From the 3rd of February 2006 to the 4th of April 2006, I traveled through Europe. I flew into Zurich Switzerland and traveled through Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland, and England. This is a day-by-day journal of my trip, copied from a blog I kept during the trip.
The calendar will take you to each day's entry, or just read straight through.
Before I left
For the nosy, things I am bringing:
- Laptop + spare battery + charger
- USB hard drive
- Camera + spare battery + flash unit
- GPS receiver
- Spare AA and AAA batteries
- AA/AAA NiMH battery charger; camera battery charger
- World-compatible switching PSU for battery chargers
- Good flashlight
Also plug adapters. Most of the variability in terms of EU power plugs is in the grounding strap, plug, pin, screw, etc. Consequently, most international travel adapters leave out the ground wire and adapt just the hot and neutral pins. Fortunately, nothing I'm plugging in would use a ground anyway, so there's no loss there. Relatedly, UK plugs use the ground on everything, and their power plug is absolutely monstrous, more like what you see on US appliances that require 20A sockets.
The laptop and headphones are required for airplane sanity. The camera is likewise a requirement. The flash proved useful on my last trip, so I'm bringing it again. The USB hard drive starts out full of movies (this trip: BSG) and ends up full of photos. I feel reasonably secure having my photos on the laptop and the removable drive. The flashlight hasn't been useful thus far, but I'm stubborn. The GPS receiver isn't actually useful for anything but it keeps me amused on plane, train, and bus rides. And spare batteries. NiMH rechargeables are great, but I still need enough to swap out the flash and GPS receiver at the same time, so I'm carrying quite a bit of juice around.
I was reading RD.net the other day and it occurred to me that this blog will be nothing like his. I won't be picking out the highlights and writing about poignant things that happen. That's right: volume is today's word. On that note, we begin day 1. Day 1 is always a complicated concept because my first 24 hours of travel actually span 31 hours of local-time-difference, and typically the point at which I transition from 11:59p local time to 12:01a local time happens over water where it's not at all clear when the transition takes place. In order to confuse and annoy, I am going to lump my first two calendar days of travel into one day on the theory that by EU time, I spent more of my time traveling on Friday than Thursday.
Without further ado, I present to you my thoughts and experiences, in no particular order and often without the benefit of adequate sleep.
Thanks to Mom for the wonderful idea of going to Qdoba to get lunch. Thus it was that at about 2pm when everyone else on the plane was enjoying their $5 beers, $1 snacks, or free sodawaterjuice, I had a burrito. Cold by this point, but quite tasty none the less.
Detroit's airport has better WAPs than does Atlanta. No SSH holes means no web access, no email, and less to do while waiting for my flight. No matter; it was a short layover anyway. Detroit to Amsterdam on an Airbus A-330 tricked out with video screens and games/video/other on demand for every seat. Watched a Morgan Freeman movie whose title I could probably find on IMDB if I tried [EDIT: An Unfinished Life] (recommended), North Country (recommended), and part of Minority Report (about as anticipated). Lunch was passable chicken with slightly mushy green beans and vaguely rubbery potatos. Also a "salad" (lettuce + diced cucumber and 2 slices of tomato that I actually ate), a dinner roll - with fake butter which I didn't eat, and a foam brownie that I also didn't eat topped with a thick layer of chocolate frosting which I did eat. The next morning (or midnight Madison time) we were served a breakfast of those vaguely fake pre-mixed yogurts you see at the grocery store, a fairly tasty if uninspired fruit cocktail filled so full that it sprayed me with sugar syrup when I opened it, and what was intended to evoke biscuit + egg. The latter was completely inedible, to the point of spitting back out the experimental bite I tried against my better judgement.
Ignored advice to go to the McDonalds at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam (maybe on the way back) due to lazy + busy + not hungry + long plane rides make me queezy. They would have had a tastier egg biscuit thing. I'm not sure how, given that their biscuits really aren't very good, but somehow they make it work. I still prefer Hardees for breakfast, but to be fair that's based on 10-year-old memories of a restaurant which I'm not even sure is still in business.
Got my passport stamped because I went to the wrong transfer desk to get my boarding pass for the flight to Zurich. I thought it odd that I'd been told to go to a transfer desk on the far side of passport control, but off I went anyway. Got my ticket though, so that was OK. Security at the airport's about the same as in the US (laptop out, coat off, wander through the metal detector) except that they don't check your boarding pass on either side of the metal detector and the people working there have a sense of humor about the whole thing. Had about 2 hours to kill so I watched the BSG I'd planned to watch on the plane but didn't due to the presence of the VOD system.
The local hub part of Schiphol is apparently open to the public so there are little screening depots in front of all the gates there that get manned when there are flights about to take off. Otherwise the equipment just sits there and beeps if you walk through the metal detector rather than around it. I suspect the reason why my gate got changed at the last minute was to catch people like me who'd been there for a while and had walked through the security gates when nobody was manning them. Took a literally 10-minute bus trip around the airport from the gate out to an open patch of cement over by service hangars and the like that had dozens of little planes, about half of them jets, parked on it. Pretty tired by then, so I don't remember much, except that it was about 10 times as comfy as the Atlanta to Madison flight last time.
Cleared customs and passport control in record time, and headed out to the hotel reservation board. Got a small but clean room in Oerlikon, a 5-minute, 4-dollar train trip from the airport, followed by about half an hour of trying to find the damned street. Checked in; finished my episode; slept for 13 hours, until a bit after 1am local time.
I awoke at 1am this morning, and puttered about until a bit after 8. I unpacked, read, watched some TV. Fought with the on-again off-again internet access here and managed to get what may actually be all my email. Went for a walk in the chill morning air, wondering if day hadn't really started yet or whether the cool featureless gray sky would be all I saw of daylight. Brought the GPS receiver with me on the theory that it'd get me back where I started should I get lost, a useful feature when wandering an unknown city without a map. No reception. Not a single satellite in range. Learned that I wouldn't be so lucky as to get through the Switzerland part of my trip without having to acquire yet more foreign currency when the counter person at a bakery I stopped at communicated to me in a mix of German and English that neither Euros nor a credit card would buy me the tasty braided loaf on the counter for breakfast. Walked back to the hotel; slept until 6pm.
Headed out again, bound for a currency exchange place I'd been assured was in the train station. Found it and, after some back-and-forth about why a bearded, bespeckled young man was trying to use a clean-shaven, contact-wearing young man's passport to cash a traveler's check, got my Swiss Francs. As with Euros, bills of differing denominations are of differing size. Unlike Euros, the difference is in length only, rather than length and width, with the happy result that the money fits in my wallet. Got Thai take-out and remarked once again to myself how expensive things are here. Both the hotel and dinner were about a third more expensive than their US counterparts. Back at the hotel with my prize, the desk clerk is apologetic that the maids didn't clean my room, owing to my unconscious form on the bed at the unlikely hour of 2pm. I assure her that it's not a problem and try to explain, likely without much success, that I'm just jet-lagged. Indeed it's odd that I'm not terribly awake and alert since it's early evening here, mid-afternoon in Wisconsin, and I've spent 20 of the past 30 hours asleep.
I would watch more BSG except that the portable drive enclosure the next two discs are on has decided to stop working again. Shortly before I left, it inexplicably became unresponsive but just as inexplicably decided to function a bit later, so I'm hoping it will perk up soon. After some tinkering I manage to open the enclosure despite having no suitable screw driver, and coax it to life long enough to copy an episode and change, but now nothing I do makes the slightest bit of difference. Errand for tomorrow: find either an appropriate AC adapter or a replacement enclosure. An AC adapter should do it, since the problem seems isolated to the battery and/or supporting hardware rather than the interface hardware.
As it happens, my nap yesterday afternoon was a bad idea, and kept me up until after 6am. I listened to Into Thin Air, noticing with semi-conscious surprise that disc 4 ended with "this book continues on disc 4". I finally fell asleep, and woke a bit before noon. I showered and left, so intent on breakfast that I made it a few blocks before remembering that I had intended to bring something to confirm the size of the plug on the AC adapter I was going to buy, but it didn't matter since most businesses were closed.
I walked for a few hours, getting a bit more lost than I'd intended to, eventually stopping at an open bakery to buy their very last loaf of bread. I noticed again, as I had in Spain, the curious fact that walking doesn't make me hungry. In fact, quite the opposite. I walked into the bakery having eaten nothing in the past 18 hours or so and it wasn't until I'd bought the bread and left the store that I started getting hungry again.
I got back to the hotel as the maids were finishing up with my room, and watched CNN while munching. Among other things I saw their sports update segment, which was covering the African Cup of Nations, a big soccer tournament. One guy, Nigerian I think, scored a goal and started doing backflips down the field. I don't mean one or two, either. He went a good way back down the field, flanked by two jogging teammates.
Stayed up late last night / this morning again, and as a result I didn't get going until almost 1pm. Got a much better map from the front desk, one that even has a street index, which is hugely useful. Also snagged an out-of-date activities guide thing that lists a dozen or more potentially interesting things to see. I'm working on turning the addresses into places on the map, probably for an excursion tomorrow. Struck out on the electronics front, despite checking out 3 different stores. Plenty of 3.5" drive enclosures, but no 2.5" ones. Got a salame sandwich for lunch, with pickle and tomato. And, I think, butter. Or maybe a very soft cheese spread on the bread. Not too sure about that last bit, but it wasn't bad. Bought a few oranges, my favorite travel fruit. As soon as I work up the energy I'm going to head out again, perhaps in an hour when a nearby Indian restaurant opens for dinner.
Mmm, chicken masala. With naan, the best I've had in quite a while. Overheard two professors discussing their grad students and one woman explaining that she got this great coat in France a few days ago, only to discover later that it didn't fit or something. Came back and watched some sort of courtroom drama / political thriller on BBC Prime while working on the map. Turns out I picked the wrong part of Zurich - all the museums and such are south of here. I'm not entirely sure how far south because the map omits any sort of scale, so tomorrow I'm going to take a trek and try to find these places. Also, the laundromat is in that area, so I'll scope that out for Thursday.
Woke up early, so I'm watching British edutainment. There's a program of a bunch of shorts - 3 so far in the first half hour. In one of them, they're telling this story about a beautiful princess who goes to sleep for a long time, blah blah blah. One character thinks about it and says something like "well, she was beautiful, sure, but then she went to sleep for a long time, and woke up much older". Hah! So later in the show they're telling the adult character about it, and the skeptic mentions how she woke up old, and he says "it sure feels like that sometimes".
Went to the Swiss National Museum. It's a huge museum; not necessarily worth a 10+ mile walk though. Next time, I'll be sure to take the tram. Katie'd like it - whole floor of cool clothes / kids' toys. Tons of stuff. They had some hugely ostentatious old rooms from 15th century merchant families. No photos allowed inside, but I took some of the outside of the building to try to get a sense of scale. Got joked at by a construction worker in German, though he didn't speak English and I know only enough German words to get the barest of literal meanings, we sorted things out. I'll try to get photos posted soonish.
Bought another USB drive enclosure because it was less than $10 more than the bare AC adapter it came with, and wasn't back-ordered. Meh. Got my music and BSG off the drive and backed up some photos to it, so I guess it was worth it.
Tired from all that walking and not much sleep, I slept until mid afternoon, which was nice. Got the low-down on the tram situation from the front desk people, and while I still don't entirely understand the system's various complexities, I do have a ticket valid for travel until tomorrow afternoon, which should be enough to get me to the train station bound for Frankfurt. Here's hoping. Checked out what plane fare would be. I'm sure there are cheaper flights, but KLM's fare for the trip (via Schiphol, naturally) was over $600. I think not.
Got my laundry done. I take back everything I've ever said about Spanish laundromats being expensive. It cost about double the most expensive load I did there. Which pretty much continues the pattern of everything being so expensive here. Bakery items are only a smidge more expensive than you'd expect, but everything else is more. Further experience leads me to revise, unfortunately upward, my estimates of the cost of living in Zurich, and likely all of Switzerland. Restaurants are 50-100% more; lodging is about 50% more. I just bought a 10" pizza for over $18, declining the customary Coke at $3 / liter.
Awoke; boarded the tram to "Rail City"; bought ticket to Frankfurt. Minutes later, realized ticket is completely incomprehensible, being written entirely in German is the least of its problems. There is no time on the ticket, no track number, no seat number. It is in fact two tickets, one that says ticket from Zurich to Frankfurt, and one which says supplement from Basel to Frankfurt. And the departure board doesn't list any trains leaving for Frankfurt. I asked the ticket office info desk what the deal was. I was told the ticket's valid for any one trip to Frankfurt in the coming week, and that the next train would leave in just over an hour, via Basel. Good thing I caught that last part, as the departure board just said Basel, and I would have missed my train otherwise. So I get to Basel and then have to hunt up the train to Frankfurt, which ended up leaving about 3 minutes after I found it and got aboard. Lucky, that.
