31 May 2013

European Vacation Fourteen - I Miss Florence

Once when I was little -- probably about eight -- my mother had tickets for her and I to see a play. It must of been something like Beauty and the Beast because I recall it was suited for young audiences and I was super psyched about seeing it. A day or so before the play I got sick as in running a fever. I was thus disqualified from going with mom and a cousin filled in for me all this despite my vigorous protests that I was just fine. How I sulked. My life was ruined. Oh sure I reasoned at the time there would be other plays other events other great days there would be Christmas and baseball season and parties and trips but this night was lost forever. This occasion could not be replicated. Never replaced. I was devastated. Today I still remember the feeling though -- as you’ve noticed -- not the name of the play I missed. And I was right -- the night was never replaced.

I never thought this trip was going to be perfect. But I did hope. Last night I was awoken by acid. Not the kind I experimented in my wayward youth. But the kind that works up your esophagus. It burns creates discomfort and renders sleep impossible. So I spent half the night awake and miserable. When the missus woke me up this morning to go to Florence I was in no shape to travel. I was not only exhausted but still feeling bile creeping around where it shouldn’t be. So the rich Italian food had finally caught up with me.

I assured my darling wife that would it be perfectly fine for her to go to Florence without me just so long as she didn’t run off with Enzo or Guido (she’d never).

I slept quite late and finally shakily got out of bed showered and had a bland but tasty breakfast. I determined not to make a waste of the day and when I felt up to it began wondering the streets of Bologna. I’m a perfectly content solo traveler and meandered happily to and fro (for the record to is okay but fro is really nice).

I eventually stopped at a music and dvd store determined to find a movie on sale that I could use to wile away a few hours until the better half returned. I needed a break from my travels as I still felt the effects of my lost night. I settled on Gangs of New York as my copy back in the states is scratched. I was intrigued to see it again after having been to the Cinecitta where it was filmed.

Half way through watching the movie I felt up to more walking and so again explored new vistas in Bologna. I stopped at a supermarket that was not unlike what one finds in the States aside from different labels different prices and Italian speaking clerks. Returning to the apartment I finished the film and now I’m writing as the wife is due in half an hour. I will reiterate that being without wifi is terribly inconvenient and I hate it don’t like it and it sucks and yes I’m spoiled and yes this kind of bother is why I’m not the sort who ever goes camping (my idea of roughing it is a hotel without cable TV is what I always tell people).

Yesterday was quite pleasant as Germano took me to the Bologna cineteca which is one of the most important ones in the world being responsible as it is for the restoration of many great films. He gave me the behind the scenes tour explaining my presence to others by saying I was a film critic (one can make that case I suppose). It was cool to see screening rooms named for Marcello Mastrioni and Martin Scorsese. Scorsese is of course an important figure in the preservation re-discovery and restoration of film. In the projection room I saw a door autographed by film notables including Scorsese and the great Finnish director Aki Kuarasmaki.

I write this in the early evening of Thursday May 30. Tomorrow we leave Italy for the last leg of journey which takes us to London and will include spending some time with Helen Mirren.

Despite missing out on Florence I continue to be enjoying myself immensely. And I happen to be feeling nearly 100%. Pretty cool.

(Postscript written the following morning: Wife returned having had a smashing time which included seeing Michaelangelo’s David and a slew of Botecellis (my favorite artist). We repaired to dinner with niece and children Germano being off promoting the film. It was our last Italian dinner -- for this trip I have to come back and I have to make it to Florence. Spaghetti with seafood and man was it good. Now to find a place with wifi so as to post this. Ciao.)

29 May 2013

European Vacation Thirteen - Venice the Menace

Venice yesterday. Crowded streets a riot of tourists voices from all over a lot a lot German. Many Americans some French Spanish and the ubiquitous miscellaneous. Jostling hustling dawdling. Some people in groups ambling slowly suddenly stopping not getting out of the way. Others practically running past helter skelter elbowing by swinging backpacks unconscious or rude no excuse mes. Souvenir stands every 25 feet  -- or less -- hawking the same wares at varying prices. Most run by middle eastern men who get all up in your face if you show interest in anything. Along the way more middle eastern men and African men selling their knock off purses sunglasses and knick knacks. More shops many with delicious looking pastries and candies. Cafes. Sandwich pizza slice soda shops. Little restaurants spilling out into the streets. We ate at one. Very good.

Oh yes there were the canals. The filthy water. The boats water buses water cabs and expensive gondolas. Also commercial boats takin’ care of bizness. Still more churches and basilicas and chapels. Some we enter and the art is amazing stunning and oddly empty because of what it serves....

....So imagine a peasant in the 12th century with no concept of philosophy or religion who walks into a cathedral. The story is told in a fashion so spectacular in a setting so far removed from the one room hut that is his home. How can their story not be true. How can the passion of the son of the creator of all things not inspire one to join this faith even give more onto this opulence. Surely this would be overwhelming and beyond an uneducated man’s questioning. Imagine this scenario plays out over and over and over throughout the centuries not just in Italy but all over the world. The answers to life are here in this magnificent house of worship. The rituals confirm it. The BOOK confirms it. The guidelines for living confirm it. And the promise: eternal life. This confirms it beyond doubt. A place in the heavenly choir at the lap of god. Generations grow up in this faith and give to it. Without questioning. What need for the struggle of asking when the answers are all provided? The soul wrenching intellectual emotional process of exploring meaning is removed. Science is enemy because it can contradict. Worse enemies are non believers who must be converted -- join us. The worst enemies are those of opposing faiths. Their lives contradicting ours. Worth a war at any rate.

