Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Thanks, old hippie lady (seriously)

Friday, September 21st, 2007

The other day, I was driving around and I saw a long-white-haired old woman carrying a hub cap and what looked like several small bags of garbage. Around here, this is usually an indication of some kind of pathology, and is accompanied by a shopping cart, inappropriate stocking-cap hat in the middle of summer, a horrendous smell, or all of the above.

Such was not the case this time.

This woman appeared to have been picking up trash on the side of the road for the purposes of actually disposing of it, rather than using it to pad her nest.

She had the very confident air of a woman who burned her bra in the 60s and who has been wearing hemp clothing and eating granola and hydroponic vegetables ever since.

That description is not intended to be disparaging. On the contrary, I wanted to roll down my window and call out to her “you go girl” and thank her for making my community more beautiful by removing some of the unsightly and unsanitary garbage that literally litters the streets around here. Since I was not only moving but actually driving, I wouldn’t have had enough time to actually say all that, and I would have come across like a dick (“thanks a lot“) or like a maniac (“thankyouforpickingupallthattrashtheroadlooksmuchbetterduetoyourefforts”). So, I chose to be silent, and I have to say, I feel bad. I should have said something.

Hopefully, this woman will one day search for “hippie lady” in an effort to locate interesting stories about her online and will come across this post, and she’ll see that at least one person noticed her efforts, and appreciated them.

Thanks, old hippie lady. Seriously.

Finding a decent laptop

Friday, September 21st, 2007

I’m tech geek, but I’m a cheap one. I’m willing to pay or quality, but I also am not one of those people who waits overnight in front of stores to get the latest Shiny Thingâ„¢ so I can show all my friends how cool I am. I casually look for things all the time, and get excited by them, but I rarely
actually buy.

Witness the (somewhat) recent release of the Apple iPhone, over which I have lusted since I first read reliable descriptions back in January. As the release date got closer and closer, the inadequacies of the platform became more and more pronounced (crappy EDGE network, only AT&T plans, can’t use your own SIM card, can’t install your own software, phone costs $600, etc.) and Apple failed to get me as a customer. Fortunately for me, I didn’t pay the $200 “aren’t I cool?” tax like a lot of folks did. Oh, well. At least those folks helped Apple beta-test their platform.

Recently, it’s become more and more clear that I need a replacement for my computer(s). My recent canine acquisition has effectively moved my home office from our actual office to my couch, since it offers superior surveillance capabilities. I had always worked nearly exclusively on my desktop computer, a great AMD Athlon XP workhorse that has been reliable and stood by me lo these many years since I bought it for my wife so she could play Diablo II with my brother-in-law and me (at which point I decided to take the new computer for myself because hey, what does my wife need with all that processing power?). When I was out and about, I used my somewhat less-trusty 17-inch HP electric blanket notebook, but it never really felt right, since I’ve always been a desktop kinda guy. Using the laptop more and more (on the couch) has made it clear that both computers need to go: I need a laptop, and this one is falling apart; if I need a laptop, why do I need a desktop at all — as long as I can have a nice, big screen to plug into when I’m actually at my desk.

Thus begins my quest to find a suitable laptop to take over all my computing needs.

Don’t forget: I said I was willing to pay for quality, but I also said I was cheap. I also didn’t say it, but I’m not going to lug around 10 pounds of laptop anymore. No, sir.

My actual needs are few: anything that can outperform my existing 3 GHz hyper-threaded processor without setting my legs on fire is adequate. I also need lots of RAM since I like to run a thousand things at once. The games that I do actually play are old in terms of graphics requirements, so I don’t exactly need a top-of-the-line gaming platform.

Given my requirements, why is it so hard to find a decent laptop these days? Apparently, my requirements are more strict than I had first let on. What I really want is:

  • 800-MHz FSB with matching-speed memory
  • A high-resolution screen (WSXGA+ would be preferred)
  • Discrete graphics memory on a good mobile graphics board
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Digital video output
  • Low weight
  • Reasonable price (less than $1500 including 1-yr warranty)

Actually, I’m willing to sacrifice a little weight to meet the other criteria. Ideally, I’d like to make it under 7 pounds including the power brick, but that appears to be difficult to accomplish in the 15-inch screen size.

So, what are the problems?

  • Many companies will allow you to select the new 800MHz FSB processors, but they won’t give you matching-speed memory. So much for a faster FSB.
  • I have been able to find WSXGA+ on only a few laptops. I realize this is pretty expensive, so most vendors don’t even give you the option. I can give this up if necessary, especially since I’ll mostly be using higher-resolutions on my external monitor, anyway.
  • Mobile graphics cards just suck in comparison to their desktop-based brethren: it’s a fact. It still shouldn’t stop me from getting something nice in the graphics department. Every single laptop in these price ranges should have the option of discrete graphics memory (with reasonable on-board memory sizes: 128MB is not enough these days, guys!).
  • Virtually nobody has gigabit Ethernet. Why? I can’t even imagine. You can get a desktop gigabit card for five bucks. I should be able to get a mobile one for fifty. It’s sad that the wired options for laptops are faster than the wired ones these days.
  • Many companies (Dell, I’m looking at you) don’t support HDMI or even DVI video output yet. Why? Especially Dell: they sell these big, fat displays that all have DVI and HDMI inputs on them, and their laptops need special adapters to utilize the superior-quality digital signals.
  • Weight is always a problem: sturdy construction plus lots of components equals many pounds. I get it. Why can I get the same components in 3 different systems and have the weights all be wildly different? Sigh.

I can get various combinations of the above on different units from different manufacturers (except gigabit Ethernet), but I can’t find the one unit that has all of them. It’s always a trade-off: do I want proper speed-matched memory and CPU or do I want a decent graphics card? Do I want a slick hi-def screen or do I want HDMI output? It’s maddening.

I have given up the laptop search for this month. Maybe around Thanksgiving, when hardware manufacturers completely lose their minds just so they can move inventory regardless of the cost, I’ll be able to get something whose flaws I don’t mind accepting because I’m getting such an insane deal on the price.

I Got a Dog, B

Friday, July 13th, 2007

Paddy

This week, Katie and I got a new dog. He and his littermates (8 brothers!) were born on Saint Patrick’s day, so we decided to give him an Irish namd: Paddy. His mother was a rather large Puggle, which is a mix of a Pug and a Beagle, and his father’s breed is unknown. He looks much more like a Beagle than a Pug, but he’s got a slightly smaller muzzle than a regular Beagle would normally have.

We got Paddy from Homeward Trails Animal Rescue, which is a small-animal rescue organization which gets many of its dogs and cats from other rescue organizations in areas which are more rural and maybe don’t have as many potential adopters around. If Paddy looks cute to you, maybe you want to adopt one of his brothers (this link may no work after a while).

Paddy Loving

We’re expecting him to grow maybe 10 lbs heavier (he’s about 20 lbs right now), so he’s the perfect size for our apartment and lifestyle: not so small he’s a fashion accessory, and not so large that he needs a lot of space.

He is very friendly, and has a long tongue that will find your neck and face quicker than you can say “good boy!” He’s kind of a scardy-cat right now; we’ve had him for fewer than 72 hours, so he’s still getting used to his new surroundings, the new schedule, etc. I’m hoping that he’ll become more outgoing as time goes on, but right right now he’s a complete angel.

My Wife and I Went to Portland and All I Got Was This Poison Ivy

Sunday, May 28th, 2006

My sister-in-law had a conference to attend in Portland, Oregon, and she happened to have two companion fare-rate tickets available. What the heck, we said. We’ve never been to Oregon, before.

