Thursday, November 29, 2007

Euro Journals - 7

We are docked at the edge of the African continent, in the port city of Tunis, Tunisia. I have learned that the modern day city of Tunis was originally the ancient city of Carthidge. That’s the Carthidge that you read about in history books wherein the Carthigenians and the Romans were frequently at war over something or other. Rome is on one side of this large body of water and Tunis is on the other.

The city of Tunis has been overrun and conquered and ruled by many. The Romans, the Phoenicians, the Berbers, the Arabs, the Turks and the French, dating all the way back to the 2nd century. It is full of mosques, palaces, mausoleums and fountains. It is a culturally rich, modern day, Muslim city, complete with Roman ruins, charming colonial-era architecture and a boisterous central bazaar. It appears to be a fascinating place.

From our balcony we could see the spires of the mosques, we could hear the sing song, high pitched chanting call to worship as the city kneeled and prayed several times today and we watched the sun glinting off the buildings. As we pulled into port, there was a small three man band and several belly dancers on the pier welcoming us to their city. The sound of the drums, the castanets and the very loud, hypnotic, snake charming, style horn pulled us out of bed at 8 AM and over to the balcony to find out what the noise was. With binoculars we saw the city streets, the cars, the people and it all looked so normal.

And yet, we opted to stay on board ship. We didn’t get off here and stroll the streets and bazaars, browse in the many small shops, and soak in the culture of another world. My feelings are very mixed about our decision.

Am I wise and intelligent or am I a coward? Did I do the smart thing or did I behave stupidly because of fear? I don’t know the answer to that question. I only know that our bartender, our table waiter, our sweet and friendly young assistant waiter, our room steward, our blackjack dealer and numerous other passengers that we have chatted with all warned us to be extra careful at this port of call.

Why? Because we are American woman traveling without a man in a Muslim country. We are targets. Prime targets. As American women, we are extremely desirable as objects of potential kidnapping and we are considered rich because we are cruise ship passengers. We were warned to hang on to our valuables because of thieves and pickpockets and we were told to expect men to try to rub up against us. We are scandalous because of our long pants and lack of face covering and yet we are extremely desirable. Go figure.

I cannot imagine that any man would find these two chubby, gray, middle-aged lesbians all that desirable, but who knows? Kidnapping is not about sex and desire, it is about power. Since I can hardly imagine a worse fate, The Spouse and I jointly decided to “stay home” today.

We’ve actually had a lovely day. Lounging and lazy in our cabin, we slept late, ordered room service, watched numerous episodes of Nip/Tuck and took naps. We also took long luxurious baths and are now preparing to go out for the evening. We plan to play “wipe-out Bingo” where the winner gets their Sea Pass account wiped out, then have a lovely dinner in the main dining room and then hit the blackjack tables. We’ll probably close up the casino in the wee hours and then hit Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlor for a good night snack before heading for home and a good nights sleep.

We have another sea day tomorrow as we head for Spain and more adventures. Over the weekend, we’ll be in Malaga, Spain on Saturday and Seville on Sunday. Seville will be our “big” day as we have a full day of touring planned and we’ll be out and about with a group for the whole day. We expect to see lots of the Spanish countryside, numerous small villages and many tourist attractions. We plan to shop in both Spanish cities and I will be especially looking for my brother’s Christmas gift. I have no trouble with the ladies as they are easy to buy for, but men are a bit more difficult. The Spouse says we will find lots of “man things” in Spain so that’s where we’ll plan to get his gift. I hope I can find something to please him. He’s a sweet and loving brother and he deserves the best.

As I mentioned above, we’ve been watching Nip/Tuck here in our cabin. It’s one of those series we had just never gotten around to watching and yet everyone said it was so good. We bought, and brought with us, the first two seasons, and we are totally hooked. It is a GREAT show with some fine writing and great acting. I can totally recommend it to anyone as an enjoyable evening of television. It should be mentioned that an “R” rating is appropriate for a lot of the content as there is plenty of graphic sex. This one is not for the kiddies.

I haven’t been posting pictures here in the blog because I’m paying for Internet time by the minute and we have a slow connection. Hence, just to check mail and post on the blog really sucks up the money. Uploading and posting pictures would really eat up the time. I’ll post them when I get home, along with a running commentary for your entertainment. I will give you one picture, just for tonight, just to keep you amused. Hope you enjoy this one of The Spouse and I in the streets of Dubrovnik.

To be continued………..

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Euro Journals - 6

I’ve always known that animals communicate with each other, however, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen quite so clear a display of that fact as the one I saw in Dubrovnik.

This walled city in Croatia has many, many cats. Big cats, small cats, white, black and multi-colored cats, striped cats, cats of all sizes, shapes, temperaments and size. At first you are surprised to notice so many felines, but as you see a mouse body here and a rat carcass there, you realize they have a job to do and it appears they do it very well. I think it is safe to say they are well fed. I saw no skinny cats in Dubrovnik.

However, even the finest of diets could do with an occasional change of pace.

As we walked down the alleyway to the next little shop, I suddenly heard a cat meowing very, very loudly. She was practically “screaming” and I peered down the next lane to see what the problem was. There she sat, about halfway down the lane with her paw proudly placed on the body of a dead pigeon. She had food! Fresh food! Different food! Not a mouse! And she was telling the world.

