Saturday, December 30, 2006

Various things not related to visitors.

1. It was a big day for Jack and me. We had finally gotten the letter saying that our ID cards were ready. So that morning, we went over to the commune's office and picked them up. It was very exciting given that we had started the process before we even left the states: getting married, sending fingerprints off to the FBI and birth certificates off to our originating states to get notarized. We submitted the voluminous paperwork in May, and here it was mid-October when the documentation was finally coming through. They didn't even fake us out, either--the guy at the window had our cards (heavyweight paper: Jack's a cream-colored tri-fold and mine a orangesicle-y bi-fold) ready for us to sign. We were glad to finally be done with it, although somewhat disappointed to discover that Jack's was only valid until next May, at which point it would need to be renewed. Argh.

2. Encountering art in this city is no big chore; like music, the hefty taxes we pay go to various demonstrations of stuff, many of which are further subsidized by companies.
a. Art in A Garage.
We assumed it would kind of have that Art-O-Matic rogue art flavor, given the setting, but it was nine artists, one per floor, who had created installation pieces, including this pink dripped latex foam. And the garage was still open, so you had to dodge moving vehicles to get to some of them. The best part, undoubtedly, was the view from the top, which was several stories above the original skyline.
b. Truc-Troc. We encountered this one by accident, when we saw a parade of people walking by with free stuff in their hands. We followed them to the building they were trickling out and were told that the art in the temporary gallery was ours for the taking if we "proposed" something to the artist that he or she was willing to exchange for. They set us loose with a pad of sticky notes. The mood of the crowd was rather gleeful, and people were proposing all kinds of stuff, most of it better than what we had to offer (cases of champagne, weekend use of second homes, etc.). The art was of varying quality, but there were some very nice pieces. Jack suggested I offer up the recently-acquired head of Jesus in exchange for an ethereal street scene. "Je propose le tete du Jesus." Another piece had a magazine that was exploded outward at the viewer: "Je propose une nouveau magazine." We left with free coffee drinks in our bellies and free chocolates in our pockets.
c. Bozar's India Festival. The exhibit on the religious artifacts of India had a different theme every weekend, and we chose to go when they were having a bazaar to scout for possible Christmas presents. I didn't enjoy the exhibit itself much at all, as it was dry as unbuttered toast, but the expo featured puppets, Bollywood dancing, henna tattoos, a cricket workshop, Indian goods and food. It smelled fantastic. We got a wrap with lentils and seasoned rice and a piece of gulab jamun. Mmmm. There was also, inside the museum, a live elephant. The children were ecstatic.
d. Freebie. Jack discovered a lovely impressionistic painting on a board that of a bilious green nude being hovered over by an ominously reptilian character someone put out for the trash. Can you imagine? It's now over the fireplace in the living room.

3. Wanderings can be somewhat limited when you're reliant on public transportation, but we took an outing to visit the sculpture garden at the University on the edge of the metro system some time ago. The pieces were not very numerous or interesting, for the most part, but there was a garden of herbal remedies bordering it on one side and a double-wide old-school Pizza Hut on another. The former was empty and in a state of late fall decline, but the latter was absolutely packed on that Sunday. It looked like they had table service and wine and everything--definitely worth checking out at some point. We decided to head for another section of the transportation system to catch a tram back, and we found a shopping mall, a house with a thatched roof, the store that carries English and American products, an old-school mill converted to a fancy restaurant, natural watercourses, unnatural ponds, birds, trees...pretty much a little of everything, depending primarily on what side of the street you were on. A few weeks later we went out to visit Lake Genval, just a short regional train ride away. This was a former resort community with a variety of grand old houses around the lake, reminding me a bit of a miniature Lake George. We took in the Water and Fountain Museum, which showed us how they moved water through the ages. Thankfully, they had an old pipe made from a bored-out tree trunk--no water-related museum is complete without one. We had lunch in town at the restaurant La Clé where I found the following scrawled in ballpoint pen on the bathroom stall door: "Je t'aime mon lapin" (I love my rabbit).

4. The Balmoral Milk Bar is a "50s-Style diner", and is nearly always packed. We wandered by one day when there were a few free tables and so we stopped in. We each ordered some of the most expensive hamburgers ever (more than €10), but they were enormous. Jack's was so filled with stuff that he gave up handling it after a couple of bites and attacked it with knife and fork (which is probably more European, anyway). They were quite tasty, although I was unable to finish mine due to the size. Jack also got an almond milkshake, which seemed to have been thickened with not only ice cream but also ground almonds and was a delicious treat. I got a Dr. Pepper, because how often do you see Dr. Pepper in Belgium? There was a large mural on one wall with James Dean doing his normal smoldering gaze thing. He was being pursued by a train, for some reason.

5. We took the opportunity of the lull in visitors to take a trip out to Ikea, where we bought some desperately-needed additional storage and a desk to complete my fabulous office-nook (I had previously [for 5 months] been using a corrugated box). Jack took some convincing, but we were really out of places to put stuff, and I had gone earlier in the week to scope things out, so I knew we could keep prices reasonable. What I didn't know was how to get the stuff home. We researched the options before purchasing and learned there was a system called Taxis Verts that would deliver your stuff (and you, if necessary) to your house. A pleasant gentleman who spoke good English explained how it worked. So we bolstered ourselves on €1 hotdogs (terrible, again) and made our purchases. Once we got back to the Taxis Verts stand there were a number of people waiting around for someone to tell them what to do. One of the trucks pulled up and people thronged the guy when he came in. He didn't speak any English. He was writing people's name on a form and I was pretty desperate not to lose my place in line, so I let him know as best I could that I was waiting as well. I got the message across somehow, since he wrote down my destination and my name, "Annette". He left and another guy showed up, and I indicated that I was me, and we loaded the stuff in the truck and headed out down the road. It was the most circuitous route imaginable, during the afternoon rush hour, but he got us home in amazingly short order. Now I have a lovely spot from which I type, complete with a decorative homemade organizer, and all I need is a lamp and a taller chair to make it perfect. But I'm getting there.

Friday, December 08, 2006

I ask you, does this look anything like me? For those who are pondering this question a leeeetle too long, I'll give you a hint: no. After an excessively long but fairly satisfying lunch at a Bruges cafe that was comprised of pieces of like 3 different buildings strung together (you had to go up the back stairs, down a corridor, through a glassed-in passage overlooking the back garden to get to the bathroom) and that had really bad art embedded in all the tables, we walked the major landmarks in town on our way to the B&B. There were many, many gewgaws for sale, including this doll. G said it looked like me, so I responded by calling her a "Jerk-ass". I apologized to her for speaking so hastily; I meant to say "Jerk-wad". But the name stuck, and we called her Jerk-ass for the remainder of the trip.

We checked in at the B&B, Absoluut Verhulst, at which G had booked a 2-storey loft space that slept 5. It was very nice and peaceful; good choice, G! Not having a TV at home, the first thing I did, naturally, was turn it on. We chilled for a bit and had some caffeinated beverages, and then headed out for some more sightseeing. On the way out the door we encountered the proprietor and told him we thought the place was lovely. I employed the one word of Dutch I know and said it was "very gezellig". He asked if I knew Dutch, I told him no, and he then said something in Dutch. Whatever. What appeared to be a pretty standard residential living room was filled with bikes and a wheelchair, and the latter, he told us, was in case any of us got too tired and needed to be pushed around. I put a pin in it, knowing it was going to be a long day of looking at stuff.

You may recall from the last Bruges stay that they have a relic of Jesus' blood in the aptly-named church of the Holy Blood, but Jack and I didn't visit it. G, being into that sort of nasty stuff, was excited so we each got a handful of change and got in line. (They should probably just put up a sign that says "no money, no lookee" because they practically force you to give them some, as J found out on a trip a few weeks later. Churches are a great way to get rid of all the low-value change that accumulates so I have no issue with it.) The relic was contained in a glass cylinder into which a smaller cylinder containing the blood was placed. It looked to me like a piece of porous bone with a reddish-brown splotch on it. Although many people were kissing it or laying on their hands, I found it pretty repulsive and gave it a brief touch so the priest-lady wouldn't scold me for being disrespectful.

After that, it was on to Choco-Story! This museum was somewhat cheesy and overpriced, but I can't say it wasn't informative. I learned that:
- cocoa beans being removed from their pods look very gross and slimy, like intestines or something
- the reason Leopold II's offspring didn't continue the royal line was that he didn't have any male heirs
- Belgian chocolate is ground to a finer powder than in any other country, which is why it is so smooth and delicious
- large chocolate sculptures are a bad idea, no matter what country you're in (cross reference to the trip to the super-stinky Chocolate Kingdom in Sharon, PA)
- chocolate doesn't make people fat; people make people fat (chocolate, however, DOES lower cholesterol and prevent acne, not people)
- and much, much more!

It really was quite interesting, although a bit silly due to its over-serious tone. At the end, a couple of surly teens demonstrated how make filled chocolates. I had to leave due to a coughing fit, but thanks to G's severe nut allergy she gave me her hazelnut-filled praline shaped like that talking starfish on that cartoon all the kids are talking about these days. Score!

More wandering commenced and we ended up at the Jerusalem church, which was built by Italian merchants back in the day and had a wooden sphere on top instead of a steeple. It was a refreshing change of style from most of Bruges, and so we paid the entry fee to check out the interior. There were no signs to show how to get anywhere in the compound, and after getting trapped in a warren of tinier and tinier rooms containing the lace museum, we popped back out into the courtyard and just began trying to open doors into the church. We finally managed to find one that was unlocked and were greeted with an unusual interior that contained a double-wide raised tomb in the middle of the floor where the congregation would normally sit, an altarpiece with skulls, bones, and snakes carved into it, a tiny chapel behind the altar, and an even tinier room behind the chapel that you had to double over to get in which contained a full-sized statue of a dead Jesus in a glass coffin.