Got to Frankfurt, bought a map with museum and other touristy info on it as well, and inquired about hotels. I was told there's a big international fair thing going on, some huge deal. I forget the word the tourist info woman used, but it was something like "lifestyle". I guess the basic idea is that it's a convention for all things a trendy apartment would contain. Or something. Wonder if that's the same thing my aunt and uncle are going to - I'll have to ask. In any event, all the hotels are 1. three times the normal price and 2. full anyway. Because I got in so late from the long train ride, the tourist info person managed to find me a room at the non-tripled rate because it's a cancellation. So I get to stay for not-insane prices, even if it is only for the one night, and is 9km away by subway.
So I make the reservation and head to the subway. There are automatic ticket machines with little screens and directions in a half-dozen languages. Only the directions are incomplete, the destination numbering is unclear, the error messages it gives me when I do it wrong are generic and unhelpful, and I'm starting to get frustrated. A helpful fellow traveler saw me fighting with it and came to help. He got me mostly straightened out (I still don't know what the 8 or 9 colored buttons with German words on them mean, nor why it costs $10 more to go to the stop I want as opposed to the one after it), and I got my ticket, even if it did cost more than the tourism office said it would.
Headed down to the track; waited; got on the train. I'm not even sure whether the ticket I have is actually for the mode of transportation I'm on, but it doesn't matter because nobody checks these things. The fines must be exorbitant for traveling sans ticket, or everyone would be doing it. I took 3 trams in Switzerland and the subway here in Germany and nobody checked a ticket anywhere. Anyway, I got off at the earlier stop, which turned out to be a barely-lit stop in the middle of nowhere that didn't even merit a bus-stop-style shelter. Good thing there's a bus stop (which actually did have a shelter!) nearby that would theoretically take me where I needed to go. The bus arrives; I try to get on, but the bus driver won't let me on and motions toward the back of the bus - he doesn't mean to use the rear door though, and I return to the bus stop, confused by his gesticulation and our lack of common language. Five minutes later he turns around (the bus stop is at the end of a road where there's a paved bulge to let the buses turn) and lets me on. We go for a while, and eventually he stops. I try to ask if this is where I should get off, and several minutes of frustrating lack of communication ensues as the driver seems kind of pissed off, but eventually decides to keep at it, eventually communicating that I need to cross the road, go about a half block back to another bus stop there, and wait for the bus. I should then show the driver the confirmation fax I got from the hotel that has its address on it. I go; I cross; I wait in the wind and snow. Maybe 10 minutes later, the same driver returns and motions me onto the bus, confusing another man who'd come to the same stop in the meantime and thought that perhaps he should get on via the front door as well. No dice - he has to use the back. Har. The driver took me to the hotel, which I'm not entirely sure was strictly on his route, but there you have it. Good thing one of the few German words I know is danke.
Apparently the price of the hotel includes breakfast. This is good, since I'm not entirely sure that whatever little rural hamlet I've found myself in has much in the way of restaurants. I'm not relishing heading back downtown, still burdened with all this luggage, trying to entertain myself throughout the day, only to return to the hotel booking office hoping there's been another cancellation somewhere. And I'm really not going to be happy if there isn't one and I end up spending >$200 a night for a place to stay.
I vaguely expected a low-rent breakfast, given that it was included with the room price, but I was wrong. I'm not saying it was an Indianapolis Hilton class breakfast (no omelette chef on duty here), but it was pretty darn good. And, it didn't cost an extra $15 or whatever, either. Really awful coffee, but good otherwise. Scrambled eggs, sausage (you might expect the Germans could do a good breakfast sausage - you'd be right), croissant, apple juice, orange juice, fruit salad. Also I got the room for a second night, which puts me in a better mood since I can actually do something today rather than hunt up another hotel and drag my bags about the city.
I slept well, but not nearly long enough, with the result that I got an early start to the day. Headed back into the city and went to a modern art museum. Even wackier building than last time, and no self-mutilation either, so I'd call it a good experience even if the only piece I really liked wasn't available in postcard form. Went to the city history museum, which wasn't as enthralling as I'd hoped, though they did have a great annotated model of a 16th century souk. Also upstairs in the photo / newspaper clipping gallery of the city's history was a photo from a Kraftwerk tour, alongside Fats Domino and Barry White. I doubt Mark reads this, but he would've gotten a kick out of it. Tried to go see the Applied Arts museum, but gave up after spending perhaps half an hour trying to find an entrance. I finally found a sign...in a parking lot. And I think I found the museum, but it didn't have a sign, and there weren't any doors. Perhaps less applied art and more applied architecture would have helped. Did not go to the architecture museum, nor the german film museum, but I did go to the communications museum, which was everything I'd hoped it would be. Wonderful old computers and faxes, video and audio gear, radio equipment, telephone and telegraph stuff, mail related stuff. Cell phones got WAY smaller from 1990 to 1995, and noticeably smaller again from '95 to '05. Saw a suitcase sat-phone, a 1960s video recorder as big as a washer and dryer, a couple Enigma machines, some '30s radio equipment with static antennae - nothing tuned. There were a bunch of telegraph bits, some early fax machines, a dozen or so ticker tape machines. There was half a wall filled with lovely old German mail boxes of varying sorts, as well as restored mail cars and even buggies from the turn of the century (no, the century before that).
The room has only one heater, and it's in the bathroom. Ordinarily this could be a bit wierd, and might cause problems, but actually not. It's really hot in the room, which is why the window is opened to keep the main room livable. The bathroom is too warm for normal comfort, but it's nice when getting out of the shower. Also, the heater seems to blow heat onto the floor (or maybe there's just something really hot a floor before me), which warms it quite pleasantly. The main room's fairly large, with a desk (the top lifts up to become a mirror - wha?) and stool, a chair and sofa, an end table, and a night stand. There's some broken glass, mostly in the corner, which the cleaning folks failed to clean up yesterday, somewhat to my disappointment.
I wondered why my lovely free internet access died last night, and now I know. They changed vendors. So we went from a swiss-cheese captive portal (it blocked outgoing HTTP requests and that's about it - ICQ, IMAP / SMTP, and SSH all worked, which is way more than I need to get the rest going) that got me good, free net access to one that closes the holes and forces me to pay for it. And it's a good thing I bowed to their demands too - I got an email from Phil and Mara postponing our meeting an hour. Unfortunately, not only does the new portal actually force me to pay for net access, but it breaks ICQ, and broke completely at about 11, so this posting will be somewhat delayed.
The hotel here isn't cheap, but it's nice, so I'd call it a good deal overall. I checked with the front desk this evening and they're full tomorrow, so I'll have to hotel hunt again. That's kind of a drag, but I'm pretty sure the convention has actually started, so there should be cancellations coming in and some more rooms opening up elsewhere. Also, they'll let me leave my bags at the front desk so at least I won't be burdened with that all day.
Yep, it's official. This is a rural setting: I hear a sheep mooing outside.
Got some pictures posted before the intarweb died. Go check 'em out.
Yep, it's official. Getting sick. I slept longer last night, so hopefully I'll get better soon. Had a big breakfast again, even bigger than yesterday. Double checked with the front desk, and someone apparently called to say he's also sick, and may or may not show up today. Hopefully that will be a not. Told them about the broken net access, so hopefully that will get fixed so I can post this stuff. At very least, I've started justifying not paying for more than 4 hours worth. Yeah. This room is in that uncomfortable middle price range where you don't get free internet access - in fact, their price sheet lists per-hour, per-day, and weekly rates. Classy. I just hope they aren't paying for their access by the byte - that would make me an expensive guest.
Intarweb fixed. Got my fix of mail and such. Not a whole lot going on though since it's the wee hours, US time. Started downloading Run Lola Run from home. Should take about 13 hours. Off I go!
Headed out to the architecture museum and got distracted by a big open-air market that had opened up on the waterfront and the museum street. Wandered through there for a while, idly checking for cheap USB mice. No dice. Plenty of cordless drills, random hardware, clothing, appliances, CDs and LPs, and other used and new stuff. Went to the museum. Some interesting stuff, but not as great as Mara talked it up to be. A nice enough place, sure, and there was a cafe in the front too, but it didn't compare with some of the others I've been to, on a strict museumness-to-space-dinar ratio.
Stopped by a middle eastern dried fruit shop I'd seen yesterday on the way back to the train station. Picked up some travel snacks. This was the best-stocked dried fruit shop I do believe I've ever seen. Pretty much anything that eats dirt and sunlight and makes sugar was available in dried form. The standard apples, pineapple (pieces and rings), cranberries and grapes. Also coconut, pear, mango, and kiwi. Some nuts and berries as well. And that was just the front row of stuff.
Back to the room to drop off my tripod and rest my feet before dinner. Ended up napping for a bit over an hour - good thing I set an alarm in case that happened. Headed back to the city. Turns out their hotel isn't quite as near the train stop as I'd thought when I saw it yesterday. After exiting the train station, I was headed out perpendicular to the direction I wanted to go, so I took the first promising-looking right turn. Which took me up a winding ramp back up to train level - this isn't looking good, especially when the sidewalk on the side of the road gave out. There's still one on the other side, so I crossed over, looking somewhat warily at the nice open parking lot I could be crossing instead, if I hadn't gotten on what is now looking like a freeway exit ramp. Sure enough, it's a twisting maze of exit and entrance ramps for the big road I'm slowly walking over. Twilight, in a long black coat, walking on a narrow sidewalk while buses are zooming by, is a bit more adventure than I'd bargained for, but I made it across without decorating anyone's fender, and the hotel wasn't far after that. Met up with my aunt and uncle and a friend of theirs from Spokane and had drinks in the hotel bar. Then headed out to wander for a while until dinner - stopped by a big department store to check out the cookware, and then off to dinner, which was farther out of the city than any of us suspected - good thing the cabbie knew where it was. Met up with about 10 more friends of Phil and Mara's and took over a corner of the restaurant. They'd run out of English menus, so we got German ones. They didn't have any in Italian, so the Italians had to order based on clumsy English explanations provided by the waiter and then translated into Italian by Walter. Mostly we stuck to Mara's advice: don't order any organ meats. If the waiter can point to where a cut of meat comes from, it's OK. If he starts saying things like "...below the heart, and then you move past the..." you should stay clear.
Turns out they were all in town for the big convention, the 'ambiente' convention, that made my hotel hunt so entertaining. Apparently it draws almost 100,000 people, which explains why in years past they had to stay as much as 45km outside Frankfurt and take the train in every morning. Now they just book their room for the following year as they check out at the end of the convention. I'm glad Gencon's not that crazy. But the hotels and the convention operators are much better organized - you can look online by room type and see how many are available at each hotel and at what price. It probably evens out for the attendees, even if it does sort of muck up the city for everyone else for a few days. I'm sure Frankfurt loves it. Extrapolating from the Gencon numbers, it probably brings about two hundred million euros to the city.
Got back from dinner about midnight, so there was nobody at the desk to bug about 'net access, which timed out this evening. I'd like to check my email and post this before leaving tomorrow.
Front desk person disclaims all knowledge of the internet situation, and the person who's supposed to be fixing it isn't available because it's Sunday. Bah. I guess I'll decide where to go when I get to the train station.
Upon checkout, they didn't even mention charging me for internet access - neato. Slowed down more than I anticipated by my baggage, I barely made it to the train station on time, but did get into the city. Looked at the departure board - Nuremberg looks interesting. So off I go. Cheap ticket too. Jenni would like Germany - train, S-bahn and U-bahn, and bus tickets are completely automated. You can do some pretty complicated things like booking tickets via somewhere in particular, or planning out some wacky multi-leg, multi-day journey, and these machines actually have all the relevant bits in English like their billing claims, so there's no pressing random colored buttons hoping something works. Actually, no buttons at all: touchscreens.
The train was a few minutes late getting into the station, but everyone hustled aboard and we're on our way. Tickets were cheap, so I went first class, apparently one of two people who had that idea. There's one other person in a different section of the first class train, so I'm taking up 4 seats and not feeling the slightest bit guilty about it since there are 8 more free in here. There are power outlets between the seats up here, so not only can I listen to Science Friday on the train, but I can do it without draining my battery. Joy of joys. Now, here's hoping there's a tourist info place or a hotel reservation board at the train station when I arrive - I don't fancy wandering about hoping I can find a place to stay, but it may come to that.
Courtesy of ample power along the way, I left netstumbler going on the train ride - it found over 200 WAPs, more than 3/4 encrypted. Got into the train station and followed the signs labeled tourist information to a nearby building. Though the tourist info desk was unmanned that late in the day on a Sunday, there was plenty of information available, so I got a map and looked at the hotel information, eventually deciding on a hotel about 2 blocks from the train station. Lay down to listen to music for a while until a reasonable dinner time, and woke up after midnight.
Got about 11 hours of sleep last night, which hopefully will make up for the past few days of not sleeping well, and should help me kick this darn cold.
Random note: The soap I shamelessly stole from the last hotel (and good thing, too - this one just has icky liquid soap) says "Bienvenue" and "Paris" on it. That is not, by itself, strange. It seems all hotel soaps try to associate themselves with Paris, no matter where in the world you're staying. The ingredients list is even in faux-French / English. The soap itself, however? Made in Spain.
