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 . . .

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Intermission, Entry 2

It's a travel day. I woke up to the sun in Cala Major, got a bit to eat, adjusted my luggage (damn dress shoes . . . I hate packing shoes) and caught the bus to the ferry terminal. The red and white Acciona ferry is larger than I expected. They must do longer runs sometimes, because there is a pool and sauna that aren't open for today's seven and a half hour run to Barcelona. It's almost like a little cruise ship -- except that we cruise at 23 knots.

My roommate for the voyage is a German building materials inspector. He's driving back to Berlin with some of his stuff from Palma -- used to work there, but left because it's too hard to get a job. He inspects wood that's been treated for fire prevention at building material vendors . . . so he's paid to light things on fire. Sweet.

I've been thinking a lot about money today. I just reread "Rich Dad, Poor Dad." I can add another goal to my list -- financial independence. Kiyosaki (the author) defines wealth as "the ability to live X number of days in a certain lifestyle with no further work on your part." When X exceeds the number of days that you will live, you're wealthy. By that definition, I want to be wealthy. Another idea to plant and let stew in the back of my head.

How wonderful it feels to have no idea how my life is going to turn out! I'm standing at the edge of the ship's rail, twenty two years old, with everything I need in life packed into two suitcases, abroad in a foreign country a bit of money in my pocket and about a hundred words of Spanish. The sparkling Mediterranean sweeps past as we head to a city that I've only recently fallen in love with -- Barcelona. My head is full of ideas, but they're all still floating around, unformed, not quite ready for use. The only one blooming right now is the road to Santiago, and so that's the one I will follow. Chatwin talks about the recurring pattern of the hero's story, and so I think this portion is an intermission. 18 days vacation, a month on the Indepence of the Seas, and this intermission will give way to Act II. The Grandeur was Act I, my time in New Hampshire the Prologue.

Except this time, I do not have the resources of a huge global corporation behind me. All I have is my brain, body, guts, and the contents two suitcases and my bank account.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Intermission, Entry 1

Silence. Blessed, blessed silence.

I sit on the bed, reveling in it. No compressors, no grinding in the engine workshops, no passengers flushing above my head. No roommate, no neighbors, and no intercom next to my bunk at night.

Hostal San Telmo was deserted when I arrived except for an old man watering potted plants in the lobby. My balcony door was open when I got upstairs, and I swept open the curtain to the sweet smell of summer pine. Cala Major is laid out beneath me -- doves cooing in the tree next to the pool, an occasional car passing by, and the ever present rumble of the ocean.

The ocean -- I wrote a few days ago that the theme of my life on the Grandeur was unlearning. that's true, but really the them of my life onboard was the ocean. I haven't gone more than a few hours without seeind and smelling it for the past seven months; it's always there. It has rocked me to sleep every night -- through the steel hull of the ship, my body has soaked in its rhythm down to my bones.

And I love the ocean. The smell of it -- salt and life and ruthless energy. It is intoxicating, like the smell of passion. It speaks to the body in a way that awakens the sensual. It ripples with fibrous strength, defying control and nicety in favor of willful disobedience. If there is anything of the elemental to be found in the world, in us, it is to be found in the ocean.

What more fitting theme for a time of unlearning? The ocean is that which reduces everything rigid and inflexible (whether stone or steel) to dust. Perhaps it has dissolved that which was rigid and inflexible inside of me as well.

I miss my shipmates. There's not much else to say beyond that, except that I can sense an era in my life has ended. Our cab driver from the ship whistled a bit of "I can't take it/take it/take no more" absentmindedly as we drove out of the port . . . the song was so prevalent on board, to hear it whistled as we left inspired a short bit of melancholy.

Tomorrow the adventure begins anew . . . but for now I rest, and savor the memories of friends that I may never see again.