First of all, let me say that the travel gods were smiling on us for this trip. Not a drop of rain fell the entire time, and the tmperature was in the high 70s and low 80s the entire time. We were definitely spoiled. Portland is an interesting town. Yes, town. Portland is, by the numbers, about the same as Washington, DC: they are within a few percent of each other in terms of population and land area. However, the city seemed small — that is, easy to explore on foot — and empty. We spent two days inside the city, including most of the area covered by the MAX – Portland’s mass transit system, and hardly met any people. I kept waiting for businesses to close and people to come streaming into the streets during lunch, or even at the end of the business day. Such events never came.

Walking around in downtown DC, the sidewalks are teeming with people. Sure, everyone is on a cell phone talking way louder than absolutely necessary, but they are there nonetheless. Being in Portland felt like being in a city that had been partly evacuated.

I mentioned to someone on the MAX that there were plenty of seats in the middle of the day, and that it was nice. She glanced around the train car and said, “well, around five o’clock, it’ll be pretty full”. We were on the train again around that time, and this time I had to stand, along with a reasonable number of people (I’m used to the Orange Line, which is pretty full most of the time, and totally crazy during rush hour). Another train came while we were still standing near the station, and it was practically empty. Very odd. Maybe we were there on some kind of city-wide vacation week.

Many stores didn’t seem to be open no matter when we went by. We wandered around most of the time we were in the city — no specific destinations or schedules. One evening, we were suprised to see that a gelato shop (mmm… gelato) was closed at maybe eight in the evening. The next day, we came by the same block at nine in the morning and it was also closed. Maybe they were only open for the lunch rush.

Maybe not. That same day, we went to the northwest corner of the city for two things: lunch and liquor. We stepped into one of the McMenamins pubs (one of the most prolific pub owners in the city) to get a pint and a sandwhich, and experienced a continuation of our Twilight Zonesque trip in this cavernous pub: there was one guy at a billiard table, one guy at the bar, and a group of 4 people in a booth. Those guys in the booth looked familiar: they were the kind of business-type folks that I’m used to seeing packed heel-to-toe in joints like this in DC.

The place was large enough to seat maybe 100 people, and it looked like there were more rooms if you kept walking into the establishment. We sat next to the foursome at a booth, next to the windows in the front — prime real estate for lunch as far as I was concerned. Where were these people? I think maybe Portland was experiencing a rash of body-snatchings or something.

Okay, enough about the emptiness of portland. There were lots of interesting things to be found in Portland, including an electric car charging station and a distillery. I had never been to a distillery, and since we could take the train to one, we did. We went to the Clear Creek Distillery, who distills their own spirits right in the place we visited (meaning that we didn’t just go to a storefront or anything… we were in the place where they do everything).

Unbelievably, we found a whiskey that ought to be a whisky. A Scotch Whisky, that is. McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt is a 3-year-old whiskey that is so smooth and peaty, I find it superior to many single-malt Scotches that I’ve had. Amazing.

Also amazing were the waterfalls — as well as the canyon walls producing them — along the Columbia River Gorge. We took many pictures while we were there, including some nice ones of the falls and some videos (like this one). I have yet to assemble some of the panoramic sets that I took, which I just remembered that I have to do. We toured the Bonneville Lock and Dam, which includes a fish ladder to allow fish to swim upstream, around the dam. The fish ladder features a narrow route where fish are counted by folks who live to count fish. Our visit occurred on a slow day (otherwise known as “not September”) and so she told us all about identifying and counting fish. We even saw a couple of Chinook Salmon going by the window (pic and video). Mmmm… salmon. We ended up at a restaurant half way up mount hood, where there was still snow on the ground. So much for 85-degree weather in Portland.

The Pacific Coast is also gorgeous (no pun intended). Again, we have some pictures of that outing as well. Unfortunately, I hadn’t charged my camera battery before we left so it crapped-out around four o’clock in the afternoon. We switched to my sister-in-law’s camera, but we had left it in the car since I had mine, so we didn’t get some really nice pictures that I would like to have gotten. Oh, well. At least I got this one of a tree eating me. At some point during these two hiking trips, I got poison ivy.

When I was a kid, I got poison ivy all the time. I was starting to become convinced that doctors just didn’t understand how poison ivy worked, and that I had actually been permemently infected with it, and that heat simply triggered it in my body. It didn’t help that I had no idea what it looked like. Despite my father’s repeated descriptions and demonstrations (with me at a distance, naturally), I simply couldn’t identify the plant. Even as recently as last summer, I went to the edge of a forested plot of land near my parents’ home and said “hey, that’s poison ivy, right? I’ll take care to avoid that.” He pointed out that what I had identified as poison ivy was actually just a harmless fern or whatever, but that several feet away lie the beast. For whatever reason, I simply cannot identify it properly. I can identify things that look like poison ivy, but I don’t think I have a single successful identification under my belt. What I do have under my belt is an itchy rash. Wow, does that sound bad: t’s on my hip, okay!?

On our last day there, Katie and I walked to the Portland Rose Garden, but due to severe scale management issues on the tourist’s map we were carrying, we thought it really sucked. We finally found it, but sadly May isn’t a good time for roses. So, we toured the Portland Rose Bush Garden, sans most of the flowers. After that, Katie used her superior orienteering skills to get us lost in Forest Park. Fortunately, the park is bounded on all sides by roads, so eventually we would have been rescued. When we stumbled across the Visitors’ Center (closed, of course), we were happy to find that trail maps were provided on the outside of the building, meaning we could take one and find our way back to the train.

Finally, we got down to business and started visiting wineries. Unless you’re there, stories about them are dreadfully boring, so I’ll spare the details. Suffice it to say that we toured several wineries, tasted lots of wine, got industry discounts on everything (thanks to Katie’s job at Lost Creek Winery here in Virginia), came home with nearly 40 bottles of wine, and ate lunch at a joint called Nacho Mama’s. Fortunately, we opted to ship 2 cases, so we lugged fewer than half of those home with us on the plane.

So, I’m going to go assemble those panoramas. I have only one decision to make: shall I have wine, or scotch?

Update: 2006-05-28 17:03 – Panoramas are available for the Columbia River Gorge, some random mountain, and Mt. Hood. I had scotch.

Something’s been bugging me…

Friday, March 10th, 2006

For a few months, now, Katie and I have been repeatedly finding a certain bug in our house. Our building has a history of cockroach
infestation, but we hardly get them way up on the 8th (top) floor
of our building.

The Western Conifer Seed Bug

These are not cockroaches, at least I was pretty sure they weren’t. I don’t know alot about bugs, so I wasn’t sure if these things were momma cockroaches or something else entirely.

Katie emits a blood curdling scream whenever she sees a bug (like this house centipede that we found in our bathtub one day. Totally creepy, this thing has a 3 inch body (~7cm) and legs everywhere, which made it seem much bigger. Fortunately for us, the tub was too slick for it to escape and feed on our succulent brains.

Anyhow, we found one of our new friends, dead, on the floor, today. Usually, I end up killing these guys with plenty of paper towels so I don’t get icky bug juice on me. Besides, I’m no outdoorsman. Since we had a dead specimen that hadn’t been turned into a streaky mess in a paper towel, I decided to investigate him. I’m generally too creeped-out to take a look at a live one, especially when I don’t know what the hell it is. It might be a Peruvian Eye-Gasher for all I know.

I decided that I had to find out what these things were, because they were appearing every couple of days. If they were roaches, I was going to deploy bait traps every 18 inches until they stopped showing up.

I searched around teh intarweb for a while, and found a great site: whatsthatbug.com. This site is all about identifying creepy things that one finds in and around one’s house. It takes the form of submissions of the type “I photographed this thing on my wall/floor/cabinet/dog/toilet, and I want to know what it is”. They archive what looks like to be every submission they’ve ever gotton, along with an explanation of what the thing is. You can search and/or browse, so I did a little of both.