So at some point the beauty within these churches seems sad. They are great works of art used in the service of propaganda of denying the need for people to wonder at the beauty of the sunset or the miracle of birth or the complexities of human emotion.

View from the Campanile
Venice is a lovely city. But in our one day visit we saw what most tourists see and what so many were that very day seeing. It would be worth returning to explore other parts of the city. The less trodden streets. One of the great problems of tourism is time. It is usually limited and one ends up just seeing the usual attractions and missing the true flavor of the city or area. It is thus nice to be spending time in Bologna in a residential apartment courtesy of air bandb. With my niece and family living walking distance away we get to spend time with them and get off the beaten track. All our Airbnb hosts have been able to recommend restaurants and sites that the locals enjoy and are not necessarily infested with tourists.

Bologna has less tourists than the other places we’ve visited. It is a university town with a thriving exchange program (that niece works for when not -- as she currently is -- on maternity leave). Thus there are a lot of people from other ports of call here but they are semi-permanent. Bologna is a medieval city with a rich history that includes areas that still show the effects of World War II bombing. It also is an important film center which keeps my niece’s shall we say husband centered here. Well that and my niece and their two children. His name is Germano Maccioni and as I mentioned in my last post his third documentary Fedele alla linea has opened nationwide in Italy and is an instant success (extended in Rome because of continual sell outs). Besides his documentaries he directed a multi award winning short called Cose Naturali. He currently is developing his first feature fiction film. Linked here is an interview I did with him a few years ago about his first documentary State of Exception. Germano is not just a filmmaker but a film lover and I have been privileged to spend many an hour with him talking about films. We share the same love for the likes of Fellini, Bergman, Woody Allen and many many more. Moreover Germano is well deserving of being mate to my oldest niece who is one of the sweetest, wisest, most charming people on the planet. I’m proud to say they are exemplary parents. Their boy is an infant but their daughter is a three year old whirlwind of wit energy and great fun. The Finnish Italian mix is a mad brew.

We always love their visits to the states and it is treat for all concerned to gather here.

Speaking of treats, this whole trip continues to be one. Less than a week left. Sigh.

27 May 2013

European Vacation Twelve - Brief Post From Bologna

Arrived yesterday in Bologna a lovely city full of young people and fun. It features my oldest niece and her two children -- a three year girl and a month and half old boy. As it says on the header of this blog Io Sono Grande Zio (I am a great Uncle). Niece's -- let's just say husband --  is a filmmaker whose latest documentary has just debuted all across Italy and has sold out two nights in a row in Rome. More on him later.

Updating the blog is difficult again as our apartment here has no wifi. Boooooo!!! I'm squeezing this in during a visit to niece's flat.

Still filling up on good food, tonight's was homemade. Also this was a two gelato day which makes it a great day. Also another *yawn* church with amazing artifacts. Tomorrow a day trip to Venice. So to my legion of readers (both of us) there's plenty more to come when I have combination of time and wifi.

25 May 2013

European Vacation Eleven - Another Cinematic Pilgrimage

Yes more good food more gelato another centuries old church with amazing pieces of art. Ho hum. But today we also made a cinephile's must stop -- Rome's Cinecitta. It's an active film studio which includes a small museum and a building dedicated to the great Federico Fellini. Cinecitta has -- since its 1937 opening -- been the primary shooting site for films by such directors as Fellini Martin Scorsese Sergio Leone Terry Gilliam William Wyler Bernardo Bertolucci just to name a few. But I will herewith dispense with words and provides some of the pictures I took during our visit in the belief that each is worth 1,000 words.

Set for HBO series Rome which is now
 used for other films and TV series.

Set where Scorsese's Gangs of New York was shot.

Two friends of mine Sophia Loren and Alberto Sordi.

Circa late 1930s cameras.

Costumes worn by Henry Fonda and Claudia Cardinale
 in Once Upon Time in the West.

Magali Noel's dress from Fellini's Amarcord.

24 May 2013

European Vacation Ten - Chilling With the Pope and Company in the Vatican

Rafael's School of Athens
My neck hurts from looking up. The Sistine Chapel alone requires a lot of neck craning. For that matter just walking the streets of Rome sends one begging for a masseuse, if not a chiropractor. With each turn of a corner one expects to see yet another ancient edifice towering skyward. And one normally does. We walked into one church at random, a Jesuit church called Chiesa del Gesù, and it was as awe-inspiring as anything we saw earlier that day in the Vatican. Literally awe was inspired.

Catholics have made incalculable contributions to the world of art through iconography, paintings, sculptures, frescoes, statues and more. (There is much more to outweigh their impact on the world on the debit side. I'm talking about you inquisition, crusades, repressive attitudes towards sex and sexuality -- you want I should go on?)