Curses! It's not raining, or even snowing, so I guess things could be worse, but this trip's travel curse seems to be running into conventions. There's something called "embedded world" running from today until Thursday, and some other convention covering the weekend, so hotel prices are going up.
The hotel offers laundry service, so I checked out the prices. At $6/shirt, I can walk quite a while looking for a laundromat. Besides, it'd be kind of a waste to dry clean these clothes. The hotel also offers internet access, via a series of Vodafone WAPs. First of all, there's no way I'm paying $30/day for internet access. Second of all, there's no way I'm agreeing to their terms of service terms of service (may not get posted before this entry goes live). Third, even if I did agree to their TOS, and didn't mind their extortionate rates, they won't give me net access because I don't have an SMS-capable cellphone handy. What the hell is wrong with these people? If I had a god damned cellphone, I wouldn't need their lousy wifi, now would I?
Time to go consult my map, which won't have the information I'm looking for, and then go out wandering, with an eye toward coffee shops advertising free wifi (they aren't everywhere like they are in Madison, but they do exist), laundromats, and interesting museums. Ciao.
Ok, no free wifi that I could find. There is, however, an internet terminal thing in the lobby that the management apparently doesn't mind if you sit on for at least half an hour at a time (judging by my time waiting around for some guy to leave). I'll head back down there in a bit, and hopefully he'll be gone so I can molest the machine, searching for the sweet sweet ether cable that I hope is feeding it. Looks like the hotel used to offer at least limited free net access, but since their deal with Vodafone they've turned the equipment off. Alas. While waiting for Mr. Internet, I noticed a stack of Embedded World magazines. Yep, it's a big embedded systems conference, though the articles in the magazine were a bit less interesting than they could have been, since I could read only about every tenth word.
I did find a laundromat though, and it was really cheap. Washed all my clothes this time. In Switzerland I washed as little as I could get away with, but here I got two loads washed and dried for 10 euros. It would have been even less if I had one euro coins rather than just twos, and understood the system a bit better.
No dice on the internet appliance. It is apparently made of some deep dark voodoo whose secret depths I cannot plumb. I eventually conceded defeat, put the cable back, and used it more or less as intended. It's running a locked-down Windows install with some funky custom interface overtop a crufty old IE renderer that visibly screwed up several of the pages I visited.
Went out wandering before dinner, then had some very good Chinese food, then went back to the hotel, watched some curling (when it's in German, I don't feel as bad about not understanding anything that's going on) after deciding that Myth Busters, while amusing in German, isn't actually much fun to watch that way, and fell asleep reading a collection of Bradbury short stories.
Spent over three hours at the combined transportation museum and communications museum today. The transportation museum was really just an ad for Deutche Bahn, albeit an informative and interesting one, tracing the evolution of trains from the early 1800s to 1990 and throwing in a bit of history about the Weimar Republic and Naziism along the way. One whole floor was models of various trains and train apparatus. Special docks and ships so trains could drive right into the bowels of a ship and then back off again at their destination before the advent of containerized shipping. Various special-purpose rolling stock. Machinery for building the trains, mainly steam engine construction and wheel assembly, including various nifty mechanisms to turn the trains entirely upside down. An exhibit of cross-sections of various types of track and wheels.
The communications museum was even niftier than the last one I went to (though apparently run by the same public / private joint venture as the last one, and 3 or 4 more throughout the country). The second room, which has great big intricate electromechanical phone switching gear from the '50s and '60s, is filled with a high-pitched whine that would be inexcusable except that it comes from said switching equipment because it's operational. Each exhibit has four or five phones, and invites you to dial from phone to phone and watch the equipment switch your call. It's really incredible that the phones worked at all with so many moving parts needing to mesh perfectly hundreds of times per call. As with the last such museum, it included info about the mails in addition to telecoms bits. This one had a stamp exhibit, and a collection of hundred-year-old postcards.
The brat vendor I saw last night who I hoped would be in the same place for lunch today was nowhere to be seen. The Greek restaurant a few blocks over was as closed today at lunch as it was yesterday at dinner. I think it may be out of business. Two disappointments in a row.
Mmm, grease. The Domino's pizza I had in Switzerland, while quite tasty, was insufficiently Americanized to satisfy my craving for a greasy pizza. The Pizza Hut pizza I'm in the middle of eating has no such problems. It's actually not as good a pizza, but it's better food to eat in front of the TV while tired, particularly since the restaurant's literally 15 feet from the hotel's front door, in the same building in fact.
The number of the counting is Berlin. And, if I understand the German + gestures of the person sitting across from me, he says "yes, I took your seat. Do you mind sitting in mine? It's just over there, number 62." To which I hopefully conveyed "Not at all. I was just confused and sought assurance that I'm in the right place, despite evidence to the contrary in the form of what I thought was my seat being already taken." And we're on our way. It's raining. Perhaps that curse is not broken after all. Judging by the advertising on a train that I saw pulling into the station while waiting for my train, some of the trains here have wifi on them. Judging by the waning strength of the visible T-mobile APs, this train is not so equipped. Not that I'm interested in T-mobile's paperwork, let alone their fees... Anyway, off I go.
Well, since I'm sitting here on this nice fancy train, with power outlets and everything, I might as well spend my time (or at least the CPU's time) stitching together some panoramas for you folk. I wish I hadn't been dumb and left my mouse at home. I'd forgotten why I don't use this software much. Wanting somewhere north of 400MB of RAM (on a system with no swapping enabled) isn't really compatible with letting Firefox chew through memory at the same time.
The Frankfurt panorama (also in QTVR format - an experiment) turned out pretty well. The ghost people effect is minimal because it was warm enough to wait for a clear foreground and just a small crowd farther away on the bridge. Fully automatic stitching actually worked quite well, I think. One of the benefits of using a tripod, even if it is, technically, the wrong tripod and the wrong camera for panorama work. The QTVR movie preserves a surprising amount of the original detail though if you start zooming, the differences are noticeable.
The Nuremberg plaza image is an interesting one. The stitching software did a good job here too, coping with the fact that the overlap between frames included in many cases people who had moved from frame to frame. That day was colder, and the traffic heavier, so I didn't put as much effort into getting clean overlaps from frame to frame, so there are several ghost people in evidence. I did drop the worst offenders though, and the double image of the woman at her fruit stand to the right was deliberate. I like how that part turned out.
In about an hour when I get to Berlin we'll see how the internet situation turns out - I may even get this stuff posted tonight! Now, if only the rates for those nifty little cell-network data transfer card thingies (GPRS? HSPDA? I guess if I were in the market, I'd have some idea what I'm talking about) weren't so rediculous, I could be online right now, like the guy across from me. I saw a blurb at El Reg about them - they're only about $100, but paying by the byte will get you. I don't know where he got it, but the guy sitting next to me found this little pamphlet about the train we're on. I guess it's a daily train so it's worth their effort. Anyway, it details the restaurant cars and the like, and mentions that there are two cell repeaters on the train, which I found interesting.
Wandered a bit today. Found the shopping district. I think I'll take it easy. Thursdays can be tiring, you know. There's a greek restaurant about 4 doors down from the hotel. Closed. Gutted, in fact.
Rain. Rain. Rain. Three days in a row, rain. If I'd realized exactly how hard it was raining earlier in the day, I would have stayed another day just to avoid moving, but as it was, I just wanted to get out of that hotel. Pretty cheap, but even so, way too much money for a bed with no bounce and a crummy pillow in a boring part of town. When I picked the stop (Berlin has several), I thought "hm. Zoo sounds interesting. Berlin zoo it is." Which was a fine idea, except that it soon became apparent that zoo is short for zoological garden, which I wasn't about to go traipsing around in, in the rain, in February. Not to mention that the map that I acquired tersely informed me that all the museums were a couple miles west, or a couple miles east.
So today I thought I'd escape the crap hotel and wander out toward the western set of museums, which had attracted my attention. Figured I'd get a better hotel there, and all would be well. This was, evidently, foolish in the extreme. First of all, the afore-mentioned rain. Next, the lack of hotels. I finally found a sign proclaming MOTEL. Situated a bit back from the road, pointed to by a sign painted on the back of a delivery truck that's apparently a permanent parking lot fixture. The sign on the building proper says "Motel ** Hotel". Now, I'm not real clear on the difference that first letter makes, but generally I like my businesses to have a clearer idea than that of what business they're in. And since the place I was staying last night rated three stars, I wasn't hopeful at the sight of this establishment's two. So in I go, and the reception doubles as a bar, and the asking price is a third less than the hotel I was fleeing. Shit. But I'm soaked, pissed off that I've been walking for an hour in the rain with nary a pause, and now that I've finally found a hotel, it looks to be clearing up (later: sure enough, cleared up.), and I'm in no mood to argue. I pay the man and go upstairs (no elevator). The room's big, clean, well-stocked with furniture (including an apparently-useless bookcase in one corner. Empty, of course), and comes with a better bathroom. Score! The only downside is that it's cold, but that's because the radiator's off, which I fix just as soon as I get done soaking an entire towel drying my glasses, hair, and coat.
No 'net access, but at this point I don't think I care. I am vaguely annoyed that the lamp here that's clearly intended to be a reading lamp has a measly 15W bulb in it. No, not a fluorescent bulb. A full-sized 15W incandescent bulb. You can stare at it and not screw up your night vision. I didn't even know they made such things. Anywho, I'm hoping my shoes will dry, at least as far as the damp stage, before it's time to head out in search of dinner. And the rain had better hold off too. Ciao.
Headed out to a nearby castle / museum / gardens thingy, intending to see the archaeological museum across the street as well, but spent all day at the castle instead. Got a few exterior pix, but no photos inside. That place was huge. The widest photo I got of the outside covers less than a third of it. It's not entirely clear what overall fraction of the building and contents is original - it was damaged by the usual hazards of time: cannon, fire, bombs. Still, pretty impressive. I paced off one of the rooms at about 20' by 75'. There were the usual opulent bedchambers, offices, entertaining rooms, feast halls, etc. Also a bath chamber with the bath the size of a small swimming pool. Etc. etc.
Paid the hotel bill in cash, which is great in theory (might as well sign my traveler's checks here...) but left me temporarily cashless, and unable to find a change place this far from the city center. So I asked the desk clerk, and he said he could use dollars since he's taking a trip next week, so we worked something out. I also asked about a laundromat, but he couldn't help much with anything nearby, since he doesn't live that near the hotel. He did give me what I understood to be a stored-value card for a small chain of laundromats and googled the address of the most-nearby one, which would require a bus trip to downtown, but I suppose that's OK. He also suggested I talk to the "old man" (he's oldER, but not exactly old) who has the other desk shift, since he lives nearby.
Backing up a second, there's a computer in the lobby. An old full tower machine. With a real ether cord (real short too, but that's OK) feeding it. So I swiped that and sat online for a while. I don't know exactly how long, but it was enough that he came by to ask if I planned to stay there all night. I finished uploading some photos and got offline. Meanwhile, we chatted a bit. He seemed mildly surprised that there's no mandatory military service in the US, a topic brought up by my mentioning that I'd recently graduated from university. Apparently he's originally from Turkey, and while my German and his English didn't permit nailing the facts down with typical surety, it sounded like he stayed in school and put off the military service until he moved to Germany.
Got up and talked to the older desk guy, whose English is much better than the younger guy's. After asking questions that I initially considered strangely irrelevant (how much laundry? Colors and whites?), he offered to run them through the hotel's machines. I asked what he'd charge for that, and he said free. That being the most correct of all possible prices, I took him up on the offer. So not only do I get free clean clothes, but I don't have to spend time sitting at a laundromat, trying to decipher their equipment directions (which tend to be German only, and with very poor or nonexistent pictographs). Score.
Also, I checked out train fare to Milan. Almost two hundred euros, and a 12-16 hour trip. While I'm sure going through the Alps by train would be pretty, I'm not sure that it can favorably compare to a plane ride that's a quarter as long and half the price. Accordingly I bought a ticket on some outfit called Easyjet, whose ads I saw somewhere (see? advertising really works, even on me!). Cheaper fare on Tuesday than on Monday, so I'm spending my savings on another night here, meaning tomorrow I can also head east and see the sights. Most museums will probably be closed, but at least I can see the outsides of their pretty buildings. And there's something I wanted to see near one of the train stops out there. I saw it on the way in, but can't for the life of me remember what it was, so hopefully I'll see it again.
Headed for the far side of town to the museums there, but got distracted by things along the way, and never made it to the far end of the bus route. There's a bus (actually two) that run a sort of tourist route. They're not actually tour busses, in that they're part of the regular municipal bus system, but the route pretty much snakes from the downtown train station through the various major attractions. Turns out the zoo really is a zoo (and a pretty big and well-known one too, with over 15,000 animals and such), even if they call it a garden to confuse the tourists. Went to the east-side Egyptian museum, where I got a few photos. Headed into some little gallery doing what they called a Picasso homage or some such. I like Picasso, so in I went. The intro text tried to explain how nearly 10,000 pages (yes, 8.5 x 11 or maybe A4 pages) filled with repeating handwritten numbers and letters, framed in batches of 36 and stacked floor-to-ceiling, somehow related to Picasso and the conception of time. Not the best $5 I ever spent, though I did buy a cool postcard at the museum shop.