Meanwhile, Katie was trying other sources of information — they appeared to be more academic in nature — with not too much luck. She found a few things that might have been related, but I wasn’t confinved. They looked too dissimilar to the corpse before me on my desk.

It didn’t take me long to find an entry about the Western Conifer Seed Bug, which is our bug. Some of the pictures of the WCSB on What’s That Bug‘s True Bugs page are not very good (except the one that was taken from below, where it looks like the bug is either on a window or is skydiving at the photographer). So, I decided to take my own (see above).

For some reason, my camera wouldn’t focus properly on the bug when at close range, or even far range with a high zoom. I simply couldn’t get the camera to focus properly. So, I used my extensive knowledge of optics to engineer a solution: I put a large magnifying glass between the camera and the bug, and the results were very good.

So, the Western Conifer Seed Bug is nothing to fear, apparently. They’re still creepy, and I’m likely to kill those found in my home, especially if I find my wife standing on a chair screaming.

Ridin’ Along in my Automobile

Wednesday, September 21st, 2005

Over the Labor Day weekend, a few friends and I rented a cabin on the Shenandoah riverfront and whiled away the weekend grilling, playing cards, and laughing at Bill whistling on all-fours, and Kasey smaaashing bugs.

Fortunately for Bill and Kasey, there was something even funnier, and more unbelievable that we witnessed that weekend. That thing was this dude driving his pickup down the middle of the Shenandoah river.

Image of some dude driving his truck down a river.
No particular place to go

There’s a video that I got during the whole thing, but I still have to get it from the camera’s owner (only got the pictures so far). Follow the picture-link to see more pictures.

And yes, he was just driving down the river… as if it were a regular road, albeit with continuous speed bumps.

Update: Here’s a google maps link to the place where we were staying: Cabin Map. If you zoom out one level and choose the map/satellite hybrid, you can see the area of the river where this dude was. We were on the southwest side of the river, and the island in the map was directly across the river from us.

A repeated adventure, with a twist

Wednesday, April 13th, 2005

When Katie and I honeymooned in Italy, we took a tip from a good friend, Aaron Tristler, about heading to an area along the Mediterranean coast in Liguria called Cinque Terre, or Five Lands. If you’ve ever seen pictures or video of Italy’s coast where there’s a rough, rocky coastline with houses clinging to their sides (such as are featured in Under the Tuscan Sun, for example), just asking to fall into the ocean, then you’ve probably seen Positano, which is on the Amalfi Coast, just south of Pompeii. Cinque Terre is has very much the same look about it, but it turns out to be not one, but five distinct little hill-towns connected by hiking trails and rail lines.

Nearly two years ago, we boarded a train from Florence and went to Pisa, our first stop on our journey. We had heard that there was nothing to see in Pisa except for The Tower (this fact was confirmed by a rental car agent just the other day when a pair of English-speaking tourists were renting a car to go to Pisa and other places; I was more curious why they would rent a car to go to Pisa in the first place: it’s just 1 hour away by train!), so we decided to “do” Pisa on the way to Cinque Terre, since we had to change trains there, anyway.

Cinque Terre was amazing, and we vowed to return to the picturesque little communities when, not if, we came back to Italy. We came back to Italy, and so we had to return to Cinque Terre.

My sister (Jessica), brother-in-law (Wayne), and my 10-month-old nephew (Joshua) were visiting for the week, and we decided to repeat our initial excursion from Florence. “You can’t go to Italy without seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa”, so we decided to do that, again, too. Just a quick day-trip. Easy out, easy in. Take the train the whole way… it couldn’t be easier.

Pisa

Joshua yearns for Tuscan grassland

With Joshua in-tow, we borded the train to Pisa and had a nice ride playing with him, talking, and watching the Tuscan countryside rush past. We had all sorts of romantic visions of what each building might be, and then joked about how a small town-looking area with city walls might actually be a penitentiary.

Pisa is largely an uninteresting town for tourists. There’s only one spot where anyone wants to be, and that’s the Campo dei Miracoli, or Field of Miracles, which contains Pisa’a immense Baptistry, Duomo, and, of course, The Tower. The tower really is leaning quite a bit. Apparently, it was an engineering cock-up from the very beginning. I’m a Software Engineer, and even I know that building a 60m tower, you can’t hold it up with a 3m foundation floating in sand. Apparently, in 1173, this was not considered common knowledge.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

On neither visit have I elected to climb the tower. One guide says that it’s €15 per person, but I haven’t even looked. I perfer to be dwarfed by the tower and surrounding buildings. The field itself is very beautiful: something that I miss about Florence is greenery. There is virtually no grass and no trees in the city. Sure, you can go out to the Piazzala Michaelangelo (which has quite a view of the city) and see trees, but it’s hard to find a tree that you can sit under and feel the grass between your fingers. The lawn in the Campo dei Miracoli, on the other hand, is kept as well as a golf-course, and has a strict “keep of the grass” directive, which many tourists ignore and walk across the field, anyway.

Unfortunately, it takes about 20 minutes to walk from the train station to the Camop dei Miracoli, and there’s about 20 minutes of excitement there (gotta get a picture of you holding up the tower, for instance), so it’s a one-hour trip for a few photo-ops. Walking through the streets of Pisa, which are filled mostly with tourists walking from the station to The Tower, I noticed a few people who were most likely local Pisa residents. They seemed to be completely ignoring the presence of the masses of people wandering through their streets. I wonder if they dislike all those people doing nothing but walking from the train station to the Campo and back again. I suppose if they don’t own a consession stand or souvenir store, then you have no reason to enjoy the constant stream of foreigners stumbling through your streets.

Cinque Terre

After another train change in La Spezia, we were on the last 10-minute leg of our journey to Cinque Terre. Shortly after leaving La Spezia, the train ducks into a tunnel that ploughs directly through the mountains on the coast. Occationally, the rails pass very close to the surface of the mountains, and the track peeks out and gives passengers a great view of the sea. Unfortunately, I was only quick enough to snap a picture of the tunnel wall with a bit of water on the left as we re-entered the dark tunnel.

The first town on an east-to-west traversal of the Cinque Terre is Riomaggiore. Even the view of the sea from the train platform is gorgeous. Both this trip and that of two-years-past included very little of Riomaggiore, which is too bad. I’ll have to go back, because there is much more to see than the area around the train station and the beginning of the inter-town hiking trail. I suppose a day in each town would be a nice way to spend a vacation, but we didn’t have the time. Instead, we sat down at a restaurant overlooking the sea and relaxed for a bit.

Every meal should be in a place like this

We started looking at the menu when my phone rang. I had to attend a conference call for work, so I sat on this fantastically beautiful terrace on the phone. The group ordered, among other things, octopus carpaccio, which I was forced to finish when nobody else wanted to eat more than a single piece. It was at this point that I started getting sick. I could feel that morning… the slightly stiff and sore neck; the tickle in the back of your throat; the occational sneeze. I was hoping that it would get better, but my sickness turned out to be the backdrop upon which the rest of the day’s events would unfold.

We elected to walk from Riomaggiore to Manarola because Katie and I knew that the walk was beautiful, short, and easy to navigate in spite of Joshua’s presence. In fact, we had Joshua in a relatively easy-to-carry backback, so the hiking would only have been limited by our ability to navigate the trails with an extra 50 pounds of equipment and baby on our backs. This trail, however, had a boardwalk and everything: you can take a stroller along this trail without a problem.

This is the last good picture that my camera took. Take a good look, because it might be the last useful thing that it ever did.
Just after this picture, I asked a gentleman on the boardwalk to take our picture. I handed the camera to him and said “just press” and indicated the button on the camera that you press to take a picture. No sooner than he lifted the camera up to his face to look at the LCD display did he drop it. From about mouth-level. I watched in horror as the camera bounced off of the ground, regurgitating the battery it had swallowed before we left the house, spliting open along the factory-sealed seam, and careening toward the edge of the boardwalk, where I was sure that it would fall into the ocean that had, moments prior to its demise, been the focus of it’s attention.