All the art here is overwhelming and to try to take in so much in a matter of days is nonsense. It can become a bit of a blur -- particularly when you are mixing in so many different epochs, styles ,and sensibilities -- not too mention artists. Some things stand out for different reasons. I was struck by Rafael's School of Athens, in part because I had a poster of it on the wall of my classroom for so many years when I corrupted young minds as a middle school teacher. To see the real deal in the Vatican museum after all these years was a treat. I was also impressed by the walls of original maps because I've long been a map aficionado. But there were, of course, many things that ooh and aahed me based on their artistic merits. Not surprisingly the works of the aforementioned Rafael and that Michelangelo chap, but so too people I'd never heard of and can't now recall.

Not sure what this is but I liked it.
As a strict non-believer I had to put my lack of religious convictions aside as we took in the Vatican. This to me was a place to take in great art and marvel at the people who made it. It was also a golden opportunity to make papal jokes (spoken softly too the missus) and recall the many horrors the Catholic church has visited on the world (yes they are to be commended for many charitable works but too often those come along with the usual proselytizing).

There were many many many many many many others making their way through the Vatican today of all nationalities. Many were part of tours. Tours are where someone gives you bit-size morsels of information -- that you'll soon forget -- to help it seem like you're expanding your intellect. "This piece was commissioned..." "The artist died immediately after completing..." "This painting depicts the battle between..." Disposable trivia as soon forgotten as heard.

Another thing about the Vatican is that you can't walk ten feet without coming across a souvenir stand or gift shop. Once back outside said stands and shops are only every 25 feet. Mostly they sell the same crap -- I mean stuff. Being in the Sistine Chapel is like being in a middle school classroom during an exam. People are constantly and I mean constantly being shushed en masse and people are constantly going on with their whispering or out right yammering. Super annoying.

One problem with traveling somewhere for the first time is the compulsion to take a photo of everything whether you know what the hell it is or not. This is particularly acute with the advent of digital photography and smart phones. I always reckon that if it's not a good picture or nothing worth saving I can decide that later and delete it. Back when you were dealing with film you had to be a lot more careful about what you were shooting.

Chiesa del Gesù
There is also the impulse to "see everything." This is silly. Unless you are staying in a place like Paris or Rome for a month or more its impossible to "see everything" anyway. See what you want. I know I know you'll later get a comment from Gladys in accounting like this: "you mean to see you went all the way to Palookaville and didn't visit the crescent wrench museum?" Don't travel for anyone else. See what interests you, not what you think is de rigueur. 

We continue to enjoy culinary delights and I have a particular fondness for gelato and the espresso they serve in small cups. I do like sitting and brooding over a large cup of coffee but this is a case of being in Rome and doing as the Romans do. The weather has been perfect. I can't imagine coming here in the Summer when it's hot. We were quite warm in the Vatican museum and it was mild outside. It must be unbearable in July unless they have a doozy of an air conditioning system.

(By the way the pope rushed by as we were walking through the museum. He stopped and said: "hey folks how are ya? Nice to see ya. Sorry I can't stop but I'm on my way to meeting with the board of directors. You know how that goes. Enjoy your visit and remember -- keep it real! Oh by the way blessings." What a guy!)

22 May 2013

European Vacation Nine - Rome Rome on the Range

Today I rode a train down the Italian coast to the capital city.
Today I walked in Rome.
Today I saw the Roman forum
Today I saw the Colosseum.
Today I saw Trevi Fountain.
Today I had the best salad I've ever eaten.
Today I had the best gelato I've ever eaten.

But the highlight of the day for me was stumbling upon the apartment once occupied by Don Pietro Pappagallo. His exploits were depicted in the Roberto Rossellini's classic film, Rome: Open City (1945) in a stunning performance by Aldo Fabrizi. Pappagallo was a priest who were worked with the resistance during World War II during which time he assisted Jews, partisans and others being sought by the combined Nazi and Italian fascist forces. He was eventually betrayed and executed in 1944. It was especially meaningful to come across his former residence as I'd never even thought to look for it. Amidst all the statues and monuments of Rome the plaque dedicated to Pappagallo is for me among the most meaningful.

Don Pietro Pappagallo's apartment
We are staying in an Airbnb in the heart of Rome walking distance from all the sights I've mentioned. Airbnbs are rooms or apartments or even houses that people rent out to tourists for a day or two or seven or ten or whatever. We stayed in one in La Spezia and will again in Bologna. Like the one in La Spezia we are in a clean modern apartment in a very old building. There's plenty of room including a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom etc. For future travel plans be sure to check it out. (Not an ad just an opinion though I would welcome a check sent to me by anyone. Thanks.)

So this ridiculously marvelous vacation continues. A few minor bumps along the way but nothing unexpected or ruinous to a righteously good time. We do encounter far too many tourists and one cringes at the idea of traveling in these locales during the Summer. The Americans seem particularly obnoxious though that's in part because we can understand what they're saying. One thing they say far to often is "guys." In Paris some young Americans walked into a cafe we were in and asked a waiter: "do you guys serve courses or just coffee?' Not a hello or do you speak English but an abrupt question in which the recipient is referred to as "guys." Please. I know, I know we are tourists too but nice quiet, polite ones who struggle with the language and don't say "guys." By the way I have already successfully ordered a meal and made a complete purchase in Italian. So proud.

Final note: The Trevi Fountain is as lovely as I'd imagined though it could have done with Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni wading through it (circa 1960 of course.)