Neglected to bring a spare camera battery, and so ran out of power. It happened at almost 3pm, so I headed back west for lunch, a recharge, and to rest my feet. By the time I got back and got the battery in a happy condition again, it was moving toward museum closing time (which seems to vary wildly from museum to museum, but even so I decided to stay here). So instead, I'm typing up these notes and will head downstairs to putz about online some more.
I never actually linked to the QTVR version of the Frankfurt panorama. I'm a bad person. Here it is: Frankfurt panorama. It weighs in at 2.6MB, so dialup users beware.
Last real day here in Berlin. Checked out the Brandenberg Gate, wandered about the near east side a bit. Stood in line to head up to the high dome of one of the buildings there, but abandoned the idea after the line moved less than two steps up the outside stair in 5 minutes. Did some shopping. Bought three novels in two books, and a couple CDs which had better be good because I'll be toting them around for six weeks before I get to listen to them.
Watched the news and listened to some more of my audio books before dinner at a nearby Italian hole in the wall. $6 for pasta and wine and sitting next to a ladies' night out table. Put me in a good mood, so I didn't mind walking home in the rain. It's only 9:30 but I'm yawny - that's probably the wine too. If there's nobody using the computer downstairs, I'll go post this and grab another batch of webpages to read, perhaps on the plane tomorrow.
I think it made CNN, so maybe some of you know about the big carnaval going on in Venice, but I first heard of it from the desk guy who headed down there yesterday. I think they said it's ten days long, so there should be time to see Milan and then head down there myself. Yay: goals!
I spent longer packing than I thought, but a quicker-than-expected breakfast evened things out, and I got to the train station roughly on schedule. The train took a bit longer to arrive than I'd hoped for, and took a lot longer to get to the airport than I'd budgeted for. I pretty much used up the entire half hour I added in for just such unexpected delays before I even got to the airport. Then there was the small matter of the airline telling me to head for terminal 2 in an airport whose terminals are demarcated by letters. Turns out two is longhand for B (I guess it could be worse: 2 could mean C), so I headed for that terminal, checked in, and ditched my baggage.
Then stood in an interminable line for security. Short, but extremely slow. Two screening lanes, and they got maybe three people a minute through there between them. In an above-average minute. No signs that I saw asking for laptops to be out (though there may have been annoucements in German, I suppose), and it didn't even occur to me that this would be a problem because the only place it's been a problem so far is the USA, so through I went. The reason the lines were so slow is because they hold them up for people to clear out of the far side where they're grabbing their bags and putting clothes back on. I got to the far side, got my wallet and keys, put on my belt and coat, all somewhat slowly because there are screens showing baggage scans at the end of the queue, which is interesting. Then someone asked if my backpack was mine. Yes. Could you please take your laptop out and put it in the bin? Okay. Now close your bag please; we'll re-scan them. Okay. So they rescan my laptop and bag separately (still holding up the line because I'm there waiting), and ask about "the long tool" and scissors. I'm a bit confused, but am looking at the monitor that's showing the scan of my bag. Some things are identifiable; some are identifiable only because I know what's packed where. The man points at the screen. Oh. I take out my spork. And a little pair of nose hair scissors, which look on the screen like vicious long-bladed attack scissors because they're lined up just right with the metal handle of my razor. I demonstrate their innocuousness and then re-pack, still holding up the line. It's a darn good thing the security checkpoint is only screening people for two or three gates, or nobody would get to their plane on time.
I spent most of the flight reading, but happened to glance over when we were flying over the Alps, and it was clear enough to see them. Pretty. Would have taken a picture, window plastic and all, except I was on an aisle seat...
The Malpensa airport is not actually in Milan. It's almost an hour away by bus. Or rather, 20-30 minutes away, but downtown is almost an hour away. The bus drops me off at the train station, where I locate the tourist office. This takes a while, because there are no signs that say "tourist office". There's a red neon T, but it's not clear what it means, especially since it's just part of a big sign for another business. The office isn't through the doorway under the T; it's through the doorway next door, which has its own set of signs, none of which mention the tourist office. So you go through the next-door door, through the middle of a jewelry store, and then the tourist office is on the left. Classy.
In any event, I got a map and started checking hotels. The first three I tried were full (?!?) but I found a helpful desk person who called around for me and found a place a few blocks away. Hopefully the rain will stop by dinner time, which I suppose could be anywhere from now until 10pm. I'll have to check on that.
That was pretty darned good. The tiramisu of course, but also the fish, and I'm not usually a big fish man. Also pretty darned expensive, but there's a trick to it: after almost half a bottle of wine, the former seems more important than the latter. I do believe I'm past the point you could even charitably call tipsy, and am into "slightly drunk" territory. Hurray.
I should probably go back and edit the timestamps on my blog entries so they match the day about which they're speaking. That way you could use the built-in calendar thingy in the right frame to get some sort of meaningful information. Maybe later.
Well well well, the GPS satellites over Germany didn't all simultaneously die after all. I don't know what was wrong with the GPS receiver, but it kept going through its satellite acquisition cycle without finding anything, and I couldn't find any way to reset it or any misconfigurations in the various menus. But I have been around computers long enough to know that if you keep trying something that should work, eventually you'll have either success or a fire, so every few days I give it another try. Today when I powered it on, I got a POST / diagnostics screen I'd never seen before. LCD test, button test indicators, software and operational parameters, etc. With no apparent way to exit the screen, I powered down and powered back up again in a relative clearing. This time the satellite acquisition algorithm actually found things, and the machine seems to be working again, so now I have a helpful alternative / addition to maps. The Milan map is actually pretty good and covers quite a wide area, almost 100 square kilometers.
While walking around, I saw two people who'd stopped on their respective dog walks to chat. One had a dog that looked like a small lab; the other had a dog barely bigger than Gracie. The big dog was growling at the little dog, lunging against its leash and snapping, close enough to touch the little one's fur, but not to actually bite it. With almost feline disdain, the little dog stood there, barely out of reach, looking at the big dog.
Let me sum up today with a short one-act alegorical play.
Scene: A bare, gray concrete skate park. Near the center, a LEPER sits, in begging posture.
[Enter a LADY in jeweled finery]
LEPER: M'lady, could you spare a poor man a hotel room?
LADY: Fuck off. (she kicks the LEPER)
Let me add a bit of detail to yesterday's post. Time spent searching for a hotel: 6.5 hours. Distance walked, carrying a backpack and dragging luggage in a city that doesn't really believe in curb cuts: 12 miles. Blisters formed: 1. Most time spent standing in a line at a hotel desk waiting for 3 people in front of me to be served, only to be told the hotel's booked: 40 minutes.
At least I found out why the hotels are all booked - there's some big fashion convention going on that paused yesterday and resumes Monday, so maybe I'll stay here until then and head for Venice Monday. Today, unfortunately, is looking like it'll be an off day, spent moping about indoors recovering from yesterday and avoiding the rain. And indeed it has kept raining all day, so I watched some TV, read some more, took the shower I avoided this morning on account of the nonfunctional heat and down-the-hall bathroom in the crummy little hotel I stayed at last night. There's even a water softener buried somewhere in here. That's a treat; I've been showering in hard water for quite a while. Hopefully the rain will stop in the next hour or so so I can wander a bit in search of a grocery store and restaurant.
Reading; Kraftwerk in the background. There's noise outside, and I slowly clue into the fact that it's someone trying my door. Not just once, checking to see if it's open. This person's persistent, and it sounds like there's a key involved. I go to the door, and there's a guy who's got a key and shows me the little wrapper with a room number on it - looks like 125 (my room) to me. Maybe it's a 7? A 4? In any event, it shouldn't be a 1, so the guy ambles off to try other floors.
(The Vodafone WAP sucks. Boy does it suck. I'll rant later. I honestly tried to give them money, and failed repeatedly. Stumbled upon an open net-connected wap down the hallway, and am now sitting on the floor, blocking the hall. Go me.) Inside because it's been raining, hard, for over 4 hours. What the hell?
I got into the hotel here after lunchtime yesterday, and skipped dinner because I really didn't feel like walking around with a sore foot in the rain. So this morning I had a big breakfast, or as big as is practical within the Italian definition of breakfast. Germany's really the place for big breakfasts since they believe in sausage and eggs and the like but croissants and OJ, in sufficient quantities, serve much the same purpose. It's only sprinkling now rather than outright raining, so I think I'll go scope out the neighborhood.
Got some money changed. Remind me never to do that here again. The change places have big boards of numbers and things. I'm looking for 2-3 numbers. Number one: dollar-to-euro exchange rate. Number two (optional): traveler's check dollar-to-euro rate, which is sometimes different. Number three: commission / service fee / whatever they call it. I scan the board. I find number one, a reasonable rate. I find no number two. I find a number three - about $5. I can deal with that. I give the guy my passport and traveler's checks. He does his paperwork for a while, and gets back to me with a number that's almost 40 euros lower than I expected. I shake it off, thinking I'd just mis-remembered some past transaction, and head off. Later, I realize what happened. I got charged an 18% fee on top of what was described as a fixed service fee of EUR3.90. Pissed off, I go back to the change booth and hunt for where exactly it says that. Unfortunately, I find it. At the bottom of the sign is something called a maximum currency buy fee, or some such phrase. Crap! In Spain I didn't pay any fees; in Germany and Switzerland I paid service fees sometimes, a few euros. But here they want an extortionate percentage on top of that? What the hell? The only upside to this little drama is that everywhere else I looked after that had the same sort of setup, so maybe it's something the Italian government allows that the others don't. Now I know, I guess. One more thing to watch out for.
Ran across a grocery store on the way back to the hotel, so I ducked in to buy foodstuffs. Not a great selection of travel foods, but I did get lunch bits. Had a time ordering salame and bread from a deli counter guy who doesn't speak a word of English, but was friendly and willing to play the no-common-language game. It didn't turn out too badly - of his simple Italian, I recognized enough words, guessed others based on similarity to Spanish, and filled in the gaps with gestures and intonation; I likewise managed to make myself understood with a few words in Italian and some pointing. The spoken numbers aren't quite the same as in Spanish, but g or gm is pretty clearly "gram" so I wrote out how much salame I wanted, and everything worked out well. There's a vending machine downstairs in the hotel that sells cans of soda for EUR2.50. I laughed when I saw it - that's rather high even by European standards. I bring this up because I got 1.5L (about 5x as much) of Sprite for less than half that at the grocery store. Two lunches worth of food, or a lunch and dinner depending on the rain situation this evening, for about $10, and I got a bag of cookies to go with. So there! Makes up for my irritation at the foreign exchange place a bit.
Yikes - I must really have overdone it on Thursday. I only walked a few miles yesterday and 3.5 miles today and I'm still perceptibly sore. Anyway, off to watch TV, make and consume lunch, and then maybe I'll sit in the hallway and post some pictures. I haven't taken any recently but I think I still have a day or two worth of shots that I haven't put up yet. Yep, a bunch of photos from Berlin (30 new ones, in fact. Start partway down page 2). If this weather keeps up, there won't be any at all from Milan. Tomorrow's forecast partly cloudy, but I'm guessing that means rain. If not, I've GPS marked a really pretty piazza and a few other places to visit.
Found a nearby laundromat. Closed, what with it being sunday. The weather's nice though, so off I went to catch up on attractions I'd marked earler. Took some photos - they start on page 4 of the gallery. Still not back to 100% in the walking department, but got a decent hike in anyway.
Got back to my room and realized I had quite a wad of coinage in my pocket. Of six 2-euro coins, I have zero duplicates. Yay for interesting currency. Also, that wad of coinage is actually worth something - over $25. Unlike, to pick an example at random, a similar mass or volume of US coinage. Bah.
Anyway, off I go to check out the local restaurant crop. There's what looks like a good Indian restaurant a few blocks away...
(later Sunday) Turns out the restaurant was hosting a private party or some such, so I had Chinese instead, that being the next restaurant I saw while wandering the neighborhood. I think we're all aware, at least intellectually, that Chinese food and restaurants in Madison have been Americanized. Similar changes happen in Italy. Again, intellectually, this isn't at all surprising, but I still get wierded out by Chinese restaurants serving pizza.
I got up early, hoping to get laundry going at the conveniently-nearby laundromat, return for breakfast at the hotel, move my laundry to the dryers, take it all back to the hotel, pack up, and squeeze a shower in there somewhere, all in time for noon checkout. Bzzzzt. They lose. Sorry, but I refuse to pay per sock for laundry that's done per load. Especially when we're talking $3+ per shirt. I will, grudgingly, pay the rough equivalent of the per-article price if it's quoted per load (reminded of my EUR20 laundry experience in Spain), but I have a moral objection to paying someone per article to throw my laundry into a machine for me. On the plus side, that meant I could lounge about this morning. On the minus side, it means I'll get into Venice with a suitcase full of dirty laundry right as businesses are closing.
