say, however, they were better behaved than their American counterparts. After playing havoc with the waitress' attempts to install order, take orders, and deliver food, the boys broke out into spontaneous and genuine round of applause as thanks for the waitress' hard work when she handed over the last pizza slice. The waitress beamed.

I did see several people making their way to the basilica on their knees. A new structure is being built to accomodate the faithful. If the concrete base I saw is any indication, this building may rival the pyramids when it is finished. There´s a large area, think open barbeque pit, where you can place prayer candles. I bought a candle, lit it, placed it in the pit, got it out when the flame blew out, burned my arm just a little, lit the flame again, placed it back in the pit away from the wind.

The candle was in honor of my family and friends, so you're all covered.