Back out in the courtyard, we crossed the path to get into another building that used to be an almshouse for impoverished women. Through another series of doors where it looked like you weren't supposed to go, a lacemaking demonstration was taking place. In reality, it was several women (and one baby) in a room together as if at a quilting bee, going about their business and chatting to each other. They ignored us, but it was nice to see this dying art being carried on by people, young and old, who were doing it because they liked to, not because they were on display in a shop window to attract customers. They all seemed to be doing traditional pieces, but there were some more modern themes in a small gallery in the back: snow on trees, colorful abstractions, naked ladies, etc. Before leaving I made sure to try all the other doors to make sure we weren't missing out on, say, Elvis playing poker or levitating ponies or anything.

Following some recuperation at the B&B we went out to find us some grub. The restaurant we went to was virtually empty at such an early hour, so our waiter took his time with us and was very pleasant. He suggested some beers that really hit the spot. I got the eel sauteed in butter, a simple but delicious preparation. S got the giant head-on shrimp even though I warned him about it, but he seemed to enjoy messing with it, at one point blowing on a shrimp body as if it was the mouthpiece for the trumpet he played in grade school. They gave him one of those narrow meat removal forks, which is more help than I got when I ordered it the previous week. If I had to guess, Jerk-ass probably got mussels and fries, but I could be wrong.

We took an evening stroll around town and took in the sights under cover of darkness: the Beguinage, Minnewater, city gate. Then we went back to our place and found a pretty entertaining current events comedy panel show on the BBC, like "Whose line is it anyway" except funnier and more topical. Then off to bed to rest up for some more intensive touring.

The breakfast the next morning was fantastic. They just kept bringing stuff out in addition to the items on the table that you were to help yourself to: deli meats, cheeses, rolls, nuts, dried fruit, yogurt, fresh fruit, and an egg dish. There was also cereal if you were still hungry. There were two other couples staying there, both from the States, so we chatted with everyone about various stuff. It was all I could do to get up from the table after eating, not even having tried many of the things they'd put out. I could have stayed there until checkout, digesting and watching TV, but there was so much more to be seen! Onward!

We went over to the bell tower and took the long, spiraly climb to the top. It was chilly and windy up there, but the view was excellent and the bells did their thing at like 10 minutes past the appointed time, and although I had been hoping to be down on the level with the giant music box mechanism when it went off (along with a father who had dragged his two bored-looking sons up there), it was still a sound to behold.

Then it was time to visit the chocolate shop and get treats for those who had been left behind. I got some chocolate-covered ginger, chocolate-covered cherries, and a bottle of chocolate advocaat, a beverage I'd seen advertised several times before in restaurants but never ordered because I thought it was some kind of avocado or lawyer milkshake. According to the label it was a type of eggnog. The best thing they had in the shop was a white chocolate goblet of appropriately golden Duvel beer, with a big head of chocolate foam on the top--very realistic. S got a white-chocolate ghost, just in time for the upcoming Halloween holiday (although he doesn't really like chocolate and G doesn't like white chocolate that much, as it turns out, so who knows if it was ever consumed). G spent a good while in there picking out stuff for the peeps back home. S stopped in next door to the skate shop and got G some black wristbands with a pink skull and crossbones motif...awww.

We went back to the B&B to get our luggage, then a quick trip to the Our Lady church to check out the Michelangelo statue, then on to the train station. First, though, we stopped at the old St. John's Hospital to visit the restroom. It was G's first encounter with a Madame Pipi, so she was a little nervous, but it went fine. Parts of the hospital are apparently now used for a conference center, so as I wandered the halls I could have sat in on some biotechnology presentations, but instead I investigated some large styrofoam celtic crosses. Had there been someone else with me I could have gotten some excellent photos. Oh well. Unfortunately we missed our train, but there was another one in a half hour so we sat on the platform and I nibbled on the chocolate-covered waffle they had gotten from the grocery store before we left. It tasted remarkably like an Entenmann's chocolate-covered donut, so it was reasonably tolerable in small quantities. I think I ended up eating the one waffle over a period of 6 days, a little at a time.

Once we got back on the train G had a confrontation with a young boy who was begging her in French for her bottle of water, which she refused to surrender on the grounds that (a) she had already drank out of it and didn't want to pass on contagions and (b) the whole thing was just weird and the kid wouldn't take no for an answer. I tried to explain in French that she was sick, but the kid wouldn't look at me or talk to me, but was fixated on G. After a few minutes of pleading he gave up. It seemed like it was going to be one of those things where the kid is distracting you so another kid could get your wallet, but that would have been difficult as we were all sitting facing each other, unless the other kid happened to be a snake that could slip between the cushions from behind and snag your wallet in his fangs.

When the ticket taker came around we discovered that the tickets I had purchased from the machine were not valid for an overnight stay, just for an up and back journey. Oops! The guy let us use them, though, since it was clear we were just stupid Americans. Kind of annoying that they have an automated system at the train station for in-country travel, but you can't specify your return date. If you buy and print out your tickets on the web, though, you can. I just don't get it.

Once we got back into Brussels and had a delicious gyro repast (and they bought me a much-coveted toaster as an early b-day present [yay toast!]), we did some running around to pick up souvenirs and cram in a very quick visit to the Cantillon brewery, which didn't allow us much time to look at the process before having to head back down for a beer so we could get our money's worth before they closed for the day. The gueuze, as always for those who are trying it for the first time, was a bit of a surprise, but it doesn't take long to cotton to the flavor. When we got back to the house, we discovered that Jack had found a Jesus head on the street the previous day and brought it home, becoming fast friends. Jesus backed him up several times, although no one but Jack could hear what he was saying so we just had to take his word for it.

Later that night, after dinner at a beer restaurant that featured more gueuze and frites, we visited a coffin-themed bar off the Grand Place that had coffins for tables and expensively-priced Jupiler in skull mugs. The atmosphere was lightened by the pop music playing in the background and the jovial bartender. After a couple of skull-skis, we made our way back to the hacienda and G had to pee "really, really bad". There were several conversations like "I'm serious, you guys" and "don't make me laugh!" It WAS pretty funny, though, since those types of evenings tend to occur less and less frequently as one reaches maturity. As all the green spaces were locked up at night there wasn't much a female could do in this situation aside from finding a doorway to squat in and having a Jeanneke moment. Fortunately she made it through the unpopulated stretch back into our neighborhood so we could stop at a bar. We had another beer and everyone took the opportunity to visit the facilities.

The next day we sent S&G off on the train to continue their sojourn in London. Sayonara, suckers!

[Photo #2 courtesy of S. His award-winning work can be found here. The homepage is VERY noisy; you have been warned.]

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

After a day for cleaning and replenishing of goods, S&G got here. Brussels was the first stop on their multi-capital Euro-tour of Brussels and London. They flew through London on their way here, and their plane was cancelled so they had to get on the next one. Not ideal when one is suffering from sleep deprivation, and when S called me from Heathrow to give me the news, I discerned that he had made a credit card call so I quickly got off the line. When you're trapped at an airport for an indefinite period, there's a tendency to want to kill time by whatever means possible. Jack and I learned the wrath of the operator-assisted credit card call before we moved, when I was in the US and he was in Brussels, and I didn't want to inflict the same pain on them.

It was S's first trip to Europe and even through his sleepless haze it was obvious that he was verrry excited. G was a bit more bleary-eyed, more befitting of someone who has been abroad before. We had lunch at the delicious salad place next to the train station, and then got home after an exciting tram ride where the tram in front of us broke down, causing substantial delays and resulting in the tram being towed uphill in front and behind by what looked to be dump trucks.

After napping for them and working for me, it was time to hit the town. We went to the beer-themed restaurant downtown and had the same waiter as last time. The restaurant was a bit fuller this time, so he didn't lay on the charm as thickly, but he did select some enjoyable beers for us. He immediately pegged S as the...uh, "gregarious" one amongst us, giving him the most alcoholic brew. To my surprise, no one objected to an order of escargot to start. G had been talking about the fried cheese practically since I met them at the airport, so we got an order of that as well. For an entree I had the waterzooi, a creamy chicken stew, and everyone else had mussels prepared various ways. Everything was delicious. Later we took in some of the sights under cover of darkness and then headed home.

The next day we...went to the Atomium. Because of the high pricetag and the fact that I had already been, I wasn't interested in going in. Once they saw how cool it looked in real life, though, they insisted and paid my way. A good time was had by all. It wasn't nearly as crowded as last time, and I was able to show them where the secret free bathroom was. There was also a new exhibit of original barbie dolls doing things that barbies did back when the Atomium opened in 1958: holding giant surfboards, wearing cat-eye sunglasses, and generally looking stiff and ill at ease.

We lingered in the cafe at the top for a bit, taking in the scene at Mini Europe far below, and eventually made our way over to the palace and then to a lunch joint for beers, food and frites. After nourishment, I was looking for the tram line home when we came across the Jette cemetery. We spent a bit of time checking out that scene, which wasn't as nice, restful, or large as the Ixelles one, and then made our way home. Dinner that evening was at a place near our house that had been recommended by the guidebook they brought. It had gargoyles on the front and a richly-decorated interior visible from the street, so we figured we couldn't go wrong. They seated us in the cavernous ballroom in the back, which had none of the charm of the front rooms, which we decided were either for those who had made reservations or those who were better-dressed than we were. The food was okay, but thematically all over the map and not really worth the price. I'm pretty sure there were frites involved, though.