Suddenly from behind me, I heard an answering cry quite as loud as the first and I turned my head to see a second cat coming down the alley at a full gallop yelling his head off. He flew past us and skidded as he made the turn down the lane where his mate sat waiting with the pigeon.

He reached her, slowed to a stop and sat down looking at the pigeon. The meowing and calling stopped. The two bent their heads to their meal. He had been called home to dinner and he had answered with great alacrity.

We continue cruising down the European coastline. Yesterday we had an at-sea day and it was so wonderful and relaxing. I had a massage in the spa and also some reflexology on my aching feet. (I am so spoiled in having had the best reflexologist in the world that all others seem to be doing nothing more than randomly poking at me! However, I continue to let them try.) Then I followed my spa time with some time in a hot whirlpool bath which did wonders for my aching knees. Then back to our lovely room where The Spouse had just awakened. We went out to lunch in the main dining room where we feasted on some excellent fare. Then back to our suite for a long afternoon nap.

When we awoke, we got up, bathed, dressed up beautifully for our first formal night and went off to meet our friends for dinner. After dinner we enjoyed the show in the 42nd Street Theater followed by a couple hours at the blackjack table. Life’s rough isn’t it????
We have a delightful group of dining companions and we truly feel blessed in that we have found some new and wonderful friends. Since we’ve been on cruises in the past where we got stuck with not-so-great tablemates, the pleasurable companionship of these folks is quite a joy.

At our table we have an incredibly wealthy couple who are in the Owner’s Suite and are on this cruise as they preferred not to sail their yacht in this area in the wintertime. Too much bad weather.

What’s amazing is despite their clear and obvious wealth, they are truly nice, pleasant and fun people. We really like them. She’s working on her 4th husband and he’s on his 3rd wife so I’m not sure if they’ll still be together should we see them in the future, but for now they are going strong.

She is arm candy to this wealthy older man, but she’s a very sharp mama and nobody’s “empty headed fool”. We really like her and he’s funny as hell. She says (privately to me) that if this 4th husband doesn’t work out, next time she’s going to try women. Why not? The 4 men she’s been married to have made her rich enough to live extremely comfortably for the rest of her life. Why shouldn’t she live anyway she wants?

The Spouse is keeping a comfortable hand on my thigh and a watchful eye on the flirtatious beauty. She wants to make quite sure that I’m not #5. She needn’t worry. Loyalty is my middle name.

For some inexplicable reason, they are just crazy about The Spouse and I. At least so they keep telling us. This is apparently the year that it is very chic to have lesbian friends. We are so “in”.

They live in Palm Beach, Florida and have summer homes in various other places in the world. These two remind us of the people you see on TV or in the movies. Who really lives like this? Apparently they do.

The other folks at our table are an older English couple. They are from Wales. They are quite staid and conservative and I think they are not quite sure what to think of the "arm candy". She overwhelms them. Ken just celebrated his 80th birthday yesterday and, I swear, that man doesn’t look a day over 65! He really holds his age well. Margaret is 78 and she too is very youthful looking. We are the first Americans they’ve ever talked to and they’ve decided if all “Yanks” are like us, then American’s aren’t as bad as they thought! Their English slang, heavy duty accent and dry sense of humor is truly enjoyable and they keep us all laughing. (I learned at dinner tonight that the "arm candy" really is too much for their conservative tastes. We think she's funny. They think she's vulgar. It's all in the perspective. The English couple are moving on to other pastures, so we're down to our foursome: the wealthy Dallas type J.R. and Sue Ellen and the oh so chic lesbians. What can I tell you? It's amusing to say the least!)

As I hope you can tell by my writing, we are having a truly wonderful time on this vacation. We spent today in Santorini, Greece and what a beautiful place that is! Santorini is a volcanic island and, as such, it is high and craggy and has homes and villages perched on the mountainsides. The village streets are steep and built with cobblestones and many steps up and down. Not an easy place for these arthritic knees to explore, however, we did our best.

We only had a few hours here so we were unable to truly explore the island. However, what little we did get to see was amazingly beautiful. The architecture is the classic Greek that you see in pictures with the white buildings and blue roofs. The scenery is incredible because of the height of the village placement. The people literally live at the top of a mountain on the remains of an ancient volcano. There is a mountaintop village at each end of the island as well as the small port town where we anchored just offshore. This island is a vacation destination for many Greeks and it is easy to see why. It is truly a beautiful place with black sand beaches and crystal clear water.

I rode a cable car up to the village and the panoramic view that spread out before me as the car climbed was truly awe inspiring. The crystal clear cove where our ship was anchored, the craggy coastline, jagged with the volcanic eruptions of centuries ago, the royal blue rooftops and white washed brilliance of some of the housing in the distance.

The Spouse opted to take a donkey ride to the village at the top. My cable car ride took 6 minutes. Her donkey ride took 1 ½ hours. The donkey ride didn’t take her all the way to the top. Why is not clear to me or her. Anyway she rode about 2/3 of the way up the mountain and then climbed the remaining one-third of the pathway literally on her hands and knees, stopping frequently to rest. I TOLD her the donkey thing was not a great idea, but if she wanted to do it, that it was fine with me. I’d meet her at the top. And so I did. She’s a bit fatigued this evening and I do believe it’s from more than just shopping.