The train's just going past some sort of recycling center. Yay for glittery piles of crushed glass. The huge pile actually wasn't that interesting, but the smaller pile of sorted green glass was pretty.
Venice station, bought a map for EUR2.50, which I thought a bit steep since most tourist offices give maps away, and the most I'd previously paid for one was 50 cents, but this is quite a map, and comes with a companion attractions guide, all in a vinyl case. I could do without the plastic, but the map is good. Around the corner, I was about to head into the hotel reservations booth when a man asked if I were interested in a hotel. I made a noncommital but vaguely assenting noise, and he produced some options. Wary of some sort of scam but willing to spend some time on the conversation since the hotel booth was quite busy, I indicated that one of his options sounded good. "Follow me", he said, and darted toward the exit. A bit unsure of myself ("Is he going to take me to a hotel and then ask some rediculous commission?"), I followed on the theory that at worst I'd end up going out and wandering a bit anyway. We chatted a bit on the brief walk there. He works for a couple hotels and they figure the extra business over what the hotel booth would send their way justifies his employment. Fair enough. The room's small but suitable, and nice and warm.
I headed out to catch the last dim glow of dusk, as well as dinner. Got my bearings just outside the hotel on one of the bridges that liberally dot the cityscape. There were 8 strong GPS signals coming in for pinpoint precision, the most I'd ever seen before (the previous record was 7, one fairly weak). Venice is a very bad place to go with money. I saw hundreds, if not thousands of masks in my brief foray, ranging in price from the roughly $10-50 masks found in semipermanent vendor stalls to the $100-500 masks that bring in enough revenue to finance a real storefront. Also various touristy baubles, beautiful glasswork, etc. And this all within about 300m of the hotel.
Had overcooked tuna with a tasty salad for dinner, and then scurried back to the warm hotel room because although it's probably no colder here than in Milan (Venice is 250km due east of Milan), there's not much to block the wind. I'm hoping it'll be sunny tomorrow so I can wander around a bit more comfortably.
Shit! Looks like way back in Berlin I got something on the camera lens. It looks suspiciously like a fingerprint. And I just noticed. Looking at the lens, I can't even see it, but it started showing up after the first few pictures in the last Berlin batch, only I didn't see it when looking through the photos then, nor when I was looking through the Milan photos. Most of them were busy enough that it's hard to tell, but it does show up in a few. And it shows up in most of the ones from today. At first I thought it was a wierd puff of cloud because it moved around in the first couple photos which happened to be of the same thing, but it turns out that's due to differing zoom levels. Great. Now I have over 100 shots branded with "I 'R' AN AMATEUR" which, however accurate, is damned annoying. Sigh. It could be worse I guess - the smudge is pretty near the edge of the frame...
Today's the last day of Carnevale so there are a ton of people milling about, about half with some sort of costume / mask / bag of confetti. Lots of street musicians, singers, folks just banging away at a cafe. This afternoon I wandered past a quartet doing Don McLean's _American Pie_, which loses something with the Italian accent. It's a good thing I don't have a big box and crinkled newspaper or I'd be forced to buy a bunch of half-off masks for you all and ship them home.
I didn't do much of anything today, and it was everything I'd hoped it would be. I slept late, grabbed a bite to eat from a local bakery and spent some time sitting in the sun reading, even though it's not really warm enough for that. I wandered around a bit and had lunch before coming back to the hotel to finish my book and stash it in the room where some future guest will find it. I decided I couldn't stand eating by myself in a restaurant again, and besides I wanted some non-Kleenex-brand facial tissues (so there), so I hit up a nearby grocery store. This has two main benefits. First of all, I can listen to audiobooks while I eat because I'm not buffetted by a dozen conversations and a commercial kitchen. Second of all, I can get fixings for an enormous sandwich followed by half a bag of cookies and a truly obscene quantity of Sprite, not to mention a bag of overpriced pastachios, for half what it'd cost to eat out. My virtuous thriftiness cancels out my gluttonous meal.
I went to my first real museum in Venice, a combined Asian and modern art museum. It seemed to be undergoing some sort of major renovation when I was there, as there were two big staircases that went places the public's not supposed to go. One was blocked off; the other wasn't, technically. So up I went, and there were two whole floors closed off, one by a pair of doorways and locked doors, the other bricked up like a Poe story. No pictures allowed, of course.
I really wanted to head down to Sicily, but looking at the departure board, there were no trains to any Sicilian cities that I recognized (Palermo or Messina), so I opted to go to Rome instead. It sucks, but as a second choice, I guess Rome will do. Finally I'll be south of Madison. No first class tickets available. Hm. Usually I compare the prices of first class and second class, and decide the extra money's worth it to have three seats across the car rather than 4, but I suppose now I'll have a chance to see how much of an issue that really is. The car got into the station quite early, so I've been sitting on the train now for almost 20 minutes, and we're just heading out. The car's nearly empty, so there won't be a real comparison after all - having two seats to myself is sure to cloud my judgement. Also, there's power in the car so I can cheerfully sit back and listen to music. My music, not whatever's coming out of the arm rests, which will probably crackle and pop from the nasty electrical environment created by high-voltage sparks on the overhead pickups. Even my headphones are picking up all the EMF.
I was playing with the mapping software that came with the GPS receiver a few days ago. Spain was so much warmer than Wisconsin that I'd sort of gotten it into my head that Europe was more southerly than it really is. Also, Spain's farther south of the rest of Europe than I'd really realized. In any event, I was playing with the rulers, and the software said that Milan is 4600mi from Madison, at a bearing of 50 degrees (NE), despite Milan being only 2 degrees farther north than Madison. By my reckoning, that puts me at a bearing of rather closer to 90 degrees (due E). I'm curious to discover how the software calculates these things.
Aaah, here we go. The other Venice train station is a lot more popular, and the car's filling up. Drat. I was getting used to maybe having two seats. It looks like I've lucked out on this station, but I'm afraid it can't last. We'll see though. A pair of soldiers just came by, made annoyed noises and pointed to my backpack and coat in the adjacent seat. I thought one of them had that seat, so I started packing it all up, but they wandered off. Wonder what that was all about. [later] Turns out he did have that seat; he just wasn't very fond of it, preferring to spend his time tying up a lavatory, smoking. Speaking of the lavatories, they're of the airplane variety, down to the scary vacuum toilets, with their only concession to not being seven miles high being a slightly larger footprint. The toilet has a sign behind it that says not to put foreign items in the toilet. It says this in several languages, as well as with pictograms. The pictogram apparently believes that one of the things you may want to flush is a book. Either that or a cereal box, but it looked more like a book to me.
At one of the intermediate stations, the pre-departure messages were repeated in English. Probably that means there's a big international convention going on there, wherever it was. The same was true in Germany - the Frankfurt Messe stop had its message in German and English too. Usually I don't pay much attention to the messages, but between songs I heard part of the message: "All non-passengers are invited to leave the train... doors close automatically."
Hello Rome! There didn't seem to be a tourism office (I'm sure it's there somewhere - the train station is quite large), so I marked the station and headed out, hoping to find a quieter, smaller, cheaper hotel a few blocks from the station. So far it's quiet. I'm on the fourth floor so I'd guess it's not actually that small, and wasn't cheap either. Hmph. I'm promised a good breakfast though, and given how full the hotel was (mine's the last room available) I wasn't terribly inclined to go out searching for alternatives, though I'll certainly do that tomorrow on my wander.
We'll see about the breakfast tomorrow morning (only until 9:30 - eep, I'll have to get up early!), but initial signs are promising. While scouring the hotel for useful WAPs, I found the dining room, which isn't even remotely closed, let alone locked, so I walked in and checked the place out. Like I say, tomorrow will be the big test, but the presence of little glass jars of jams and large chafing dishes bodes well. I could use a breakfast more in the German mold than the Italian one. I could also use an open WAP, or a certain someone back home (she knows who she is) will start to freak out. There's a fancy-pants TV here with internet access and whatnot, encouragingly provided by an ethernet cable plugged into the back but as I suspected, plugging it into my laptop instead wasn't so much useful. Oh well.
Breakfast was...OK. The warming dishes held, you guessed it, pastries. Pretty good ones, I must admit, but I'd sort of gotten my hopes up. Ah well.
Weather's awesome. I headed a lousy 150mi south and it's noticeably warmer, to the point that I can get by with a thick-ish shirt. It's probably about like this in San Francisco, if you add hills. Hm, the internet would sort that out, and now I'm curious.
NERD RANT. Ignore if this doesn't amuse you. So I headed out and picked an internet point, pretty much at random since the prices are the same (and much more reasonable than in Venice). Chassis on a shelf; LCDs on the desk; keyboards below. Not much wrong with that. Of course, the keyboards are in qwerty, and the Italian layout has the punctuation all wierd, but that's what the letters are printed on the keys for. So I mumbled out my message and read PA and /. for the rest of my 15 minutes. Of course, I first scoped out the machines. They've got skype, divx, and ffdshow on them. That's pretty hardcore. But the closest thing they have to a web browser installed is IE6. Bleh. It breaks the rendering of the main TN page, but not the blogs for some reason. I didn't investigate much further than that. I did notice however that IE's beastly slow. I can watch the pages redraw and scroll, and alt-tabbing from page to page after remembering that IE doesn't do tabs takes a while. What the hell? So I check the machine specs. It's a 2.66Ghz P4 with 512MB of RAM, some of which is going to shared video. Ok, not the fastest machine in existence, but these aren't exactly webpages from hell I'm askng it to render, and in the scheme of things that's a fairly beefy machine, integrated video aside. The early P4s sure were crap, but 2.6gig puts this one in the mid range where they got the kinks and the RDRAM worked out of them. The task manager says the machine's not even bogged down with spyware or anything. Hey Michael? You used to use IE, didn't you? Is it really that nasty and slow? When Firefox on a 600Mhz P-M is beating it hands down in responsiveness, I tend to think something's wrong. Grrrrr. Shortly I'll find out if I can just steal their ether cable - that would make me a lot happier, and not just because I don't trust public terminals. Grrrr again.
Know what's fun to eat without appropriate tools? Coconut. Yeah, minor damage to my Gerber opening that sucker up, but I still say I did a darn good job of it, considering. The milk's bitter, but the flesh is good. Several places were selling coconut slices in Venice but I decided against paying a euro for a little slice of coconut that's spent hours having hose water dripping over it, and none of the stalls had whole coconuts I could buy. So when I saw one here in a grocery store in Rome, I bought it. At Venice by-the-slice prices, I've probably eaten over $10 worth, am conspicuously less than halfway through the coconut, and paid about $3 for it. rawk. Who sells coconuts by the kilo? They're like grapefruit, sold by count, darnit! It didn't even occur to me that I'd have to weigh the thing and print out a price label for it. Yeesh. Walking home with my very-late-lunch fixings (brie!), I passed a little hole in the wall selling pizza by weight, so I guess I shouldn't be too surprised.
Saved myself $20 comparison shopping for a foreign exchange place this afternoon, in the process getting the record for best effective exchange rate. Couldn't find a good bookstore though. One academic bookstore, one regular bookstore that didn't happen to have anything I was interested in, one car-themed bookstore. Car-themed bookstore, you ask? Yes, and a pretty decent-sized one too, amazingly enough, and it even had customers (yes, plural) inside. I'm hoping there's an outdoor market tomorrow since I'm less than an hour away from finishing my last book, and they're good places to get English-language paperbacks.
I want to go to Sicily. If I remember correctly there's a train that'll take me there but it's over 500mi and 12 hours. Only 280mi by plane, including the trips from the city to the airports on both ends, probably under 3 hours. Tomorrow it's forecast to be raining but hopefully in the morning there will be a more accurate forecast telling me what part of the day I should spend out hunting for books and what part I should spend indoors looking for cheap plane fare online.
Can you eat too much coconut? And how much is too much? What's the LD50 on coconut? I'd say I'm still under half and I ate almost a whole coconut one day in Belize, so I'd guess I'm safe. Probably works the same as alcohol: if you go slow enough, it stops being fun before it starts being stupid.
Ok, I keep unposted notes in a file here until I get internet access to post them. I also keep random notes-on-things-to-note. Let's clear that queue out a bit. First off, I actually posted the damn Vodafone TOS that I promised ages ago, and 6 people tried to look at. Check out section 6: Customer's Duties. It starts out rediculous, takes a brief trip to does-not-parse-in-English land and ends up in "using only the current standards of the TCP/IP protocol family" hell. Clearly written by a lawyer with just enough grasp of English and the technical situation to get himself into trouble. Second, I heard some commentary on CNN a while back concerning the fact that a lot of places in the EU are imposing varying smoking bans. They noted in the commentary that the Germans are hesitant to implement anti-smoking legislation because the Nazis were anti-smoking so it's culturally unpopular. Thought that was interesting. Third, also Germany-related, I went out shopping (really scoping out the competition) with my aunt and uncle when we were killing time before dinner. We got there just before closing time. The store we were in had checkout counters scattered throughout the store, and some of them had lines. At closing time, the person whose transaction was in progress got to finish up; everyone else had to leave their merchandise and come back later. Crazy. Last, I got an email from Amazon a few weeks ago. "As someone who has purchased early adopter products or travel related items, you might be interested in recent price drops on Canon's popular digital SLR, the Canon EOS 20D." I think it's more likely that the truth of the matter is "as someone who recently purchased a tripod..." Or, more cynically, "as someone who may not be aware that the 20D's being replaced at this year's PMA..."
