London – does the greatest big city need the smallest rooms?

I love London. It is everything a giant city should be and has everything the two of us need. Hectic, old, cultured, diverse, civil, with a fabulous mass transit system, a seemingly endless supply of bell towers complete with the world’s best bell-ringers and for those of our group of a more genteel nature, an equally endless supply of pubs, with world-class beers and beer drinkers. We have been to London before, Beth has been here many times, have spent her 7th and 8th grade years living here, acquiring a refined English accent while attending another in her long line of snotty schools (Camden School for Girls, to go along with Green Acres School, National Cathedral School, and Rice, see the pattern?). We came here together about 4 years ago, and I was immediately drawn to the pub lifestyle. I’m not a big time drinker, but I do like the beer (lower % alcohol), general camaraderie, slow down, have a couple, then move along approach that their pubs promote, and our restaurants and night clubs generally do not.

ANYWAY, this time we didn’t have to do a lot of the newbie sight-seeing, since (do I have to spell this out?), we weren’t newbies. But, it’s a big place so sightseeing was in order, besides, dear reader, you may not have been to London.  Here’s what we saw this time:

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Yep, it’s Trafalgar Square. And this Large Blue, uh, rooster?, is the current Fourth Plinth occupant. See what I mean about cultured?

Anyway, the real purpose of our trip to London was to reacquaint us with the English language prior to our return to the states, and, even more importantly, for Beth to ring the bells at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Beth is a member of the Ancient Society of College Youths (CY), a new-found body (established in 1637 (that is not a typo)) and was invited to ring at St. Paul’s. This is roughly equivalent to me being invited to play at the Masters. The primary difference being that her being a CY establishes her as being good enough to do so, my being invited to play at Augusta would probably indicate it is known I own golf clubs, and that the issuer of the invitation was somewhat deranged.  Anyway, Beth was appropriately nervous. The ringing is done on cue, there is no hitting practice balls, walk up, tee it up, ignore the fact that you are playing on the most famous of all course, and you’d best hit it down the middle. My bride, as per usual, performed brilliantly.

Here’s a small clip at Youtube.

More later, but the title comes from the fact that our entire room would have easily fit inside our Venice bathroom. No, really.

Venice – not a good town for wheelchairs

Venice was about the most scenic place without any natural scenery I’ve ever seen. I’ve attempted to use seen and scene as often as possible, see? Anyway, it looks like a place Disney would have created, if Disney had created a tourist destination with only one ride, the gondola, 1500 years ago. It is a google map nightmare. A rat’s maze of improbably old, ridiculously beautiful buildings, one after another, connected by narrow alleyways leading to open squares with churches and sculptures and Italians talking with their hands walking their dogs dressed in outfits that cover their legs, bridge after bridge, all of which are arched to allow the boats that are everywhere to snake around, hauling the food in, the garbage out, the tourists around. As soon as you escape the tourists (which for us was very easy; off-season, early mornings), it becomes quite and empty. We wandered for hours, ogling at the beauty, suspicious that we had stumbled onto some movie set.

Things to do:

Go to the clock tower and take the tour – so cool. The clock, which displayed the hour, minute, day, month, season, and tide, and has done so for like 400 years, until very recently has been wound by hand, twice per day. The clock tender has been from the same family for all that time, and has lived in the tower. Something of a golden cage, as it is superbly located, but the clock must be wound twice a day, every day. The clock works, the cables and weights descended into the dining room, and one can just assume that the tic-tock must eventually just go away. You also then get to go to the top of the tower to see the mechanical men who have struck the bells each hour with very large hammers. They are very large men, with impressive hammers. Yes.IMG_6082

Eat at the take out pasta place. I have no idea how to tell you to get there. It’s about a 10 by 15 foot space, and the owner sells 5 types of pasta, 6 types of sauce, wine, and that’s it. You get it in something like a Chinese take-out carton. If you tell him you’re taking it back to your room, only 10 minutes away, he won’t sell it to you. “It will be ruined, I cannot sell it to you”. So buy it, walk outside, stand against the alley wall and enjoy the best pasta and sauce ever. And it’s cheap. We ate there twice, and when we came back to buy some dried pasta to bring home, he wouldn’t let us pay for it.

Go to Burano and Murano, where they make lace and glass, respectively. I could give a rat’s ass about lace, but Burano is really beautiful, with pastel colored homes and buildings, and a tower that leans like the one in Pizza – very unnerving to see in person.

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Once again we found going in the off season was fabulous. The weather was quite temperate. We had one day with very dense fog, but otherwise it was cool and pleasant. AND, there were times that we were in museums or plazas that the guidebooks encouraged us to be strong and deal with the crowds, and we found ourselves completely alone. No pushing and shoving, no nothing. Just us, alone with artworks that are much older than the United States. It was fabulous.