Thursday we lit out of town for Bruges, sans Jack...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Funny soccer game incident I forgot to mention.

At the end of the game, when it became clear that the other team was likely to lose, the Liege supporters began to sing:

Heeeeey, Baby!
I wanna know-oh-oh
If you'll be my girl!

Why they thought that was an appropriate tune I don't know. I can only assume that the majority of fans didn't really know what they were singing, or perhaps they were referring to the opposing team as a bunch of women. Naturally we joined in.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The day after my return from the US, T arrived. This was his first trip abroad and we were delighted to be able to share it with him. Having not slept on the plane, he was pretty zombie-ish the first day. We went out for a late breakfast and he was mesmerized by all the different cars here, stopping at several and gazing at them with a rapturous look on his face.

He took a long mid-day nap, sleeping through Jack's lunch hour (although waking long enough to say hi), which sadly didn't seem to help his tiredness any, and then we went out to visit the royal residence and the Atomium. What he needed was...a good long haul to wear him out so he would sleep well. Yeah. We stopped at a fritterie to pick up some fries for the walk, and there were a bunch of guys hanging around it, mostly drinking Jupiler beer. One was smoking pot, however, which was the first time I'd seen someone doing that in public here. Most of the group (although not the reefer dude) were dressed in uniforms that suggested that they were municipal workers, but I choose to believe that by that time they were off the clock rather than taking a beer break. On the way back to the tram stop we got a peek at the Japanese Tower and the Chinese Pavilion, which were part of Leopold II's ambitious plan to construct buildings of the typical architecture of many places around the globe. He only got around to building these two. That man seemed to lack focus--interesting architecture, destruction of his African colony, public green spaces--he just spread himself too thin.

The tram ride home was uneventful primarily due to T's napping, although we did have a hard time finding the stop to get on, as it was in a narrow cut in the terrain one level below grade, disguised as a naturally landscaped area. That night we went to the Irish pub for dinner and happened upon their quiz night. Although we didn't play, it was fun to follow along. Being only three of us, I don't think we would have won, but we did manage to answer a fair number of questions correctly. I was so excited at times that I'd call out the answers, possibly giving a leg up to the table of people next to us.

T made it clear that his goals for the trip were to investigate the chocolate and to find the only beer he had ever enjoyed, the Duchesse de Bourgogne. The chocolate research was very systematic: he would start at the bottom in terms of quality and work his way up. We stopped off at a night shop before concluding the evening, thinking that we could find some bad chocolate there, and we three panelists agreed that it was pretty awful. Thankfully, T was good enough to consume it all before he left.

Tuesday morning, Jack and I had an appointment at the Commune to complete the paperwork for our ID cards. The contractor Jack's company had hired to usher the process along met us there with an armload of cookies. Apparently she had been there for someone else's appointment earlier in the day, and was returning prepared for another go. The cookies were the cheapest grocery store variety, which just goes to show that even if they make excellent chocolates and pastries here, government employees will scarf up any free junk that is given to them. Reminded me of home. The woman processing the paperwork somehow managed to forget about my existence, even though my name was right there on the file in front of her, but our helpful contractor was able to get her straightened out. The staff person was a bit flustered in the change in routine, though, and neglected to ask us for our photos, so the contractor had to return later on and hand them in.

Later that day T and I wandered some more. Eventually we ended up at a bar for some mid-afternoon loitering. We had a pleasant surprise when we discovered that T's beer was on the menu! He ordered it only to have the wrong beer brought out. He took it back to the bar to tell them it wasn't what he had ordered, but they told him that the brewery had just changed the label (the beer was also named some kind of Bourgogne, but not Duchesse). It was no real shock when he had his first sip and learned that the wait staff had misled him. T put on a brave face and drank it down.

That evening we went out for dinner at a bar/restaurant that Jack and I thought might have his beer. And lo, they did! It was the perfect accompaniment to T's spaghetti bolognaise. I got what I thought was going to be lobster in a packet, but turned out to be gigantic whole shrimp that were by and large inedible with the tools I had been provided. It was okay, though, and T left happy after his second beer. That day's chocolate, purchased from the grocery store earlier on, was also a step above the last. Double success!

As if the beer and chocolate weren't enough, T also took on the tasks of rating the waffles purchased from various locations (vans, metro stations, restaurants, etc.) and seeing what Belgian fast food had to offer. How he managed to juggle it all at once I'll never know. Wednesday we went out and looked at some key touristy spots and he got one of the waffles that is so piled with toppings that it's almost as high as it is wide. A nightmare for wusses like me who don't like the waffles in the first place, but he enjoyed it. We also visited the Quick Burger chain, where he got a "Demoniak" burger (the tagline for which translates to something like "go to hell") with a suspiciously deep-orange bun, as if it had been canoodling with some carrots. Were there vegetables hidden in there? He also discovered that the condiments giddily distributed in such vast quantities in the US were not, in fact, free here. I had a hot dog, which was rather limp and grey, although it did come with a piece of cheese and some grainy dijon mustard, so it wasn't a total loss. Later in the day we stopped by the weekly market and he tried a waffle at a stall that had been recommended by Jack, but didn't think that the value to quality was up to par. I got a lovely persimmon, shining with ruddy ripeness.

Thursday I came down with what has now become my monthly ailment of sore throat, fever, and runny nose. Could it have to do with the wall that quietly moulders above my head while I sleep? I don't know, but it certainly is annoying. I sent T off on his own with a map, a camera, and instructions to visit the Herbert Hoover exhibit at the Military Musuem so I could rest. (Did you know Hoover was instrumental in feeding the Belgians during WWI, when their food supplies were cut off by the Germans? He was. They love him for it.) On his outing T conducted more chocolate research and visited our local branch of McDonalds to see if the fries were consistent around the world, as he had been told. He found them to be surprisingly similar.

The next day Jack took off work and he and T headed for Antwerp. Not having been there I can't comment on what went on, but they brought back some nice pictures of some kind of wacky bicycling bar that seated 10, a public toilet constructed to look like you were sitting on a stack of large books, and a restaurant that had religious tchotchkes in crammed into every available space and good waffles. T was somewhat disappointed that the length of his stay didn't lend itself to visiting another country, so it was nice for him to get out of Brussels for the day. He brought back a 750 mL bottle of his favorite beer so he could enjoy it again before he left.

That night we went to the American bar around the corner for burritos, and the owner dude recognized us and conversed briefly with our new guest, this one from the DC area. T was very particular about his burrito needs, and the extremely young-looking chef came by and listed the ingredients for him. T requested that there be no tomatoes in the vicinity of his food. Needless to say there were tomatoes, but he managed to overcome and chatted with the waitress about the use of different glasses for each type of alcoholic beverage.

Saturday we made plans to go to Liege to see the soccer team Standard Liege play. Jack and I had always been interested in going to a soccer game, but there were restrictions on the availability of tickets for the good team in Brussels, the Royal Sporting Club of Anderlecht. It was our understanding that you had to live in the commune and present ID to that effect in order to buy tickets. Not knowing anyone who lived there, we were stymied. But the Liege game was open to anyone, and further, there was a kid from Bethesda who played for the team.

We headed out on the train around mid-day, and wandered around town for a bit to see the sights. Liege got the heck bombed out of it during WWII because they were an industrial center, so there aren't as many pretty old buildings, but they do have a nice river through the center of town, and various shops and eateries and a sprinkling of old stuff. Also, apparently, a square named after Hoover, but I don't recall seeing it when we were there.

We stopped off at a restaurant and Jack had the Liege-style meatballs, which were quite good. After some additional wandering, we went back to the train station to catch our bus. There was some confusion about the correct bus to take, but there were a lot of people around sporting the team colors so we suspected that we were in the right spot. The bus dropped us off at a grassy slope on an exit ramp for a thoroughfare, which didn't seem right, but again we just followed the red scarves. The streetlights around the stadium all had orangey-red coverings, giving the twilit walk a bit of extra drama. As we crossed the river to get to the stadium, Jack noticed that the scene to the west was reminiscent of Youngstown 20 years ago, with smokestacks and molten metal visible on the horizon.

We got our tickets and entered the stadium to wait for the game to start. I got scolded by security for having a bottle of water in my pocket--the woman took the cap and handed the bottle back to me. Clearly they had had problems with people throwing stuff on the field in the past. We took our seats and settled in for the game. There seemed to be three separate fan groups on the north side of the stadium. The opposing team's fan base was cordoned off in a small section on the south end by a tall chain-link fence, as if they were on a recreational release from prison and had a high potential for escaping. The Liege fans were upbeat so we were hoping for a good performance from the team and from their supporters.

The good thing about sports, as opposed to, say, live theater, is that there is no need for translation. We were able to enjoy the game without subtitles. Subtitles would have been helpful for Jack, though, since his neighbor kept nudging him and making comments like "primier boot!". At halftime, Liege was down one, and Jack and I went to check out the amenities. They were selling chips and Jupiler beer from coolers, although you couldn't take the beer back to your seat and it appeared that they would shut it down when the game started again. The beers were only 2 euros, which is on par with the prices that I've seen at other event venues, surprising given the gouging you usually get in the States when you're a captive audience. I visited the bathroom and discovered the cleanest stadium bathrooms ever, thanks to the mindful attendant. While a lot of the time I begrudge them my 30 cents, this was one of the times where it was evident that the woman was actually doing some work. Of course, given the paucity of alcohol and females within the stadium, it may not have been that hard.