Ok, that's it for my book, so I'm going to make a sammich and watch TV. Either BBC or Italian-dubbed _Search for Spock_. Catch you crazy cats later.
(Separated out since I wrote a lot on Sunday, I guess.)
Today's rant starts with a simple question: What is the proper way for maids to turn the lights off in a hotel room after they're done cleaning? "Why, that's simple," you may say, "There are light switches." While this sounds simple in theory, in practice it's a bit more complicated than that. Just to the right of the door there are 2 switches. One controls the light directly above the door; the other controls the light in the main room. In the main room there's a lamp, but its switch is midway down the power cord which puts it about a foot off the ground. In the bathroom, there is a main bathroom light, an above-the-sink light, and a left-of-sink light. On three separate switches. In two differet panels, on two different walls. The astute will note that's 6 light switches in my room. The maids enter the room, turning on light switches as necessary to see things. Leaving the room, they hit the breakers just inside the doorway. Problem one: I come into the room and the light switches don't work anymore. Problem two: I hit the breakers and ALL the lights come on, except the one I wanted on, whose switch is now in the off position. Problem three: my laptop, which was on when I left, is now off, with a dead battery, because the outlet I plugged it into mysteriously stopped working some hours previously.
I like minibars. Why? Oh, for the $4 cans of Coke and $3 candy bars. No, actually I have no respect for the business model. Hope I'm too dumb to plan ahead, too lazy to go outside, and too desperate to mind the prices. Of course, the effect of this is that people have to be really dumb, lazy, and desperate to cause any churn, thus the ancient Coke. Meanwhile, the can has to be refrigerated for 6 months, so the eventual purchase price has to cover buying the can, paying someone to stock the minibar, and paying its share of the refrigerator's purchase and operating costs. No, I like that this rediculous business plan puts a refrigerator in my room, which can store things like salame and brie (President brie, no less, but not herbed), and I don't feel the least bit bad emptying the thing out to make room for stuff I actually care about, particularly since everything in there has been run through months of nasty warm/cold cycles already, thanks to the maids' expedient use of circuit breakers in lieu of light switches.
The BBC's doing Oscar coverage. For all I know, they'll televise the whole damn thing, but I plan to be long asleep by then. In any event, the pre-show news blurbs are amusing, especially the BBC correspondent's explanation of Jon Stewart. BBC's crawl line looks like shit. I wonder why. It's usually clearer than that, but it's obviously tacked on after the decision is made as to what to show - I just watched a thing on golf where the entire shot from tee to hole occurred under the crawl, and there was room to move the video up without losing anything important on the top. Things like that surprise me. It's not exactly a new phenomenon, either the crawl or the problems it causes. It stars getting funny like a car crash when you've got a video source that already has a crawl and/or text labels at the bottom that's then fed into a news program that splashes its own distractions on top of it.
I'm in Naples. Naples doesn't look very prosperous. It's big enough to have some fancy hotels, and the train / bus station is pretty big, but I saw what looked like several half-completed and abandoned building, completed but abandoned buildings, and general disarray in the suburbs as the train inched into town. The downtown has a selection of skyscrapers which I haven't checked out yet and which may be in a nice part of town, but here by the train station doesn't qualify.
Also, Naples is cold. It's farther south than Rome, and it's also on the Mediterranean, but it's chilly again. I guess a warm spell happened to correspond to my being in Rome and it's over now. The cold front caused a bunch of rain (the streets were puddly and sopping when I got here) that the train must have just missed since I didn't see any rain along the way, and it had stopped by the time I got to the station. In fact, it had stopped long enough ago that the clouds had broken up though the sky still had the just-rained cast to it.
I tried staying in a cheaper hotel here since I wasn't getting my money's worth at a more expensive hotel in Rome, but the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction and I'll be moving up again in the morning. Let's just say that the rooms aren't heated if nobody's paying for them, and I've had the heat on high for the past six hours and it's just now gotten nice in here. I snuck a look at a map posted in the train station, and there are museums and other such things here so I may stay a few days rather than use this as a stopover point on may way elsewhere. If I can get to Palermo without too much trouble, there are flights out of there that will take me other good places, though maybe not to Greece. I'd have to check that again.
No, and no. Can't get to Palermo from here (not sure why not, but it's right out). And no, the skyscrapey area of town isn't magically more prosperous than near the train station. Also, drivers don't make their decisions based on street signs or traffic laws but rather where their car will fit and how many people they'll have to run over to get there. As a result, there are horns honking all the time. Also objectionabl was the heavy machinery (sounded like road construction) operating at 1am last night outside the hotel. I've since switched hotels, but shan't be staying long. I think I might just go back to Milan and then to France. Hopefully I can get a train directly from here to Milan. The train I took from Rome was a diesel train, even though it looked like the tracks were equipped for electric trains, and I'd like to take an electric train back since it'll keep my laptop happy so I can listen to music for the many hour ride.
After lunch I got back to the new hotel and the front desk person was gone, probably to eat his own lunch, leaving only a maid to keep an eye on things. She doesn't speak a word of English. This would have been OK since we managed to communicate that I've got a room there and would like the key, but I screwed things up when pointing out what room it was. I thought the room numbers were under the boxes with keys, when they are in fact above them, so she thought I was asking for a key to room 146 or something (which is probably torn up and unusable because they're in the middle of renovation), rather than the room I've actually got. Fortunately, she called someone who speaks English and I told him what's going on, and he told here, and I have the key now.
The guy at the hotel mentioned that the price he quoted included breakfast, so I headed downstairs this morning, curious what exactly that entailed since the first floor was entirely gutted and the reception area had no doors that might lead to a dining room. The guy gave me a xeroxed breakfast token thing and said to go around the corner. This actually, it turned out, meant 7 doors away where I got mediocre coffee and a surprisingly good croissant.
Egad, I understood every word of that announcement. "Train 9440 direct to Milano Centrale will be making its departure in just a few minutes..."
So I went to the train station, checked the departure board, and noticed a train to Milan at 11:30, in exactly half an hour. That's perfect timing. I started looking for ticket machines. Plenty of banks of phones, but no machines. Finally I saw an office that said train tickets, so I headed in there and stood in line for 14 minutes for the person in front of me to give up and leave. I got the impression that the delay wasn't entirely the ticket agent's fault, but it was still increasingly aggravating. When it was finally my turn, she explained that there was something wrong with the computer's connection and that I should try "over there". I thought back to the two not-entirely-satisfactory hotels I spent he past two days at, which both claimed problems with their credit card processing, citing connection problems. Initially I'd assumed it was a ploy not to have to pay 3% to the credit card companies, but it sounds like maybe they are having problems. Anyway, craning my neck, I saw a far-off set of doors labeled tickets, so I went in there and grabbed a machine. This is one of the touch-screen ones, which are way nicer because you can use an on-screen keyboard to type in your destination, which is way faster. The machine says ticket sales are "not available at this time". Shit. Without much hope, I turn to the machine next to it, which actually seems to work, so I quick snag the ticket I want, mindful of the fact that there's not much time to find the platform and walk all the way down to my car. I remember that you have to validate your ticket before getting on the train, though I've never figured out what exactly it's for, so I stick it in the validation printer slot. Nothing. Repeat. Nothing. Third time's the charm. Nothing. I try the machine next to it, which had refused to sell me the ticket. Nothing. I try the machine next to that. Finally, it works. I trot out to the platforms, find my train which is conveniently right there at platform 16, and run all the way down to the second-to-last car where my seat is. And it turns out I needn't have bothered, since the train's already 3 minutes late for departure.
Train's finally leaving, 8 minutes late. More than "just a few minutes" after the announcement. They probably held the train for the people who couldn't get a ticket in time. Good thing we have computers and good algorithms to deal with the fact that suddenly 400 miles of track usage has to be recomputed, which may cascade to affect quite a bit more of the infrastructure. Oh well. At least I have a power outlet so I can spend the next 6.5 hours listening to an audiobook. And if I can get decent reception, I may play with the GPS receiver too.
I'm not sure it's entirely kosher, but plugging the USB cable into the back and jamming the cable into the windowside air vents holds the antenna at an almost ideal angle. Now we'll see what the software does with a live feed from the receiver. Cool. After a bit of error involved in figuring out how the application works, it looks like it pretty much does the right thing. Gives me basically the same info the GPS unit does but it has a lot more pixels, and colored ones at that, to do it with. It also updates a bit faster. We'll see how many things the GPS unit can do at once, since it's getting GPS data, displaying a tracking map of satellites in the sky and signal strength from each, should be maintaining its own track log every 15 seconds, and is sending data to the computer somewhat more than once a second, where it's also going into a track log. The computer's track log looks to be more sophisticated than the GPS unit's (though maybe the GPS unit would do the same if I set it on "auto" rather than timed for the logging interval), keeping more datapoints along turns than along boring straightaways. Not as exciting as highway 1, but we're right on the coast. Yay ocean! Ok, so it's a sea, but it's still big and salty and you can't see the other side of it... Speaking of other sides, we just went through a tunnel over 10mi long, and passed another train most of the way through.
It's nice to be in Nice. See, by starting with a horrible pun, I lower expectations (crafty, neh?).
Ok, so the train ride took approximately forever because it was a slow train and went via China, and got delayed by almost half an hour along the way (maybe at the French border, where we seemed to sit around for a while). And yeah, I got in pretty late. And yes, the train station was amazingly mobbed by teenagers for no apparent reason. But just a few blocks from the train station I came upon Hotel Madrid, with the magic three stars under its name. The reception looked a bit more posh than I usually aim for, but what the hell. Unless I horribly mis-heard, I'm paying $60 a night, plus an expensive breakfast that I hope will be on par with much-missed German breakfasts of weeks ago. Initially this is cause for concern: they're not spending all their money on a nice reception to lure folks into their crummy rooms, are they? Turns out not. My "single room" has 3 beds in it, which always amuses me. More importantly, there are good towels, and a table to put my luggage on. Also it's claimed there's a laundry nearby, which is good news.
Indeed there is a nearby laundry, though I somehow managed to walk past the large windows looking into a room full of washing machines, as well as a 2-foot-high sign plastered across the top proclaiming the machines' purpose. So I ended up at a farther-away laundry, which was OK since it wasn't all that far in the grand scheme of things, and the weather's lovely. Also the farther place was cheaper, though I didn't know that at the time. It had a respectable centralized payment point too, which would take bills up to 20s, and dispensed change for my 3.5 euro load in coins. Oddly, though it will accept one euro coins, it doesn't give them in change, only 2s and 50c coins. In any event, I got my laundry done and now I think I'll check out the map and see what there is to see.
A few pictures, but the fingerprint is back. Further investigation indicates it's probably not a fingerprint, since 1) I see nothing wrong with the lens, 2) it's resisted repeated cleaning, 3) it's changing in size and color, getting smaller and darker over time. The test I conducted after the first cleaning which seemed to indicate I'd successfully removed the thing I couldn't see was probably just insufficient. Hopefully I'll be able to come up with a solution which doesn't involve replacing the camera:(
Interesting note on the hotel here. It's got electronic locks like many hotels, but these aren't the old Ving cards with the holes in them. They're not magstrip cards either. They're smartcards. This by itself would be just a minor technical note, however I discovered something more interesting. I checked in and said I'd stay for that night and let the hotel know the following morning (this morning) if I were interested in staying longer. This gave me some time to decide how interesting Nice would be. I decided to stay, told the desk, and left to do laundry. When I got back, the key had stopped working so I got it redone at the front desk, where the receptionist remarked in an offhand manner that the key stopped working at noon, which was checkout time for the initial day I'd asked for when the key was programmed. She said she'd add another day, and it would die again at noon tomorrow. I don't know that I've ever tried to use an electronic hotel key after checkout time, but now I'll have to give it a try. Clearly the magstripe cards just give the doors a message such as "I'm key number nnnn" and let the hotel systems decide whether to open the door or not, since the cards have no way to do any computation on their own. However, if the system were that simple there would be no need for rewritable cards, and thus fewer of them should fail (consider how hard it is to screw up a credit card). On the other hand, going to a more expensive smart card sytem implies that the card itself is contributing in some nontrivial way to the decision whether to unlock the door or not, which seems inherently insecure (not that I suspect that's a high priority to a hotel that vehemently disclaims any liability for a room's contents, and has the maids leave readily-accessible windows open...).
