For the visually oriented, mash here.
I’m now in Madrid staying at a hostel voted number one in the world… a converted 18th century Spanish Villa with a marble fountain in the center covered by a stunning stained glass ceiling. The basement cave has free internet access and live music on Fridays, and the massive speakers scattered around the common area blast the Rolling Stones, Kanye, Sublime….
The writings that follow are some scraps and pieces that I quickly wrote in Rome, and corrected here in Madrid. They are just a few pieces of my travels but an honest compilation of some things I felt worth writing down.
There are big things to come: I was pick pocketed of 20 euros in Barcelona by a sly scar faced hooligan, and later that evening fooled into trusting the kindness of a professional 50 year old homosexual molester named Rafael. Don’t worry, I avoided the sly hand of Rafael and there was no molesting. But that’s just part of the exciting story to come.
It was very nice to start my trip in countries that speak English, and I had a fun time hearing snippets of conversations as I walked from the bus stop to the apartment I stayed at on a street called Cowgate. I stayed in University of Edinburgh apartment housing at the end of a hall on my own mattress, lent from some girls upstairs.
A regrettable truth of my travels is the number of non-locals I spend my time with. For each city I’ve visited I’ve always lived and hostelled among Australians, Canadians, Americans, and Swedes–the big four Western European Explorers. The upside is I get to learn about their lives and what they’re interested in when they play the tourist, but I feel I could be getting a more immersing plunge into Europe without them. I’m not at all complaining. Seeing a new country or city in any company is an incredible experience.
The Scots have a quick way with words: staccatos and half-syllables that compress simple things into a quarter-breath and a grunt. “I have to take a piss” becomes “Aye hata tahk a pech”
After a few days in the city, it quickly became my favorite. It may have been the kebabs, or the ghouley feeling when I walked to the top of Arthur’s seat.
One of the first things I tell people when they ask about Sweden is the solemn individuality of its people. It may have just been a Stockholm phenomenon, but people seemed very silent. As I walked one day through the largest department store on a busy Saturday, I could barely squeeze by the people in the aisles of the basement’s food section–but I remember hearing the sound of people crinkling packages and putting them in their baskets. The place was silent. They’ve got their goals at the store, and it doesn’t involve any sort of inefficient chit chat it seems. On a packed train from Stockholm to Copenhagen, Denmark, I could almost hear the reindeer outside thinking.
Of course the Swedish aren’t always quiet… among friends they are very talkative and friendly. In public, however, they see no need to remove their blinders.
What follows is a bit of a penned evening I wrote down in Sweden:
The only dancing I’ve seen here was at a jazz club in the basement of an Irish pub. I went with a couple girls who I had met in Dublin. It was here where I met two musicians, one an outspoken black man from Detroit who has lived in Sweden for 14 years, and the other a shy Swede pianist who studies ‘way up North’ in a place that Detroit calls ‘the equivalent of the American boondocks.’ Both play in a Jazz band, and Detroit teaches music on the side. Detroit wears a NY Yankees hat and talks with a slow purposeful clarity like he’s been speaking to people learning English his whole life. The Swede wore a black beanie, jean jacket, and had a snuse packet (a small paper-wrapped packet of tobacco) creeped out of his upper lip whenever he smiled.
Detroit seemed really wowed by my travelling aspirations, and after me and the girls had done our introductions the usual ‘why are you in this jazz bar so far from home’ explanations, he asked me why I left the excitement of Los Angeles. I replied ‘ L.A. is nothing to brag about. The beaches are mighty nice, there’s great things to do, things to see, but it’s very easy to get tired of the traffic, the superficiality, consumerism, undertones of racism…’ Then Detroit started jabbing his pointed finger at us like he had something very important to say. He then set off on a 20 minute speech about racism. He had a weaving story not about his experience with racism in Detroit, something we were all expecting, but regarding this point: racism is not worth worrying about, especially if it detracts from a full life. ‘I came here knowing about racism, and just made a life for myself that I wanted, without denying racism or acknowledging it’
‘Some people dwell on it to a point of weakness, letting it consume them and slowing them down in life.’ It wasn’t that racism turned into a non-issue for him, only that he believes that he has increased his effectiveness in life, and Sweden (a very Blond country but accepting nation), by not trying cure bigots or dwell on the issues. He had an interesting bit to add to this regarding Sweden’s view of blacks: He attended a Swedish party where he only knew the person who arrived with. His friend went off to mingle, and Detroit felt like he was in a place where no one wanted to talk to him. He wasn’t sure what to think, but then when his friend returned and introduced Detroit to the other Swedes as an African American (from Detroit, of all places), he was all of a sudden the most incredible single thing at the party. He was surrounded and jumped with questions: ‘Oh wow where do you live what’s it like?’…’I saw this movie about Slavery and…’ It was Detroit’s impression that an African from Africa is far less exotic and interesting than an African American. It seems that the Swedish have received a very thorough history of America from their obsession with American culture.