Prices on all their “treasures” were amazingly low and we bought many Christmas gifts. What a fun way to go Christmas shopping!! For some inexplicable reason the merchants here prefer credit cards to cash. They told us on the ship that this was the case, but I still had difficulty believing it until I saw for myself. They really did prefer I use the credit card rather than pay cash. Why would any merchant not want cash in hand?? Hmmm….something to ponder.

Well, enough for tonight. We have just set sail and are heading for Tunisia. We have another at-sea day tomorrow so we can rest up and get ready for our next adventure.

To be continued…………………………..

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Euro Journals - 5

We opened the door and walked into what we hoped was a beautiful suite. We were not disappointed. Our little “piece of heaven” aboard the Royal Caribbean ship “Splendor of The Seas” is truly a lovely hideaway.

It seems doubly so to us as we arrived wet, cold, tired, aching and in sore need of some pampering. Our room is truly beautiful. It is large and has a big, comfortable, king sized bed with nightstands and a vanity table on one side of the room. The other side of the spacious room features the living area which has a large L shaped couch, an easy chair, a coffee table and a TV. In the far corner is our little kitchenette with fridge, glassware, ice, at al. We have incredible amounts of storage space with more than enough hanging room and drawer space for all our clothing. We actually have empty drawers with nothing to put in them. We have been on many cruises and we both agree that this is our nicest room to date. RCL did good. We’ll be back for sure.

We settled into our role of being pampered and spoiled with the greatest of ease. As we nibbled fresh fruit and sipped champagne, I gathered our wet and dirty clothes and sent them to the laundry. It is 24 hours later and they are already back, fresh, clean and ironed.

When I went to bed last night (after making a VERY nice haul at the blackjack table) I was reminded how much I love sleeping while cruising. As the bed gently rocks back and forth with the rhythm of the waves, it is like being a babe in a cradle and it is surely a fine way to drift off to sleep. (providing, of course, you don’t forget the Dramamine!) We leave the patio door open a couple of inches and lay there listening to the ocean as we are rocked to sleep.

Today we were in Dubrovnik, Croatia. It is not a town I would have chosen to visit, but it is one of the cities on our itinerary so we went to explore. It is quite a fascinating place. It is one of the last standing medieval walled cities. The “old city” inside the walls is alive and well. We walked the alleyways, visited the shops, admired the beauty of the centuries old churches and listened to the bells in the tower that have been ringing the time for many, many centuries.

I took these old, aching legs and climbed what seemed like a mountain of steps and, when we got to the top, we walked the top of the wall. The view is astounding as you look out over the Adriatic Sea, the city of Dubrovnik and the rolling, green hills of the European countryside. It is easy to see why the ancients built their cities within walls like these. What could possibly be a better fortress when the enemy comes? And you can see him coming from so very far away. Our guide on a city tour told us that the cobble stoned (and very slick) walkways are deliberately narrow in order to keep invading soldiers from being able to advance in a group. The walkways end in a square where the defenders can be waiting to kill the enemy as they arrive, one by one. It’s actually quite a logical tactic of warfare. This is assuming, of course, that any enemy (pre-modern weapons) could actually get inside these massive walls. As we walked in, we crossed a drawbridge and saw what had once been a moat. Once the gate was up, as we’ve all seen in movies, the only way into the city was up and over the walls and I don’t imagine this happened too frequently. Those walls are really impressive.

We enjoyed Dubrovnik and our tour and we did our share for the local economy. There are many, many little shops and their specialty seems to be jewelry and leather goods. We made some fine buys. You can find all kinds of things for sale, but more of those types of items than any other.

Now we are back on the ship and we have set sail once again. We are heading for Greece. We will be there on Tuesday. Tomorrow is an at-sea day and I am looking forward to a massage, some reflexology on my aching feet, and maybe an afternoon game of bingo. Tomorrow night is our first formal dinner so we’ll be dressed to the nines when we head out.. We have very pleasant dinner companions and are looking forward to sharing another bottle of wine with them. I am, slowly but surely, finding wines that I enjoy. As a general rule, I am not a wine drinker as I just don’t care for the taste. But, as I am learning, there ARE some wonderful tasting wines out there. It’s just taking some time and effort to find the ones that I like. Sis – try a Johannesburg Reisling. The word “Spatlese” is also on the label and I don’t know exactly what it means, but it’s important. The “Reisling” is the type of grapes. You’ll like it. Sweet, mellow, goes down easy.

Well, enough for this time. I must go to the Internet Café and get this posted before dinner. I am annoyed to report that we cannot get Wi-Fi in the cabin but must go to select spots on the ship to connect. Why can they not make the wireless available ship wide? It would be so much nicer to handle it all from my own room.

To be continued………………..

Euro Journals - 4

We have left the city of Venice behind us and I can’t say that I’m terribly sorry. Although the place had its share of charm and ambiance, it was nonetheless a location that was, for me, a nightmare to traverse. We had to walk everywhere or else get on a water conveyance of some kind. Since I have bad knees for walking and I get seasick on the water, this is just not my kind of town.

Why would somebody who gets seasick go on a cruise, you might ask? Well, I love cruising enough to take meds every day. I don’t love Venice that much. They have some of the most beautiful glassware in the world and they make gorgeous jewelry out of that glass. However, now that I have a large assortment of said jewelry, I can leave Venice behind with no regrets.