There's a big hill a mile or two from the hotel that apparently has some sort of old building on it. I never actually saw the old building, but there's a park and trails and such, so I went for a little hike and got pictures for a couple panoramas. There are thousands of little buildings in the shot, and the sheer number of angles and corners seems to have confused the automatic stitching, so I'll have to redo them manually. I thought I'd also experiment with panoramas more than one photo high (two dimensional rather than one dimensional stitching), but so far that's been a bust. I'm really not convinced that using over 600MB of memory is actually necessary. Though I suppose "mmap() it and let the OS handle the consequences" isn't, per se, an invalid strategy. Except in this case it doesn't work because I turned off virtual memory because Windows was doing stupid stupid things. *sigh* At least, I'm assuming that's the problem: it doesn't actually throw the out of memory error, but that's the most reasonable explanation considering previous memory errors as I worked up to this method. More investigation must be done.
Speaking of photography, and investigation, I have more data on The Dark Spot. Changing resolution, exposure length, or focus distance has no effect on the spot. However, changing aperture does. The spot gets larger and less distinct (less darkening of the photo within the area of the spot) with wider apertures, and narrower and darker with small apertures. I'd been using narrow apertures outdoors to get a nice wide depth of field for landscapes, but today I just turned the neutral density filter on to keep the exposure lengths reasonably long (5ms or so) and took the photos at F/4, which helps but you can still see the slight darkening if you know where to look.
It's a bit early for dinner time, especially on a weekend, but I skipped lunch to avoid the crowds so now I'm going to go try to find the Indian restaurant I saw yesterday. Mmm, naan and curry. Ok, I'll be honest: mmm, sauce-that-comes-with-naan. And curry. Tasty lamb vindaloo, in fact.
Though I was on a "high speed" train (and indeed it did hit 300km/hr briefly), the combination of circuitous route, frequent stops, and half-hour delay (actually closer to 40 minutes) just before the Lyon stop meant I got in about 9pm, just in time to grab a hotel room and a bite to eat, and then go to bed. Oh, yeah. And to notice with displeasure that the sunny warmth surrounding me when I got on the train had been replaced by below-freezing darkness.
I tend to assume that that train stations, if not located in the center of town, are at least vaguely downtown-ish, but occasionally that assumption proves false. The station here in Lyon, although serviced by the aforementioned high-speed train, actually seems to be a fairly minor outlying station. Or perhaps they're all minor stations, since the map seems to indicate there are five or six, depending how you count. There are maybe a half-dozen hotels within reasonable walking distance of the part-dieu station where I arrived, and none of the big-name hotels you'd expect crowded around where a lot of people will be disembarking.
Last night's hotel was booked today, so I had to go find another place to stay, which didn't take too long despite the relative scarcity of hotels in the area. I also got a map that quantifies exactly how far I am from anything interesting. Not that I could be visiting the print or film museums anyway, since they're both closed today, and one's closed tomorrow too. The old city, "a UNESCO world heritage site", is quite a hike away. Tomorrow I'll check out the area where the museums seem to be clustered and see if it's got hotel rooms available.
A fairly good breakfast, though the shower situation sucked, which somewhat dimmed my morning. You'll have to ask me in person about the various ways I've seen bathrooms done wrong. And not just Brian-type nits, either. I mean major head-whacking (sometimes literally) errors.
Now that I have the scale on the map correct (I somehow read 1:14500 as 1:45000 for the scale), things aren't quite so far apart, and I've headed down to the Lumiere museum area since the other museum I'm interested in (and historic area) are on the other side of the river. Also, this museum doesn't close during the day. Siesta's supposed to be a Spanish invention, so why are so many businesses closed from noon to 2pm or thereabouts? Anyway, I was worried there wouldn't be hotels near there because there don't seem to be any major distance transportation spots (airports, train depots, ferry stops, etc) near there, but I did find a hotel, part of the all-encompassing Accor brand. I'm not sure why they give their various sub-chains their own name, since Accor is always prominently part of the signage, in contrast to their US operations (Motel 6, Red Roof Inn, etc.). It's a pretty nice room, notably lacking only free wifi and a small cache of English language books for the taking. And it has Eucalyptus-scented soap. I'm normally anti-perfumed soap, but there are exceptions.
The Lumiere museum was pretty neat. I get a kick out of oldtech. Film got a whole lot better from 1890 to 1910. Much better contrast ratios, to say nothing of the grain size and sensitivity. Also, I'm amused that the technology to record stills in quick succession (10+FPS) was developed before the tech to play them back.
Does it make me a bad person if I found a dead lightbulb in the hotel but don't want to deal with people to get it replaced, so I unscrewed it, put a big Sharpie X on it, and left it in a glass on the desk?
That was a predictably uninspired CNN piece about cellphone tracking, despite (snippets from) interviews with Bruce Schneier and someone from the EFF whose name I didn't catch. [and, later on, a similarly uninspired piece about RFID tags on merchandise, by way of CeBIT]
The restaurant situation in this part of town is mostly take-out. A typical example is a pizza joint called "Space Pizza" (and indeed its logo is an LGM delivering a pizza), mostly take-out with maybe a half-dozen tables stashed on a balcony.
Checked out; left the hotel ("located on the very site of Claude Lumiere's factory...") and headed west, across one of the two rivers, in the general direction of the old city. Found a hotel that happens to serve breakfast until 11am. Good for them! Then headed out to the print museum, which I didn't end up going to because I couldn't find it. I found the address the map told me to go to. It led into a courtyard with a bunch of apartments around it. There were signs for the museum cafe. But the signs pointed up some stairs, which went all the way up to the top floor, all residential, no museum to be found. After a bit more wandering, I eventually gave up and went elsewhere. As it happens, elsewhere ended up being a big hilltop Roman excavation / museum / gardens / etc that was pretty neat. I got some good pictures (I hope), and sore feet because it's not quite warm enough to walk around in shirtsleeves, but I did anyway. No, leaving my coat at the hotel doesn't make my feet sore. But it does mean I don't have my watch with me, which means I wander until it seems like a good idea to stop, which in this case ended up being four hours later, in addition to the hour-long trek from the old to the new hotel.
This is apparently one of those towns where it's just not good to change money. It's not just a matter of what part of town I land in, since I've been in more parts of Lyon than any other city on my trip so far, and they all suck. The train station had an American Express place just next door, which sounded good until I realized it was inside and up an elevator into an office building structure, which looked decidedly non-retail and turned out to be a corporate travel agency; I saw one change place in the station, but it offered very bad rates and was closed too. All the hotels I've stayed in so far that have offered currency exchange have been more than 10% off the rate I want, plus fees or commission. Accordingly, I haven't changed any money in a while, so I have exactly 35 euros in cash, which has to get me to Paris (the train ticket goes on my credit card). We'll see how wide-spread the not-quite-riots over new labor laws there are.
I saw on the news that Greece is having awful weather. Awful in the severe flooding sense of the word. I didn't hear anything about flooding in France, and while it's not exactly cause for pandemonium, there are underground parking lots near the rivers that are flooded. The river's flowing high and fast (evidenced by partially-submerged graffiti, staircases leading down to nowhere, etc.), but it wasn't until I saw the windows of a car park that ordinarily would look out onto the river now looking out INto the river that I realized exactly how high the water really is. The water's quite muddy, so when the river finally calms down, those parking lots are going to need some serious de-mucking.
I'm writing this in a laundromat conveniently near the hotel where I'm afraid I'll be depositing half my remaining fortune. However, the central payment point takes bills (why don't all of them work this way?!), and thus produces lots of change when I give it a EUR20 bill for one washer. Among the change was an Irish coin, which I hadn't thusfar seen. That brings the total to 7, I believe. French, Italian, German, Spanish, Irish, and two I can't immediately identify and don't remember to look up when I have 'net access. Heh. I got here and there was an older woman waiting for her laundry to dry. Assuming she was French, I didn't bother trying to talk to her. It turns out she assumed the same about me, so we ended up sitting on either side of a picnic bench (why that's the seating they provided is beyond me...) until an actual French woman came in and asked us something, and we discovered we both speak English. We chatted for a while until her laundry was done. Turns out she's in town with her husband for a weeklong WHO conference in Geneva.
I'm watching CNN over lunch, and they just had a human-interest story about people using dummies to sneak into the carpool lane. Their featured arrestee got a $125 fine and had to spend 4 hours holding a sign by the freeway. He said it saved him half an hour a day for a year. That's totally worth it; hardly a deterrent. I'm surprised the fines for using a dummy aren't higher. [later] I should watch more news, and not just of the Comedy Central variety. It's really quite amusing, as long as you can get past the fact that there's maybe 5 minutes of new content an hour and the rest is repetition. BBC World interviewed a guy talking about the big military offensive outside Samarra, and at one point he wanted to compare anti-insurgency operations to a big game of Whack-a-Mole. Only he's not sure people will know what that means, so he detoured a moment to describe the game. In a very British fashion. Hilarious. "So far, the military here is being fairly stingy with the details." Yeah, I got that based on the fact that the only video is of commentators, interviewees, and file footage, while the same dozen Reuters photos are being cycled through by both BBC and CNN.
St Paddy's day! This is one of those holidays whose very existence I forget from late March until I start seeing ads for it the following year. When I was younger, this meant the sudden appearance of green things on classroom walls. Now it means placards in bar windows and sandwich boards. And, as a special gift this year, it means confusion because my watch thought yesterday was the 17th, which conflicted with other things saying it was the 16th. Turns out the watch was wrong, so I reset it, and now it's really the day for green things.
Why is it that all the Americans I meet are southerners? Not that I mind, but it seems odd that all these people are from Virginia or Georgia or the Carolinas. At breakfast today I chatted with a couple young women who'd just gotten in from Paris a few days ago and were heading back tomorrow. Just in time for the next scheduled round of demonstrations, I said. Apparently they ran into some of that when they were there earlier this week, and had some tales of narrowly-averted mayhem to tell, involving being locked in a store when the protesters came by because the proprietor pulled down the security gate and such until they'd gone past. I don't know where the big universities are, which have so far been the focus of the protests, but the news says there were 250k people out demonstrating, though it's unclear if that was on one day, or the total for the week. In any event, with the labor unions coming in to support the students, and high schoolers and kids from the suburbs coming in to join the mayhem, it should make for a memorable Paris experience. At breakfast we were discussing how it doesn't seem like such a big deal, but to the French it's obviously a big shock with such a high percentage of the population in steady government jobs, and the rest accustomed to such strong job security.
The train ride to Paris kind of sucked because the tracks jogged back and forth. This might be merely notable at low speeds, but at almost 300kph, it was downright annoying to be jerked side to side for an hour and a half.
Well, "The Golden Age of Arab Science" was a bit of a disappointment. The exhibits themselves were pretty neat, by and large, but the museum let too many people in, so it was hot and crowded and I really glossed over several displays just to get away from the guided tours which were especially bad. I did have the amusement of going through a security checkpoint to get into the museum though. I walk in, not entirely sure it's even the right place to get tickets (many museums have outdoor connections between different parts of the museum, so you can inadvertently try to walk in, sans ticket, mid-museum), and there's a metal detector, X-ray machine, and a guy. I put my camera on the belt and walk through the metal detector, which dutifully beeps at me. The guy indicates a tray. So, out comes the GPS receiver, flashlight, some change, my knife. I scan through again, and everything's fine. The guy checks out the tray and decides it's OK for me to walk into the museum with that stuff. If none of that gave him pause, I wonder what exactly it is they're scanning for.
Technically, the protests have been going on since at least noon (I saw a small gathering about then), but now, five hours later, they've kicked up a notch. A lot more people, a lot more hardware, a lot more noise, and a lot more cops.
After dinner, as I was preparing to feel enormously cosmopolitan upon completion of my plan to go to an entirely different restaurant for dessert (I know. I'm easy to amuse.), the waitress arrived and asked if I wanted dessert. The answer of course was no, but I asked for their menu anyway. This was my first mistake. Reading through it, there were several tasty-looking things, several of which had to be abandoned for largeness (a 3-scoop bannana split is a bit much for dessert). Then I noticed something translated (erroneously, as it happens) as "pineapple pie". Well, I couldn't very well pass on that, could I? I said I'd try the pineapple pie, and the waitress smiled as if I were in for a real treat. It turns out that "pineapple pie" is really a code name for "deep-fried pineapple rings". Sounds pretty awful, doesn't it? It's not bad, actually, but certainly wasn't good enough to compensate for my crushed dreams.
Quiche Lorraine for lunch. Or technically breakfast, since I slept in this morning instead of eating. Or maybe something else. What do you call a lunch that's really a breakfast but is eaten at 3pm? Linner? Just doesn't go together as well as brunch. We'll see if this is a bad idea or not. Generally things with this much egg in them are bad things to eat in foreign countries, but Paris isn't exactly Phnom Penn (sp?), and it was in a refrigeratey case. [ed, later: Yeah, bad idea].
I decided I'd go to the Louvre tomorrow, since it was only open for a few more hours today, and I think that was a good idea. I stopped by a supermarket near the hotel and grabbed some food, and then came back to munch and play online and read. I discovered a nice strong AP with internet access when I got here, but as of this evening it's dead. Or rather, it's still there but it won't let me associate, and it hasn't blocked my MAC for bad behavior (downloading big PDFs). So I don't know what the problem is, but now the rest of the world has disappeared:( Read some, decided the book really wasn't interesting, and ended up napping for several hours.