I grabbed the camera before it could go any further and surveyed the damage. The attempted murderer was apologizing profusely for the assault on the camera even before it hit the ground. I was too polite in saying that it was okay, and, after snapping the case back together and feeding the battery back into the camera, I was able to turn it off and back on again; the lens moved in and out and the LCD worked, so I was pretty happy. He took camera back, took the picture of us, and we verified that it had been taken. The camera looked like it was okay, despite having been broken nearly in half. It turns out that the camera has lost its ability to focus properly at all zoom levels except when zoomed all the way out. Therefore, the remainder of the pictures from this trip, as well as others with my sister and brother-in-law, are coming from their camera. I appreciate the fact that they were willing to let me go through the trouble of copying every single one of their digital images from their camera to my computer before they put them on theirs.

Make-out point

Broken camera in hand, we resumed our stroll from Riomaggiore to Manarola, which includes a trip through the Via dell’Amore. Although I think it’s a pretty area, there’s not a bit of amorous graffitti in the tunnel. I actually find that the little garden distracts from the dramatic beauty of the cliffs themselves. Then again, I suppose the Via dell’Amore is not the place to have images of tossing one’s amore over the railing.

As we rounded a corner where a conveniently-placed Bar sits along the boardwalk, Manarola comes quickly into view, looking a lot like one of our sand castles that has been half-consumed by the waves. The houses of the town peek out from behind the rocks as if they are hiding from something. We didn’t stop in Manarola, because the trail had been closed between it and Corniglia due to rock slides — yikes!. In fact, we decided to skip Corniglia altogether and visit the next town west – Vernazza. Katie and I had never been there, and we had read and seen pictures of a castle defiantly standing on a promontory at the head of the town harbor. The train stops at each town, and you arrive at the train station for Manarola before the actual town when hiking in the direction we were. We hopped the train and were off to Vernazza.

Houses in Manarola along the high cliffs

Vernazza is, in a word, verra-nice’uh. As we emerged into the town square, I motioned to the area in general and asked my sister, “couldn’t you just spend the rest of your life on these eight blocks?”, to which she replied, “I think it would get a little boring.” Stupid Americans. What do they know?

Vernazza offers, to me, what each and every town in the Cinque Terre offers: a small town where it’s possible to know and be friends with everybody, a very slow pace of life where you can enjoy each and every day in relaxed contentment, and, of course, spectacular views of the hills, cliffs, and sea. The Cinque Terre are a scant two hour train ride from several major cities (Florence, for one) and, from my cursory study of a map on the train, maybe 3 or 4 hours from Monaco. I have a small fetish for tiny countries. I’ve already been to one of the two countries wholly contained by Italy, and I hope I have time before I leave Italy this time to visit San Marino.

What more could you want?

We whiled away the afternoon playing with Joshua around the castle and taking in the beauty that surrounds and permeates the whole area. When we arrived in La Spezia that morninig, we had consulted the train schedule and decided that an 18:46 train would be an ideal departure time. I’m not sure what time it was at this point — I turned off my phone at the end of the conference call and I had no other timepieces — but we were content to spend as much time as we wanted in this paradise on the cliffs.

As the sun went down, we returned to the train and took it to our last stop in the Cinque TerreMonterosso. One the five towns, I think this one has the longest stretch of beach-front property, which is all completely open. There’s a “new town” near the train station and an “old town” which is maybe 1km way to the east. We headed for the old town to see some sights and eat dinner. Food shortly trumped sightseeing so we sat down at a restaurant just behind the beach for what turned out to be a marathon meal. The food was excellent in spite of my being so sick that I was almost ready to lie down on the beach and die.

Our waitress picked up Joshua and played with him for a while, and then ran off with him to show the rest of the staff. When she didn’t come back for a few minutes, we figured that, between Joshua and the meal, we could just stand up and call it even. Fortunately, she returned with Joshua, who seemed oblivious to the entire episode.

We returned to the train station well after dark and began out next adventure: trying to get home. Apparently, the 18:46 train would have been a brilliant idea had we followed through. Unfortunately, we didn’t, and so, at around 22:25, we found ourselves on the platform at Monterosso, trying to figure everything out. This included buying a ticket, as the biglietteria was closed for the evening. There appeared to be a machine opposite the closed ticket office that dispensed tickets if you knew enough about the process to get one. In spite of my lack of Italian language prowess, I do know a lot about computers and this one, though primitive with only a double-line LCD display, had definately crashed.

Train Tunnel at Vernazza

Katie suggested that we simply get on the train and figure it out later. I, having been brainwashed by my mother about how I’ll be sent to a gulag if I ever hop a train with no ticket, decided to check out the area around the station to see if anyone had any information about how to get tickets when the office was closed and the macine biglietti was hosed. My search yielded niente, as everything was closed this time of night. There was a woman on the platform, waiting for a train to Genoa, who I asked for help. She sheparded me to the machine inside, and then frowned. I guess she also understood that the machine was muerte.

So, we hopped the train.

For maybe my second time ever on an Italian train — particularly a regional (i.e. local) train like the one we were on, a ticket-taker walked through the door at the back of the car. He asked us for our tickets, and, while Katie was contemplating giving him her Cinque Terre-only ticket (which she had apparently never validated), I told him that the ticket machine at Monterosso was not working. He frowned and said, “no ticket?”. “Si, no ticket” :( He asked where were going, and we indicated that we were going to Pisa, via La Spezia, and on to Florence. He shrugged and continued walking through the car.

I thought we were home free. I figured he was thinking “they’re just stupid tourists, and it’s really not worth my time to go through the process of selling them a ticket. It’s only five more minutes on the train, anyway.” I was wrong. He returned with a ticket book, and started flipping through it, apparently looking for the instructions, since he looked like he had no idea what he was doing. He sold us tickets all the way to Pisa, which was nice, because we were likely to have the same problem in La Spezia. He asked again where we were going. “A Firenze”. He wrinkled his brow and grimaced. Then, he checked his watch and frowned. “I dunno,” he said, which wasn’t encouraging. Just then, his buddy walked through the door, wearing the same conductor’s outfit and one quickly informed the other of our situation. The newcomer glanced at his watch and also frowned. With the double-frown, I was starting to get worried.

Joshua in Vernazza from Above

Joshua in Vernazza from Below

It became evident that it was going to be a close-call at Pisa. It would be a stretch to catch the last train of the night. At La Spezia, we waited anxiously for our connecting train, and then relaxed once aboard. It takes about an hour to get from La Spezia to Pisa, and it appears that about fifteen minutes of that time is spent pulling around a curve that is within spitting distance of the train station in Pisa. The entire car stood up and piled into the space between the compartments, waiting for the doors to open. And waiting. And waiting. We must have waited for a good ten minutes just standing there.

When we got off the train, I assumed that our chances of catching the last train to Florence for the evening would be nil. So, I asked the two nice looking old ladies in front of me as we disembarked where the bus station was. They considered the question for a moment, and then decided that they should simply show me. I started off after them when Katie shrieked at the top of her lungs to come back. I bid grazie and arrivederci to the ladies and went back up the stairs to the platform. Katie was hunched over the schedule with Wayne and Jessica huddled around her. “We’ve got a train, and we don’t even have to switch platforms! It should be here right now!” In the world of trains, if it’s not here right now, it’s already gone. The clocks on the walls were two minutes faster than my cell phone’s clock, but I think Trenitalia runs by their own clocks instead of my cell phone.