This morning as we tried to leave our hotel to head for the cruise ship at the port, the final problem occurred with the city and it was definitely the straw that broke the camel’s back. No more Venice for us. Once has been quite enough.

You’ll recall that I mentioned it has been raining, cloudy, cold, etc. etc. Well, apparently when it rains a lot in Venice, the canals overflow and the streets flood. St. Marks square had a foot of standing, ice cold water that had to be crossed in order to get over to the canal side where transportation was waiting. My jeans were soaked to the knees, and, obviously my shoes and socks were sodden. Plus, I just kept thinking about how filthy that water was. Being in the health field as I am, I was wondering about all kinds of waterborne diseases, e.g. cholera et al and I was not a happy camper. Neither of us were. The Spouse seems to be coming down with a cold and wading several blocks in icy water did not do her health any good at all.

The locals were all wearing rubber boots that went up to their knees or thighs and they seemed completely unfazed by the flooding. They just waded along and went about their business. Only the dumb tourists (like yours truly) had problems with their tennis shoes and low cut boots. Somehow, the tourist brochures never mention the fact that Venice floods regularly after a good rain and that it is extremely common at this time of year. Common enough that all the piles of “tables” that we saw folded and stacked in St. Mark’s square, turned out not to be tables at all, but elevated sidewalks. Unfortunately, the elevated table walks don’t go everywhere so they weren’t much help to us in our quest to get out of Venice and to the port where our ship was waiting.

Because of the flooding we hired a porter to transport our luggage. We surely couldn’t go pushing it through the water and therefore, we had to hire help. These very strong gentleman make a living manually hauling stuff around Venice on their elevated carts. Our porter was a very sweet, kind and helpful older guy. I was amazed at how strong he was physically as he muscled his cart up and down stairs and through the water to get us where we needed to be. I tipped him generously for his very gracious help.

After the flooding and the blocks long wading in ice water, we treated ourselves to a very expensive private taxi to take us to the port. The “private taxi” is, of course, no more than some entrepreneur with a speed boat. We hired ourselves a strong young man with a fine looking boat and off we went. He hauled both me and The Spouse and the luggage into his boat and we went flying through the canals heading for our big cruise ship.

Getting into the speed boat was interesting as his boat could only get so close to the dock and that closeness was about a 3 foot wide step for a nice big man. Since I do not have the legs of a tall man and said legs are arthritic to boot, I was scared to death that I was going into the canal before I managed to get into the boat. However, I was determined not to get any wetter that I already was and I made it. I’m sure from a spectator’s point of view, watching three strong men and The Spouse hanging onto me for dear life as I climbed into the speed boat, was quite a sight to see.

As I said at the beginning, I believe I’ve had enough of Venice.

As we pulled into the port, the RCL people greeted our taxi, took over the luggage and we were immediately enveloped in a warm protective, care taking environment. We were no longer tourists visiting Venice, we were now CRUISE SHIP PASSENGERS and as such we had people seemingly at our beck and call. Can we help you? Can we feed you? Can we show you the way? Can we lift and carry and fetch and do anything for you to make you more comfortable?

I shrugged off the cares of a surly and beautiful city, forgot about my wet clothes and squishing boots, quit worrying about who’s got the luggage, quit wondering if my pocket was going to be picked momentarily and removed my heavy backpack and handed it to a handsome young man. He was standing there awaiting my word as to what I needed and how he could help. I walked up the gangplank and into warmth, safety and security.

God, I do love cruising.

To be continued………………..

Friday, November 23, 2007

Euro Journals - 3

Yet another 24 hours has passed and how quickly our time in Venice is slipping away.

We got up fairly early this morning and went down to the breakfast that is part of the package price we paid for this hotel. I was expecting some cold cereal and a bagel, but what we got instead was truly mind boggling.

First of all, instead of just a simple, quickie buffet, we were shown to one of the most beautiful, elegant dining rooms I’ve ever been in. Although much smaller, the ambiance easily equaled that of a cruise ship dining room. The crystal and sterling on the table, the many, many choices for breakfast, the pleasant fellow diners, the wait staff. It was truly a pleasant and unexpected surprise.

I guess what made it so surprising is what makes Venice (and according to The Spouse), all of Europe, so very different from America. At home, if you’re going into a classy restaurant to eat, you know it at a glance. You get no true guarantees that the food is good but, at the very least, the place is in a good area, it looks clean and nice on the outside, in California it has an “A” rating placard in the window, it offers valet parking and it just “looks” expensive and high end….. there’s no mistaking that this is a fine restaurant. But here, things are so very different.

For starters, this 1000 year old city is full of alleyways. Not roads or streets or boulevards, but hundreds (thousands?) of winding alleys. The exterior of the buildings are horrible and cracked and they need paint and upkeep work badly. But those buildings have been standing there for literally centuries “watching” the evolution of humankind. When these alleys were built, there were no cars. A walkway need only be wide enough for a person or, possibly, a horse. And that’s exactly what they are. Just that wide. And even today, there are no cars here, so why bother to change?