The game resumed and, after initially being behind, Liege came back in the second half to win 2-1. The fans went wild-ish, but not as wild as I had hoped. There was confetti and one flare or firework, but that was it. We hopped back on the bus for the ride to the train station, and then took the train home. Jack commented on the way back that he had had a good time, but there was too much stress trying to time everything correctly: the hurried sightseeing and meal, the bus ride to the stadium and back, the train ride home, which, if we had missed, would have meant getting stuck in Liege or getting an extremely expensive cab back so that T could be sure to get on his plane the next day. What he failed to mention until later was that, probably while gleefully jumping around at a Liege score, he had somehow managed to lose our train ticket. This wouldn't have been the end of the world, since you can buy tickets on the train itself, but it does heighten anxiety. The ticket taker never came around, though, so it all worked out. When we got back, we shared the Duchesse beer from Antwerp.

T left the next morning, but not without leaving us with several mementos of his trip: uneaten chocolates, a European Coke and two shirts. It took us a long time to work our way through all the leftover chocolates, particularly the lavender one, which was like milk chocolate mixed with perfumey soap. Yech. I hope T made a note not to get that one again.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ten Things To Like about America That You Don't Know About Till You Live Overseas for Some Period, As I Discovered on My Recent Trip to The States.

1. Almost complete absence of dog poop on the streets, so that you can spend time looking at the scenery rather than watching your step.

2. Free, ice-filled tap water brought to your table at most restaurants without having to ask for it or being charged for it.

3. Eye contact and sometimes even some form of greeting (nod, smile) from strangers passing you on the street.

4. Relative lack of bureaucracy. Seriously! (The downside of this is no one hires a company to deal with the bureaucracy on your behalf.)

5. Lots of people speak English, and many misunderstandings and miscommunications are thereby avoided.

6. Tacos. I can't stress this one enough.

7. Mom, baseball and apple pie. Except without the apple pie part. Why are moms so uniquely American, anyway? I'm pretty sure they have them here, too. I've seen women with babies. They might be cyborgs or aliens and not moms, though, as I have been unable to communicate with them. At any rate, I did get in a baseball game while I was there. And my mom gave me a cool Silk Road-themed cookbook, so she's alright, if perhaps not intrinsically American in spirit.

8. Lots of cereal choices.

9. Eight is a lot.

10. Really!

The only two negatives were the enormous number of political advertisements on TV and the fact that I was filled with such goodwill for the American people that I never would have suspected that any of them would have made such foolish choices while driving, and I almost rear-ended people about half a dozen times in the week I was there. And the lack of cheap yet excellent beer.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

We got back from Italy on Monday. Tuesday, M arrived after having been to a wedding in Algeria. We had been texting with him on the cell phone intermittently during the Italy trip so we could cheaply keep tabs on each other's whereabouts, and I was just beginning to get the hang of it when he arrived. I'll never be able to infiltrate the youth of today without more practice!

M was already on Euro time, so he didn't have any jet lag issues. He did, however, have suitcase issues, in that his rolling bag only had a short handle and he was using a belt to lengthen it so he didn't have to walk doubled-over (he's, like, 8 feet tall or something). Use of the belt led to stability problems, and he was almost killed right off when his he lost control of his bag in front of an oncoming tram (usually we prefer to kill our guests after they've visited the ATM rather than before).

We went to a Thai place for dinner the first night so I could break out of the glut of Italian food I had been having. In addition to his entree, M ordered sticky rice, thinking it would be dessert, but it turned out to be a plain bowl of unseasoned rice delivered to our table after we had finished eating. We ended up having a face-stuffing contest with the rice which I lost in a very embarrassing fashion. Sadly, we can never show our faces at that restaurant again.

The next day I hauled him around to all the usual sights: ruins of the city wall, the Mannekin Pis, the Grand Place, and the local grocery, which he immediately identified as being part of the Food Lion family. I vociferously denied this, naturally, since the quality was so much better here, but further research revealed that Delhaize, which started in Belgium, did in fact own Food Lion. Makes me curious why the American version is so crappy by comparison, but that's a question for another day. M was on the lookout for reasonably-priced gift items, so he got some Belgian cat food from the grocery store for his feline. He reports back that, being the patriotic cat that she is, she refuses to eat the stuff, which she claims is "practically French".

We tried to scare up some cheap shopping the following day by going to some less-touristy areas of our neighborhood, the African and University quarters. Not having eaten breakfast, M decided he was going to compare eclairs that he encountered on his route, but gave up after three since the price and quality were so varied. The African quarter had not yet come to life, so we headed in the direction of the University, but not before stopping off for water and a breakfast samosa at a convenience store. That hit the spot.

I took us down all the wrong streets and there was not much to see on our route, aside from the excitingly-named Fritkot Bompa, which directed us to Google their name to visit the website (not recommended, but if you insist...). There was even less to buy. We ended up in the Ixelles graveyard, where I hadn't been since our first visit to Brussels in March. It wasn't much more lively this time around, being a place of final repose and all, but we did get to investigate some of the interesting fringe areas, where the more impoverished and/or non-European types seemed to be concentrated. After seeing some of the more creatively cared-for graves, M decided that when his time comes he wants to have a tree planted on top of his head so it can be nourished by his brains (a "braintree", if you will).

Over lunch at a Vietnamese/Thai restaurant that had tables on the sidewalk, I kept noticing people who were carrying a sheaf of papers and who would get to the intersection, consult their papers, then turn in one direction or another. They seemed to be of all ages and nationalities, with no defining characteristic other than the papers. I decided that it was some kind of University-sponsored scavenger hunt. The real flaw in this theory is that no one seemed to be having much fun, nor were they in any particular hurry. It remains a mystery. We also saw a gaggle of students dressed in blue smocks (I later learned that it is traditional for them to have to dress in 15th century peasant outfits as some kind of hazing ritual), and an extremely posh-looking bowling alley completely done up in gleaming wood and with a bartender in a suit. Must investigate that further at some point.

That night we went to dinner at the awesome pizza place near our house. Giant rectangular pizzas with high-quality and sometimes unusual toppings, you order your slice cut to size, and they weigh it and heat it for you. There's always new varieties coming out of the kitchen, so your best strategy is to park yourself in a corner somewhere and order a small slice at a time so you can get a little of everything without filling up too quickly. After dinner we stopped by the American bar around the corner from our house for a nightcap. We hadn't been there before because it has a silly name and looks pretty dingy from the outside, but it does have the advantage of being close and having an English-speaking waitstaff. The waiter/owner/manager dude was very nice and spent some time living in LA, and was keen to discuss the CA experience with M. He seemed to be on greeting terms with nearly everyone who walked down the street, and now he has added us to his list.

Friday we went to the comic strip museum, which was Tintin-tacular. Also Smurf-arific ("Schtroumpf-arific" to you French speakers), but to a somewhat lesser extent. The museum is housed in a lovely Art Nouveau department store, so it was a nice space even though the material was difficult to follow in spite of the English translations that they had given us in a binder. M seemed to be particularly taken with the portrayal of Africans through time. Disturbingly, there didn't seem to be any progress in the effort to draw them like real people until very recently, much more recently than I would have expected. The most interesting part to me was the section of comics drawn by contemporary artists, as they had some kind of relevance to me that most of the others did not. M took the opportunity of our visit to fry his brain at one of the interactive displays.

That evening we had a repast of Belgian food that consisted of stoemp for M, stoemp and meats for Jack, and mussels for me. After I placed my order they came back and tied an adult-sized cloth bib around my neck, which was a bit of a surprise. I'm sure I looked fetching. Since his return flight was at 5 the next morning and the trains weren't running at that hour, we sent M off that night so he could spend a fitful few hours trying to sleep in the airport. A short trip, but a fun one nonetheless.

Friday, November 10, 2006

On Sunday it poured intermittently all morning. In the midst of wondering whether we should just call a cab to the train station rather than risk the possibility of a drenching, there was a break in the weather long enough for us to check out of the B&B and hustle over to the station. We took the slow ride back to Naples, then on to Rome. It was pretty uneventful except for the fact that we got on the train to Rome with less than a minute to spare, and had we hesitated further we would have missed it. (The train was listed only by its final destination of Milan, so all we had to go on was the departure time.)

It was blissfully clear once we arrived in Rome, allowing us to make our way to the hotel on foot. Gulliver's is a small place with only 4 rooms in a large apartment building. We got the cheery Gold Room, which included a bath tiled in soothing green and blue that was roughly equal to the size of our room. Shortly after arriving it began raining again.

During a break in the weather, we went out for a quick lunch and then visited a church that had been designed by Michelangelo on top of some ancient Roman baths. It was huge and seemed to be more a house of looking at stuff than a house of worship. There was some kind of solar calendar built into the floor that was one of those crafty Renaissance-type things you always hear about, but due to the cloudy skies it was impossible to see it in operation. A small room to the side presented the history of the church through text and photos, and the lights were coin-operated. When they shut off after 20 minutes, everyone in there was too cheap to start them up again so we all squinted at the print in the moody half light entering from an open door.