I trotted down the platform and asked someone who was wandering around on the tracks wearing a highly reflective service uniform if he knew where the train for binario tre was. He muttered something in Italian that I didn’t understand, and came over to us to look at the schedule. “Aah… solo festa,” he said, and I nearly fell over: Sundays only. Well, I suppose it’s technically “festival days and Sundays”, but trust me, today was no festival day. If we made it home that night, I would have promised to hold the biggest festa Florence had ever seen.

All of us in Monterosso, con sunset

We were stranded in Pisa.

We decided to ask the taxis how much it would cost to take a cab to Florence. It sounds completely foolish, but we figured that, if a double room costs €60 and the train costs €15 for all four of us, that our breaking point would be around €135. Each cab said the same thing (which was, in itself, encouraging) that the ride would be somewhere in the €140 range, but that they wouldn’t do a flat rate — only metered. We figured that they were probably underbidding the price a little, so we abandoned the idea of taking a cab. A women in line for taxis was adament about us going to the hostel where she and her two travel mates were headed. She even wrote down the name and telephone number for us, in case we wanted to try. Honestly, we were more interested in a place to stay as close to the train station as possible.

After some debate, we decided that the best thing for il bambino was to get a room in Pisa and just call it a night. Katie and I were determined to get back to Florence, especially when we found out that there was only one room at the pensione we found near the train station that had availability (we had called from the train and they had two rooms available). After taking care of Wayne and Jessica, we proceeded to determine the location of the bus station. Guidebook maps seem to indicate that the bus station is, in fact, directly in front of the train station. When we looked at the signs on our way out, it looked like all the busses were local busses — those that did short, intracity routes and returned to the same spot.

Since we were there, we asked the guy at the desk in the pensione. He seemed to know less about the bus situation than we did, and directed us around the corner, which was away from the train station. I was skeptical, but I knew from the (in service!) ticket machine at Pisa that there was a bus to Florence leaving at 00:46… we just needed to find out where to wait.

As we came within a block of the place indicated by the hotel attendant, I heard the unmistakable sound of bus brakes and a large diesel engine. I jogged up ahead and around two corners to find the source of the noise. Sure enough, right where he had indicated, there was a Lazzi bus parked on the side of the road. I was elated! It was even there about 25 minutes early, which would be nice, ’cause we could get onto the bus and just relax… no sitting on a concrete bench in the middle of the night waiting for the damned bus!

Unfortunately, this was not the bus to Florence. So, I asked the driver “dové la autobus a Firenze?” He waved his arms and said a lot, and the only work I understood from all of that was stazione: the train station. I told him that I was confused, and he simplified it for me: “bus at train station” (in English), and then motioned towards the station. I replied that I knew where the station was, but I didn’t know where to catch the bus to Florence. He motioned for me to get on his bus. Katie appeared out of nowhere, as if the potential for success was so great that it had whisked her off her feet and deposited her next to me as a witness to my triumph: this bus driver was going to take me either to the place where I will catch the bus to Florence, or he will be so enraged by my stupidity that he will actually drive me all the way to Florence just to make me shut up.

He drove the three blocks to the train station and opened the door where we had started: right next to a sign that said “Linea Verde”, the green line through Pisa. I rolled my eyes and got off the bus. I turned to the driver and said, “Qui?”, and indicated the place on the cement where I was standing. “Qui!”, said the driver. Just to make absolutely sure that we were seeing eye-to-eye, I asked, “La bus a Firenze — qui?”. He replied a conclusive, “Si”. Contented, we decided to find a place to sit. We still had twenty minutes or so left until the bus came, so we had to amuse ourselves in that time. I decided to re-read all the signs that we had looked at before, just in case I was missing something glaringly obvious like “Intercity Bus Stop” somewhere.

Just then, a well-dressed man approached Katie and asked her if she needed to get to Florence. She replied that she did, and he offered her a ride in his car. I overheard some of this, and came back to where the two of them were talking. He said that he would take us for €50, which actually sounded like a pretty good deal. I let Katie make the call. “We don’t have that much money,” she said. I had almost double that amount in my pocket, so she must have decided against hitching a ride at some point. He looked at the two of us, and quickly became very apologetic, half bowing as he backed away, saying “I’m sorry, no problem, si? I’m sorry.”.

I turned to Katie and said “were you just propositioned?”. “I think so,”, she laughed incredulously.

Since I was sick, I had been drinking a lot and needed to locate some facilities, pronto. A lengthy survey of the train station yielded neither restrooms nor an alley dark enough for a substitute. We returned to the alleged bus stop, and noticed that there was a pizzaria that was apparently open. And it was hopping! I guess when you’re the only place in town that’s open past midnight, everybody drops by.

We bought a bottle of water, mostly to be polite, and took care of business. I asked one of the cooks if he spoke English. I was determined to get to the bottom of this whole bus situation, and at this point, I was settling for nothing other than an English conversation that I could actually understand. He frowned and shook his head. I pointed to another cook and asked “Lui parla inglese?”: does he speak English? He shook his head and I proceeded to point to another person behind the bar and ask again. He called to his co-worker to come over and talk to me. He spoke a little English, but it was good enough for me. I said very simply that I was going to Florence, there was a 00:46 bus and I wanted to be on it. I only needed to know where it stopped. Fortunately, he completely understood (or feigned complete comprehension) and said that the bus comes “just outside”, indicating the area directly outside the pizzaria.

Once again contented with an explanation, we went outside to take a look. Standing in the middle of the street, with one bus parked away in a corner of the circle (don’t ask me how that works, I just know this this bus was definately parked in a corner of the circle) where the busses stop, and a nearly empty piazza all around us, we decided to stand in the middle of the circle along the grass — ready for action. My cell phone said it was 00:43, so Trenitalia must think it’s about time to be leaving for Florence by now.

Just then, a bus came flying through the streets of Pisa, tearing across the intersection just in front of the train station, and into the circular drive where we were standing. It came to an abrupt halt, and we could already hear the driver animatedly ushering his friend off the bus out onto the sidewalk. The two of them lit up cigarettes, exchanged a few words, and then the driver stalked off through a door in the side of the train station. We walked up and asked the two people standing outside the door to the bus, “a Firenze?” We were greeted with a very friendly, “Si! Si! Thees-a bus going-a to Florence!”.

Fantastico. Now all we had to do was figure out how to buy a ticket. The machine inside the station only sells train tickets, though it has the complete bus schedule available, and you can even buy a train ticket that includes complex transfers, including busses. An oversight in customer use-case planning resulted in the unfortunate inability to purchase only a bus ticket. And, if there had been anything resembling a ticket office anywhere near the train station in Pisa, I would have already found it and violently assulted any ticket machine that refused to give me a ticket for whatever reason.

To avoid a lengthy destruction of public property trial, I asked the friendly gentlemen in front of the bus where I could buy a ticket for this particular bus. They exchanged a look, looked at the train station entrance, consulted their watches, and then nodded at each other: “In la bus”, and indicated that we should buy our ticket from the driver once we were on the bus.

The driver emerged from the train station and exchanged a few animated words with his buddies outside the bus. He looked around at the small collection of people waiting on the curb and said “okay-ee! ever-body to Firenze!” and climbed in. We all piled in and sat down on the bus, which appeared more cavernous than it should due to the dearth of passengers at this late hour.

The driver was very friendly and spoke a tiny bit of English, which he enjoyed using. He verified that we were, in fact, going to Florence, and specifically to Santa Maria Novella – the main train station in Florence. The tickets were the same price as the train ticket would have been: €5 each. After processing each passenger in such a way and expelling a gentleman who appeared to have no verifiable address, he checked his Trenitalia-synchronized watch, closed the door, and we were on our way.