It is simply shocking to me to walk into an area that at home you would call “the slums”, only to discover dozens and dozens of shops and restaurants full of expensive beautiful items and fabulous food. You feel like you’re in a “bad neighborhood” until you begin to realize this is what the whole city looks like. Back alleys, crumbling paint, cracked and falling walls.

And yet there is a charm here in these back alleys. An ambiance that’s difficult to put into words. The Italian people, at least the majority of those we have met, are not very friendly. Some are downright rude. Some are abrupt and dismissive. But those few that ARE friendly are so warm and welcoming that they more than make up for the nasty ones.

They shove and push and grumble their way onto the bus, but then a man gets up and gives you his seat.

They ignore you in a restaurant until you are ready to scream, but when they finally get around to waiting on you, they bring wonderful hot fresh food and they care whether or not you like it.

The contrasts between the old and the new, the friendly and the nasty, the helpful and the rude, the warm and the cold…’s all very striking.

Now going back to my original thoughts about the fabulous breakfast served in such style. Our hotel entrance is on a back alley. You must walk to it or possibly have a private taxi bring you through the waterways and up to the nearby landing. The building is old and ugly and unassuming. The concrete is cracked and needs paint. There is a cold wind whistling around the corner. The canal running along in front is full of brackish and unclean looking water.

And yet, this is a fine hotel. We have beautiful rooms, a comfortable bed, a nice living room, a small kitchen with a stove, microwave and fridge. The bathroom, although a bit strange by American standards, with its bidet and square toilet seat, is nonetheless roomy, comfortable, has a large tub, plenty of hot water and meets all our needs.

So maybe you can understand my surprise at the exceptionally classy and beautiful dining room and wonderful food. I just keep expecting the interior to match the exterior and it never does. It’s a difficult concept to grasp. It’s like all we ever see is the wet slimy frog, but the prince really is in there if you’ll just step up and take a look. We stepped up and are oh so pleasantly surprised at how handsome he is.

Clearly, I can never keep up with all the things we are doing in terms of my blog writing. It’s just so much stuff, so many activities, so many places. I’ll just keep writing the highlights and will try you give you a “feel” for where we are and the things we are doing.

Some things we did today after our wonderful breakfast:

We went to the Murano Glass Factory. I bought some beautiful treasures, both for us and for gifts. Their glass is incredible and some of the most gorgeous in the world.

We met and chatted with two other couples from Southern California. One was sitting right behind us on the Vaporetto (think streetcar on the water) and when I heard them speaking English, I answered one of their questions. Retired military folks. We had a lot in common. They also live just a few miles from us. It really is a small world.

I truly forgot that today was Thanksgiving. It was just another vacation day for us. I had pizza for dinner and The Spouse had some risotto with mushrooms. Both were excellent.

A pigeon (they are really everywhere and obnoxious) landed on The Spouse’s head and wouldn’t get off. She freaked out and it jumped onto her backpack still refusing to get off. I whacked at it with my cane and it finally flew away. The shocked and horrified faces of the passersby due to my “pigeon whacking” made it clear how truly protected these little pests are. The Spouse swears if a cop had seen me, I would have been arrested. Gawd! Can you imagine? In the pokey for pigeon whacking! The Spouse has now taken to calling me PW.

I saw a magnificent piece of Murano glass today. It depicted a large fish and an ocean scene. It truly was spectacular and I was admiring it with absolutely no intention of buying it. The salesman, who was convinced he could sell it to me, went from €3500 Euros, including shipping and insurance, to €2100 Euros in the blink of an eye. Just goes to show how overpriced art really is.

We went to the Jewish Ghetto (their words, not mine) and roamed the shops searching for treasures. We saw Hassidic Jews and little boys with yarmulkes. We stopped at a canal side espresso shop, went into the back room, stretched out at a warm comfortable table and had our hot drinks. The Spouse had her expresso and I had hot chocolate. The chocolate was so thick and so sweet, I felt like I could chew my drink instead of sipping it. An interesting experience.

It poured rain on us and was freezing cold all day. In the 30’s. Fortunately we expected it and had all the right clothes. We were perfectly comfortable and actually enjoyed the rain. Us desert dwellers don’t get to see much of that wet stuff. I had an umbrella in my backpack but we never bothered to pull it out. The Spouse bought a very cool newsboy hat and I pulled up the hood on my waterproof jacket and we just kept on rolling.

Well, speaking of “rolling”, if I don’t stop typing and roll over and go to sleep, I’ll never be able to get up in the morning for the tomorrow’s adventures.

Stay tuned…….more to come.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Euro Journals - 2

I am writing from a hotel room in Venice, Italy. This has probably been one of the longest and most physically arduous days I have experienced in recent memory. However, now that we are here, settled into our lovely hotel room, full of dinner and wine and pain pills, my outlook seems quite a bit rosier. Let me recap the last 24 hours for you.

We left New York last night around 8 PM. The plane was delayed in leaving as two passengers had checked their bags, had them put on the plane, and then never showed up for the flight. In this day and age that is suspicious, so all the baggage was unloaded, the suspect baggage was removed, then all the baggage was reloaded. As a consequence we left about an hour late. Of course that hour was spent sitting on the plane, on the tarmac, waiting to leave.