We saw how it could be otherwise. All the things we though were picnic tables for use during Christmas turned out to be tables that are used to create temporary sidewalks with the plazas flood and everyone seeks higher ground. Not for us. Not this time. I hope you go. You probably deserve it. 4 days is about the right amount of time. For the wimps, 3 days will do it. Get ready to walk, don’t be afraid to get lost, just enjoy the scenery.

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Things that must be noted

In keeping with the rather random nature of my mind, I’ve made a list of things I’ve noticed in Budapest that I deem worthy of comment. Here ya go:

Pavers – the paving stones used in the squares and sidewalks are not the pissant 1 or 2 inch types used in the states. They are 4-6″ thick. They are awesome. No wonder they don’t shift.

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Showers – this shower is like others I’ve seen, here and in the states. I don’t understand how it’s supposed to work without getting water everywhere. If they want you to just use it as a handheld, don’t put up any glass. If they want you to use it on the holder, make the glass go far enough back so that someone over 4’2″ can stand under it and it doesn’t splatter everywhere.

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Duvets – all the beds are twins. A queen is 2 twins pushed together. There is no top sheet. You sleep under a duvet. This one I kind of like.

Tickets – they do tickets right. You buy 2 tickets to a museum. They give you 1 plain ticket. It says something like “ticket for 2”. It’s not scrapbook fodder, doesn’t cost .20 to create. When they check you in, they tear it a little. That’s it, done. Move along.

Smoking – good country for oncologists. These people smoke like crazy.

Bye bye – when they pick up on the fact you’re American, when you leave, it’s almost always “Bye-Bye”

Toothpicks – this is awesome. Nearly everywhere we’ve eaten has a jar of toothpicks at every table.

Speed of the check – don’t be in a hurry to get your check.

Michael Jackson – all restaurants play American pop music all the time, except in Germany, where we heard some appropriate techno, and Michael Jackson seems to be catching on.

The people are nice. They appreciate it if you are nice. So do I. Don’t be a tourist prick, especially don’t be an American tourist prick. As everywhere, treat waiters and staff folks kindly. It’s tough work.

Tomorrow, last half-day in Budapest, then high speed train to Vienna, short layover and overnight train to Venice.

Oh yea, we went to see La Boheme last night at the Opera House. Spoiler, it’s Rent and she dies, but it’s not Aids.

Bye-bye for now.

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2013 calls it quits in Berlin

We probably should have guessed New Year’s Eve would be different in Berlin. We asked at the front desk of our hotel where the fireworks would be, and accompanying the puzzled glance was the simple reply, “Everywhere”. In the DC area fireworks are heavily restricted. Individuals my not use them, even benign things like sparklers. Let’s just say Berlin sees it differently. This is a huge city. Very little green space. Few single family dwellings. Many, many fireworks. There were isolated booms when arrived on the 27th, which I foolishly originally mistook for the sound of lumber being off-loaded for all the construction. I mean, who’d be firing off stuff that far in advance of NY? Apparently EVERYONE. We opted to head toward the Brandenburg gate, sort of the Times Square of Germany, and were greeted by 8 PM by a fog of smoke and the fragrance of sulphur from fireworks that reminded me of many misspent hours of my youth when my brother Randy and I blew up an endless array of toy soldiers and stuff.

Since we got to within about 1000 meters of our destination by 9pm, and the police had already closed the approach, we opted to sit at the foot of the fabulous statute the Victory Column, along with a few hundred thousand of our closest friends. A red faced 24 year old Russian with closely cropped hair, a considerable girth, an endless supply of cigarettes and good cheer was eager to see that I shared something. We had brought our own champaign, but he offered first cigarettes (I’ve never smoked), then beer, then liquor, then weed, then something like Starbursts (which I took). I am pretty sure he had more of everything and was just searching for the right ice breaker. He was very nice, very loud, very drunk, and I’m happy we made it through the night without wearing any of him back to the hotel. The official fireworks went off on time (most things run on time here, but there were some many independent fireworks going off, they were somewhat anticlimactic. We made the 40 minute walk back to the room through a never-ending phalanx of people of every sidewalk firing skyrockets, tossing firecrackers, all with care in terms of not aiming at you, but the noise and goings on continued past the 2:30 we got to bed.

Of course, the aftermath was of interest to me. Who was going to clean this mess up? The answer is the German cleaning crews were in the streets by 9ish, with an array of weapons and a lot of person power. By the time we left for our plane out around 2, things looked pretty much back to normal. That was pretty amazing, because the amount of detritus was awesome. Check out these pics;

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These aren’t flowers. This is confetti.

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Look carefully. There are sticks from skyrockets in the little courtyard. We are 5 stories up.

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I just like their port a potty logos.

More later. Off to Hungary.

Dateline Berlin: It’s More a Than Just Feeling Bad About – Well, You Know

We went to a slew of museums today, and saw fabulous things that were really, really old, and it was dazzling in size, scope and depth. We went to a museum that dealt with the rather unfortunate, but hardly original (in historical terms) way the Germans decided to deal with the Jews, Gypsies, and multitudes of other who failed to live up to the Arian ideal. It was moving, depressing, and left you shaking your head at how one group of people could treat another like that, and then you remembered the Germans had their thing, and we had slavery.