After a gentle turn around the circle at the bus stop, he accelerated quite a bit onto the abandoned street which runs approximately east from the station. He turned on the radio which was playing quite outdated American pop songs and cranked up the volume. As soon as we were headed straight on that road, he really put the hammer down. I didn’t know these intercity busses could accelerate this fast, or even sustain the speeds that we reached in the streets of Pisa. I checked: no seat belts. There was an “oh, shit bar” on the seat in front of me. I grabbed it tight with my left hand and thought to myself oh, shit!. I grabbed Katie’s leg and held on tight with my right hand. She seemed comforted by my gesture, until I admitted that it was mostly to prevent me from flying through the window when, not if, we hit a parked car.

Southeasterly view from Monterosso’s beach

Not knowing where we were going was part of the problem. The other part was that were travelling at — by my estimation — a significant fraction of the speed of sound. I expected our sonic boom to be setting off car alarms behind us for blocks and blocks. The center line of the road shimmied back and forth as we went around blind corners, taking the most efficient path for the enormous yacht we were all in. We came so close to cars parked on the side of the road that I felt like we were going to take off their side-view mirrors, bumpers, or even more along with us to Florence.

I was hoping to sleep on the bus — a nice, relaxing ride with a few bumps. I used to take a 45-minute bus ride to school and back every day for 6 years on a yellow school bus with crappy rubber seats. I figured that catching an hour of sleep on this ride was going to be cake. I was wrong. There was no way that any sane person could sleep on this trip — especially anyone that had decided that the best place to sit was in the first normal seat on the bus — the rumble seat was taken by the driver’s buddy, who appeared poised to leap directly out through the windshield at the first sign of danger. Then, the driver began to sing at the top of his lungs.

It was in semi-English, because he only knew the words to the chorus of the song he was singing — the verses were too complicated so he would just hum along with them and yell out the occasional unmistakable word. His voice was hoarse from all the cigarettes, singing, and verbal antics exchanged with his amico in the front seat.

Finally, we left Pisa and emerged onto a roundabout for getting onto the “Fi-Pi-Li” — the Firenze-Pisa-Livorno highway connector. We careened around the roundabout and were slingshot onto the highway where the driver performed a harrowing merge and went into the left lane without missing a beat. After passing a car, we went back over to the right lane for a while. Whenever we would approach a car from behind, the driver would pull within no more than 10cm of their back bumper, hover there for 1km or so, and then lurch into the left lane to go around them. And it goes without saying that, after passing, he would cut off the driver in the other lane mercilessly, as if to punish him for not driving faster. At least we’ll get there quickly, I thought.

Soon, we took an exit for a town I had never heard of. At one in the morning, this town was completely dead. It was the Italian equivalent of Terre Haute, Indiana, and we were again racing through narrow streets. We approached a traffic light — probably the only one in the entire town — which was red. He made a soft right-hand turn through it without slowing down a bit, taking up the entire width of the road with the bus. “Eets okay-ee!” he yelled, anticipating our protestations, which were of course frozen in the backs of our throats.

We pulled into what had to be the bus station, but looked like a parking lot for a drugstore, and the bus screeched to a halt. “Okay-ee! Eets Firenza!” the driver bellowed and laughed uproariously as he and his comrade stepped off the bus to smoke. As the bus sat there, heaving oddly up and down, we slowly felt our blood pressure and heart rates returning to normal. We watched the driver and his friend discuss some inconsequential topic, the driver waving his hands like a maniac and talking so loud that we could hear him very clearly through the glass windows. His friend was much more subdued but played along and chuckled at nearly everything he said. We decided that the driver was motivated by his desire to stand at the bus stations and smoke cigarettes with his friend. We concluded that he was driving so fast so he could enjoy as long of a break as possible, which made sense in our minds. That, and the fact that he was probably mainlining espresso whenever he got the chance.

We left the ‘Haute and resumed our journey towards Florence. Having relaxed quite a bit, Katie and I attempted to discuss objectively the situation we were in. I suggested taking a short video of us driving through a town to show just how crazy the trip was. She said, “nah, nobody’d believe that we hadn’t doctored the video. You know, sped it up. Besides, we don’t get any sound, and his singing is half the fun!”. She was right and I knew it: this was going to be another one of those experiences that I will never believe that I actually had, and there is no record of it ever happening, save for my and Katie’s memories.

In another town, we slowed down in an unlikely place and made what appeared to be an unscheduled stop. The driver’s friend stood up and got off the bus. We were stopped near a corner and there was a tabacci on it. Oh, he’s getting cigarettes, I thought. Instead, the driver closed the door and drove off. Puzzled, we looked behind us, and saw our now ex-passenger was going into a door next to the tabacci, which we assumed was his home. Wow, curb-side service! I decided that we should try to get the same treatment. After all, Santa Croce isn’t that far from the train station by bus.

At our penultimate stop, the driver re-verified everyone’s destinations. “Firenze — Santa Maria Novella, si?”. “Si,” I responded, “but Santa Croce é un po piú bene”, which apparently sounded like Greek to him. He wrinkled his brow, came back to our seat, and said “I’m sorry, I want to understand,” and looked hopefully at the guy behind us. He was the one who had told us that this was the right bus and that we could buy tickets on the bus, too. He appeared to be in a position to help us again. They exchanged a few words, and I only understood the driver asking him, “dové”, and his response: “In centro” — in the city center. Things were looking promising for our ride directly to our front door.

Having never driven in Florence, I’m always amazed whenever I come into the city by auto at how the city center jumps out at you from nowhere. Much of non-historic Florence is, to me, virtually indistinguishable from any other non-historic part. I try to identify where I am to orient myself, but just when I think I’ve got it all figured out, an unmistakable landmark jumps out at me from a place where it shouldn’t be. This hadn’t happened yet when our friend behind us got out at another unscheduled stop in what ended up being the north side of Florence. Uh, oh, I thought. There goes our navigator.

We pulled into Santa Maria Novella station right on time: 02:45. The bus stopped and the driver got up and stretched, facing the back of the bus. There were only three of us left: Katie and me, and another guy who had spent the entire ride on his cell phone at the back of the bus. The driver bid us all a buona notte and we all got out. Male, I thought. No door-to-door service.

We went to the taxi stand where most cabbies were literally asleep at their wheels. We had to give the first one in line a rather loud and uncourtious buona sera to wake him up. “Quanto costa a Sante Croce?” — how much to Santa Croce. Our Italian is so poor, but I like to think that our attempt is appreciated, and hey, we get the point across. He grunted, frowned, and said in a heavy Italian accent, “meeneemum charg-ay ees eight ay-uro”. Eight euro to go ten blocks? Forget that. We’re walking.

Katie didn’t protest. It was cold, and we were walking corpses, but we’d be damned before we were going to pay more for the cab ride home from the bus station than we paid for the whole trip from Pisa!

It seemed to get colder as we walked. We approached our front door at about 03:00. Home sweet home. “At least it’ll feel nice and toasty inside compared to our walk home,” I said. “Not if you left the windows open all day and night,” Katie replied. Which, of course, I had.

Pasqua a la Fiorentina

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

Florence’s Duomo dominates the city

It seemed a little daunting, going to Cattadrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, for Easter Mass. It happens to be the 4th largest church in the world (depending on whom you ask and what your criteria are, the others may be St. Peter’s in Rome, St. John the Divine in New York City, and Saint Paul’s in London), and I was sure that the mass was going to be entirely in Italian, a language in which I have attained little mastery. Fortunately, amen sounds the same in Italian as it does in English.

We woke up in the morning to pouring rain — not a good sign when your travel plans consist primarily of walking. Florence’s Duomo is only a leisurely 10-minute walk from our front door, but rain always dampens one’s spirit as well as the cuffs of one’s pants. Fortunately, about five minutes after we had intended to leave, birds began singing outside, and we were convinced that the rain had stopped for the time being. We set out, umbrellas in tow, toward the Basilica under a low canopy of light grey clouds. The rain had subsided, and lots of people were making their way through the city to various churches.