Once we finally got underway, we changed our watches and immediately lost 9 hours. In a nutshell, it was 2 AM Venice time and only 5 PM on the West Coast. So began the jet lag. We will soon be back in sync, I believe, since we are both going to knock ourselves out with sleeping pills in an hour or so and then we should be in good shape when we get up in the morning and our bodies should, more or less, be on Venice time. I can’t imagine how businessmen, who constantly travel to Europe, seem to handle the great time differences so easily. For example, right now at home? It’s 2:40 in the afternoon. Here? It’s 11:40 PM and we’re in bed. However, since we’re both exhausted from the long trip, sleeping should not be a problem.

As we traveled the second, trans-Atlantic leg of our trip, (all endless 8 hours of it), I learned to my chagrin, that international flights serve a full meal and they don’t charge extra for it. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten used to the cheapness of domestic air travel and I expected nothing, so we ate in the New York airport in preparation for the long flight. It was annoying to have that good smelling food being served all around us and not be the slightest bit hungry!

After dinner on the plane, they turned out the lights and the vast majority of the passengers, The Spouse included, got out their blankies and pillows and nodded off to sleep. I read. And read. And read. Several times I did the pillow and blanket thing but after lying there quiet and motionless for 15-20 minutes with my mind racing, I gave up and went back to reading. I got up repeatedly and wandered around the plane as I was stiff and hurting. I went to the bathroom so many times that the stewardess probably thought there was something wrong with me. However, it gave me an excuse to move around and I can always squeeze out a little something. I took pain pills for my knees and I took Xanax to help me relax me so I could sleep. Basically nothing helped. I was wide awake and hurting, essentially from L.A. California to Venice, Italy. Need I say I was not in the most pleasant of moods by the time we landed at the airport in Venice? I had been up and traveling for over 24 hours nonstop by the time we arrived.

The plane used on our earlier flight from L.A. to New York had a very cool feature that I have not personally experienced before. I have flown many, many times and have traveled with no movies, movies on the big screen in the front of the cabin, and movies on the drop down TV style screen occurring every 3rd or 4th row. However, on this flight, each seat had their own individual screen built into the back of the seat in front of you. The small TV/DVR gave you choices of first run movies, regular TV, HBO, sports, etc. It was quite entertaining and nice to be able to pick what I wanted to see personally. I saw what I considered to be a very amusing movie, “Evan Almighty”, and I can certainly recommend it as a great G movie for the family. The kids will love all the animals.

Anyway, back to Italy. We landed and I was pleased to discover that almost all signage pointing the way to anything (at least at and around the airport) is in Italian and English. It certainly made it easier for us to navigate. We went through customs, had our passports stamped and then proceeded into the main terminal to buy water bus tickets and figure out where to catch said bus. (Just picture a large city bus with no wheels. It’s on the water instead.)

You’ll recall from my last post that we arrived with TWO suitcases each rather than the planned one, so after picking up our luggage, we dragged ourselves over to a quiet corner, repacked the large suitcase and, in doing this, we went back down to only one suitcase and a small tote which rode on top of the wheeled suitcase.

We bought our water bus tickets after a lengthy conference in Italian and English with the seller of water bus tickets. She was very helpful and pointed out the direction we should go, where to get on and where to get off. So off we went rolling down the streets of Venice, with our backpacks on our back, our steel cable strapped purses on our body and our rolling suitcases at our side. Problem? Our wheeled suitcases didn’t roll very well on the cobblestoned and marble paved streets. However, we pushed and shoved and struggled along to the bus stop and then sat down to wait.

When the bus arrived, we, and our large, heavy suitcases, managed to get on and get seated, but let me tell you it was a challenge. For you cruisers out there, just imagine getting on the tender which will take you into port, only instead of just you and your waist purse going on a day trip, you are carrying your entire vacation supply of everything right along with you. It was fun, interesting, challenging and a pain in the ass. However, the water bus fare was €12 Euros each. The private water taxi? €60 Euros each. For the mental math, I’m using a rough rule of thumb that whatever the Euro price is, it is half again as much in the dollars that I understand. The €12 Euro bus ride was about $18. It was an hour long ride ¾ of the way across Venice. The same trip in the water taxi would have cost us about $90 bucks. Hence, we became bus people.

As we bounced and rolled along in the waves and rough water, I immediately realized I needed a Dramamine. It was at this point that I thought, it’s good my Mom didn’t come. This one day alone would have killed her. I am considerably stronger and more durable than she is and it almost killed me. And? We were just getting warmed up.

Thanks to our vigilant attention (and no thanks to the bus driver who said NOTHING about which stop we were at) we did manage to get off at San Marco which was our destination. I guess I expected something like a railroad conductor where he yells out, “next stop, San Marco; next stop Lido”, etc. etc. However, I was living in a dream world. He said nothing at all, however he did help with the luggage and he was cute, so we forgave him.

After departing the bus at San Marco, we consulted our map, asked directions and headed off in the direction of St. Mark’s Square and the Basilica. It actually would not have been very problematic, despite our exhaustion, if only the damn suitcases would have rolled nicely on the cobblestone paving. They didn’t. And to make matters worse, and rub a little salt into our “wounds”, we saw other travelers doing exactly as we were and their suitcases were flying along with a one finger push. These people were Europeans, as evidenced by their language, so clearly they have luggage over here that will roll a whole lot better than what we have. One of our travel purchases might very well be some high class, smooth rolling luggage. We shall see. When I saw one European man rolling along two large suitcases, side by side, and those bags floated down those cobblestoned streets like a feather, I knew we had crappy wheels. Not for long………….