21 May 2013

European Vacation Eight - The Failure of Words

This day. This wonderful amazing day. This day will be gone soon. Vanished. Living only in my memory and in the photos we took and our shared oral history. Days do that. Just as seconds minutes and hours leave forever. This was a day I would have held on to. There were moments that wanted to be kept. Stored in pocket or backpack to be pulled out later. There were views that defy description as we took the ferry from La Spezia to Porto Venere. It was perfect weather. Blue skies above and vast white continents of clouds in the distance. The temperature was mild. The air was like a soothing balm. The ferry ride was smooth and relaxing except for all the oohs and aahs it illicited as we enjoyed the views. Islands. Mountains. Castles and churches of medieval origin jutting from the rocks reaching proudly to the vast skies above. A sleepy village with rustic narrow streets and shops and clothes drying in windows and wonderful people smiling.

Porto Venere dates back to Roman times which is to say over 2,000 years ago. I live in a city back home that is all of 150 years of age. We visited the church and the fort that overlooked the sea. Built in the 12th century. We walked on rugged stone steps. Stopped and marveled at how each new view surpassed the last. Wondered why we didn't couldn't live here. Could one ever tire of such sights?
I could not be a food critic. The eating part I'd be fine with but the other business about describing it....It would just be a serious of adjectives. I don't know how to tell you about the magnificent food we've had thus far in our two days in Italy. Every morsel has been a delight. Panna cotta that I could bath in. Gelato that I could smother myself with. Fish -- and you see here comes a cliche -- baked to perfection -- as are the potatoes. Pizza that puts to shame what the best places in the Bay Area create. And the salads. My god. A simple slice of tomato is heavenly.

I worry sometimes about enjoying myself so much. I worry that the scales will eventually balance with suffering of some sort. But then I think that's nonsense that there are no such rules governing our lives. And goodness knows I've endured pain enough. But most of all I tell myself to enjoy now. Savor it. It will be gone. Like life itself we embrace it while we can. I can today. For however long it lasts. There is still tonight's dinner to come.....

19 May 2013

European Vacation Seven - Au revoir Francais Buon Giorno Italia

Said goodbye to a rainy Paris. I could live in this city. On the one hand I'd put on a ton of weight eating all the pastries but on the other I'd work it off by walking constantly. Four days with one spent going to Normandy is barely enough to scratch the surface but we dug into pretty well over the course of a fortnight in 2008. Seeing a great city for the second time is like seeing a great film again. The first time you just got to know it now you get to really appreciate. Like a great film Paris would improve with each viewing. On the minus side Parisians aren't as obsessive about picking up their dog poop as Bay Area denizens are and many have not gotten the memo about the hazards of smoking. There is enough to outweigh that many times over on the plus side. The metro never kept us waiting for more than three minutes and those waits tended to be closer to 60 seconds. You can get anywhere on the metro -- it is accessible and easy (reminds me of an old girlfriend.....stop it!).  It is a great city for dining, to appreciate art, to fill out your understanding of history and to walk walk walk.

We dropped in on the Eiffel Tower which I find to be a magnificent structure. Still haven't gone to the top so I'll just have to come to Paris again. As we left it was raining and Paris is beautiful in the rain though less so when you're lugging suitcases to a taxi stand. We boarded an overnight train to Milan, I'm writing this from the train station as we await the train that will take us to La Spezia. We got to soak in more gorgeous French countryside before it got dark. We also ate in the dining card where the food was I'm quite sure edible as I ate it but not with much joy. I'm certain we'll make up for it with some fine meals here.

I'm very tired but very happy to be in Italy and have already tried out my rudimentary Italian as we ordered coffee. To be honest the missus and I are having the time of our life.

European Vacation Six - A Day in Three Parts

Yours truly waiting for a car to take me to the 1920s'
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris -- which I watched for the 6th time the day we left Berkeley -- has steadily climbed the list of my favorite Allen films and currently ranks third. So it should come as no surprise that I had to visit “the steps.” I refer to the steps where Owen Wilson’s character Gil is picked up at midnight and taken by car to the 1920’s. I know I should have been there at midnight to see if I could get a ride back to visit with the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway and Josephine Baker and Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau and Man Ray and Pablo Picasso and T.S. Eliot. But I settled for having my picture taken there and taking a photo of the street the car drove up and realizing I was standing on hallowed ground where once stood Woody Allen himself. There were others who came to the steps in front of church of st etienne du mont. And I’m sure there will be for years to come.
From there the missus and I strolled around purposely and aimlessly at the same time. We had places to go but were in no rush to get there and a circuitous route was just as good as any other. In a foreign city I am always happy to not know exactly where I am and to just wander about. Paris is made for such meanderings. At one point we found ourselves in the Luxembourg Gardens which is a gorgeous and clean park that feels relaxed and content. I couldn’t help but notice the building there that housed Nazi headquarters during the occupation. I contemplated Nazis stomping around the area and what a horrible affrontery it had to have been to Parisians. History is everywhere.

Our next journey was to the Cinematheque Francais. Somehow I hadn’t thought to go during our last stay in Paris. We bought very reasonably priced tickets for the museum. For a cinemaphile this is a must visit. The French played a crucial role in the early advancement of cinema both from strictly artistic and technological standpoints. The museum pays tribute to the early pioneers of film. There are original cameras and projectors and clips from early films. There is tribute paid to early British and American cinema photographers as well. The collection includes more recent items too such as “mother’s” head from Hitchcock’s Psycho the robot regalia from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis  and a self portrait drawn by Charlie Chaplin. Upstairs there was an exhibition dedicated to the great French director Marcel Carne whose Port of Shadows in a personal favorite.