After this little anecdote, Detroit turned to the Swede and told him to tell us how much the Swedish love America. The swede nodded and Detroit went on about how most Swedes have an American accent when they speak English from their love affair with American movies. Though it was nice to hear all this, I was missing great Johnny Cash cover songs in the other room.
They are huge on design. Everything has two elements: form and function. My destination after Sweden was Denmark, a slightly less affluent and noticeably less posh Scandinavian country. I knew I was in a different production psyche when the door on a train station bathroom stall closed with a degree of force I was unaccustomed to. And then from Copenhagen to arrive in Italy! It was like going from a hibernating sleepy people to a springtime festival of screaming and put put Vespas.
So many hostels
I have no home but the perfectly engineered sack on my back and I’ve set it down in front of 6 hostels so far to check in. I book through hostelworld.com, where I pop in the country and city of my next destination, and sort the results by price. I then read the reviews to make sure it isn’t more then 15 minutes from the city center. Most have expensive internet access, but the hostels in Copenhagen, Lucca, and Florence, Barcelona and Madrid all provided free Internet. In Cork, Ireland, I restarted a 1pound per half an hour computer, hit f8 while it was booting up, and went into safe mode, essentially disabling the soul sucking charging part of the computer’s life.
At that particular hostel, I woke from a strange dream of upside down trees and lampshades to the sound of what could easily pass for a Bolshevik conspirators gala. A gaggle of Russians had arrived late in the night and were forcibly whispering their confusing Ruski-speak as I tried to find my bearings after the strange dream. The same night was woken from the shaking of a drunk old man climbing onto the bunk above me, cursing at his wet socks in typical Irish fashion.
However most nights I sleep like a dead baby, but I wish the worldwide standard of bed lengths was a few inches longer.
Here’s an example of how I get from one city to another.
Total cost: $30. Copenhagen to Rome.
After saying goodbye to the city of Copenhagen for the time being, I took the ultramodern commuter train to the airport, about 10 minutes from the city. I arrived quite early, so I found a comfortable slouchy leather chair and read some of my book ‘World’s that Weren’t’ about alternate history. Denmark’s system of doing anything is smooth and clean like white cream, and I’m airborne in no time chatting with a Dane who gives me half of his massive Cadbury chocolate bar, an infusion of sugar that keeps me staring energetically outside at the passing Netherlands.
I had to spend a night in London’s Stansted after flying from Copenhagen to catch the next morning’s early flight to Rome. I figured if I went to sleep I would miss my flight and tear my eyeballs out, so I bought the Da Vinci Code, and read it from 8pm till 5am the next morning under a yellow sign that said ‘Way Out.’ This was not the unpleasant part. The book was awesome. When I got on the RyanAir flight, I was unable to get an exit row, and I ended up between two smelly men with nary enough leg room to breathe. Unless I wanted to dig my knees into the metal bits behind the chair in front of me, I had to sit up completely straight for the 3 hour flight to Rome. I was dizzy with sleepiness (my English is getting poor… I can’t tell if sleepiness is the correct word there) and I was forced to gaze at the airplane safety diagrams plastered to the back of the seat in front of me. If I started to fall asleep, my posture would slack, and I would jam metal up my knee caps.
But all that was quickly forgotten when I saw my awkward looking commando bag coming out first in Ciampino airport in Rome, and I switch to the present tense and find myself inwardly giggling when I notice I’m in the most foreign country I’ve ever been in. It’s warm like a sunny summer day in Los Angeles, there’s scooters everywhere, and wrinkley men asking me in German if I want a taxi. Do I look German? Maybe. I have to take my sweater off it’s so Italianley warm, and I end up buying a ticket for 50 euro cents to the outlying metro station from a woman with gold canine upper teeth. Then I wait on the bus for 20 minutes with the rest of the dazed travellers as Goldy chats with another bus driver. I try to stay awake, but it’s no use. I wake up a couple minutes before we arrive at Anagnina, the farthest subway station from the center of Rome. There’s graffiti everywhere.. on the subway, walls, floor… very quick and dirty, like a herd of teenagers with spray cans were told to cover every surface in 20 minutes. I take the subway to Termini, the central metro station, and hub of transport in Rome. I’m the tall stubbly guy in a green shirt with the biggest backpack you’ve ever seen, swaying with the subway car’s movement in an unnatural, sleepy way. It’s loud and smelly, and the suddenness of my departure from the wealth and black wool+leather posh styles of Scandinavia crashes down on me when I see a young couple board with a child and accordion in tow: The woman has her 3 month old baby attached to her front, and as the man sets up a small amplifier and a tinny beat from small speakers and takes his accordion out of a dirty case, the woman addresses the packed and boisterous subway car with ‘Grazie, Tutti, Grazie.’ [Thanks, Everyone, Thanks] After these words the man begins an upbeat familiar Italian song, but stops midway, turns off the beat, and the woman cries again ‘Grazie, Tutti, Grazie.’ The man plays one more number with beat accompaniment, then the woman goes around with a small jar for collections. She gets about 5 euros, then I have to get off with the rest of the crowd at Termini.