The Spouse can gab with anyone about anything at any time and in any place. That’s why she’s so good at her job. Because of this skill, she had numerous conversations with Italians about our directions, where we were headed, how much farther, etc. etc. and she gathered lots of information. The fact that she can’t speak Italian didn’t seem to slow her down in the slightest.

We found our hotel after only one or two mis-steps in direction. We had to cross St. Mark’s Square and the place is simply “alive” with pigeons. Apparently they are a protected species over here and I have never seen such fat pigeons in my whole life. They are rather like smallish, very plump chickens in size. They are quite aggressive and come right up to you begging for food and they fly right at you. It was rather unnerving and I had a Tippi Hedren and “The Birds” moment a couple of times. Protected or not, I was quite ready to let my suitcase “accidentally” fall over on a couple of the little buggers. They were extremely annoying. Surprisingly there was almost no bird poop. Then I saw the guy with the pooper scooper working his way around the very large square. What a job. Pigeon shit picker upper.

We checked into our hotel, discovered that we have a very lovely, if small, suite, and got settled in. My first “job” was to lay down on the couch and die. I took a 3 hour nap before I could even begin to think about functioning.

Once I awoke, we made this little place our “home”, got dressed and headed out for dinner. We ate at a small waterside café in one of the alleyways just off the square. There are a million little shops and restaurants all within easy walking distance. It is a bit nerve wracking to wander in these “alleys” as they are not the typical American style streets with stores and shops all spread out. It is like a rabbit warren with hundreds of stores and shops and millions of things for sale, expensive things, cheap things and everything in between.

I can immediately see that I will probably buy some glassware. The Murano glass factory is just a short distance away and I have already seen some incredibly beautifully glassware in the windows. My shopping finger is itching.

The shops seem uniquely Italian and it is certainly a very different setting and a very different outlook from shopping at the mall in America.

Well, I’m tired and I need to sleep in preparation for tomorrow’s adventures. All of you reading this, hold a good thought for us and send up a quick prayer for our safety. I’ll be back tomorrow.

To the family: we love you and miss you and are thinking of you all the time.

The adventure continues……………………..

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Euro Journals - 1

I had planned to start writing last night while we were staying in a lovely hotel right by LAX. However, we arrived, checked in, got hamburgers from Burger King across the street, repacked and rebalanced our suitcases and backpacks and then fell into the bed. We were both totally and completely exhausted from days of preparation.

Between the errands, the necessary purchases, the packing, weighing, unpacking, re-packing, weighing, unpacking, re-packing, weighing, etc. etc. ad infinitum over this last week, to say we were tired, and are tired, is a minor understatement.

I have never in all my travels worked so hard at packing. The most invaluable tool I bought in our trip preparations was a hand held suitcase scale. It enabled us to see at a glance how we were doing on the weight of our suitcases.

The airlines have gotten incredibly strict on baggage weight, especially for international flights, and the fines are unbelievable for overweight luggage. Since I didn’t want to waste any of my precious spending money on overweight luggage, we each packed and unpacked and re-packed our suitcases more times than I can count. Thanks to packing cubes and space saver air bags for bulky items, space was never the issue. Weight was the issue.

I started at 79½ pounds and by weeks end I had it down to 61 pounds of what I considered clothing and belongings that “I couldn’t live without.” You just try packing all you need for a three week trip that includes hiking and jeans and warm clothing (translation: bulky clothing), formal dress for dinner, bathing suit and spa items, nice sporty clothes, casual lay around the room clothes, pajamas, shoes, toiletries, etc. etc. etc. and keep it in one suitcase under 50 pounds. Not an easy task. Actually, after a week of trying, I finally gave up at 61 pounds and decided I would just pay the fine. The penalties get progressively higher with the weight of your bag, so at 61 pounds, my fine should have been $50. I decided if I could afford a trip of this magnitude, I could afford $50 bucks to take what I wanted with me.

However, then came a new problem. Many of the things I took out of my suitcase, I put in my backpack. Of course, they don’t weigh your backpack so I could put in as much as I could carry on my back.

What a surprise………I overestimated what I could comfortably carry on my back, to say the least, and by the time we arrived at the hotel last night, I had to once again re-pack. To say I am sick of packing might be a minor understatement. (Oh, and in case I didn’t make this clear, everything I write about me and suitcases and backpacks and weight is true for The Spouse as well.) Neither of us has any sense.

Well, fortunately, both of us had packed a fold-up, large envelope size, duffle style extra suitcase which we had planned to use for the trip home. When I left home, it was small and flat in the bottom of my suitcase. It is now large and very full and has been checked, along with our main big suitcase.

Although I’m annoyed at already using our “extra” suitcase, we now each have two suitcases checked, each one is under 50 pounds, so no fines, and our backpacks are now a manageable and comfortable weight.

When we arrive in Venice, we expect to do more repacking in the airport in order to get back down to one suitcase and our backpack before we start walking, riding or floating our way to our hotel.

As I write this entry I am sitting on a plane bound for New York. I have my laptop on my tray table and the people around me are sleeping or chatting. I just finished watching a good movie (Evan Almighty) and I’m now about ready for a short nap myself. I suppose I should realistically say a short snooze, since I don’t do too well at sleeping on a plane. However, I’ll give it a try since I really am whipped.