Once we left it began to sprinkle, so we decided to break down and pay the admission to the nearby museum of antiquities. Shortly after arriving it started pouring, so we congratulated ourselves on a good choice. The museum was uncrowded, and we took our time wandering around looking at all the statues, mosaics, and murals they had hauled there from archaeology sites around the country. It was nice, but after seeing some beautiful stuff in its original location, it was hard to be blown away by it. There were two larger-than-life bronze statues that were highlights of the collection, judging by the fact that they had alarms that went off if anyone got inside the two foot perimeter around them. Two feet is excessively distant, so people were constantly leaning in for a better look and setting it off. It sounded like a two-tone electronic chime that would be go off if you entered a store, except much louder. After someone would unintentionally set it off half a dozen or so times, they would envision the perimeter and then set it off a couple more times just to fill in any blank spots in the mental image. It became a farce pretty quickly, especially since the place seemed to be staffed mostly by matronly volunteers who wouldn't be able to chase you even if you were carrying a very heavy, very large statue clutched to your chest.

There was an interior courtyard so that we could keep an eye on the weather as it continued to shower on and off. On the top floor, they were showing a full-length opera in a tiny theater, a perfect way to pass a rainy day. I would have been in there napping if they weren't playing it at such an outrageously high volume. In the basement there was a mummy and some of the things she had been buried with, the only ordinary personal items displayed in the whole museum, and some of the most interesting things they had.

The museum was open until 7 so we stayed nearly till the bitter end so we could progress right into dinner. We had scoped out some spots earlier in the day, but when we went back to take a closer look they were all unsatisfactory. After a fashion we ended up in another basement restaurant and enjoyed our last Italian meal accompanied by a liter of the house red. We turned in early so we could be well-rested for our journey home.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Friday we woke up to the sound of torrential downpours around dawn. Ah, the secret to not going nuts in sunny Sorrento: it's not sunny all the time! It was actually quite nice listening to it thrum on the roof, although the intermittent thunder meant we weren't going back to sleep. We took our time getting ready to go down to breakfast, since it was in another building and we didn't want to risk a drenching. Our door was unable to contain the onslaught of water running down the face of it and a puddle formed on our floor. We held it at bay as best we could, but in no time the towel berm was saturated and the water began seeping through. The floor was slightly sloped so the water made its way to the far end and formed a lake on Jack's side of the bed. Eventually the rain slackened enough for us to dash over to breakfast, and I told the staff of the problem. They said they'd send a crew to clean it up.

Based on the potential for more rain, we decided to keep close to town so we could duck in for shelter if need be. Our first stop was at the bar across the street from the B&B for supplemental caffeine, since the coffees at breakfast didn't take due to the morning's anxiety over the flooding. The espressos we received were in the tiniest of cups and the tablespoon or so of liquid only filled up about half the volume. We added some sugar and drank it down, receiving an immediate recharging.

We went over to Sorrento's municipal museum, which was full of ancient stuff they had dug up over time. My favorite was a stone tablet that apparently had an order for a clock repair chiseled in it. Written communication must've been so much more complicated back then. It also contained the art and housewares collections of the previous occupants of the manse (including a number of small chests of drawers that they referred to in English as "commodes") as well as an extensive temporary exhibit of what I felt was a very untalented living local artist. After a while we had had enough of the place even though we had spent a good bit of money for the pleasure of spending as much time as we wanted there.

Across the street was a municipal park/lemon grove that was supposed to contain old men doling out samples of limoncello, but due to the earlier precipitation it was a mucky mess and there was no one to be found. We strolled towards the center of town to check out some of the other highlights, which were all closed. As we were seeking out another restaurant from the guidebook that was impossible to find, we encountered the old mill. It was roofless and perched at the bottom of a narrow gulley a few stories below street level, sadly inaccessible to the public. As we continued up the street looking for the eatery, we passed under a bridge carrying the traffic of the main thoroughfare and ended up in a quieter, non-touristy section. We realized that it was unlikely that the restaurant was this far up and turned back around to descend to the main area when a downpour popped up not far off. I quickly sought refuge under the bridge but Jack continued to saunter, not knowing that he was being tailed by a curtain of water, even though I was urging him to hurry from my dry spot. He found out the hard way, but fortunately he didn't get too wet.

We had lunch at a spot memorable only for the fact that it was dry and the women's bathroom somehow escaped my notice so I used the men's room. The urinals were separated from the corridor by only a set of swinging saloon doors, but there was also a private stall. Later we visited the ruins of the Roman wall built around the town. On our way back to Sant'Agnello we wondered what state our room would be in. I retrieved the key from the office and the staff member there offered us a new room, since he couldn't guarantee it wouldn't happen again if it rained. We considered it, not wanting to be too much of a bother, but in the end we decided to move. We gathered our possessions and said farewell to our airy perch in the sky and descended to the floor below. The new room seemed to be part of the original construction, with a high, domed ceiling and a bathroom carved out of one corner. We settled in for the afternoon to plot our evening's entertainment of eating and hanging out.

Does anything ever go as planned? Not really, but if it did there'd be nothing to write about. We walked towards the center of Sant'Agnello to have dinner at a restaurant I had seen advertising their roasted meats. When we got to the main road, we noticed that traffic had been stopped by cops. We passed the main square where there was a festive air and a handful of vendors were selling trinkets. After browsing for a few minutes we continued onwards to the restaurant. We then noticed that there was a large crowd gathered in the middle of the street in front of a roadside shrine to Mary. A priest, surrounded by altar boys in white and a plume of incense, was reciting a benediction through a couple of bullhorns lashed together and raised on a pole. We watched as the ceremony came to a close and the crowd began to disperse in our direction. That was interesting, we thought. Suddenly we realized the mass of people was reconvening and we soon discovered why--a roadside crucified Jesus, backed by a wheel of lights, was being feted as well, this time by very loud fireworks. We retreated across the street to a gas station to be safe from the immediate danger of something fiery flying in our direction, to hold our ears (the explosions seemed very loud, for some reason) and to take pictures. It went on for several minutes, after which the crowd really dispersed. Unfortunately, my chosen restaurant was right by the action so it was completely full by the time we arrived. The Hungarian from our B&B was standing in the middle of the tables, looking lost. We waved at him and quickly exited, heading for the restaurant we had tried to go to the previous evening.

Although the interior of the place reminded me of the many wood-paneled establishments you encounter when you leave the US interstates, for some reason primarily in PA in the winter (way too big for the number of patrons, tacky furniture, lacking decorations, and a bathroom waaay on the other side of the nearly-empty place), the fennel salad with bresaola, shaved parmesan and balsamic vinegar was fantastic. I followed it up with an entree-sized salad, which was also good and a refreshing break from the pizza and pasta. To compensate for our limoncello misadventure earlier in the day Jack ordered one as a digestive. Delicious.

We sauntered back to the hotel, taking in the evening air, and ran into the Hungarian again. He regaled us with how good the restaurant he went to was, in spite of the wait. Best pizza, reasonable prices, blah, blah, blah. I think he had mentioned at that first dinner that he was a university lecturer, and he felt free to expound on the wonderfulness of the meal compared with the others he had had. Eventually we managed to beg off and sent him on his way to the bar overlooking the water where we had encountered him the day before. Ensconced in our comfy new room, we quickly drifted off.

And awoke to another morning of rain. Good thing we changed rooms! Once we got down to breakfast we overhead one of the staff people (who I decided were all part of a large extended family, including an elderly woman I referred to as "Nonna" who seemed to be shouting angry things at the sky as she carried her broom around) say it was the beginning of their seasonal rains, which were late in coming this year, and that it hadn't rained all summer before that week. Thanks for the warning, guidebooks.

We decided to go to the island of Capri so as to do something manageable and a bit different on our last day in town. I wasn't terribly excited about going there, as it was said to be the home or vacation spot for the very wealthy and packed with throngs of tourists, but decided to give it a go nonetheless. Plus we had been denied our previous ferry ride and there was the potential for riding up a mountain on a ski lift, so it couldn't be all bad. On our way out of the compound after breakfast we encountered the Hungarian again, who had thankfully already been to Capri and settled for telling us how wonderful it was rather than inviting himself along.

Before we left we stopped at a church in Sorrento that was notable primarily for the fact that they had a gigantic whale rib bone, but it turned out to be secreted behind a temporary wall so we could only see the top peeking over. We went in to light a candle for our trip, and there was a man a few steps ahead of us making the rounds to all the icons, dumping a few coins in each slot, then flipping the switches on nearly all the "candles", not pausing before going on to the next one--he must've needed some serious divine help for whatever his problem was. We found an unlit one to wish on and proceeded to the port.

We took a 25-minute hydrofoil ride over to the island. Sadly the open-air top deck was closed, and we soon found out why: the seas were pretty rough, sending spray cascading over the boat. The whole journey was pretty nauseating. Staff kept moving greenish passengers to the center of the back, where I assume it was a little less bumpy, but even so there were barf bags passed around. It was worse than the ride across the Chesapeake from Tangier Island in the 6-passenger crabbing boat during the remnants of Hurricane Ivan. But I digress. We managed to arrive in one piece and high-tailed it out of there.

There was a funiculare that climbed the hillside through a tunnel to deposit people at the city of Capri on the top, but we took some paved paths and steps up to the main square. Sure enough, there were tons of people loitering around looking like they were just bursting at the potential for a celebrity sighting. We made quick work of the town center and hurried to a less crowded spot, the Arco Naturale. Predictably, this was a natural stone arch. The stroll there, on a path that overlooked the whitewashed rooftops of many dwellings, was pleasant, as was my lunch of rabbit at a hillside spot with a view of Sorrento. The threesome at the next table were busy discussing the decorating ideas of one of their party. I couldn't see them so didn't get a good feel for whether the three were friends or a rich woman and her hired hands, but Jack concluded it was the former. Based on their discussion of the redecoration, my only conclusion was it was true that money can't buy taste.

We took a path high above the water, passing an ancient nymphaeum (outdoor bath in a natural grotto), a funky-looking house that was previously owned by a member of the Fascist party, and many rosemary shrubs perfuming our steps, making our roundabout way back into town. We walked by the shop that developed the original Capri pants and then stopped off for a gelato sandwich on brioche, which was cool because the melting ice cream dripped into the bread and there was no mess. Also quite tasty.

We decided to hop the bus to Anacapri, the other town on the island. This was another perilous bus ride, in part because most passengers were standing and it felt like if the group didn't hold on tight enough we might end up throwing our weight to one side of the bus at the same time, toppling it over the edge. At the top we checked out the ski lift only to find that it was shut down. Not being much else to do that wasn't a hike, we hung out in the square plotting our next move. It began to rain a bit so we decided to look for the nearby church of St. Michael. We arrived there in time to wait out the worst of the downpour. The floor of the church was entirely made out of tiles depicting the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Most of the myriad animals shown had human-like eyes with a knowing gleam in them, as if they had all eaten from the tree of knowledge--when was it that people began looking at animals closely enough to realize they didn't look like that? Surely it was before the floor was constructed. Perhaps it was artistic license. We spent the storm in the organ loft, listening to the couple below try out cell phone ring tones. How rude!

We exited the church and Jack spied a rainbow over the town, which could only bode well for the rest of our stay on Capri. We headed back towards the main square by another route and were excited to see the chair lift going, although when we got there we discovered that it was only operating to let people down off the top. Another denial! As it was getting on in the afternoon and we were out of ideas, we felt it was a good time to head back to the port for the ferry ride home. The line for the bus was very long, though, and the first one passed by without picking up any new passengers. Unreasonably fearful of being stuck there (Tangier Island memories again), we decided to take the Phoenecian steps down. The steps used to be the only thing linking the two cities until they built the road, and were described in our book as "punishing" to go up, so I wasn't really looking forward to them. The only other alternative, though, was walking the road itself, which seemed to have a higher potential for disaster.

As we made our way down, it was easy to see why the steps were described in such negative terms: each riser was about 1.5 times the normal size, which I imagine would be a workout to climb. Our biggest threat was from the rain-slicked, rounded stones that made up the treads. That and the fact that we weren't supposed to be on them at all--about 1/3 of the way down we encountered signage indicating that the steps were closed. Given our options, we decided to keep going, and it turns out that a small section of the stairs had a tree across them that we had to bypass. No biggie.

We got to the bottom and made our way to the port. There were some people a few steps ahead of us on the road, and when we passed them the woman asked me something, which I assumed was along the lines of "what were the stairs like?" I said "oh," blew out my cheeks to demonstrate tiredness, and made some swooshing motions with my hand to indicate the steep angle of the steps. Given my obvious inability to speak any Italian, she then proceeded to ask a follow-up question! It involved the word "rapide", so I just said "Si, si!" and we hustled past the group to prevent further interrogation.

We made it just in time to catch the ferry, thankfully a smoother ride this time. As it was our last night in Sorrento, after visiting some of the previously-closed attractions and having a beer at an English pub during another downpour, we decided to go for a fancier place than the more casual eateries we had been frequenting. The back of the restaurant opened onto a glass-enclosed orangerie and in general was a very pleasant setting. I had a white bean soup with arugula and quail ravioli--a satisfying end to this portion of our trip.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

We awoke to another perfect day (how can they stand it?) with plans to take the train north to Castellammare di Stabia, where there were Roman baths and ruins and a train-y thing (funivia) up the highest mountain on the peninsula to a nice overlook.

Realizing that good maps are the key to getting around this area, and knowing that our guidebook was sorely lacking, once we got to Stabia we spent some time futilely seeking out the Tourist Information office. Failing at that, we strolled out to the palm tree-lined promenade that faced the waterfront. Stabia's topography was of a gentler nature than that of the other towns, so most of the city was at sea level. It was known as an industrial center of the area, and this fact was immediately obvious from the port activity and the neglected bay. But the promenade was a good effort to make it more attractive, and may have succeeded if it weren't for the copious volume of trash washed up against the marshy shoreline a few feet away. It seemed to be a popular spot for those taking the air, though. There were numerous water fountains burbling forth on the walkway, and many people were stopping by for a drink or to fill up bottles. We concluded that these were the famous healing waters. Naturally we had to taste it: the water was a little fizzy, tasting like diluted alka-seltzer, perhaps. I felt better already.

We forged ahead mapless, and ended up walking further to the ruins than we thought we should have, yet there was only one road, hot and shoulderless, so we knew we were on the right track. Eventually we got to the first of two sites, both of which had been buried in Vesuvian ash. Part of the attraction of the ruins here is that they were free and uncrowded, in contrast to Pompeii and others. And how. It was just us and a grounds crew, on their lunch break from mowing (and sitting on some conveniently placed broken columns and other antiquities). Upon entering we got a good look at some amazingly hued walls and saw some other frescoes behind a protective rail. Already it was turning out to be a satisfying experience. We turned the corner and...discovered much to our surprise that we were allowed to go INTO the rooms, tread on the mosaics, eyeball the frescoes so closely that you could see the masterful individual brush strokes and even in some cases light scratches in the wet plaster that outlined where the artist should paint. Wow! Here and there tile was popping out of the floor and you had to be careful not to kick the small pieces, about the size of Chiclets, all over. We somehow managed to resist the urge to touch the walls, in spite of their nearly magnetic pull.

At some point in the 18th century the site was dug up by the Bourbons and many of the most spectacular pieces were removed. Some that were left behind were defaced to increase the value of the ones they took. They then reburied the ruins. In spite of this, a good portion of the site was intact, and we found a lot to be impressed with. The view from the hillside overlooked the town and port below, and we could imagine what it would have looked like back in the day without the mid-rise apartment buildings in the near distance.

After a slice of pizza at a bar next to a car wash (the many eateries along the road seemed to only be open at night) and peaches from a streetside vendor, we got to the next archaeological site via a dirt road that passed by someone's field and animal pen. There were two people in a tiny shelter monitoring the visitors, and the gentleman offered me some bottled water to splash on my hands since I had just finished my peach. All this service for nothing! This site was more compact and at a lower elevation than the last, indicating the lesser status of the owner, but it was architecturally more interesting and had more intact frescoes. We saw some guy with the head of Medusa, a tiny Cupid, and some scantily-clad ladies.

We decided that the baths were too far away to reach on foot, so we would head back into town via a different (and hopefully more pleasant) route and then make our way to the funivia to the overlook, which was back at the train station. Since the town was situated in a sheltered bay, I figured heading towards the water would be adequate to orient ourselves. Unfortunately, as soon as we got to the bottom of the hill we lost sight of the Mediterranean and had to go on sheer grit and determination. Eventually we hit the water at the far north end of the promenade, but not before being stopped twice by passing trains, seeing a giant Coke bottle perched on a building, and generally getting the eye in the working-class quarter. The town, which was usually quite noisy, came to an immediate and silent standstill in the face of the train crossings--ambulances ceased their wail, children waited petulantly on their bikes, cars didn't honk. Then after the guard rail went up, the circus started up again like nothing happened.

Eventually arriving back at the train station after more healing water tastings, we discovered that the funivia was unexpectedly closed for the day. "Domani," the ticket seller said. Tomorrow. Defeated, and since we were already at the station, we headed back to our hotel perch to decide how to spend the evening. I never even got to try the local specialty of a biscuit stuffed with pickles.

As previously mentioned, the B&B also is a cooking school. Each day they post the evening's menu and people staying there can sign up for dinner. It seemed like a good idea to give it a try, since it was cheap and sounded interesting. We arrived a few minutes after the appointed hour to discover the communal tables almost entirely full, and sat down at the two remaining spots. At our table were a couple from New Zealand, an American couple living in Warsaw, a Hungarian, two Germans, and a guy from Atlanta who was doing a culinary internship in the area (and seemed to have accidentally chopped off part of a finger judging by the bandage wound around and around it). The woman living in Warsaw had participated in the class and walked us through what we were eating: fried risotto balls, gnocci with tomato sauce, veal with porcini sauce, and a custardy upside-down cake. Definitely worth the 15 euros (plus 5 more for a liter of wine shared between guests). The cake was the highlight, as it had a subtle lemony flavor and wheat berries that seemed to have been stewed in sugar that gave it a bit of a chewy texture. Everything was great, though.

The conversation on Jack's end of the table veered towards strange theories expounded on by the Hungarian veterinarian pathologist, some of which was not appreciated by the German biochemists across the table. My side mainly talked about travel and living abroad and food. Nothing controversial, thankfully. And that was that.

The next day arrived bright and clear (could this much good weather make one crazy?) and we headed out after breakfast for the coast ride. You hear all sorts of things about the bus from Sorrento to Amalfi, one of which is that it's obscenely crowded and your chances of getting on the first one you wait in line for are slim. But we did, getting prime seats in the very back next to the window on one side and a chatty young woman on the other. At times the coast road is built not into the cliffside but out over the sea, so it really was a bit nerve-wracking watching the vegetation beside the road disappear and nothing but blue water replace it. I've been more afraid on icy back roads in WV, however.

Once we got to Amalfi we hopped off the bus and headed towards the heart of town, a lovely cathedral that befitted its status as a maritime republic back in the day. We took the self-guided tour of the church and were intrigued by the layers of paint that were being stripped away in places to reveal the original structure and decoration (it was later doubled in size and the interior reoriented, so there's not much of the first incarnation to see). In a basement there is a chapel to St. Anthony, who apparently protected the town from some invaders long ago. The chapel is special because there's a vial containing some kind of liquid that changes to solid and back to liquid again, a testament to the saint's enduring power and relevance in today's world.

Exiting the church, we wandered around the tiny "streets" that are narrow, white-washed passages with stairs, inaccessible to cars and those with triple-wide strollers. Good thing Italians historically have not had a lot of children. We found a place on a back street that was serving pizza, so I ordered the one with "zucca" on it, which turned out to be pumpkin puree, seemingly straight from the can. It was surprisingly good. Jack had one topped with gorgonzola and arugula, also tasty.

We pulled out our trusty old hiking guidebook to lead us on another adventure to a town above Amalfi. We chose one that was less strenuous than the last, limiting the possibility of getting lost and missing the ferry ride back. This walk was mostly a straight shot up stairs and paved paths, but still afforded great and ever-changing views and opportunities for snacking. To my dismay, the beautiful persimmon tree overhanging the trail didn't have any ripe ones within reach.

Upon reaching the town above it began to threaten rain so we hung out for a while to make sure we wouldn't get caught in a downpour on the way back. The main square contained a church, the bus stop, an ancient looking drinking fountain, and a small bar where we ordered refreshing lemon granitas to pass the time. We watched and were watched by the other patrons, the passengers alighting from the bus, and a trio of elderly men passing the time in front of the church. The old man behind the bar gave us a free postcard of the town when we left.

Once we decided the coast was clear precipitation-wise, we hiked back to Amalfi via another path, this one immediately dropping us into the wide, lush valley, the stream for which was used for paper mill operations in an earlier era. After arriving back in town, we used the map to find our way to a cemetery set into the hillside above town that looked like a colonnaded passageway that wasn't connecting any buildings (a "loggia", if you will). At one point we encountered and an elderly woman in a housedress, out tending to domestic tasks in front of her house, who tried to tell us that we were making a wrong turn (many of the passages dead-end on someone's doorstep after a couple of twists and turns, so it's difficult to be sure you're on the right track), but she was speaking Italian in a conversational tone rather than sharp admonishment so we thought she was talking to someone else. Eventually she called in Primo to set us straight.

We made it to the cemetery at last, only to discover that it was closed. There was a nice plaza in front of it with an old woman sitting on a chair, and after we looked at the sign on the door she said to us: "domani." The story of our lives, it seems.

Descending to the port, there didn't seem to be much activity going on around the ferry lines. The one we were to take back was closed, and I overheard someone say the seas were too rough so they had shut operations down early. So, back on the bus. Naturally, everyone else who had hoped to take the ferry was in the same situation, and the bus was already thronged by people waiting for the doors to open. Since we were near the back there seemed like there was no hope getting on, but a crowd rushed the back doors when they opened and we moved up in line, since the group was told in no uncertain terms that they had to get on by the front door.

The ride back was uneventful, although over the course of the hour we were able to better decipher the elaborate honking code that the driver used on the narrow roads:
+ "I don't think anyone's around this turn, but just to be safe"
+ "I see you and would appreciate it if you could let me go around this hairpin curve so that both of us don't get stuck on it (and you will be the one to back up)"
+ "Beware, pedestrian/dog/lizard in the road"
+ "Please pass me"
+ "Hello"
+ "Thanks"
+ "You're welcome"

We decided to stay in town for dinner and were wandering around, looking for a good place (the guidebook was singularly unhelpful in this effort, in spite of mentioning 3 restaurants in Sant'Agnello, none of which we ever found) when we encountered the American couple living in Warsaw from the night before. We went back to the bar overlooking the water and had a light dinner and shared drinks with them. We inadvertently selected a table next to the Hungarian with the incendiary ideas from the night before, but he didn't seem up for conversation other than greetings, thankfully. Thus, the night ended on an amicable note.

More photos of Italy and everything else at our flickr site.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Let's see...where was I before the onslaught of assorted interruptions? Ah yes, bella Italia. In our last episode, our intrepid travelers were getting ready for their trip down the coast to the Sorrento peninsula.

Monday afternoon we arrived by milk train to the small town of Sant’Agnello, one north of Sorrento. To get there we changed trains in Naples, known for excellent pizza and the Camorra crime syndicate. We were told to watch our wallets while in the station for the transfer, but we managed to only get pickpocketed 17 times in the 20 or so minutes we were waiting for the train. The sneak peeks of the Mediterranean we got on the ride to town were riveting.

We reached Mami Camilla B&B, a confusingly laid-out compound surrounded by a wall and containing a number of buildings, a small grove of lemon trees, and two dogs, and checked into our room, a little addition all alone on the third floor of the big building, accessible via a catwalk built over the roof of the floor below. The view from our perch was wonderful. Later we went out to investigate the town, and we ended up at a bar overlooking the sea, built precipitously on top of a cliff. The panorama included a distant view of Vesuvius.

Following our fantastic repast of beer and sandwiches from the bar's refrigerated case, we made our way over to neighboring Sorrento. Many of the coastal towns on this part of the peninsula were constructed in two-tiers: the bustling upper city, and then a lower portion that contains the harbor, beaches, and sometimes a smaller community. We went down to the lower part of Sorrento by way of a set of stairs, visited with the hydrofoils that go to Naples and Capri, and watched the sun set.

Up by a second set of stairs tunneled into the cliff face and back to the city center, and then back down to another part of the lower town that was not accessible from the first (except by water) for dinner at a recommended place. Jack got the fritto misto, always a safe bet, consisting of a plate of fried sea delicacies. When it came out, we discovered that this restaurant’s version was a huge plate of small whole fried fish, heads and eyes and bones and all, with a batter so thin it was almost non-existent. It was a tough slog because the fish were generally big enough so that their bones weren’t edible without some discomfort and small enough that the bones were difficult to remove, but Jack made a good dent in it (including eating a head) before giving up. We surreptitiously fed some fish spines to the cats wending their way between the tables. Two musicians came by and played accordion and maracas backed by a drum mix on cassette.

Ascending to the main town again by a different route (past the wastewater treatment plant!), we got stuck in a campground that overlooked the water for a while. We decided that next time around, we’d go the camping route and save some scratch.

Tuesday we woke up to another beautiful morning, and went down to the breakfast on the patio outside of the cooking school building. There were coffees and breads and a wide assortment of homemade jams--a perfect start to the day. We headed to Sorrento to start a hike in one of our guidebooks up to one of the villages located in the hills above the town.

The first leg was up a set of stairs that, every time we came to a switchback, displayed a Station of the Cross in full 3-D Technicolor ceramic tile. We made up captions for them to pass the time, such as "Jesus Naps for the First Time". At the end there was a small chapel open to the air being swept up by an elderly man. We walked up some small roads and footpaths through orchards further up the hillside, sampling the trailside treats as we went. I collected a pocketful of fallen hazelnuts, and noticed that others (primarily children) were doing the same.

At the top of the hill was Sant’Agata, which straddled the backbone of the peninsula and had views of the sea in the distance. We ate some pizza to fortify ourselves for the second leg of our journey. Once on the road again, we passed an industrial laundry situated in a half-ruined ancient dwelling, and a child care center blasting creepy "It’s a Small World"-esque music. We eventually ended up on a path paralleling the ridge overlooking the Amalfi part of the peninsula, walking through uncultivated areas that were full of diminutive fig trees, flowers, shrubs and tall grasses (as well as some sadly inedible artichokes).

After spending some time on a promontory with a good view of the landscape and the water, we pushed onward even as the trail, which had previously been well-marked (although not always obvious) with red and white blazes, petered out before us. We backtracked and tried another path. And then a third. Nothing.

Meanwhile, ominous clouds began rolling in over the hillside, portending either rain or a pea-soup-thick fog, neither of which boded well for traveling on foot over unknown, rocky terrain. There were two men conversing across a wall that divided a pasture from the hill, and figuring an actual road was better than a hillside we couldn’t get off of due to steep cliffs and fences bounding each side, we attempted to ask them where the nearest road was. They were unwilling or unable to assist. Abandoning any efforts to get where we were going by the prescribed route, we trespassed onto someone’s farmland, and then climbed two decaying fences to get out to a dirt road. We finally found a landmark that we recognized on our detailed area map (thank you, Tourist Information Center of Sorrento!), and then immediately got lost again because none of the offshoots were marked and we couldn't be sure if they were driveways or actual roads. Since we were running out of time, I arbitrarily decided that a footpath was heading in the general direction we were supposed to go and we descended towards what sounded like a major thoroughfare. It was the road into the next town on our route!

By this time dusk was falling and the clouds were more threatening than ever. Our choices were to continue on the hiking route, hope that the next bus was going to arrive on schedule (the books said they sometimes came early or late or not at all), or walk back by the road in the dark. The connecting footpath was nowhere to be found and the road seemed treacherous even in daylight, so I optimistically opted for the bus. I figured if worst came to worst we could find someplace in town open for dinner if we missed the next bus, since the following one wasn't due for 2 hours. We could call a cab as a last resort.

We bought our tickets, and since the next bus was to arrive in 20 minutes, we decided to check out the small and unassuming town of Colli di Fontanelle, which had some cheerful colored lights strung on the telephone poles. There wasn't much to see, but on the way back to the bus stop a guy tending his backyard orchard on a ladder handed down a couple of peaches over his wall. We thanked him for his generosity, even though the peaches looked a little pale and wan. However, they turned out to be a perfectly ripe variety that I'd never encountered before--light yellow bordering on green with just a hint of blush, yet juicy and full of flavor.

We sat down to wait in the approaching darkness and the bus was right on time. Halfway down the hillside it started pouring rain. We got dropped at the train station one town north of Sant'Agnello, hung out there for a while, planning on walking back after the rain let up, as it was not far. The rain failed to slacken, and it occurred to us that we could just take the train back, so we did. By the time we got there the rain had stopped, and we had dinner consisting of the local pasta specialty, perfect for being underdressed on a damp and cool evening. We tottered off to bed to nurse our psychological wounds and vowed not to hike again the next day.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Especially for JJ, who is incensed by all this non-Belgian hooha.

Taken at the Museum of Industry and Labor in Brussels before the trip. The museum also features a giant plaster cast of a statue of Abe Lincoln as a boy produced for an insurance agency in Indiana. In spite of its name, the museum is really only about the foundry that existed on the spot, which also created the elaborate gates to the Bronx zoo. In an attempt to shed light on some other local industries, they also have beer and chocolate-themed walking tours and for some reason boat cruises down the canal with live music.

I love museums with rusting piles of stuff laying around--we came across a great one in WV one time where you could ride on the decomposing farm equipment. The one in Brussels had a huge blackberry patch on the grounds, but I thought better of consuming any, given the contaminants that likely went into the soil there for a very long time. So much better when you don't know anything about the land, like in...ITALY!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Okay, okay, more on Italy.

Rome was great. We stayed in a private apartment near the Santa Maria Maggiore church, not far from the train station. We got the apartment through, and although it seems like it's a bit of a crap shoot as to what you're going to get, ours was very nice (and not surprisingly, on the more expensive end, although still on par with area hotel prices). I would totally recommend it to those who are looking for something a bit different: quiet and elegant, but no housekeeping and no breakfast. The people renting it lived in the apartment below: a father, mother, and teenage daughter. The father met me at the door to the building, asked me how my trip in was in very decent English, and I apologized for being later than anticipated. He then told me, again in good English, that he didn't speak English and his daughter would communicate with me. I guess he's been taught a few key phrases but can't go off the script.

The father, mother and daughter showed me around the apartment, and the mother chatted away at me as if I spoke fluent Italian, knowing full well that I couldn't. After handing over the funds I had the place to myself. I immediately availed myself of the bathroom and discovered the toilet wouldn't flush because the tank was either blocked or empty. I waited a few minutes for decency's sake and then called the daughter to report the problem, and the whole family came up again to investigate. They were apparently familiar with the issue and the father got on his ladder (the tank was set high on the wall) and solved it right away. As the mother nattered, the daughter explained it was because the apartment had been empty for a month, which was somewhat depressing knowing how cool it is.

Saturday I made some coffee in the tiny kitchen using the supplies at hand and set about to wait for Jack, who was supposed to get to the place around 10. At 12:30 I gave up went to meet up with my peeps for lunch. C&M had just arrived from Sicily following the wedding of a friend, and were staying about a kilometer away in a hotel with some other people with a baby and grandmother. It was nice to finally get to meet A, who was very cute and well-behaved. We had a seriously disappointing lunch at a place I had picked out, then went to look at the Maggiore church, which contained a dead pope in a glass case, a Masonic-looking all-seeing eye painting, and a piece of Jesus's manger that had been enshrouded in a giant silver box. I must say that I was impressed that the innkeeper had the foresight to save the manger. Perhaps he was a packrat? Maybe I should start saving everything in the hopes that someday, someone I came in contact with will turn out to be the Second Coming.

I got a call from Jack a bit later saying he was on his way, which was a major relief given that I was about to seriously start panicking. We spent some time chilling and then went out to dinner with the family. We went to a great restaurant that is apparently co-owned and run by a bunch of old dudes, who were all charming and patient. They started us off with free deep-fried risotto cheese balls, and then I had the porcini risotto and grilled artichoke, which was drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with salt. C. had the serve-yourself antipasto starter, and we all got to try the delectable choices. Afterwards I wondered if sharing was a no-no, as it would be if you were the only one eating off the buffet in the US, but no one said anything and she got a single plate so perhaps we weren't gauche after all.

We then waddled over to the Trevi Fountain, which Jack insisted we went to last time but I had no recollection of. It was very nice at night, with the water all glowy and such. On our way back to C&M's hotel, we discovered that the museum across the street from them was open for the White Night celebration, which is apparently something that happens all over Europe this time of year (Brussels' is this coming weekend). They were projecting art and trippy light patterns on their walls, and although the Numismatic Museum appeared to be open we decided to call it a night and head back to our respective abodes. I learned the next day that the stage in front was set up not for music, as we had expected, but some kind of speech or lecture that went on for two hours after C&M went to bed.

(In case you were wondering about the language thing, by this time I had successfully sprinkled my extremely spotty Italian [good for ordering and buying train tickets and not much else] liberally with French and Spanish on several occasions.)

Sunday those guys went off to check out Vatican City while we investigated some wandering around. After breakfast we went to find something Jack had seen from the train, which turned out to be some ruins of a Temple to Minerva in an advanced state of decline. I upset him by pressing the intercom-doorbell on the decrepit structure. Thankfully, no one stepped out from behind a pillar complaining that I had interrupted their lizard-watching, or whatever it is you do when you live in a place without roof or doors.

We happened across what was billed as the oldest gelateria in Rome, which Jack convinced me to check out in spite of the fact that it was 11 a.m. and I was in no mood for gelato at that point. Man, was it amazing. He got a small cup with tiramisu, rice pudding, and something with nuts. The rice pudding sounds kinda gross, but it was excellent. Definitely worth veering off course for (in our case, the veer was from the sidewalk in the door, so not so far).

Then we headed in the direction of the ghetto on the other side of town. This was apparently the real deal, and when we got in the vicinity of the huge synagogue there (closed to the public except for guided tours due to terrorism), the dulcet tones of 70s cheese greeted our ears. And then Hava Nagila. And then more crap. It was a wedding reception, and so reminiscent of home! The illusion was shattered by the Catholic church placed prominently across the street, which featured text in both Latin and Hebrew urging the Jews to convert to Christianity, complete with a large and bloody painting of Jesus being crucified on the front. To the uninitiated, was the picture saying "join or else this might happen to you", or "join and you can be part of our grand tradition of martyrdom"?

As if to one-up this church, right across the way was an island in the middle of the Tiber that seemed to be comprised mostly of religious buildings, including a church that had just let out, if the crowds out front and the clouds of incense within were any indication. This church appeared to be the home of some religious order not known for its subtlety. Two of the side chapels featured photos of priests that were assassinated, one laid out in a coffin and the other with his head resting on his desk, a bullet hole in his cranium and a trickle of blood down his neck.

We were going to go to the Mouth of Truth after this, but catching sight of the line was enough to make us turn tail and descend towards the Cloaca Maxima, one of the points where the sewage exited the city and entered the Tiber in ancient times. It was enclosed in an arch in the retaining wall that separated the city from the river. Although no longer used, it has bloomed in its neglect and is now a comfortable residence for a homeless person, who eyed us warily as we snapped pictures. We decided to walk along the river for a while, and it was a stark contrast to the Seine in Paris, although both are enclosed in walls and seem to have severe water quality issues. The riverbanks were wild and unkempt, and we had only a dirt path for promenading. Various encampments cropped up in the weedy place between the path and the water, as opposed to the organized-looking tent town occupying space by the paved path on the Seine. Blackberries abounded. Wildlife couldn't be far behind, although I can't recall seeing much.

Eventually we walked off the edge of our map, meaning we were pretty darned far away, and it was time to make our way back. We took a set of stairs up to the street level and on the landing were two women giving haircuts to two other women. They had chairs and smocks and a whole line of stuff set up on the ledge, and it all looked very legit. There even seemed to be some additional customers waiting. I couldn't think of a nicer place to get shorn, sitting in the shade overlooking the water.

We grabbed some panini in the working-class neighborhood we found ourselves in (Jack claims there was a self-service beer tap in there) and ate and walked back towards the known lands. It was hot. We ended up on a wide boulevard with very little shade, and at the far end, near the Circus Maximus, as we were withering down to nothing, was our savior: the watermelon vendor. It was a serendipitous location, for us anyway, although they didn't seem to be doing much business. We went and sat under some umbrella-shaped pines and spit the seeds all over tarnation.

After a long slog and a couple more churches and a stop off at a grocery store so prone to thievery there was a security guard at the door who made us leave our bag on the floor of the entryway, we arrived back at the apartment. A plan was crafted to meet up for dinner again, and this time it was going to be the whole crowd of 7 adults and 2 babies. A fruitless search ensued to find a nearby pizza place housed in a former church, and eventually we ended up at a basement tourist trap kind of place, which was probably for the best given our gargantuan crowd. I got a creamy pasta dish featuring arugula, one of many arugula-consuming opportunities on the trip. It was pretty good, all things considered.

Once another quick trip to the Trevi Fountain was completed, we all went over to the Spanish Steps, descended, and then made our way back to the hotel. On the way, we passed by a shop called the Man Store and saw a very uncomfortable-looking thong thing for men that we spent some time discussing. And with that, the Rome portion of our trip concluded. We meandered back to the apartment, took Jack's photo in the lobby looking like a Vegas showgirl, hit the sack, and woke up refreshed for our train ride to Naples and onward the next day.