For the first several blocks, I was convinced that we were headed in the wrong direction, despite my clear recollection of how to get to the Duomo — we walk by it almost every day. Today, most of the foot traffic seemed to be in the direction opposite to the way we were going. I guessed that these particular inhabitants preferred other churches to the Duomo — particularly today when the mass is likely to be overrun with tourists who may be less than faithful.

Another reason why there was no clear destination for the hundreds of people we saw that morning was that Florence is home to at least 8 gigantic basilicas and churches (Santa Maria Novella, San Lorenzo, Santo Spirito, Santa Maria del Carmine, Santa Croce, Orsanmichele, Il Duomo, and Santa Trinita), as well as dozens of smaller churches around the city. It is easy to see why, ninety minutes before the most important mass in the Catholic church, there would be mass confusion in the streets with each person going to the church of their choice for Easter.

Colorful procession of the ox-cart

When we arrived at the Duomo, the square was filled with hundreds of tourists, there to see the procession of medieval costumes and trumpet fanfare. A traditional ox-cart loaded with enough fireworks to bring down the roof of the cathedral was parked out front, waiting for the beginning of the mass to detonate and burn for a good 15 minutes. We watched for a few minutes, and then decided that we had better get inside and find seats before we found ourselves standing through an entire mass which was likely to be longer than usual.

It turns out that few people were gathered to the right of the alter — most had gathered in the nave, where all of the temporary seating had been set up, and the best place to get a view of the ox-cart outside, poised for subsequent conflagration. We sat down and took a few pictures before the mass started. We also began to notice that, inside the cathedral, it was freezing. Since the church has few windows to let in a great deal of light, and no noticeable heating system, it is still cold from the winter. Even when the sun is bright and lightly baking those in the square, the church remains dark and cold.

Katie and me in the Duomo

There seemed to be quite a lot going on outside that we could not see. Trumpets would occasionaly sound, the crowd would cheer, and everyone in the church was looking around, trying to get a better look at either the action outside or the tremendous architecture inside. I was trying to guess the country of origin for all of the people surrounding us. I listened to their speech and decided that there were a number of Italians and Americans — which came as no surprise to me – as well as German, Polish, and a few Asian languages. My capacity to identify languages pretty much stops at the eastern edge of Europe… I haven’t had enough friends who speak Asian languages often enough to have learned to recognize certain sounds that tip me off as to the language of the speaker. I might be able to discern Japanese from a Chinese dialect if I heard them at the same time, but I have to admit that I am very ignorant with respect to these languages at this point in my life.

Judgement Day on the interior of Brunelleschi’s Dome

The architecture in the Duomo is impressive. During the rennaisance, Europeans finally re-learned everything that the ancient world had already figured out, and then somehow lost along the way. Art and architecture were re-born, and people started building big. Brunelleschi was both an artist and an architect, and he apparently managed to get an exclusive commission to build the huge dome of Florence’s Duomo by both making Ghiberti (of Doors to Paradise fame) look like an incompetent, and being a hell of an engineer. It appears as though the dome itself has stood the test of time, while the cathedral itself has required bracing along the way, due to the crushing weight of the massive roof. Arches line both the interior and exterior isles of the nave, but appear to be buckling somewhat under the stress. Various means have been used to forestall further weakening of the arches and columns, such as adding iron rods driven through the columns to the roof — apparently to hold the two supports of the arch together.

Florentines in costume

Upon review of the pictures I took inside the cathedral, I have to say that the duomo looks smaller in the pictures. It is simply massive. The ceiling is so high that looking directly up at the inside of the dome invokes a strong sense of vertigo, so it was fortunate that I was already sitting down. The pictures taken, in general, have a very warm illumination to them. That is due to the faux candles that are mostly used around the church. They emit the usual, vaguely yellowish light given off by incandescent light bulbs. A few of the candles were real, and added to the yellow glow which lights the inside of the basilica.

The ox-cart explosion lasts at least fifteen minutes

The service finally began with what I can only assume was a long introduction and welcoming of all the guests, tourists, and faithful to Florence’s Duomo. This was one of the only Catholic masses where it wasn’t entirely obvious when to stand up or sit down. Since so many of the visitors were non-Catholic (like the German family who accidentally took part in the Eucharist and wasn’t exactly sure what to do with the wafer) or non-Italian-speakers (such as our family), many of the attendants were unable to follow the printed mass program (such as I, who, for reasons still unclear to me, was apparently the owner of a 3-year-old Easter program… it is very difficult to follow a mass in another language when you’re expecting a totally different set of phonics to be uttered by the priest).

In spite of my program buffoonery, I knew exactly what was going on when the organist apparently laid down full-out on the keyboard, producing an absolute cacophony of air-powered sound from the gigantic pipes. For Easter, a synthetic dove had been rigged, hanging from a wire extending from near the alter, down the length of the cathedral, out the door and into the street outside. The dove burst into life (and flame) and shot right out the door, and into the ox-cart waiting outside. The next fifteen minutes or so were occupied watching the ox-cart spew smoke, flames, and sparks while the crowd outside cheered repeatedly to the belching of this Florentine Easter tradition.

Once the commotion died down, the mass continued just as it had left off — very strange that such a secular (or at least not particularly Catholic) event should postpone the most important even in the liturgical calendar. I guess that’s what happens when religions, over time, adopt the policy of embrace and extend when events of cultural importance exist in the places into which the faith is spreading.

Omelettes with fresh, smoked, buffalo mozzarella

I had intended to make breakfast before church, but let’s face it: nobody was going to get up that early, so we had brunch after mass instead. I made omelettes with smoked buffalo mozzerella, which was an entirely new taste thrill for me. The mozzarella was super smoky. While being an interesting thing to try, and might be good to have occasionally, not much can beat a big salty sphere of mozzarellific goodness. Mmmm… insalata caprese

I have also started getting accustomed to our limited means with respect to the kitchen in our rented flat. We have a single serrated knife, a single, thin, aluminum pan, and two pots of different sizes. Oh, and something that looks kind of like a mini watering-can, complete with spout, but matches the pattern of the two pots. I’m not sure what its intended use is, but I used it to beat the eggs and milk together and pour it into the pan. We have one of those infuriating plastic “pasta spoons”, which I believe was invented explicitly to make sure that one didn’t eat too much pasta, and a large, shallow plastic spoon with holes in it — kind of like the wire spoons used to retrieve things from large vats of boiling oil when frying things. I have nearly perfected the art of pouring the omelette from the pan into the spoon and then, with a flick of the wrist, returning the eggs, folded in half, back into the pan. Luckily I am capable of flipping the omlette with nothing more than a flick of the wrist on the handle of the pan.

The previous day, at the Mercato St. Ambrogia, I acquired the necessary ingredients for my Easter meal. I had originally intended to get lamb — probably chops, since we have only microwave and toaster ovenw — but settled instead on a beef fillet bathed in sage and other herbs, inserted into a loaf of bread and finally wrapped in prosciutto and lashed together with string. I wasn’t sure how well the toaster oven was going to work, but hey — why not?

I decided to just kick the toaster oven up as high as it would go to sear the meat, and then re-evaluate the situation. Since the oven doesn’t really stay warm when its heating cycle turns off the elements, I ended up leaving the toaster at this high setting for the duration. The problem turned out to be not the heat, but the electricity.

I believe that Katie and I are the first guests to rent this particular apartment from the owner. As such, it is missing some important things, such as a garlic press or a 30-amp circuit. With the toaster oven at 250 degrees (Celcius), the breaker tripped approximately every 6 minutes. The worst part was that it wasn’t just tripping the breaker for the kitchen — it was tripping the main breaker. That means that the apartment itself can’t provide enough power for the toaster oven, which is pretty sad. Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly convenient for cooking.