We returned home for a rest before heading out to dinner and a museum. We found a nice little restaurant over near Hemingway’s former abode. Our nearest dinner companions were studies in contrast. At one table there was an American couple and my heart bleeds for the poor husband. What a scene his wife made about the dessert. She called the waitress over to complain who then called the manager. It had no taste she insisted and went into great detail about all that was wrong with it. The manager took it away after explaining where the ingrediants came from and assuring madame that they served it daily with no complaint. The manager returned later stating politely that neither she nor the chef could find anything wrong with it. The woman was determined that she admit there was something off about it. She went on and on about the dessert to her poor husband who seemed to get smaller and smaller and quieter and quieter and more and more embarrassed by his not so darling wife. When the bill came she complained about that though her husband pointed out that the issue at hand only amounted to three euros. The woman asked for a menu probably to check the prices again. I felt like hissing her when she left.
At the other table in our vicinity sat four Finns. It looked like mom and her three grown children. They were having a great time, often laughing, once to the point of tears. I could only pick up bits and pieces of their conversation but were so proud of them in contrast to the ugly american. Mom returned from a trip to the bathroom to sympathize with the manager about the rude guest. I swelled with Finnish pride. Our people would never do such a thing. But our people are also very shy and while we will stare and watch it wouldn’t have done for me to reveal myself to the Finns. Oh it would have been okay if I’d spoken to them but as a Finn I could’t bring myself to interrupt their evening.
After our enjoyable meal (no problems with our desserts) we made for the D’Orsay Museum. It was a special night in Paris with free admission to all museums. Their website said that they would be open until 1:00 but when we got their at 11:00 they were closing. Damn! We had gotten our evening off to a late start because someone had taken a very long nap (guilty). No museum but more strolling about Paris much of it along the Seine. Then back to the Metro and home. Today we had several “long” waits for the Metro by which I mean three minutes. Three minutes as in 180 seconds. Oh Paris Metro you’ve spoiled me.

18 May 2013

European Vacation Five - Beaches

Omaha Beach
It’s simply too much to process. The enormity of what went on there and a lifetime of reading about it thinking about and watching it dramatized. Today I stood on Omaha Beach the bloodiest sector of the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944. It’s a pretty beach that suggests nothing of the blood that soaked it 69 years ago. Young men were slaughtered while others bravely charged on some to glory some to their deaths. They faced German guns. The cacophony was hard to fathom on such a peaceful day.

It is an awful thing war. But there it is running roughshod through the history of humankind. So there’s no denying it. It is the worst of human folly and its lessons go continually unlearned.

I do not like tours. I like to see and discover for myself. But seeing all I did today without a tour would have been impossible. So there I was stuck listening to the endless chatter of our well meaning tour guide she of an encyclopedic knowledge that even surpassed my own.

The day started about five hours after the previous one ended. An early morning scramble to the train station and then a two hour trip to Caen. From there I was picked up with others from my tour and taken to the Memorial museum. As museum’s go it was pretty good though. Any museum that has Adolph Hitler’s suitcase is worth seeing. Of course there was much more than that including displays photos maps and the ever present over priced gift shop.

We were there too long especially with a mediocre lunch included. Finally we were in a van and going from site to site. Honestly this was one of the best parts of the trip riding around and seeing the gorgeous Normandy countryside which featured Roman walls ancient houses and castles and cows and sheep aplenty. Occasionally a human could be seen. It was difficult to imagine that this was once a battleground. I’d heard a lot about the famous hedgerows that were so vexing to allied troops. Seeing them it was clearer why. They were tall thick and deep. Impossible to see through or over and hard to cut.

We saw German bunkers one of which was atop a cliff that U.S. Rangers somehow scaled -- at great loss of life. There were bullet holes still in walls and a ceiling that showed evidence of a flamethrower attacks that roasted some German soldiers. Grisly but historical.

Omaha Beach was the highlight but the American cemetery was touching as well. To see the vast row of crosses and walk about reading some of the names is a powerful experience. 

It was a good day for me. Hard to conceptualize. Hard to find a place for in my consciousness. So much beauty and so many reminders of such a horrible and such a valorous event.

I listened to The Beatles and Amy Winehouse on the train ride back. The wife met me at the train station and I fell into her arms as if I was returning from battle itself rather than a historical battlefield. I can be so overly dramatic.

European Vacation Four - Bargain Hunting on the Champs Elysees

From the Arc de Triomphe
Today I encountered a former student from the language school in San Francisco where I teach. He’s from Korea. We met on the top of the of the Arc De Triomphe in Paris France. Of course. So that business about it being a small world?  Actually true. Last time I was in Paris I saw a former student from my middle school teaching days. I could go to Mars and see a former student.

I think its impossible to get a bad meal in Paris. Or so much as a bad morsel. I had a plain old ordinary omelette for breakfast. It came with a plain old salad and plain old bread. It was to die for. Breakfast had been preceded by a pilgrimage to the apartment building where Hemingway lived (Ernest. Writer. Papa.). It was followed by a pilgrimage to Shakespeare Books once owned by Sylvia Beach and frequented by Hemingway and James Joyce and Gertrude Stein and pretty much everyone else of literary note who has passed through France.