I switch lines (there are only two in Rome) and get going towards Policlinico, my stop. I then walk a mile to Hayley’s apartment, guided by directions emailed to me a week prior. It’s noon, a couple hours after my plane touched down, and I’m finally at the door of the place I’ll be staying. The first moment when I don’t have to be going somewhere in a new city a flood of images and sensations takes me over. It’s very relaxing, and every crack in the pavement becomes a new slice of the Roman case study. Hayley shows up, I lug my crap up 4 flights, then I collapse in a heap after a real shower.
This is my mixed up life, at least for the getting to’s and leaving froms.
My Wild Italian Whirlwind (almost finished)
So I spent the 27th of October till the 4th of November in Rome, in an art/ appreciation for Rome’s once ‘capitol of the civilized world’ status / food excitement / Bernini, Raphael, Michelangelo craze, but then I began travelling with Audrey to see some fun places up North. We went by train, and saw these cities five:
November 4th Florence
Earth shattering collection of Renaissance art in the Uffizi Gallery, and a very well maintained royal apartments setting for a large collection of Vasari and the like in the Pitti gallery. The Pitti museum was once the vacation spot for Napoleon and a long line of royalty and famous folks. It’s very near the birthplace of my dear friend Niccolo Machiavelli.
6th To Cinque Terre
It’s a collection of 5 towns strung together by Rail from the departure point of La Spezia centrale. Day tickets are about a eurodollar, and allows for unlimited travel between the cities. Hiking between the cities is possible, but it’s another 3 euros. It was raining steadily the whole time, so we really didn’t get that glowing Mediterranean charm in our bones, but it wasn’t hard to imagine a brighter town as charming as the first one we saw. We didn’t see a soul in the first town, and went on to the next, but decided to head to Pisa while there was still the slight possibility of daylight.
It felt like we were walking in an ex Olympic town with flourishes and white columns that contradicted the demeanor of the city-folk. There were hammer and sickle graffiti tags everywhere, and the Nigerians selling fake purses and belts looked sadder as each new turist walked off the train and past them. I could be just what happens to a place in the off season with only one main attraction like Pisa. Even past siesta, only the phoniest Glacerias and Cafes were open. It was a sad walk from the train station to the leaning tower. We heard almost everything BUT Italian when we arrived in the big grassy complex of Marble Buildings that at one point represented all that was perfect and braggable about Renaissance Italy.
Then, as the story goes, 2 years pass and the tower begins leaning south, almost as if it’s trying to get away from the pompous group of carrara marble buildings that surround it. Because it’s now a Unesco World Heritage sight it’s been looked after very well, and most recently was completely digitized and analyzed by computer to see how it’s been holding up.
Thankfully, the sun showed it’s Italian face just in time for me to hide behind a church (still in view of the tower) and take a long satisfying nap.
Then we set off for Lucca, and arrived past sun down. We walked out of the train station, and saw a strangely illuminated wall… something you’d see in Adventure Land Disney, or in a sodium-bulb lit walled exterior of an apartment complex in the Hollywood hills… only to find that it was a real wall, that we could cut through via a paved walk across a stream and a series of dark and narrow stairways through the thick walls.
And so we arrived, but later than we thought, and with incomplete directions. With her rolling suitcase and my backpack, we try to track down the hostel, but then a nice couple goes out of their way to help us find the hostel. The hostel is locked, but a man and woman coming down an opposite street ask us if we have reservations. We say yah howdy yeehaw, and the man says that they waited for us, but they’ve reserved a different room for us just down the street for us. He tells us how lucky we are, because it’s three times the price as the other one, and we end up in a high-ceilined room with a full bathroom and three keys to get into the various levels of the ancient building past the massive wooden door that our hosts tells us to be careful with as ‘Eeechhe. Thees door is vary old. Be cahrful grazie.’
We climb the Guinidi tower, stroll around several churches, and dine on sombrero-sized pizzas for lunch before heading off to Bologna.
The Madrid Coat of Arms: A tricksy bear.
Oh yeah, and then there’s this: