Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Intermission, Entry 34

I leave tomorrow morning for Santiago! No blog entries until February at the earliest.

Until then, take care everybody. So begins Part 2 . . .

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Intermission, Entry 33

Intermission Entry 33, November 22nd, 2011, 7:54pm (GMT +0)

A friend of mine from South Africa made me aware of this:

This “secrecy” bill gives the government authority to muzzle troublesome media outlets. Another battle won for fascism, but it still has to go to the high courts. We'll see what happens.

Things are finally starting to come together – and none too soon, as I leave Thursday morning. I have all the major pieces that I need – backpack, boots, warm clothes, rain gear, and maps (sort of). There are a couple of important bits still missing (gloves, compass), but I have another day to finish getting them. Tonight I run two important tests: the waterproof test, where I will climb into the shower fully equipped to see what still leaks, and the road test, where I'll do some wandering around the city to see how the loaded pack handles. I am a riot of nylon and primary colors.

The complexity of modern hiking equipment is astounding. Barcelona has no shortage of good equipment, but I have yet to find a trained boot- or pack- fitter. In the mean time, I've done the best I can by myself, and have hopefully avoided most of the major pitfalls.

I also visited the dentist today. My Spanish is not yet good enough to make myself understood with a Spanish dentist, but I found a place called “The British Dental Clinic,” owned by Dr. Alistair Gallagher (could his name get any more British?). No problems, no cavities, and hopefully the cleaning I got will keep things that way. And by the way, yes, the soothing British accent does make the entire experience must more relaxing. I'm never going back.

I am confident that I've committed at least several major oversights. My equipment could probably fit me better, the maps could probably be a little more specific, I could probably be in a little better shape, my boots could be more broken in, etc. But as they say on the ship, a time comes when you've either got to shit or get off the pot. Medieval pilgrims used to do this with sandals and a canvas sack while terribly malnourished, so I'll figure it out somehow. Morale remains high amongst our expedition members – bordering on bravado, even.

So much to do still!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Intermission, Entry 32

Intermission Entry 32, November 22nd, 2011, 12:29am (GMT +0)

Preparations continue for the camino. Today was the first extended test of the new boots, and while they're stiff (as to be expected from new, quality footwear) I have no rubbing or raw spots. I should have brought the rain gear on my four hour walk and tested that too . . . although dealing with illness, morale among the expedition members remains high. I am reminded of Mungo Park, lying sick in Africa with malaria for several months before even being able to start inland. Fortunately medical treatments don't include ingesting raw mercury any more, which is the only way Mungo Park survived a debilitating attack of dysentery on his second expedition.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Intermission, Entry 31

Intermission Entry 31, November 20th, 2011, 8:20pm (GMT +0)

It was a beautiful day in Barcelona today. I finally got around to trying one of Spain's traditional breakfast foods, churros and chocolate. Churros are long, narrow bits of sugary fried dough usually wound into twisted circles, while the chocolate is a thick, bitter, creamy liquid that comes in a wide coffee cup. As soon as the churros are cool enough to eat, you dip them in the chocolate and chow down. It's great hangover food . . . not that I ever drink to excess or anything.

There was an orchestra playing traditional Catalan music outside the cathedral today. It was an interesting instrumentation: two trumpets, trombone, two baritone horns, and an upright bass filled out the instrumentation that I was familiar with. There were also two pairs of straight double reed horns, sort of like saxophones (from a hundred yards away, they sounded just like strings). The bandleader was playing a small, one handed flute in the piccolo range while playing a small drum in the other hand used for count offs.

I was so focused on the orchestra that I didn't notice people dancing in the square until I almost ran into them. People were dancing a traditional Catalan dance, which involved standing in a big circle, palms raised up to the sides and touching. It was interesting.

I also made it Tibidao today without meaning to. Tibidabo is one of the tallest mountains overlooking Barcelona, and is traditionally known as the place where Satan showed Jesus the world during his temptations. That's actually where the name comes from: tibi dabo, I will give to you (in latin).

Now, though, the mountain has an odd combination of structures on it. First (and most obviously visible from the city below) is the basilica. It is fairly new as far as basilicas go, and is topped with an image of Christ with his arms outstretched that seems suspiciously similar to the Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro. The basilica is surrounded with an amusement park (seriously), mostly dating from the turn of the century. The third structure is an ultra-modern radio tower/ conference center/ restaurant/ observation tower that was built for the 1992 olympics. It sits on a slender pylon of concrete and is help up with steel cables. All in all, a really weird combination of buildings.

Preparations for the camino continue, although I've got a bit of a cold.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Intermission, Entry 30

Intermission Entry 30, November 20th, 2011, 1:02am (GMT +0)

I went to a jazz club tonight in Barcelona. The band played nothing but blues and boogie-woogie the entire night; I was in heaven. I've heard bands here play trad jazz, boogie, funk, rock, and the blues with great success, but a band that could swing straight ahead like Miles would clean the scene up in an instant.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Intermission, Entry 29

Intermission Entry 29, November 17th, 2011, 10:08pm (GMT +0)

True to form, La Rambla remains one of the more interesting streets in the world. I'd been in Barcelona less than eight hours when I encountered a protest march coming straight down La Rambla. Fitting, considering what I've been blogging about lately.

It took more than a half an hour to go by, and by my (extremely) rough calculations, involved around seven thousand people. They were mostly college and high school students, with some groups of middle aged unemployed as well. It was an education protest, from what I could gather – many of the signs had to do with public universities and tuition. There were also representatives from socialist societies (maybe a political party in Spain?) and lots of people showing their pride in Catalan culture.

I can only assume that the choice to march directly through the heart of the tourist district in Barcelona was deliberately provocative. If so, it was successful, because there were lots of tourists very shocked by the disturbance. The police presence was very small, and there was not much need for one – the march was friendly, if indignant. Still, recent events here and in the USA have removed any desire that I had to work in law enforcement or the military – to be an unquestioning enforcer of the status quo is not something that I am intellectually or morally capable of.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Intermission, Entry 28

Intermission Entry 28, November 14th, 2011, 11:35pm (GMT +0)

The Independence of the Seas orchestra, testing rookie bartenders all around the world.

We spent our day off in Lisbon ordering series of flaming shots from a dockside bar. Our bartender lit the entire first round of shots on fire before attempting to mix and distribute them, only to find that the first drinks had grown too hot to handle while she was lighting the others. She called the other bartender over and they debated the issue in Portuguese . . . we saw them fetch a damp washcloth, and as my understanding of high school physics had not yet been obliterated by alcohol I began to back away from the bar. Sure enough, they tossed the washcloth on to the first glass and --


It shattered with a sound like a gunshot, spewing flaming vodka and shards of hot, broken glass everywhere. Luckily no one was hurt.

The other five glasses, looking more and more like small olympic chalices instead of beverages, were pushed to one side with a wooden stick and left to burn themselves out. She poured us another round of flaming shots (which were quickly consumed), and we warned her to please be careful with the remaining drinks (as they were still burning and turning the glass various shades of brown and purple). We did at least tip generously -- hazard pay, after all.

Going places, educating bartenders.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Intermission, Entry 27

Intermission Entry 27, November 16th, 2011, 12:56am (GMT +0)

Two events of note have occurred recently. First, the Occupy Wall Street camp in New York City was cleared by riot police in the middle of the night two days ago. I'll get to that in a minute. Second, there was a violent police crackdown on peaceful protesters on the UC Berkley campus.

Read this article. I don't want to turn this blog into just another list of links, but this is one of the best articles that I've read about power, non-violent protests, and recent events. I hope someday to be able to write this well. Read this, read this, read this:

Alright. On to Occupy Wall Street.

In a way, the breakup of the OWS camp is a good thing for the movement. Instead of petering out over a period of months as cold winter weather wore down the protesters, it has been squashed with brute force. Bloomberg has practically guaranteed that the movement will survive for at least another year. His talk of the “rule of law” is laughable considering the large scale theft that continues to occur in the financial industry . . .

. . . and while the “we need to clear the park so it can be cleaned,” excuse that he's drummed up may just be a flimsy rationale, or it may signal the beginning of a “we're clean and they're dirty,” mindset that is one of the primary ways of dehumanizing an enemy.

Also worrying: there is emerging evidence that several American cities coordinated their assaults on OWS compounds with the main New York raid. I'm usually skeptical of the “evil empire” conspiracy theory alarmists, but an organized nation-wide crackdown on a peaceful (if smelly) protest movement against the excesses of the elite worries me.

I think that there is a false equivalence being drawn here between the OWS movement and the tea party. Even in Wilkinson's piece (from a few entries ago) he uses it as a way to frame his larger analysis of conservative and liberal attitudes towards personal responsibility . . . in his case, he's making a bigger point, and so I don't mind, but a direct comparison is misleading.

The Tea Party has a very clear set of goals, considerable financial resources, and is working through the existing political system to effect what changes that it desires (hence the fact that we now have “Tea Party” candidates). OWS, on the other hand, is united only by a general sense of disgust with the current way of things. This is why I have not been able to bring myself to support them – I share their disgust, but until they have a clear goal I don't see the point. Maybe a goal will emerge; maybe someone will step forward and do the intellectual leg work that is still needed to transform what is a genuine grass-roots movement into something that can actually change our political and social systems for the better. If that happens, I'll be buying a tent . . . but until then I am not comfortable doing anything but supporting from the sidelines.

In other words, give me an MLK, Jr. and I'll be there.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Intermission, Entry 26

Intermission Entry 26, November 14th, 2011, 12:19am (GMT +0)

Two snippets of ship life. First, a real conversation I overheard:

Musician 1: Hey, man, you're signing off tomorrow. Do you have any porno mags?

Musician 2: Nah, but I have some stuff on my hard drive if you want it. So does musician 3.

Musician 1: No thanks; call me old fashioned, but I prefer the magazines.

Second, one of the headliners' new jokes:

A duck walks into a bar.

“Got any bread?” he asks the bartender.

“Bread? Why would we have any bread? This is a bar.” The bartender stalks off.

A few minutes pass. Again, “Hey buddy, got any bread?”

“No! I told you once already – this is a bar, we don't have any bread!” The bartender is getting a little cheesed off. A few more minutes pass before the duck asks again.

“Hey, got any bread?”

The bartender rolls up his sleeves and gets right in the duck's face. “Look. This is a bar. We don't serve bread here. If you ask for bread again, I'm going to nail you by the beak to this counter top!”

The duck is alarmed. Several more minutes go by before he waves over the bartender.

“What do you want this time?!?”

“Got any nails?”


“Good. Got any bread?”

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Intermission, Entry 25

Intermission Entry 25, November 10th, 2011, 12:54am (GMT +0)

Today's blog post was inspired by an article I found linked on “The Crooked Timber,” a blog run by a group of professors and intellectuals around the world (the name is a reference to the phrase, “From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” which I quite like). You can find it here:

The crux of Wilkinson's argument is at the end:

A politics of nothing but individual rights in a world dominated by social forces is a recipe for domination by those sufficiently powerful or organized to shape those forces.”

An interesting observation, and one that has prompted his own shift from, “right-leaning libertarian to libertarian-leaning liberal.” Put differently, it is a rejection of pure libertarianism as a viable form of government. Humanity is a self-organizing entity, and people will form groups capable of depriving each other of a shot at “the pursuit of happiness” without any one person depriving another of their individual rights (racism, sexism, etc.). A government that ignores social forces will fail.

It is not that government must control these social forces – government is a force, just like the others. It is a group of people who are “powerful and organized enough to shape those (social) forces,” by Wilkinson's own definition. It is one of the means that workers balance the power of employers, minorities balance the power of the majority, the poor balance the power of the rich, etc. Humanity will organize – it always has – and it is better to acknowledge that fact and work with it than to pretend it doesn't exist.

Bringing this argument back to the bum on the street in Amsterdam . . . where do the roots of poverty lie? Social forces exist; can we place all the blame for poverty on grand sweeping trends in society, against which the individual is powerless? Not completely. They contribute, but the picture is more complicated than that. An individual does have some power over their own life. A passage quoted by Wilkinson (originally written by Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of “The Nation) comes to mind:

Adult human beings have agency, the ability (even responsibility!) to run their own cost/benefit analyses and choose accordingly. You could go to a state school (or community college) instead of an over-inflated prestige mill . . .”

But can we? The modern college education is a good example of how complicated this issue is. I went to the school Welch holds up as an example of the “smart” decision – a large, unpretentious state university. I was very, very lucky to receive a scholarship, but without that my education would have severely strained my family's finances, left me in considerable debt, or both. Perhaps during the baby boom or during my parents' college years Welch's ideal institution may have existed, but affordable education is becoming a rare commodity.

I didn't have to go to college at all, of course, but while wage growth for college graduates has roughly flat-lined since the 1970s, wage growth for those without a college degree has plummeted. Welch is right, and wrong – sure, I had a choice, but it was between a pile of student debt and unemployment. Perhaps I could have gone to school part time while working full time, but even working 40 hours a week the summer after graduation I was barely making enough to live on. I don't know where the energy or money to pursue a degree would have come from in that situation.

I have friends who will be emerging from college heavily laden with debt. Welch is right – they're responsible for their decisions (even if everyone around them was doing the same thing), but you can't argue that the system they were part of was a fair one. The same thing goes for many other people living in poverty now – sure, some may be drunks or may be lazy, but in most cases they never had a decent shot at things to begin with. Everyone makes mistakes, and it isn't good for our society to toss those that do out with the trash.

We can fix the second part. It will be hard, but I believe that a decent system can be created that gives nearly everyone a decent shot at “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But how do we fix the first part? How do we help people if they don't want to help themselves? We can't answer the question of poverty unless we can address both the internal and external causes.

P. S. Why is this an important question? This, I believe, is another issue of social forces. While the growth of wealth in the bottom 80% of United States citizens has been slow and sluggish the past several decades, the growth of wealth in the top 1% (and particularly the top .1%) has been spectacular. Seeing the issue as a morality play is a mistake, I think – the rich are not inherently evil, just as the poor are not inherently good.

Instead, what worries me is that this will lead to instability in the social system of America itself. With the balance of power (money, in this case) becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of a few people, the social forces get more and more out of balance. Political discourse has been dominated by items of importance to bankers and the very rich – inflation, regulation, deficits – with nary a word about our drastic unemployment rate, an issue of actual importance. Eventually the balance must be restored – the harder you press people, the harder they will press back – and if the public's only means of exerting social pressure is with torches and pitchforks, that's what they'll use.

I'd rather it didn't come to that.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Intermission, Entry 24

Intermission Entry 24, November 11th, 2011, 12:55am (GMT +0)

Still working on the upcoming entry. Gotta get sleep though, we've got extra cleaning duties tomorrow morning on turnaround day.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Intermission, Entry 23

Intermission Entry 23, November 9th, 2011, 12:51am (GMT +0)

I have a post and politics and personal responsibility in the writing right now, but it's not ready yet. Tomorrow.

I just opened the notebook and the entry from Amsterdam will serve as a good introduction.

From the notebook, October 17th, 2011, Amsterdam

A bum hailed me today on the street.

“Hey, laddie!”

I ignored him.

“Hey man, don't ignore me, I'm being polite!”

Stone face. He harrumphed and shuffled off.

Now I feel bad. Or at least I did feel bad. Am I so much frightened of other humans that I can't even give people the time of day? I read somewhere that if you assume the world is threatening, it will be. That's what I did.

But I didn't ask to talk to him. He accosted me, and both of his statements were manipulative – the first overly friendly, and the second a guilt trip. I will not let myself be manipulated.

Where do the origins of poverty lie? Do they lie within a person, in poor spending habits and lack of education? Because if that is the case, giving to the poor has no point. You can't change anyone else, only they can, and so no matter how much you give they will always be poor.

Or does the cause lie externally? Because then poverty or wealth is due to chance, and I should give everything to the less fortunate in case what goes around comes around.

And what if both could be true? If we don't know where the cause of poverty lies, isn't it best to err on the side of charity? If so, then I acted wrongly.

But the fact of the matter is that I didn't want to give the guy any money. He annoyed me, and my financial resources are limited as it is. The more I give away, the further I get from having the tools to achieve my dreams.

Surreal moment of the day: a “USA” foods store here in Amsterdam. A1 sauce, Newman's Own, Betty Crocker, Ritz, Kraft Mac and Cheese, Grape Nuts, and of course the great delicacy: Fruity Pebbles!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Intermission, Entry 22

Intermission Entry 22, November 8th, 2011, 1:07am (GMT +0)

Just when I thought I'd seen everything that this job can throw at me . . .

There's an event here on the Indy called the “Mat Hatter's Parade.” It happens on the promenade (the long, open interior street running down the length of the ship on deck 5 – see an earlier entry) and involves the cast, ice cast, cruise staff, and . . . you guessed it, the musicians.

I'm a little unsure as to the details, but there's a definite Alice in Wonderland vibe going on . . which does nothing to explain why we're dressed up in Sgt. Pepper outfits (I got the purple one). We're split into two teams, each one pushing a float in opposite directions at first and then dancing with giant cloth lollipops after that. The cast has actual choreography, but the musicians pretty much do whatever we want.

There's a certain mindset required to successfully pull off a parade. Zach, our bassist, summed it up succinctly: “Every parade is the best parade, forever.” This temporary insanity is cultivated by dancing in circles, jumping up and down, singing, and yelling animal noises at the top of our lungs with the other crew members. I like to think of it as somewhat analogous to the old Saxon initiation rituals where a warrior was sewn into the freshly flayed skin of a bear and beaten by his compatriots until he lost control and became the bear, taking the ferocity and spirit of the animal into himself. Or something like that.

From the notebook, October 17th, 2011

A different country ever day for the past four days; now that is a good feeling. Finished my visit in Vienna, had a day in Munich with my friend Ben, spent a day in Amsterdam with a different friend, Mirjam, and tomorrow I travel via Brussels to London. If train stations count, that's actually five countries.

I put one of Jason's stories on the blog, along with a different story about a military helicopter, but I forgot to add this one (note: Jason is a friend I made while drinking beer in the bike car on the night train from Munich). Jason's friend's family is a big deal in Spain. They're really rich and own four different houses in the South of Spain. They asked him offhand one day if he'd like to stay in Spain, and he said yes (who wouldn't?). The next thing he knows, he's being interviewed for a teaching position at the local university. He just has to enroll in a Spanish class for a semester to get his Spanish together and to get a student visa, and then he get get a work visa the next semester when the university hires him. It's nice to have friends in high places, eh? Mind you, he hasn't finished his own bachelor's degree yet!

He didn't take it, though. He said it was too much of a time commitment (more than a year) and that he had a life back home in Texas that he wanted to come home to. Shit, man, forget that! You're bartending A&M dropout! Move to Spain! I'm reminded of “The Alchemist,” . . . another visit from the King of Salem.

Oh well, I wish him luck. He's a nice, generous, adventurous soul, and who am I to tell people how to live? I hope he finds what he's looking for.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Intermission, Entry 21

Intermission Entry 21, November 17th, 2011, 3:36am (GMT +0)

Happy Halloween!

Er, what?

The 31st of October fell on a turnaround day for us here on the Indy, and turnaround means so much extra work for everyone (except the musicians) that they decided to postpone the all-crew Halloween party until the 2nd. Then we had five or six days of pretty nasty weather, bad enough that safety didn't want several hundred drunken crew members stumbling home on a ship that was rolling eight or nine degrees in each direction.

So tonight became Halloween. Tuck (my roommate, the drummer) and I both thought that the party would be a bit subdued due to the delay . . . and boy were we wrong. The back deck (already nearly twice the size of the one on the Grandeur) was packed to the point where no one could even move.

It was a good party. Again, I am impressed with my shipmates' ability to scrounge together interesting costumes, although on this run we have access to the shops in Southampton and that makes things a little easier. My favorite was the trombone player dressed in a full length tiger suit, complete with striped face paint. “Joel, did you get any strange looks from security when they found that in your luggage?”

It turns out that the tiger suit has a history. There's a headliner act named Claire Maiden – a piano player/singer who does a few ragtime numbers as part of her act. One of them is “Tiger Rag,” which features the trombone on a “tiger growl” part. Last contract, Joel was playing her show fairly every few weeks when she came to ship, and (for some reason now lost to history) had a little pair of tiger ears that he would wear for the solo. Everyone had a nice laugh about it.

That is, until the lead trumpet player and his girlfriend saw a tiger suit for sale in a store on shore. They couldn't help themselves, and sure enough the next time that Claire came to ship Joel was ready. He'd had one of the dancers fit snaps to the inside of his black dress shirt, and so when the time came for his solo he ripped the shirt open and played the solo on stage in the full tiger suit that he'd been wearing under his blacks. There's youtube footage of this somewhere.

Friggin' musicians. I love my coworkers sometimes.

From the notebook, October 17th, 2011, Amsterdam

I saw the Anne Frank house today.

Powerful. Heartbreaking. These are the two words that come to mind when I think of the museum. I was alright through most of it until I turned a corner and there was the bookcase standing in front of the secret door to the annex. The shock shattered my outer emotional shell, and from that point on I was spending most of my time trying not to cry in front of total strangers. I suspect that they were doing the same thing.

The museum does a really good job of turning what could just be a monument into a narrative. The path starts in the lower levels of the store, winding through the front rooms and warehouse while describing the years leading up to Nazi occupation. Then, as the fascist crackdown begins, you enter the rooms of the annex. The rooms are bare, as per Otto Frank's wishes after the war, and the walls are covered in quotes from Anne's diary. There is a spot on the wall where Anne's and Margot's heights are marked in pencil, each line with a date as they grew. Then, when they're betrayed, a passage takes you out of the annex and into the museum building where their different fates are outlined. Otto Frank, Anne's father, was the only one of the eight to survive.

A video interview with Otto in the 60's was one of the most heartbreaking parts of the entire exhibit. He's not a broken man, by any means, but you can see the load he carries in his eyes. He speaks of the diary (I paraphrase here):

“I knew Anne was keeping it, but I promised never to read it. After the war, when it became clear that no one from my family would be coming back, I finally opened it with the idea of publishing Anne's book – it was something she'd always talked about.

It was hard to read, and took me a long time. I was surprised by what I found – this was a very different Anne than the one I knew in the annex as my daughter. She was possessed of such strong internal motions, and so critical of herself . . . it makes me wonder if any parent really knows their children.”

It was fascinating to compare this museum with the deportation monument in Paris. The Paris monument was built to honor those who were deported from Paris by the Nazis to almost certain death. It is located on the end of an island on the Seine where resistance fighters, Jews, and other undesirables were loaded onto boats. It is well hidden – if dad hadn't know what he was looking for, we wouldn't have found it.

Instead of the more conventional narrative structure of the Anne Frank museum, the deportation monument seeks to educate the viewer by inspiring some of the terror that those leaving the city must have felt. You descend a narrow concrete stairway into a courtyard where the horizon is invisible. The only things you can see are a caged opening over the bleak gray waters of the Seine and another stairway descending into darkness.

Following this stairway takes you into an inner space. Inscriptions are carved into the stone like rough graffiti. There is a maze of narrow concrete tunnels, many of them closed with heavy iron grates and spikes. The overall impression is of a warren of underground tunnels, with the viewer imprisoned inside. It may not sound like much written out like this, but in person it inspires terror in a very visceral, illogical way. It only takes a very small leap of the imagination to put oneself into the prison that the deportees must have been in.

The centerpiece of the monument is a tunnel of lights, stretching away from the viewer behind another set of iron bars. Each light is for one person deported and killed by the Nazis from this point in Paris. There are thousands of them, and more inscriptions can be found here carved into the walls as if by desperate prisoners. The feeling of terror was almost palpable; it was as if the deed done here 70 years ago poisoned the very stones and soil.

Two very different ways of educating people about similar events.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Intermission, Entry 20

Intermission Entry 20, November 6th, 2011, 1:42am (GMT +0)

The length of cast install here on the Indy is much longer than on the Grandeur. On the Grandeur, we only had to install the two production shows; here, we have four production shows and two parades. Cast install was two weeks long on the Grandeur – I won't even finish the whole install cycle here on the Indy with my 28 day contract.

The point of all this is that as much as I would have loved to visit Gran Canaria today (they have camels! And a volcano!), I spent the entire day in rehearsals and sound checks. Sigh.

From the notebook, October 15th, 2011, Vienna (Wien)

Vienna is the only city in the world where wine is produced within the city borders (as in, grape to drunk). Luckily for me, I'm in the city during the last few weeks of Sturm season. Sturm is the fermenting juice that (while alcoholic) is not quite wine yet (but further along that “most”).

Alex took me to a sturm place, an establishment devoted to selling the current year's wine called a _____. It is a vineyard with a simple little restaurant attached. To get to this particular _____ we took the metro to the end of the line (across the Danube!), and then a tram to the end of that line, and then walked for fifteen minutes. It is within city limits, but only just.

The owner of the vineyard brought us potato salad and schnitzel with our sturm. The booze itself came in a plain red glass bottle – no fancy decorations, just a simple sticker with a couple numbers penned on. It started off tasty and only got more so as the night carried on. Afterward we wandered up through the vineyards and discovered that the entire city of Vienna was laid out below the hill, sparkling with white, yellow, and red lights.

If anyone told me eight months ago that I'd spend the day after my 23rd birthday drinking half-fermented grape juice and standing on a hill overlooking Vienna, I would have been highly skeptical.

The more I travel, the more I discover that seeing the small things is better than seeing the big things. Big things: Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Mona Lisa, etc. Little things: börek shop with plastic furniture, sturm restaurant on the hill, blues jam session in wine cellar. When seeing the small things I get a chance to learn about the people, not just the stuff of a place. It's cheaper, the food is better, and I actually enjoy myself.

Not that I didn't like the big stuff in Paris. I've been really, really, lucky in Vienna to have someone to show me the good places. I'm not missing (more) palace tours in the slightest.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Intermission, Entry 19

Intermission Entry 19, November 5th, 2011, 12:36am (GMT +0)

Tonight's headliner, a singer, asked us to run an extra chart at the end of rehearsal for her. It was brand-new, apparently, and she wanted to make sure that it would work. We read it – it was nothing spectacular, but perfectly functional. Afterward she turned to the band.

“How was it?”

We shrugged.

Her face fell. “I don't want it to just be a shrug. I wanted you to love it! What's wrong with it?”

We struggled for a minute to explain before giving up. There wasn't anything wrong with the chart, there just wasn't anything right with it either. It functioned, but wasn't exciting. It was a frustrating discussion for us and for her.

Later, at dinner, the musicians talked it over. How can we explain to someone what the problem is in a situation like that? We're hired guns, really – they don't pay us to have opinions on the quality of the music. We still have those opinions, of course, but we're going to make it sound as good as we can. Part of the problem, we decided, was that she was asking the problem at all. It doesn't matter what we think of the arrangement; what matters is if she thought it was good or not. The fact that she was relying on our opinion instead of our own is a problem.

If you can't tell by these back to back music updates, it has been a boring few days on the ship. I got a nice little video on my phone of waves cresting at eye level from the back deck on deck 3, but that's about it. Gran Canaria tomorrow, so I should have something more interesting to write about.

From the notebook, October 14th, 2011, Vienna

Today is my birthday!

It doesn't feel like my birthday. Alex and I were talking about this over dinner. Usually we use birthdays to mark dividing points between phases of our lives. When they happen in the middle of things they feel out of place. Alex turned 21 on a travel day, hitchhiking out of Istanbul. I feel like I turned 23 the day I signed off the ship.

Alex lives in the Turkish quarter of Vienna. Here you are as likely to Turkish or Russian spoken on the street as you are German. I took a walk this morning to find an internet cafe . . . lots of kebob stands, clothing stores, “interactive gaming” (gambling), and phone centers to call home.

For lunch we went to a Turkish cafe just off of the open air market that stretches away from the tram line. It is a noisy little place – two rooms of plastic yellow furniture filled with heavy Russian men and a television up in the corner playing angsty Turkish pop music videos. We were brought tea (chay) in small glass vases, set on small white ceramic dishes with blue patterns set in them. Two lumps of sugar are recommended, and it came with a small spoon to stir them in.

I ordered something. The thing to get is börek, a type of dough mixed with meat or vegetables that is absolutely delicious. The pastry flakes off in delicate layers while the meat inside is mixed with all sorts of herbs and spices. I could have eaten them all day.

We went to the counter to pay. Alex told them what we had, in Turkish, and the man thought for a minute before saying, “nine euro.” Incredibly cheap. It helps that Alex knows the owners and speaks Turkish, but still – if this is typical, the Turkish people are extremely generous.

Afterward we wandered into a nearby church. It was a dark brick building, but white plaster on the inside. Very quiet, very beautiful. Contrast this with the dark, ornate gothic interior of the cathedral downtown. There was a lone candle burning on the altar in the silence . . . it was powerful.

The weather in Vienna is bright and brisk. The sky is wide and blue, but while the sun is warm it is quite chilly in the wind. I've gone from summer to late fall in two weeks. If Munich gets snow I'll cover winter, too.

Vienna is filled with odd museums. Some of my favorites:

Funeral Museum

Esperanto Museum

Globe Museum

Papyrus Museum

Museum of Crime

Museum of Contraception and Abortion

Clock Museum

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Intermission, Entry 18

Intermission Entry 18, November 4th, 2011, 12:16am (GMT +0)

Tonight's headliner act performed (among other things) a full ten-minute condensed orchestra arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue. She's a wonderful and very talented lady, but she's a little neurotic and doesn't give any cues for anything. A piece like Rhapsody in Blue, with its maze of tempo changes, starts, stops, pushes, and pulls, can be difficult to perform with a conductor; without one, it's nearly impossible. Any other piece would have been a disaster, but we've all heard this one a million times and so most of the cues are written down somewhere deep in our subconscious brains. We made it through by cranking her feed way up in our stand monitors, watching for a couple distinct piano lines penciled into our parts, and through prodigious use of balls-to-the-wall guesswork. There was one part in particular where the trumpets had to come in with the main theme out of nowhere (in high-register fortissimo unison, no less) and both times Dave and I just had to just grit our teeth and hope we were right.

But the show went off smashingly. The orchestra is all exhausted right now (my roommate, the drummer, is snoring on his bunk fully clothed with the curtains open as I write this) but we played everything about as well as human beings can. No train wrecks, and by all rights it should have been a disaster. There's a limit to how much mind-reading musicians can do when sight-reading a show, and I think we were just about at that point. I'll be sad to leave this orchestra in two weeks . . . although there's about to be a huge changeover anyway (tenor, drums, bass, guitar, piano, trumpet 2 (me) and trombone), so even if I stayed it would be a different band.

From the notebook, October 14th, 2011, Vienna

Vienna is great. Due to the train delays, I had to call Alex on a borrowed phone and get new directions to meet him in the evening instead of the day. The signal cut out halfway through the call, but I got most of the directions written down. I met Alex walking the opposite direction on a street downtown, most of the way to where I'd been heading to meet him. He was carrying his saz, an eight stringed Turkish instrument that uses quarter tones. It's good to have interesting friends.

He was on his way to a concert of contemporary improvised music, and so I joined him (still carrying my luggage). It was as strange as these things usually are, but I am beginning to understand the music just as I can understand bop or the blues. There is a language to it, just like all other musics, but it is a language of timbres, not of chords and melodies. It's just as organized as any other type of music, too – listening carefully I could hear how the musicians were constructing different sections. The most interesting thing to hear was not how they got into the different parts of the music, but how they got out of them.

The musicians were all stellar individually as well, particularly the pianist. It was worth the price of admission just to hear him play his first note – what a delicate touch he had! The price of admission, by the way, was up to the listener – it was a pay-as-you-will concert. What an odd concept.

That became the night's theme. From the concert I dropped my stuff off here at his apartment (which is awesome, by the way. Not one, but two sound-proofed practice rooms!) and headed to a basement Pakistani restaurant. The place was kickin' . . . full of students in their socks sitting on rugs, takling, yelling, and smiling. The food was fantastic (and vegetarian), and the place was also pay-as-you-will. Alex joked that he hoped to find a pay-as-you-will apartment.

Now I'm in a sleeping bag in one of the practice rooms. Oh, and I guess that I just turned 23? Cool.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Intermission, Entry 17

No entry today -- the continuing storms still causing havoc with the ship internet. Sorry guys, I was lucky to get this off.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Intermission, Entry 16

Intermission Entry 16, November 2nd, 2011, 2:23am (GMT +0)

One of the drawbacks to living in the bow is that you are at the the weather end of the ship. When sleeping, my head is about ten feet from the part of the ship that does the “smashing through the waves” that authors always write about. Earlier today I was in the shower when all of a sudden I felt the floor drop out from under me. After falling about twelve feet, I caught my footing and there was a moment of silence before BANG! The Independence had fallen into the trough of a particularly large wave, and the wall of water smacked into the steel hull all at once. The impact set the whole cabin to shuddering, and knocked some small items off of our table. They said to expect three or four meter waves tonight in the Bay of Biscay; this feels more like six, what with all the spray that's washing aboard on the back deck.

Six meters may not sound like much to my readers back on land. Imagine a two story wall of water moving at twenty five miles an hour smashing into a steel plate right next to your head. Now repeat every fifteen seconds. It will be a long time before mankind can build a ship that is not humbled by the sea.

From the notebook, October 13th, Still on the train . . .

We're just leaving Stuttgart, where we dropped the dead engine and picked up three more cars. It's funny to hear the different languages on the train – in the back (my section) everyone speaks French, in the middle section from Amsterdam all I hear is Dutch, and now in the new section from Stuttgart everyone is speaking German. Not that I understand more than a few words of any of it – if they were speaking Spanish I might have a chance, but no luck.

Later, on the train to Vienna (Wien) from Munich (München)

Southern Germany and Austria contain some of the most consistently beautiful countryside that I've ever seen. Everything is wrapped in a neat clipped green carpet. Following a swollen stream down the valley, lots of little towns where the church is the biggest building. Listening to Beethoven's 7th symphony as the train winds its way through Austria – it is amazing sometimes how much more sense a place's music makes when you actually visit the place.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Intermission, Entry 15

Intermission Entry 15, October 31st, 2011, 12:18am (GMT +0)

The eighteen days between my two contracts were educational in many ways; there's one thing in particular that I've been thinking over since then. It's a question of travel philosophy that was prompted by Paulo Coelho's own rules of traveling.

His first rule is odd. “#1: Avoid Museums, Frequent Bars.” What does he mean by this? Museum visits are a big part of many people's trips. They're filled with culture and history, and make us more educated world citizens. Why should we avoid them?

Coelho's point is that when we travel somewhere and then visit a museum, we're not really visiting the place that we've traveled to. We spend the whole day in a big building with a bunch of other foreigners, looking at things that may be important to history, but we miss our chance to learn what the people of a place are like. Places are just places – dirt is the same in Toronto and Timbuktu. What makes them unique are their people, and they don't live in museums. They're in bars.

Through thinking about this rule and experimenting during my own travels, I've come up with a useful concept. The things one might see in a place can be divided into two groups: Big things and Little things. Big things are all the famous touristy bits that people travel to go see. Europe abounds with them: the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Tower of London, the Mona Lisa, etc. Usually you wait in line for a few hours, pay a bit, and then wander for another couple of hours before you see the thing you were actually looking for.

On the other hand you have the small things. These are places like the pay-as-you-will Pakistani restaurant I went to in Vienna with my friend Alex, or the strange, quiet, walnut paneled, semi-secret after hours jazz club I went to in Barcelona with Pablo. Places that no one has ever heard of, and that you didn't even know you were going until you got there. These are places where you can meet people living in their natural environments, not the gargantuan marble fortresses that are most museums or the artificial paradises of resorts and party beaches.

I think the surest way of defining of a small place vs. a big place is by looking at who actually uses a space. Tourists outnumber the locals? Big place. You're the only one who doesn't speak the native language? Small place.

The shift, then, in my own travel philosophy, is to visit more small places instead of big places. I looked back on my memories of other trips, and I realized that almost all of them are of the small places – unexpectedly good meals, time spent waiting with friends and family for the big things to start, and funny, unplanned things that didn't go the way we intended but worked out better than we could have hoped. I remember swapping stories with a Texan in the bike room of the night train to Amsterdam more vividly than I remember the endless parade of vast oil canvasses in the Lourve.

Places are not buildings, monuments, battlefields, or great works of art. Places are the people who live in them, and the small places are where you can meet those people. They've been shaped by all of the stuff you find in museums, of course, but life moves on!

I hope to visit many small places on the camino. Not much longer now! My projected start date is the 20th, after giving myself a few days in Barcelona to prepare and equip.

I've just about talked Coelho into the ground on this blog. Anyone have any good authors to recommend, in the same vein as him? Or just good authors in general?

From the notebook, October 13th, 2011, still on the dead train in Hockenheim

We've lost the dining, cafe, and all cars headed to Hamburg and Berlin so I figured the engine must have died sometime after 2am when the train split. Luckily the nice conductor just brought us coffee and croissants.


They found another engine. We're flying along now, between stops on sidings to let the white ICE trains go by. Someone left a window open in at the end of our car, and I stuck my head out into the chilly morning air just for the pure exhilaration of it. Germany is damp this morning, all deep blues, greens, and grays in the mist. The slightest tinge of orange shows in the East where the sun is rising behind the overcast clouds. The countryside is laid out like a patchwork quilt, all little green squares, lines of trees, and small villages dripping with morning dew.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Intermission, Entry 14

Intermission Entry 14, October 29th, 2011, 11:04pm (GMT +0)

It has come to my attention that the time zone stamps I've been putting on all of these blog posts since, say, May, may have been wrong. Oops. I think I dropped an hour or so somewhere there on the Atlantic crossing. They're squidgely little things, time zones. We gain an hour tonight anyway, so who really knows what's going on.

From the notebook, October 13th, 2011

I woke up an hour ago in a place I did not expect to be. It's 7:35am and we're stopped in Hockenheim, wherever that is. I stepped onto the platform were a middle-aged Brit, quite self-satisfied in his misery, explained that the engine had died and that we are going to be at least four hours late. The two Germans and the Frenchman have disappeared along with their luggage – I can only assume that they've found some alternate transportation.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Intermission, Entry 13

Intermission Entry 13, October 29th, 2011, 2:14am (GMT +0)

Madeira is an island in the Atlantic owned by Portugal and is the Indy's next stop after the Canary Islands. They're known for two things: steak cooked on a stone, and some strange hill-basket contraption where you ride down the mountain in a wicker seat.

I only had a few hours, though, and so it was one or the other. Stomach rumbling, I decided on the steak (not to worry, I'll be back next cruise for the strange wicker toboggan). The stone is featured more prominently than the steak is, as it comes out from the kitchen on a thick wooden frame with small glass bowls on the side. I stuck my nose in each bowl in turn – minced garlic, hot peppers, and a sour cream based garnish. I scooped a little bit of garlic onto the stone and it immediately jumped up, popping and sizzling.

We cut our steaks into strips and cooked them, along with onions and other vegetables that came on the side. The smell and sound of sizzling steak made the meal a memorable one, although the stones began to run out of juice by the end of the meal. My last couple pieces were a bit rare.

Next cruise: wicker death toboggan. And an odd note – we're running 12 day cruises right now, but the cruise remains our measure of time, not the land-based week. Living here means living on a twelve day week – it reminds me of revolutionary France and their ten day week.

From the notebook, October 12th, Train from Paris to Munich

I managed to get a couchette this time instead of a seat – it is far preferable to the arrangement on the train from Barcelona. Six of us are in a small room on the train, sleeping three deep. I have a top bunk, which is a good thing. There are two middle aged German guys on the bottom, a young couple from Dubai in the middle, and a young tattooed French guy across from me up top who I think speaks English but is pretending that he doesn't.

Munich tomorrow at 7am, and 15 minutes to catch the train to Vienna. If I miss it, there's a train every hour, so no worry. The level of travel difficulty is about to go up, as I speak even less German than I do French and am not traveling with my family any more.

Life is good. “Traveling is easy,” has become my motto. Eight months ago, I had no idea that I would be on a train headed for Munich, but traveling really agrees with me. I'm finding that I am happiest and healthiest when I am headed somewhere . . . it is almost a disappointment to arrive sometimes!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Intermission, Entry 12

Intermission Entry 12, October 27th, 2011, 12:54am (GMT +0)

I learned a valuable lesson yesterday – don't drink below the waterline with the night shift. They will always prevail. We took a break for breakfast and then went back down three decks to carry on . . . I ended up losing most of today.

From the notebook, October 12th, Notre Dame, Paris

The cathedrals of Europe have amazed me with their variety of architectural styles. Palma is all rough-hewn stone and intense vertical reach. Barcelona's old cathedral is black and heavy with Gothic ornamentation, while Gaudi's masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, is a bizarre stone forest. St. Peter's, in Rome, exudes wealth with its multicolored marbles and ubiquitous gold leaf. Palermo's cathedral is a long, low building of sand colored stone, reminding me of North Africa. In France I've been able to add two more to my list, both of them as unique as all the others.

In both the Rheims and Notre Dame cathedrals I have seen small candle holders mounted to the pillars. They are on every other pillar and there is a small circle painted above each one. Purely for illumination, or some other purpose? Notre Dame has round columns with Corinthian caps the become more Gothic as they pass the first level. There's more stained glass, and it is darker than the cathedral in Rheims. Also, the second level porch is very wide, pushing the alcoves even farther out.

I like cathedrals They smell like old, worn stone and warm dark woods, and are filled with stories of passionate people searching for truth. People trying to figure “it” out, whatever “it” is.

I just realized that Napoleon was crowned emperor here. Holy crap.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Intermission, Entry 11

Intermission Entry 11, October 25th, 2011, 9:54pm (GMT +0)

In a sign of acceptance from the rest of the orchestra, I have been fined a round of beers for an early entrance during our second show tonight. I'm glad that some rules are universal.

From the notebook, October 9th

Already failed once tonight looking for a jam session in Paris. Well, not failed, exactly – I found the place, but it has been closed for a long time. Two blocks from the apartment I found a bricked-over storefront with a scrap of faded paint – “Ses Lezards” – over the doorway. No dice. Now I'm looking for a blues jam session at a place called the “Cave of Oblivion.” I'm not sure if that refers to the drinking habits of the patrons or some darker arcane ritual, but it should be interesting.


Turns out that that's not actually the name of the club. The cave is in the basement of a place called “Le Taveau de Oubliettes,” and I haven't a clue what that means.

It's an old building, on the South side of the river within sight of Notre Dame. Down the street is a karaoke club where someone is singing “Imagine.” The club is literally a cave in the basement – a winding stone staircase deposits the customer among the arches of what probably used to be the wine cellar. An electric blues band is set up. There's a sign set up that says entrance is free, but you must buy six euro worth of booze to stay. This is why I'm sitting outside writing until the music starts – I want to make sure that it is worth the cash. “Ce soir” means this night, or tonight, right?

Ah, now they're singing “No Regrets” in the karaoke bar. Of course the Parisians would sing a song made famous by Edith Piaf.

A very large, strong Russian woman is standing out front of the blues club talking with her friends about “dropping social strata” if she became an English teacher. Forget English, she should play rugby . . .

Monday, October 24, 2011

Intermission, Entry 10

Intermission Entry 25, October 25th, 2011, 12:46am (GMT +0)

I arrived on the Independence just in time for another cast install . . . lucky me, eh? The cast here is much larger – instead of the Grandeur's four singers and four dance couples, the Indy has six of each. Some of the shows don't use all the singers, and so they are freed up to sing other events on board. The larger cast makes for a show more like the big ones on broadway – they don't have the entire cast onstage for every number like we did on the Grandeur.

Oh, and there are people flying around on cables now. That was new. Our lead player (a Scot named Dave) told me to watch my head during install, as while they're still learning the routine dancers on cables tend to end up in the pit. I'm not sure how much he was joking . . .

From the notebook, October 7th:

“Winged Victory” is a statue found in Greece and since moved to the Lourve. It used to mounted on an outcropping of stone shaped like a ship (logically enough, as it commemorates a naval victory).

The statue, although incomplete, radiates power. It is a winged woman, missing both arms and head, standing thrust forward as if she's about to take flight. Her clothes, soaked through with sea water, drape over her muscular form and are loosely bound at torso and arms with leather thongs (I've never seen wet, transparent clothing carved in stone before). Her wings alone are dry, straining out and up on either side.

It is a statue that makes one's pulse race – one of those rare works of art whose message in whlly contained in even the smallest atom of its form. The missing pieces in no way decrease the power of the art.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Intermission, Entry 9

Intermission Entry 9, October 24th, 2011, (GMT +0)

Today I visited a Brazilian steakhouse in Lisbon with a few members of the orchestra. I'd never been to a Brazilian steakhouse before, and it was a great experience. We loaded up our plates with rice and beans and sat back down at the table, where I was a bit puzzled. Where is the menu? Where's the meat?

My questions were answered a minute later. A server came over with a side of beef, stuck on a spit and still sputtering with boiling fat. It had been doused in garlic and had been removed from the grill only moments before. As he cut, each person at the table had a small set of tongs to remove pieces of meat from the spit. The parade of meats continued, too – sausage, chicken, beef, pork, on and on. It was a good lunch.

A storm was rolling in as we were leaving Lisbon. It's only been getting worse as the night goes on. I'm rooming in the extreme bow of the ship, out past where the portholes stop, and so we're feeling the waves smashing into the front of the ship. A few have been strong enough to knock things over on the table. Lucky for us the Indy has a thick skin.

From the notebook, October 5th

It's never a good sign when the conductor looks at your ticket and winces. “All the way at the end,” he said, pointing down the platform.

My suspicions were confirmed when I finally found car #84 and stepped aboard. The “Joan Miro” is an Ellipsos hotel-train, meaning that the vast majority of passengers travel in bunk beds. This is what I intended to do – share a room with three other guys and get some sleep. However, there are about twenty seats right next to the engine for the super-cheap, and that's where I'll be for the next thirteen hours.

Usually a European railpass will get you a couchette berth on a sleeper train with only a small reservation fee. However, the Joan Miro is owned by a private company, following slightly different rules, and so I'll be sleeping sitting up.

Also, to the parents who brought the toddler, what on Earth were you thinking? You've signed up for what is basically a thirteen hour plane ride with your kid. I'm only 22 and I know that this is parenting suicide.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Intermission, Entry 8

Intermission Entry 8, October 23rd,2011, 11:07am (GMT +1)

Alright. Welcome back, blog.

The past eighteen days have been quitean adventure . . . five new countries, three new languages, andseveral new favorite foods. I'll be adding on bits from my travel notebook at the end of each entry, but for now I'm going to pick up in the present.

I've been on board the Independence of the Seas for three days now. She's a very different ship than the Grandeur. The Independence is nearly twice the size of my old home, with a crew population that is more than three times the size of my high school. It's a much newer ship, too – the Independence is on voyage 125, while the day I signed off the Grandeur was beginning
voyage 800. Even taking into account the longer 14 day and 18 day cruises that the Independence does, that's a pretty big difference.

She's a beautiful ship. The promenade deck has been lowered a level from the old Vision class ships, leaving a lot more room for balcony cabins. There is a flow rider, a
movie theater, two auditoriums, more restaurants than I can remember, a chapel, and an ice rink. Amidships on deck 5 there is a promenade, an interior street that runs a third the length of the vessel and stretches up several decks. Here there are shops, bars, restaurants, and entrances to the various clubs and theaters that the Independence offers. People have cabins that overlook the promenade and you can see them sitting in their windows watching the action. There's even a little bit where they lower the senior staff from the ceiling during the captain's cocktail dinner.

Is it as cool as an actual city block in a place like Barcelona? Of course not. But from an engineering standpoint, it's pretty impressive, especially since it floats,
travels at twenty knots, and the pool is sitting right above your head. Imagine Disneyland's main street encased in one hundred and forty thousand tons of steel, plumbing, and diesel powerplants. I heard a story about the captain on the Allure of the Seas . . . he bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle and rides it around up and down the street when he feels like it.

But what I'm most tickled about is that I'm crewing a ship named after Admiral Ackbar's flagship at the Battle of Endor. Nerd much?

Today we were in Vigo, Spain (although I spent several hours convinced that we were in Vigo, Portugal, and wondering why everyone was speaking Spanish). The city sits astride the Vigo estuary, where the river empties into the sea. Upon exiting the ship (on one of the four gangways . . . gonna have to get used to that) it became immediately apparent that I had returned to the land of warmth and light. London was bright, but cold, Paris was rainy and overcast for an entire week, and Vienna was blustery and brisk . . . I've been wearing a scarf for the past three weeks, but here in Spain it feels like the beginning of Spring. Vigo is an hour behind ship time, and was still smelling of fresh morning flowers as I strolled through town. I took a trip up to the fortress, which has been turned into a series of parks and gardens with fountains in various stages of disrepair. At the top of the hill in the innermost
series of walls is a great view of the city. A sign shows the location of different hill forts that used to mark the beginning of civilization on the Iberian peninsula . . . there were more than
twenty listed on the sign. I imagined standing at the top of the hill, looking around and being able to see my neighbors from miles away; little wisps of gray smoke curling up from wooden palisades, with acres of wild forest and scrub land between us. Very different than how the landscape looks now – suburbs stretching into the distance, a freeway overpass thrown across the valley in the distance. Spain is just as beautiful here as it was on the Mediterranean coast – I'm looking forward to walking the Camino de Santiago more and more.

On the way back to the ship, I decided to cut through some back alleys. They were in worse shape than I anticipated – while the roads were smooth and well maintained, some of the buildings were in the midst of getting the wrecking ball. The extent of Spain's financial woes was about to be shown to me.

I came into a plaza at one point were several women were sitting talking. When I came into view, something passed between them in Spanish – this is were I should have taken notice, but I paid it no mind. Two of them, both beautifully dressed, were ahead of me; an Anglo woman and a Spanish woman. The Anglo woman started walking in my direction; I changed paths to avoid her, but she did the same.

This is when the first switch tripped in my head. She said hello, and asked me if I was in a hurry. I didn't quite know what was going on yet, but I greeted her politely and pushed past despite the way she grasped my arm. The second woman (the Spanish one) then came up to me more forcefully. “Espere un poco, espere un poco!” (“Wait a little, wait a little!”). She took hold of me with a much stronger grip and started pushing me towards a little door in a building nearby. The room was pitch black inside.

Here I smiled; I'd figured out their game. “No, senorita, gracias,” I replied, pushing past her as well. They left me alone after that, with only a bit of cursing in frustration as I walked away. There wasn't a chance in hell that I was about to “wait a moment.” Less than twenty seconds later, I was on the main street with all the British tourists and their families. I doubt they had quite the shore side experience that I did. It was 1pm.

I don't know if the women were prostitutes or if they were just bait for a group of thieves inside the building. They weren't dressed particularly extravagantly, although they were both very attractive. I'm happy with how I reacted (through the entire situation it was like I was watching someone else walk down the street), but I'm glad that I'd had a couple months of traveling the world to prepare for this sort of thing. My safety depended on my strength of will being stronger than theirs; if the same thing had happened early in my first contract I might have been in trouble. It is good to see that I have matured enough to stay calm and trust my instincts.

I didn't notice until later that one of them had grabbed me hard enough to draw blood and that I was bleeding all down my arm. I washed it out very carefully when I got back to the ship – you never know with these sorts of things.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Intermission, Entry 7

A pair of stories for you today.

I met a Texan on the train last night who told me a story about a friend of his dad's. This friend decided to take his family (wife and two daughters, both under ten) on vacation in Mexico like he used to do as a kid . . . without knowing that Mexico has changed a lot since then. They drove across the border and started heading inland . . . a few hours in, three big black SUVs pass them on the road and then cut them off. Ten men with machine guns get out, rob them of all their belongings, and leave them by the side of the road.

They start walking. A few hours later three more big black SUVs pull up. Different men get out, also with machine guns. "Did you just get robbed earlier?"


"Get in the car."


"Get in the car!" They got in the car.

An hour later they arrive at this huge villa. The cars are waved through . . . there are gardens, fountains, and pools inside the walls. They pull up to the big house and are forced out of the cars. His family is taken inside the big white house, where they're kept under guard. The men, though, tell the father to come with them.

He ends up in a smaller room, where two more guards dressed all in red come in before a short man in a white cotton suit walks in (the boss). Without a word, he motions the father to the next room. Inside are the men that robbed him, on their knees and hands tied behind their backs.

"Are these the men that robbed you?"


Without a word, the drug lord pulls out a pistol and shoots each one of them in the head right down the line. He turns to the father and hands him his keys.

"Get your family, drive home, and never come back to Mexico again."


Another story, this one told to me by my friend Alex.

Alex was on tour in Central Asia with his band last summer, backpacking and hitchhiking through Kazakhstan, Turkey, and China (among other places). They met a guy named Jason from Santa Barbara, California, who has been biking through Russian war zones for the past couple years (Georgia, Chechnya, etc.). He told this story about a snowed in village.

Jason was stuck in a village in the mountains, snowed in. He'd been there several times in the past couple years, though, and had several friends who were like family that he could stay with. One of them came to him and said, "It's my friend's birthday, come celebrate! We can't go anywhere!" So Jason agreed.

He was on his way to his friend's house when he came across four drunk Polish tourists. "What are you doing here?"

"We need to leave, we have to catch a plane tomorrow."

"You can't, we're snowed in."

"But we have to!"

"You can't. Hey, do you want to come to a party?"

So the drunk Polish tourists came with him to the party and they proceeded to continue drinking as the snow came down. One of them started to get a little upset, though, about missing his flight. They tracked down the only working phone in town and called the Polish embassy. Unfortunately, iin their drunken condition they were in no shape to talk to the officials. Jason took the phone from them and explained the situation, about what village they were in and how travel would be impossible.

To emphasize his point, he said, "The only way you're getting anyone out of here in the next week is by military helicopter."

"Okay, thank you."

They hung up and continued drinking. A half an hour later, the phone rings. It's the Polish embassy; they put Jason on the phone. They asked him how familiar with the village he was. He answered that he knew it pretty well, as he'd been there several times over the past years.

"If someone wanted to land a helicopter in the village, where would you recommend landing?"

Jason laughed, and then explained that the kids' soccer field would be the best place. He hung up, and they all had a good laugh about the poor sap at the embassy who's boss had played a practical joke on him. Land a helicopter in the village to pick up some tourists? Preposterous.

After another half hour of drinking, the phone rang again. Jason picked it up, pretty soused at this point. It was the embassy again.

"Can they be ready in a half an hour?"

"For what?"

"For the helicopter."

Sure enough, half an hour later, they hear whuppa-whuppa-whuppa above the village. Jason herds the four drunk Polish tourists through the snow and pushes them up to the helicopter. Then he has an idea . . . he's always wanted to ride in a helicopter.

"How many are you?"

"Five!" answers Jason.

"I thought there were just four?!?"

"Nope! Five!" he shouts over the sound of the propeller. The pilot waves him on.

A few moments later he's on a helicopter flying through the towering mountains on the way back to the Polish embassy. He'd left all his possessions in the village, but remembered to bring two flasks of the village moonshine that they'd been drinking. He and the Poles begin to pass it around. Just to be polite, he offers some to the pilots, figuring that they'll refuse.

They don't! They each take a big swig, and by the time they land at the embassy everyone in the helicopter is singing in Polish at the top of their lungs. The officials who meet them at the landing pad all get big sloppy hugs. Jason never found out who the tourists actually were, but I guess Poland takes care of its own

Friday, October 14, 2011

Intermission, Entry 6

I like train stations. A few universal stories get played out again and again in endless variation.

The young lovers saying goodbye. She was leaving; the man had his bike with him, and wore a neon green strap on his right pant leg to keep it out of the gears. It clashed with his fresh red sneakers. They stayed talking at the train door until the train began moving. He kissed her while running sideways and then pushed his bike off the platform, wearing that face men make when they're trying not to show any emotion.

The people late for the train. There's always a few. Businesspeople, students, families, backpackers, tourists, street vendors, etc. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don't. Some are nearly frantic with worry, while others wander in the direction of the platform with not a care in the world even though I can see the guard with her whistle in her mouth about to send the train off.

Parents sending off children. The weirdest take on this I've seen so far was the grandmother sending off her grown grandson. She had her iPad out and was recording the whole thing. How can you say goodbye to someone when you have a big piece of plastic between you and them?

I wonder if the platform guards are ever tempted to blow their whistle and then hop on one of the trains themselves. They see these people leaving, day after day, but never get to go themselves. It's like a less morbid version of the river Styx boatman.

Barcelona Franca is everything that a train station should be. The main hall is in grand Neo-Classical style, with high vaulted marble ceilings and a thick wooden row of ticket counters. Outside, the train shed is surrounded on three sides by rows of stone arches, and it is covered with a double row of delicate iron and glass arches. The tracks curve away to the left, and the city of Barcelona is visible behind a stand of sweet smelling conifers.

Unfortunately, it is being passed over by the subterranean station at Barcelona Sants. Sants has all the charm of New York City's Penn Station, which leaves it somewhere between my old middle school and a prison in terms of architectural sophistication. Isn't that always how it goes? The pretty stations are the ones that never get used.
Internet access has been very limited. Entries to follow, I just donät know when. Damn these Austrian keyboards!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Intermission, Entry 5

I saw a kid playing with an abacus today at the train station, totally content.


From a poster in the Sant Jordi Arago: "If you're searching for the love of your life, stop. They'll find you when you begin doing what you love."


Picking up my luggage from the hostel today, I met a young, beautiful, and characteristically distant Australian woman. I thought of Chatwin and his lament in The Songlines: "Ah, Christ, not another one!"

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Intermission, Entry 4

I've found the other members of my generation -- those of us who don't have a spouse, kids, or steady employment, anyway. They have long hair, are learning Portuguese, and live in hostels in Barcelona.

Pablo works at the Sant Jordi Arago hostel and is the first person I met there. He's a tall late-twenty-something with a trimmed black beard and wide hands. A native of Barcelona, he flips off the tourist buses when he's drunk because they make him feel like he's in a zoo.

"Or maybe a safari. Like they're driving across Africa, looking at all the funny animals." Pablo speaks excellent English.

"Well, at least they don't have rifles."

He shook his head. "Worse -- cameras. Did you know that the first camera was attached to the scope of a rifle?"

When Pablo found out that I play jazz, he got excited and told me that there was a jam session that we had to go to.

The session was supposed to start around 11, and so naturally we left the hostel around 11:30. There were four of us at first: Pablo, myself, and two Brazilians. I had met Lucas the night before; coming back drunk, late at night, he was trying to climb into the bunk above mine without making any noise. Unfortunately, his ladder wasn't attached, and Lucas ended up falling backwards into the steel storage lockers and waking up the whole room (a multilingual chorus of protest). He has that permanently unshaven look that some Brazilians have.

The other Brazilian was Juliana, a dance teacher about Pablo's age. "I'm sorry, I do not speak good English," she told me. "Bueno, no hablo Castillano muy bien," I responded, not aware yet that she was from Brazil and speaks Portuguese . . . luckily the two languages are similar enough that she was able to understand me.

We picked up a couple of Pablo's friends at a cafe on the way there. I was glad for the company -- we were far enough back in the twisted side streets of the Gothic quarter (el gotic) that the cockroaches had come out (human and insect).

"So what are the guys holding the half empty six-pack of coke actually selling?" I asked Pablo. He laughed -- they'll say that they're selling cocaine, but really they're selling little pieces of white paper wrapped in plastic. An expensive lesson for some people. Since we were with the locals, though, they left us alone.

The "Harlem Jazz Club" was packed, which for a Tuesday night jam session was surprising to me. The crowd was almost entirely young people, late teens all the way to late twenties. Six euros bought me in the door and got me a drink ticket. A guitarist, bass player, and drummer were holding down a nasty slow blues as we squeezed in the door.

After hanging for a bit with a Spanish saxophonist and cute linguist friend, I found the session list and signed up. Bringing a brass instrument to a mostly acoustic (they were very lightly amplified) blues jam is kind of like bringing a bazooka to a water balloon fight, but the crowd loved it. After two songs, the Argentinian band leader handed me a drink ticket and told me to stick around -- he'd bring me up later after they got through the list. We played "When You're Smiling" (which the entire audience sang along to in English) and then the house band unplugged their amps and came down into the audience to play one last tune acoustic. They were on fire . . . there was some nasty slap-bass playing . . . the audience went crazy.

Afterward, we all stood outside smoking. Julianna and I were the only ones who didn't smoke, and so we were a little bit apart from the others.

She yawned. "Tengo mucho sueno."

"No, no tienes sueno." I replied.

She smiled. "Por que no?"

"Pero solo es la una y media."

"Si, es muy tarde."

"No es demasiado tarde."

"Necessito dormir, tengo que trabajar a la manana."

"A que hora?"

"A las ocho."

"No, no te vas a ir a trabajar en la manana."

She stopped and laughed at my funny Spanish. "Demasiado profesores." We'd been calling beers "professors" because my Spanish gets better when drink, and we decided that it would be cheaper in the long run to buy beer instead of hiring a teacher.

"No, hay nunca demasiado profesores!"

Meanwhile, we'd been joined by three other Brazilian women from the hostel and I was awash in a sea of Portuguese. One of them was drawing charcoal portraits of the other two by streetlight on a piece of discarded particle board found in the alley.

We ended up in another club housed in a series of walnut paneled rooms up a narrow stairway from the Placa Reial. This quickly turned into the after-hours hang for the Harlem Jazz Club crowd, and because of the piano there another jam session seemed likely (despite the complaints from the neighbors) but it was too tame for the Brazilians and we left (or were kicked out, not sure). Eventually we ended up back at the hostel, where I played the blues with Pablo (he plays excellent guitar) for a while before listening to a drunk Irishman explain the history of world profanity.

Finally it was off to bed. Wanderers are interesting people.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Intermission, Entry 3

I love restaurants that know what they're good at. Case in point: Kiosko Universal in Barcelona.

To get there, follow La Rambla away from the port. La Boqueria, the open air market, will be on your left. Walk through the entrance and turn immediately left. Go all the way to the corner of the market and you'll find it . . . but the smell of seafood and garlic will probably lead you in the right direction before then.

The restaurant is little more than an open air kitchen surrounded by bar stools and a couple tables. A bit of action is necessary to get a table -- they're always packed, and stop serving exactly at 4pm. Wave down one of the waiters and tell them how many you have; he'll nod once and file you away in his head. A seat at the bar is best because that's where all the action is.

The menu changes each day depending on what's available in the market. I ordered the octopus (el pulpo), but they were out and so I got the calamari instead. Everything was ostensibly written on an illegible green chalkboard, but I had to resort to the good old "point and nod" method. A few moments later I had some fresh bread and wine and was settled in to watch the food cook.

Preparation is simple at Kiosko Universal. I watched my food thrown straight from the ice onto the grill with a bit of oil and herbs. When the bits of squid had puffed up just right, they were pulled off, set on a bed of fries, and covered in garlic oil, and delivered to my place. It took about as long as it takes to write this to get my food.

And, oh, it was good. Piping hot, but good. Like I said -- Kiosko Universal knows its strength: ingredients. With food that fresh, why do anything else to it?

While I'm talking about things in Barcelona that make me happy, let me say a few words about Catalan women. They're lanky and brown, wear baggy jeans and have long, dark, unruly hair that defies all attempts at control. I'm not sure what gets me more: their eyes, with their wide, black pupils; or their laugh, tumbling down with playful scorn. There's worse things that could happen to a person than be laughed at by a Catalan woman. now I see the reason why Bizet's Carmen and Edmond Dantes's Mercedes are both Catalan.

The Ramblas changes at night. First of all, the guys with the little buzzing noisemakers increase in number about threefold. They also have a new toy -- a little light up helicopter thing that they flip into the air with a slingshot. La Rambla is lit constantly by little blue stars shooting up into the air and drifting back down to earth. Que romantico.

Second, everyone is out in their clubbing attire. This means that men in collarless black suits are parading tall blondes in miniskirts around like show horses. I don't mean to be rude -- seriously, you could measure some of these women's height in hands like a racing stallion. Waistlines up around my collarbone.

Oh, and the third -- the whores and drug dealers appear. The whores are very high class -- you can't even spot them unless they come up and start whispering in your ear (I don't speak Catalan but she made her point Very clear) -- but the drug dealers are pretty disappointing. Mostly they just sit on the curb and hiss at you. "Psst . . . psst . . . psst!" Nice try, buddy. At least in Ibiza they pretend to sell sunglasses . . .