From there it is less than five minutes to Notre Dame (the original one not the Fighting Irish one). It is celebrating its 850th birthday which makes it about 500 years older than any building you’ll come across in the US and only slightly younger than your average supreme court justice (rim shot).

A long stroll -- very long -- eventually took us down the Champs Elysees where you can spend a small fortune on a ball of string. We window shopped at Cartier’s and please don’t tell the wife I bought a huge diamond ring for her. Then it was to the Arc De Triomphe which I was most impressed with my last visit. This time the better half and I decided to go to the top. This required a long long walk up up up a winding staircase. Two heart attacks later we reached the top. It was worth it. The views are c’est magnifique. And of course it is where one goes to run into a former student who is from Korea.

Took the metro back to the apartment. Our trip required a transfer. That meant two trains to wait for. Total combined wait time was somewhere around one minute. From my limited experience on the Paris Metro this is the norm. Years of dealing with public transit in the Bay Area has made me a bitter angry old man with suicidal homicidal tendencies and prone to fits of rage (okay none of this is entirely true but...). I love you Paris Metro.

Went to a crepe restaurant for dinner and every bite was ecstasy. By the time I finished dessert my mouth had had multiple orgasms. 

Now I face the prospect of a very early wake time next morning followed by a very long trip sans the wife to the beaches of Normandy and the site of the D Day landing. I’m in. 

European Vacation Three - Southerners on a Train

View from our apartment in Paris
Ahh the glamour of European train travel. London to Paris. Nothing could spoil it save perhaps being surrounded by a group of young Americans from somewhere in the South. No no no no. We’re not supposed to be listening to Americans. Certainly not one with twangs and most certainly not the motormouth seated just behind us. He was one of those people who has nothing of interest to say so covers it up by talking incessantly. Wife forgave me for drowning him out by putting on my iPod.

But here we are. Paris. Nearly 24 hours on the road and what a road it is. Crossing as it does the North American continent the Atlantic Ocean and the English channel. A quick cab ride from the train station and we are Phil’s apartment. Phil the old high school pal of mine who owns an apartment in Paris -- he lives in Northern England. Phil would be a dear and highly respected friend even absent a spare apartment in the Latin Quarter. With one he is a god.

Not surprisingly I’m quite tired and more than a bit frustrated that I can’t connect to WiFi and so must wait to check email and post these fascinating glimpses into my European vacation. Hope they’re worth the wait.

European Vacation Two - Crash Free Flight

The flight did not crash. This is my favorite type of flight. Floatation devices were not necessary as the unlikely event of a water landing did not eventuate. In fact we landed at Heathrow 40 minutes early. Thank you favorable winds. 

I slept talked to my wife and read a book about the Italian Mafia. The one that very much exists today. The book is poorly written and I’m half sorry I bought it but it is fascinating to learn how pervasive the Mafia is in its various incarnations in Italy. Especially Sicily.

I breezed through customs with my European passport and dutifully waited for my better half. Our luggage was not lost. This is a constant fear of mine but only when I travel. I don’t think about lost luggage when at home. Imagine.

Took the tube to St.Pancreas/King’s Cross Station where we will soon board the Euro Star. There’s no problem getting around because there are not only helpful signs but actual helpful human beings who stand around waiting for you to ask a question.

With time to kill we dropped off luggage had a coffee then strolled around a bit. I love walking around London. In a few blocks we saw the quaint the ancient and the ultra modern. We’ll be staying in this area on our way back so more on it later. Maybe there’ll be sun. I love fog but it would be nice to see London in the sun which I’ve not done in decades.

Travel is exhausting. Travel is exhilarating. Exhilaration is exhausting. Exhaustion from exhilaration is less exhausting then other types of exhaustion. But I’ve heard it leads to repetitious writing. I don’t believe it. I do believe our train leaves soon. It is 5:45 GMT. Boarding call....

European Vacation One - Red Stewardesses

At the airport. It’s about 30 minutes before boarding. I’ve loved airports since I was child. They are glamorous. People are going far away. To exotic locales. No one is flying to Cleveland. They’re going to Tahiti or Paris or Buenos Aires. I used to get dressed up when I flew before I realized that comfort was more important on a long flight as evidenced by the causal attire of most of my fellow passengers. I love going anywhere that requires a passport and now I have two. One U.S. and the other a European Union passport which I have as a consequence of my Finnish citizenship.

Went through security which is a bit of bother. When I was 19 and had shoulder length hair I got a thorough searching at Heathrow in London. I must have looked like a drug mule or someone stupid enough to be carrying a bag of dope. I was always variously smart enough or lucky enough to never get busted despite all manner of chicanery on my part.

Having gotten to the last checkpoint I was searched. The young man had looked at my passport and made a bad attempt to pronounce my last name. However he finished by saying “kiitos palio,” to which I replied “ole hyvaa.” The Finnish thanks very much and your welcome, respectively.

SItting here watching the stewardesses for my flight walk by. There is a constant and very loud and very annoying intercom announcement for some guy named Lee offered in two languages both of which seem to be the official language of Gibberish Island although I think one is supposed to be English.