BUT, that’s not what this is about (although I will post some pics of the first museum). This is about a meal. You can learn about museums in lots of places. You can learn about history by going to school (albeit, some states have decided to rewrite more than usual, yes I am speaking of my home state where elementary and high school education has become something of a burden to the taxpayers, so they just opted to cut out the fat of facts and science), or just by living a long time. But learning where to eat good vegetarians chow is what today’s column is about. We ate at a vegetarian place called Cookies Cream. It is located down, way down, an alley (past the dumpsters). There is no sign. The door is locked. There is a chandelier. You have to know to push a very inconspicuous button.

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You had to have reservations. It was like an SNL skit. The maître de could have, at any moment said, “ve vil now dance”. You had to spend a non-trivial amount of Euros for a no-meat 3 course meal.

The menu:

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Oh
My
God

It was unbelievable. I had the quail’s egg in brioche, the pumpkin and the ice cream. My bride had the Swiss cheese truffle, the beetroot, and the poppyseed cake. This was high concept cuisine that happened to be vegetarian and was sublime by design and production.

Perhaps if I were wealthy enough to eat there on a regular basis I would tire of it. Perhaps. Fortunately I am spared that conundrum. Too bad I had to travel to where I could literally look through the iron curtain to check it out.

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Dateline: Berlin

We are staying at a small hotel that was once a very, very large home. Pension Peters is in a fabulous location, has a great price, and a very friendly and helpful small staff. The rates include breakfast, which includes great breads, eggs, juices, coffee, tea, and jams. First rate for my bride and me. We are not five-star hotel folks, since we prefer to spend our money elsewhere. If I could make 1 improvement to our room, which is probably 350 sf with 15′ ceilings, it would be a tv greater than the 13″ job that’s about 20′ from the bed. Not that it really matters. I don’t speak German. In fact, I obviously don’t even understand the alphabet. The use what is a Greek beta, but it doesn’t mean that, so, when they do math, what happens when betas show up?

Anyway, Beth is better than Google maps. She loves finding her way around places, and takes great pride is conquering the terrain. We avoids taxis, using our feet and public transportation, because that’s always more difficult, cheaper, better exercise, you see the actual people of where you are instead of just tourists, and it’s part of the game. Our high point in that regard today was when we were stopped by a Finnish couple who asked us for directions in German. When you are mistaken for locals, you win. The truth is we both could easily pass for the local stock. With my short cropped hair which is just beginning to show hints of grey and my “doesn’t he need to shave?” full beard of 5 weeks. I look pretty much like 60% of the guys over 40 (60) here.

So we probably walked 5-6 miles today, took a bus tour of the city that took 2 hours, and now have a pretty good grasp of the city’s layout. We also went to the Checkpoint Charlie museum, which is about 4x the size you think it is, and at least that many times as interesting. A definite go see.

We determined we will not be able to walk through the Brandenburg gates, as the New Years blowout is there and the television trucks and stages and security are well underway with the set up. We plan to head that way for the fete on New Year’s Eve, and I’ll fill you in on that later.

Welcome to Heathrow

THere we were at Heathrow, what must be the largest English first language airport on the orb. Our flight from Dulles was the type one wants, one with an landing from which you can walk away, and use the plane again. It was truly uneventful, although the US All American Cheerleading Squad that is performing in the London New Year’s Day Parade. They were dressed in matching red gore-tex jackets, seemed like a very nice group of kids, and were lectured more than once that roll call would be a frequent and regular part of their lives for the next week.

After having invested time and some money in securing a sort of pre-screened good citizen cards that allow us quick return to the States and theoretical quick passage through security, we were a bit sad to learn British Airways was not yet playing the game in the US. We we’re assured they would be, as we trudged along with the littles, but all went quickly, my tube of toothpaste and cortisone made it through the magic detectors, EVEN THOUGH I did not remove them from my suitcase and have them in a separate clear plastic bag. That’s just the kind of criminal I am.

The duty-free acreage in our little terminal is a wonder. If it’s liquor, they sell it. If it’s something to keep you from smelling like you were on an eight-hour flight with 400 of your closest friends – they sell it; if it’s chocolate, they sell it, if it’s jewelry that you need to buy to apologize for again not being there – well, you get the picture. All duty free, and the tag line to the entrance is “More than you imagined …” I assume they meant the options, but I think it also refers to the costs.

There are near movie house sized screens running that Dior ad of Charlieze Theron on a loop. Over and over, 12 feet tall, absurdly perfect; distracting.

We thought about catching an earlier flight to Berlin, as we have several hours of layover to enjoy, but that privilege would have cost us n additional £300 – each, which is considerably more than our tickets cost. So we will enjoy the scenery. After all, Charlieze is not unattractive.