We decided that, to minimize the changes of the circuit breaker being tripped (or, at least to maximize the time between mandatory trippings), we had better turn everything off. We unplugged anything that could possibly draw current, including nightlights and even things that were already completely turned off like the CD-player. We sat in total darkness and watched the toaster oven’s orange light to see if it was still on. The breaker tripping didn’t make that much noise, and sometimes we couldn’t hear it, so we had to watch. I wanted to light a candle, but we decided that trying to coax a decent flame out of a napkin thrust into the heating element of the toaster oven was going to be a bad idea, generate a lot of smoke, and prolong the cooking time of the fillet.

Darkest caprese salad ever

I found the concept of sitting in total darkness pretty stupid, so I decided to venture forth into the sleeping city to get matches. Of course, everything was closed except for pharmacies and a few other places, and nobody had matches. I finally went into a club and tried to describe what I needed. I didn’t have a cigarette, and therefore didn’t look like I needed matches — much less a whole pack to take away with me. After a few confusing minutes, I was offered a plastic cigaretter lighter. After issuing many gratzies, and making sure that nobody got mad as I approached the door, I returned home.

Progress was being made. Katie and my father were trying to rig a ladies’ compact mirror on a shelf so that we could see the eye of the toaster oven from the living room, instead of having to stand in the kitchenette, staring. They got it going, and I lit a candle so we could at least have some light.

We sat at the candlelit table and enjoyed our caprese salad made with picorino cheese that my parents got in Siena. Occationally, one of us would get up to re-set the breaker. Thank god we don’t have fuses like our apartment at home. We would have frozen to death with all the stores closed for Easter.

Slicing the Easter Fillet

After one hour and fifteen minutes, we decided to take a look. I turned off the oven and then, with the lights back on, checked the fillet. It was perfect. I’m not sure how I could have cooked it any better. So, we laid it asside and made all the other stuff for dinner — asparagus and fresh pasta with butter, garlic, and grated cheese. By the time these had been prepared, the meat had cooked over a bit, but was still very good.

Using the knife on the cutting board, I carved the meat for Easter dinner. It turned out to be wonderful, in spite of the fact that it was no longer pink inside. Everything tasted great, and we had wine and aqua frizzante, and a big laugh about the fact that this would certainly be a memorable Easter, bizarre as measured by just about any standard.

With the lights turned back on, I thought about how I would actually prefer that the lights be turned back off. There was a calm quiet during that time, and the illumination from the halogen bulbs in our apartment were harsh after the softness of the candlelight. Maybe we’ll turn off the lights again when we have a meal at home on a quiet day.

Happy Easter

È Gratis?

Tuesday, March 29th, 2005

Here’s another post from Katie. Sheesh.. she needs her own blog.

It’s Katie again. I feel compelled to share about my and Christopher’s recent gratis (free) experiences. The first came when I was returning home from the grocery store, about 2 weeks into the trip. When I walk alone I tend to keep my eyes ahead of me so I won’t get any unwanted “Ciao Bella!”, but this days I was feeling friendly, looking at the shops I passed. As I passed by a cobbler’s shop, I glance up and said Buona Sera (good evening) to the shop keeper standing in the store. He responded in kind, as expected, but then continued to chat, saying “how are you?” in Italian. I was then forced to use all of my linguistic skills, which really aren’t much, to try and keep up my end of the conversation and understand what he is saying. After some initial confusion, I tell him that I am an American and he asks me “which part?”. I say Washington DC, and he gets excited and motions me into his shop. He has a collection of post cards, including some from DC. He motions to one specific DC post card and says that it is from his friend, and then quickly indicates another post card featuring a woman with enormous breasts and declares that this woman is unfortunately not the friend in question. We both chuckle. Then he reaches for his shelf and hands me a small box containing shoe polish. Upon seeing the confused look on my face, he motions to my feet indicating the proper direction of use. I had that part figured out — just not the part about why it was in my hand. Was I supposed to pay him for it? Was it a gift? He then asks if I am a student (No) and I try to explain I am here with my husband- not knowing the word, so we settle on ragazzo (boy) and he seems to understand enough. At this point I am ready to leave, and so I say Grazie repeatedly and head out, with my free shoe polish in hand.

Chris, on the other hand, has been working on his relationship with the owner of La Ch@t — a man in his upper 30’s, maybe — who is always very well-dressed and always talking to the young college girls who come in to use the computers. So he doesn’t really chat with either one of us, I guess I spend too much time hanging on Chris. Anyway, each day, Chris has tried to extract more conservation out of signor La Ch@t. We even went to the 4th anniversary party for La Ch@t at a local bar/club where he recognized us and even said hello. Then, yesterday, while Chris was working on his laptop, as usual, the owner comes over Chris and hands him a neck tie. Of course Chris was confused and the owner mumbled something about people giving each other gifts at easter, or that he has changed his tie and was no longer in need of the services of this one — it is not entirely clear. Of course Chris says Grazie, and we leave.

Ok, I know this is a lame blog entry, but why we we getting free stuff from strangers? Is this just the way of business, like a free sample, just bigger? Are we supposed to give something in return? Are these gentlemen expecting anything more than a thanks? I am so confused… but on the other hand I do love free stuff…

May I please introduce Katrina

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2005

My wonderful wife has decided to post an entry in my stead. I find it difficult to write about the mundane details of daily life, so I will permit her to do so instead.

Buona Sera! Mi chiamo Katrina. Since my husband has not updated his blog in awhile, I decided to take matters into my own hands, and when he sees how awful my attempt is, he will realize to never let me touch his blog again. Like when washing dishes you accidentally break a few so that you won’t be asked to do them in the future.

I am here to give an update to what we have been up to. Our typical day is pretty relaxed… wake up around 9 or 10- have make some café (espresso) with latte (milk), head to the market to buy food for lunch and dinner — buy prosciutto, provolone and focaccia for lunch — and consider buying various meats for dinner until you give up and just buy sausage because it is easier to count the number than figuring how many kilograms of meat to to get — then to the outside portion for vegetables, each vendor having their own way of doing things, and always the two-toothed old man chasing you with a large knife with a small piece of mozzarella on the end as a free taste.

No market trip is complete without our stopping by the wine shop (Baccas Nudo) and have them fill ‘er up. They have large jugs of various wine along the wall and you pick your variety, give them your bottle, and they fill it, cork up, and charge you €2 — can’t beat that deal! Then we go home for lunch or stop somewhere for pizza, Chris works, I read.

About threeish we usually hit the town, wandering around piazzas, exploring outside the center of the city, or going to Piazza Santa Croce to people watch — kids playing football (soccer), mothers taking children out for walks, and teenagers hanging out with a Frisbee, soccer ball, or maybe even an accordion. Then its home for dinner and a bottle of wine.

Afterwards perhaps gellato and a walk to Piazza Republica to see the street performers play an up beat tune that involves abusing an acoustic bass, or a Charlie Chaplin like man who draws a crowd by teasing his volunteers and making a child do obscene hand gestures — always funny :) Then back home to bed, to do it all over again. Yeah, its a rough life.

We have broken out of the routine by visiting Fiesole — a hill-town that overlooks Florence with museums and an extensive array of hiking trails — or going out to dinner at a place that is next door- incredibly cheap, but I am confident it is run by “the Family” if you know what I mean, but I can live with a little Don for €3 tortellini. (As a side note to Mom, I hope this satisfies your blog craving, I will be sure to write again soon!)

Below are a few selected pictures there are so many Sante Croce ones because we spend a lot of time there — it is only 3 blocks south.


A sample from the Market.


Hanging in the piazza on a lovely day.


From the hike in Fiosole along the Etruscan walls.


Countryside in Florence.


Ahhhh…Firenze