My god the stewardesses keep coming. It’s Virgin Atlantic and none of them are. Okay that’s a cheap shot. They’re pretty young women in bright red suits and way too much make up. Living in Berkeley and working in San Francisco I don’t see a lot of make up. My wife and older daughter both eschew it and young daughter is adroit at using it in moderation. Likewise the cat.

The wife is taking a walk something that’ll be a bit difficult once we take off. This trip is our 25th wedding anniversary gift to one another. That occasion was actually last June so we’re a better late than never 11 months behind. Oh for the love of god Mr. Lee is being paged again. 

Twenty minutes until boarding. I’m going to try avoid watching an in flight movie. The screens are like matchbooks. I’ve got a book of course and sleep would be a good idea. We arrive in London at 2:00 pm tomorrow local time. Was watching the rain in London earlier today live on the telly as I took in Arsenal (my favorite soccer team) beat Wigan 4-1. Wish I was there for the match despite the rain. 

Okay put away laptop. Hard to write when Mr. Lee is forever and constantly being paged. Oh and here’s the wife....

14 May 2013

European Vacation Preface

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. - T.S. Eliot
Flight leaves in nine hours. To London. Then Eurostar to Paris. Few days there then to Italy. La Spezia via Milan. Later to Rome then to Bologna with day trips to Florence and Venice. Finally to London including seeing a play starring Helen Mirren. There will also be a one-day trip to the D Day landing site.

Watching Midnight in Paris (2011) now while the missus finishes the packing. Makes me want to write like Hemingway or Fitzgerald. I don’t suppose I ever will or for that matter ever come close. But I probably write better than Barney Schultz.

Barney pitched in the majors in the early 60’s. I’ll always remember his big mug because I always seemed to get 20 of his baseball cards when I was kid -- and only one Willie Mays. His cards seemed to always be just that big homely face. I see where he’s still alive at 86 and there’s nothing to indicate that he is a better writer than I am. So there’s that.

Midnight in Paris also makes me want to live in Paris. Then again it doesn’t take much to make me want to live in Paris. Thinking about Paris makes me want to live in Paris. Maybe I will. Then again this first trip to Italy may make me want to live in Rome or Florence.

I love plane flights. They mean new places. They mean a break -- oh wait Gil Bender has just suggested the idea for Exterminating Angel to Luis Bunuel. Brilliant. In addition to its many charms Midnight in Paris makes the point that we overly romanticize past time periods. I constantly come across bloggers who wish they lived in the 30s or 40s. They must love cigarette smoke Jim Crow laws and closeted gays. I think the 70s were great but I wouldn't want to go back. Then again if someone built a time machine there are a lot of places and times I'd like to visit.

I better see if the wife needs any help. Hopefully not but I’ll feel good asking. I’ll try to write everyday during the trip. Posting will depend on internet access.

I'm ready to go.

11 May 2013

I Hope You Enjoy My "Awesome Content"

"What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance." - Theodore Roethke
I recently received the email you see below. I have removed the names of the actor and movie mentioned as well as links provided.

Hello Richard 
We wanted to inform the readers of Riku Writes about the giveaway for "---------------," the -------- ---------l movie which hits Redbox May 14. In exchange for posting their best -------------action pose, fans earn the chance to win an Aikidogi, MMA fight gloves, or a wooden bokken signed by ---------.

Given your awesome movie content,* we'd be honored if you could post about it for the your readers. Below is a quick synopsis of the movie as well as a link to the content page.


“--------------------------” is an adrenalin-fueled crime drama that follows Elijah Kane (------------), leader of a Special Investigation Unit, and his skilled four-member team as they track a network of drug dealers and killers led by Russian mastermind, Nikoli Putin, in the dangerous outskirts of Seattle.

Given the cult following of --------------- and the hard-nosed action of the film, we think your audience might find this engaging. 

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. I look forward to hearing from you.

With appreciation,
Dave N.

*Emphasis mine

I did not fashion a reply to this email as I was so overwhelmed by the lovely compliment about my "awesome movie content." I do indeed pride myself on providing "content" for my legion of readers (both of us) but to have it singled out as "awesome" is truly touching. One strives for awesomeness and hopes to achieve it -- nay prays for it. Had I replied to Dave's email I would have first thanked him for recognizing this site's awesomeness. I might have said: "it was awesome of you to point out my awesome movie content." Or "how awesome of you to say that my content is awesome." Then again I might have pointed out that this blog has not been called Riku Writes for some time now. I also might have suggested that after even the most cursory reading of my blog one would note -- in addition to the awesome movie content -- that I do not prostitute my site for commercial ventures and that I find the type of film that he describes to be abhorrent. The fact is that I would no more be a shill for his contest or that action star or that type of film than I would be for the the Westboro Baptist Church. I would have ended my response: awesomely yours.

Hey everybody today is the fifth anniversary of this blog. And the more I think about it the less I have to say about this momentous occasion.