I’m not sure when I’ll be able to post this first entry. It depends on the timing, but possibly in the airport in New York. If all flows smoothly, we should have about 3 hours between flights.

To be continued……………….

Saturday, November 17, 2007

58 Hours To Go......But Who's Counting?

I’m counting, that’s who! We have been so incredibly busy getting ready for our BIG adventure that we have hardly had time to breathe. Between gathering our passports, getting international driver’s licenses, and buying traveler’s checks, then shopping for things like voltage adapters, money belts and security purses, my life in the last few weeks has definitely taken an interesting turn.

Did you know they made shoulder purses with steel cabling in the straps so they can’t be cut? Neither did I. Did you know that they drive on the “wrong side of the road” only in Ireland and England and that the rest of Europe drives on the right side as we do? Neither did I. Did you know that the American dollar is so weak in Europe right now, that for my $93 American dollars, I only got €61 Euros? Can you imagine that three nights in a hotel in Italy is in the same monetary neighborhood as a month’s salary for someone making minimum wage here at home? Neither can I.

Clearly, this trip has been, and will continue to be, not only a wild, fun, exciting adventure, it has been a learning experience of the first magnitude. It’s also a great way to clean out your savings account. We have gotten wonderful “deals” at every step of our planning. Fabulous price on our cruise, good deal on our hotels, wonderful sales on “vital” new articles of clothing, and yet, we are saving so much money, we’re going broke!! I can’t believe the amount of money we have spent and are planning to spend in the next 3 weeks. No wonder the world calls us the “rich Americans”. Even the poorest of us don’t really know what “poor” means. We are truly a blessed people.

We’re heading out of here Monday afternoon and will stay at a hotel by the airport on Monday night. We live a long distance from LAX and with the need to be at the airport between 5:00 and 5:30 AM on Tuesday morning, we simply had no choice. We couldn’t take a chance on getting caught in morning rush hour traffic on the way to the airport.

We’re going from here to New York and then, from there, on to Venice, Italy. We leave L.A. about 7 AM Tuesday morning and by 10 AM Wednesday morning we’ll be in Venice. It should be a long, exhausting trip, but we’re doing everything possible to make it easy on ourselves. We hope to be able to sleep on the trans-Atlantic flight and I know The Spouse will snore with ease. She’s like that. But me? I will doze some but since they won’t let me stretch out in the aisle, it is doubtful that I will get much real sleep. For some annoying reason, I simply can’t sleep while in a sitting position. Unfortunately, those economy cabin seats just don’t recline enough to be considered even partially lying down. So, probably, no sleep for me. But I’ll try. It would be nice to arrive feeling fresh and ready for adventures!

The first adventure will be getting from the airport to our hotel. Since, as you know, Venice is a city with waterways instead of paved streets, we have to take a water taxi from the airport. We will use the public transportation as much as possible since the private transports cost about 10 times as much. So just picture it. Two California girls arriving in Venice, probably in the cold and the rain, each of us wearing a backpack, carrying a shoulder bag and pulling a single, large suitcase. Off the plane, pick up the bags, go through customs, find the “taxi place” and buy a book of tickets, then head outside and find the right place to catch the right taxi so we’ll get taken to the correct part of the city. Get on said taxi, dragging suitcases along with us. Get let off at the “curb” near “the square” where we’ll then roll (drag) our suitcases through the cobblestone streets until we find our hotel. Our hotel is located right in the center of town and apparently we have to “only” go over a couple of bridges to get there after we get off the water taxi.

I believe “adventure” is the correct word for what we are heading into. I am truly looking forward to everything. It will be very exciting and a whole new experience. You don’t get too many of those after you reach a certain age in life.

But do you know what has been the most challenging, interesting, exciting, crazy thing of all so far? Trying to pack three weeks worth of clothing and “stuff” into one suitcase. I AM DYING HERE! Packing light is not my forte, but God knows we are trying.

Keep your fingers crossed. After all, we don’t want to sink that water taxi.

The regular vacation posts will begin in the next couple of days, as soon as we are on the road, so stop by often.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Shadow of Her Smile

Mom’s been gone for four days now. She headed back to her part of the world on Sunday.

I miss her. I hear the sound of a footstep in the kitchen and I realize I’m waiting for her to say good morning. Only it’s not her, it’s OMAS or a sweet pup shuffling across the kitchen with a lazy step.

I have turned my head to say something to her, only to remember that she’s not here now. And the words die in my throat.

She made the big recliner in our family room her very own and now it looks so empty and forlorn. Her chair sits directly across from my own so my line of sight keeps reminding me that she’s not sitting there anymore.

I’m heading out to run errands today. So many last minute things to do as we get ready for our BIG trip. We leave in only 12 more days.

The empty passenger seat in the car is a constant reminder that Mom is no longer a California girl. She ran around every where with me while she was here. The Spouse, a night worker, usually sleeps all day, and OMAS is currently sick with a bad cold, so she won’t be running any errands. So, off I go, alone, and wishing for Mom’s company.

I do fine with my own company. I like me. But I got used to having her around.

I miss her.

Hurry back Mom. Your absence is sorely felt.