It has come to my attention that a film version of The Great Gatsby has just opened in theaters. I am always ambiguous about one of my favorite novels coming to the big screen. My favoritest -- On the Road -- only recently got its first significant cinematic rendering. I had highly anticipated its arrival but given the mostly negative critical reception I gave it a miss. If a book that is near and dear to one's heart is re-told on the big screen it had better be a cracking good movie. First off the film makers are tampering with a story that a person has conceptualized for themselves. We have created our own interpretations of the characters the settings and even to an extent the mood. People will complain that a movie is not true to the book but what they really mean is that its not true to their interpretation of the book. So here comes Gatsby by Baz Luhrman and critics are divided. Lurhman will never make films that everyone likes because he has too personalized a style and from previews this Gatsby looks very stylish. I just read the book for the third time in anticipation of this release but given the reviews I'm not going to rush out to see especially with a European vacation starting a few days hence.

"So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight." - From the Great Gatsby by F. Scott  Fitzgerald. 

"She could drag me over the rainbow send me away." -  From Down by the River by Neil Young.
So as I think about a fourth trip to London a second to Paris and a first to Rome I am left grappling with the enormity of life and the tired stale bits of it that we leave around us on those normal days that pile up like so much clutter. And we go on because there is so little else to do. There is suicide but when successful there is a finality to it that seems oppressive. I just watched a film in which the heroine leapt to her death. It was based on a true story so there's no going back on that either. Suicide is of course also singularly selfish. Some of my favorites have done it: Sylvia Plath Anne Sexton Diane Arbus Ernest Hemingway Freddie Prinze. They of the tortured artist variety (one could certainly argue that Jack Kerouac effectively committed suicide as he reportedly said that he meant to drink himself to death). It does for those of us in future years add some glamour and mystery to their lives. But absent incurable physical or mental disease the idea of ending it all seems totally mad to me. This is a helluva ride we get being members of the human race (apologies to my non human readers) and experiencing the ups the downs the sideways the crazy and the mundane. A few years ago when my father and mother-in-law died in quick succession and I was going through trying times at work a co-worker expressed great sympathy for my recent difficulties. I knew his intent and that his heart was good but the sentiment was badly misplaced to me. I'm not one to be shattered by life happening around me. I may not always be happy about but there's got to be a level of acceptance for whatever goes on around us and an acknowledgment that so much is out of our hands and that we need to appreciate all the reminders we get that we're part of this mad whirl. The bad times are a way to put life in perspective and a way to make the good times all the better.

Coming up in a few days on this site: my travel diary.

07 May 2013

The Reality is

"People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational exposition end by starving the best part of the mind." - William Butler Yeats
On the bus leaving work reading a book I wondered were the words would go. The pages. Crumpled beyond recognition. Burned. Beaten to a pulp like the face of a bad bad man getting his due from an even worse man. Recycled. The book -- I knew -- would soon be finished and sitting on my bookshelf jammed between to others. Until someday. Changes. Like the cat will be dead someday. That'll be a change. And I will too. That will require some getting used to. Or not. Maybe I'll ease into my own death. Transition into eternity. Or whatever wherever whenever however and....

We fail at words so often. Many at our disposal but the right ones frequently out of reach or hiding. Supple reminders of our failings. Or subtle reminders. Either. I actually prefer my reminders to be supple or: bending readily without breaking or becoming deformed; pliant; flexible. That's the ticket.

Was standing at the casual car pool pick up spot recently waiting for -- what else? -- a ride when a gentleman of my acquaintance queued next to me. I was starting at my iPhone contemplating my next move in Words with Friends. He said: "I see you're a slave to those things too." The righteousness of the non smart phone user matched by incredible rudeness. "No," I replied, "I use my phone when and how I want to." I'm baffled by people who interrupt silence to be offensive. Of course one should never let such effrontery ruin a day or an hour or a moment but....

A week from today the better half (much better as a matter of fact) and I depart on our European vacation and you'll be able to read about it here if you so desire. There is the impulse on such trips to collect. Collect souvenirs photos memories. Compartmentalize the experience of travel into neat little boxes ones that can be shared with friends kin and co workers. Vacations weddings holidays often becoming stashed away as if separate from our normal lives the work we do the errands we run the daily routines. It is so easy to live out our existences in categorized sections. Clocks and calendars and schedules abet this process. TV is great for reducing life into seasons and programs separating reality and news and humor and drama. We thus avoid the messy business of an overall life that flows from one minute to the next from one activity to the next from one breath to the last.

It is easier too to settle into our routines especially with regular work schedules. The comfort of places to go and things to do and people to see. Life as a checklist. Life as TV Guide. Life as a series of events many repeated ad nauseam. We share our oral histories with others who in turn share their own. Uncle Earl has cancer there's a new neighbor down the street who seems a bit odd. A co worker was fired for drinking on the job. A friend had twins. The new car is running fine. Let's swap trivia. Long conversations that are nothing more than exchanges of the events surrounding our lives. They are treated objectively and without comment and are as interesting as morning toast without butter.

But I am happy. Are you? I am happy to be part of this mad whirl. To share in the wonders of life with so damn many people who are excited and happy and motivated and artistic and creative and inspiring and beautiful and want to help their fellow travelers have a better life. I'm drawn to those who want to create art. I'm drawn to those who want to help those who don't enjoy the same advantages. I'm repelled by messages of hate and anger and repression and violence and weaponry. Those who equate freedom with firearms do not frighten me they repulse me. As do those who worship at the altar of the mighty dollar. We can be we have been we are. Better than that. We need call upon our highest ideals not succumb to our basest instincts. Must.