Today shall be the Louvre day. Also, it shall be the day of unanticipated return to the previous hotel where hopefully they've saved my toothpaste, which I seem to have left there. Whoops. I thought about bringing my camera, but I think I won't bother. Apparently in some of the rooms they let you set up tripods even, but the Louvre webpage hints that the museum's always busy. If it's even as busy as the Prado, I'd waste a lot of time waiting for a clear shot, and since I'm not planning on doing strange things with the photos, I suppose it doesn't matter if I have my photos or other random ones online. I hear the museum has its own photos up, and while I haven't checked them out myself, they ought to be better than anything I'm going to get. Resolved: to go and just look. So there.
Lunch / pitstop. This jacket has to go. Apparently the Louvre is "air conditioned" (so sayeth a sign), but when it's 75 degrees or more in there and the air vents are blowing hot air, at least one system is a bit confused. So the coat's staying here and I'll be a bit chilly on the walk back to the museum. It's short. I've seen Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Persian (et al - "oriental") statuary, sarcophagi, etc. Also Charles IV and V ivory bits, sceptres (C. V had a mini statue of himself (or someone) carrying a Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch on it), reliquaries, and the like. This took about three hours. So I estimate I've seen about 1% of the stuff there, and the museum's closed tomorrow. I guess that makes tomorrow laundry day and moving day, and if there's time it'll also be taking-prohibited-pictures-of-the-Eiffel-Tower day, and maybe also seeing the Arc de Triomphe day.
The museum has cool stuff in it. It's in a pretty cool building. Big glass pyramid outside though: totally unimpressive. Oh, it's pretty big. And it (and the two mini-pyramids next to it) lets in light which is nice inside the museum. But it's neither big enough nor sparkly enough to really attract much attention. In fact, it's only big enough to let you know which way the entrance is if you're already inside the courtyard. But, as I said, there's cool stuff inside. And the museum itself is pretty on the inside too, so I guess I can forgive the pyramid.
Surprised by the presence of iced tea as a drink choice at dinner, I ordered it. I like these little food mysteries. Sometimes I can decipher enough of the French to sanity check the English translations; sometimes not. This seemed legit, but what's iced tea going to look like at a Chinese restaurant in Paris? Answer: Peach-flavored Nestea in a can. Continuing the pattern of odd-but-not-bad surprises, it was odd, but not bad. Certainly drinkable, though not remotely iced tea, regardless of what its ingredient list might have said. Also a tasty cone around the corner for dessert. Or rather, tasty ice cream in a crummy cone.
Just a short move, probably under 6 blocks. Egad the front desk woman is extroverted. Her name's Moun ("moon"), so I guess that shouldn't be much of a surprise. The cheap places are all booked in this part of town, so I've been staying at nicer hotels, which means there's space to walk around in the room, and there are little details like someplace to put luggage so you're not reaching down to the floor, etc. An amusing result of the hotel situation is that the more expensive hotels have a lot of vacancies, but usually not in single rooms, so if you ask for a single room, they'll often give you a double for the same price. And, in this case, free breakfast too. Now, if the wifi situation were better, it'd be just about perfect.
Laundry. Check. Arc de Triomphe. Check. Eiffel Tower. All the way to the top. Check. Got some good pictures too. Though not of the Arc, because I refused to pay anyone to walk under it (or indeed within about 100') since it wasn't that interesting from a distance. Walking down the Eiffel Tower, I moved the viewfinder on the camera, and zzzzzt. Dead. Probably just the LCD, not the whole camera, but with the frostbite-inducing wind chill I wasn't about to investigate much. On that note, my right hand still feels not right, so I think it got a bit colder than I'd intended it to. The east corner of the tower was wicked cold. Now that I'm back in the hotel, I'll hook up the camera to the computer and see what remotecapture makes of it.
Right, then. I don't know what error 24 is, and the manual refuses to help. It gives the oh-so 'modern consumer electronics' advice to "Note the error code number and take the camera in for servicing". And Canon, the bastards, distribute their manual as a PDF that you can't copy and paste from, so I had to retype that quotation. What was the point of that? I'm sure I'm just sniping, but I'm kind of pissed off. The camera's not new, but it's new to me, and it's survived a whole 6 months. Six months to the day, in fact. Frell!
Ok, so it's not a complete loss. The camera seems to work fine with the LCD screen folded closed. The camera knows when it's closed and I guess doesn't try to use the screen, thus avoiding whatever error causes it to malfunction. Unfortunately, by "seems to work fine" I mean that it works the way it's intended to work with the LCD off, which disables a bunch of stuff that requires the LCD to use. So nothing hidden in menus is accessible. Manual focus shuts off. Some other things. As a P&S, it still works, but there's a whole lot less fiddling I can do between the initial pointing and the final shooting. Frell.
I hate when people change seats on the train before it's started moving. That results in things like my interpretation of the train ticket not agreeing with reality: the seat I think I have is full already. And then I have to try to mime "Is that my seat that you're in? I think it is, but I'm not sure" because I don't speak nearly enough French to get that across. rrrar. Especially when I'm pushing the departure time so hard that the train was already moving before I'd managed to sit down. I seem to recall having ranted about this before. It's still annoying. Though once again there's power here so I can play with my GPS toys - at least they still work right:(
Those are fields, and that was a wagon with hay (or maybe straw) on it. So there: I'm officially traveling the French countryside by train. And in comfort too, as I do believe that's the sound of lunch coming up the aisle. Yep. Hake.
Tiny little graveyard between the road and the railway here. Not sure what that's about. It's too small and compact to have been there before the road & train came along and been preserved rather than moved. And it's too big to be the result of a car crash or some such that might be memorialized there. Unless it was just a really enormous pileup, maybe aided by the train. Looked like several dozen little crosses, at least.
And right.....now....I'm touring the Belgian countryside rather than the French, and am about to cross the Escaut river. Isn't technology fun? We'll totally have to play with this on the way to Gencon. Maybe we can get the lat & long to show up in the movies.
So, amused as I am by eating lunch surrounded by men in suits and ties (I'm 'dressed up' - that is, my shirt's tucked in), I'm more amused by the PDA situation with the guy across from me. He's checking appointments or something so he pulls out his Clie, which is in one of those thin metal cases. I notice an odd glint from the case, so I look over, and the glint is from where he's attacked the case with a Dremel tool to provide a cut-out for the memory stick slot.
Ok, so puttering about online seems to indicate the LCD problem is relatively common and probably caused by rotating the screen. Ordinarily, over-rotation pulls out tiny plugs that attach the LCD to a board in the main body of the camera (or causes the wires to break). I'm hoping that in this case the cold stiffened the wires such that normal rotation pulled the plugs out. I hear Canon wants something like $200 to fix it, but hopefully 4 tiny screws and some friction-fit plastic are all that stands in the way of pushing those plugs back where they belong. *crosses fingers*
[late Wednesday, but technically Thursday, so there]
It's 1am local. I can't sleep. Part of this is because I'm in a big city and there are cars outside. Buses too. Maybe even one of those big trucks they use in mining where you can't even see the driver in the picture because he's three pixels high, and your house would fit comfortably in the back, along with your neighbor's. But I'm on the fifth floor, and I'm used to it now. No, what's really keeping me up is trying to decide whether I'd be more comfortable sleeping on the floor. This room has a big closet-looking thing in the corner, except it has a sink and a stove and a fridge in it. There's a TV listing sheet. Lots of TV in French and Dutch, but a total of 10 different languages are represented (I counted). It's pretty nice. But the bed is absolute shit. I've slept in only one hotel bed bad enough to give it a run for its money. This would, barely, be forgivable if I were paying $100 a night less. So if you're ever in Brussles, stay away from Hotel Ustel.
I saw sheep in a field. Yay for sheep! I guess Brussles is just boring or something, and I was pissed off anyway because I slept right through my alarm (no doubt because I couldn't get to sleep until late), thus missing breakfast, so when I failed to turn up a more interesting-looking part of town on my way to the central train station, I hopped on a train for Amsterdam and washed my hands of the whole affair. So now I'm somewhere more fun. It's going to get really cold tonight. It's pretty chilly already, but with the sun it's not too bad; when night falls it'll be like a real winter and everything.
The train station here is located in a proper part of town, with hotels and restaurants and things to do and everything. Not that I'd be so crass as to compare it to where I ended up in Brussles, of course.
Bought some foodstuffs at a grocery store that has either a problem with forgers or a problem with paranoia. I'm not sure which, but the checkout woman had the least-trusting till setup I've seen thus far in Europe, and ran my two fivers through some sort of scanner before accepting them. Actually, I've been surprised by the lack of concern with forgery in Europe, especially considering the large cash transactions that happen fairly regularly. I don't know whether that's due to euros being particularly hard to forge, or whether it's due to different banking laws, or what the deal is.
Lest you think I can do naught but rant, I have a recommendation to make. Eat at "Indian Restaurant Vijaya", a few blocks from the central train station in Amsterdam. Don't order an appetizer: the meal comes with more than enough extras. I came in at 6pm, a bit early for dinner, but all I'd had to eat that day was a pair of chocolate pastries (at a cafe in Brussles that was playing Roxette) and I was hungry. I ordered a lamb curry. I forget what they called it, but it was roughly a less-spicy vindaloo. Very tasty. It came with rice, a little salad, and a spicy potato / veggie curry. Plus dal (that's the spicy cracker-like thing with dip, yes?), and the naan I ordered. Tons of good food. On the way back to the hotel, I was tempted by various live music, but I really should get to bed early and get caught back up on sleep.
Amsterdam is a pretty touristy place normally, but apparently becomes tourist central on the weekends. This means 1. hotels are really expensive; 2. they're mostly full; and 3. you often have to commit to 2-3 day stays. I managed to find a place for tonight that's booked for the rest of the weekend, so I think tomorrow I'll just leave instead of fighting with everyone else for a place to stay. The woman at the train station where I bought my ticket back to Paris answered all my questions from memory. Yay for quick answers.
Yet another recommendation. Amsterdam in general. The city clearly enjoys its libertarian bent and the reputation that's given it. It also brings a lot of tourists, which means lots of hotels and restaurants and shops of all sorts. Somehow it manages to be cheery rather than 'touristy' about it, and it really is a nice city. Bikes and pedestrians everywhere and not that many cars. There's a lot of water here; not like Venice, but still quite a few canals. It's raining, which discuoraged too much adventuring (especially since, although I cut out the map from the free tourism book at the last hotel, I neglected to keep the part that tells me what attractions the numbers on it refer to) but I did wander some, trying to stick to buildings with awnings. There are a variety of pubs in the city center. English pubs (one advertising a real English Breakfast "Cooked By an ENGLISH MAN!"), Irish pubs ("English, Welsh, and Scottish welcome"), etc.
Tomorrow I'm going back to Paris. There's more of the Louvre to see, and maybe other things, and then I think I'll leave Monday when the museums and whatnot are closed. That will give me a week to either spend in London, or to go elsewhere for a few days and then come back. I'll need to be in London the first monday in April because my flight is, I think, at about 11:30 Tuesday morning, so I'll probably need to be at the airport a bit after 9, which probably means leaving the hotel at 8-8:30, depending on where I end up staying. And then I get home (yay!), in theory, at about midnight. Or, more likely, 1-10 hours later, what with the lovely delays that will probably happen again. I know /I/ haven't forgotten my lovely Atlanta experience...
A travel day, so not much to say.
"Long life skimmed milk with non milk fat". So I guess that's half way between cream and a non-dairy creamer?
Saw a big cooling tower near the train tracks. Probably for a nuclear power plant, what with the "Hamon electrobel" sign on a nearby building. Though maybe non-nuclear power generation sometimes uses big cooling towers like that too: I don't actually know what I'm talking about.
Anyway, it's 8:30, so I should probably get dinner, and then maybe there will be people online to entertain me when I get back. Bye!
Dinner was...an experience.
I like outdoor menus because it helps get a sense of what the food inside is like. Also, the English translations give some clue as to the level of difficulty I'll have communicating anything more complicated than "may I have the bill, please?". And lastly, the prices are informative. Not only to give a clue as to how much money I'll be spending on dinner, but also to judge the degree to which I'll be surrounded by old men in French cuffs, feeling very out of place. Tonight I picked a close-by Chinese restaurant on the grounds that it looked like it might keep raining, and I didn't want to try to find my way back to the hotel in the cold and wet. The dishes looked good; the translations amusingly uninformative; the prices reasonable. I walked inside.
Immediately, an Oriental gentleman rushed to hold the door and get my coat, motioning me to a table, whereupon I was presented with a warmed, scented washcloth and the menu. Or rather, menus. One for drinks (beer, wine, spirits, water/coffee/cola/tea/etc), one for foods. I quickly realized, as I looked around, that I'd misjudged things horribly. The reasonable prices were for appetizers, not entrees. At the table nearby were some old men in suits (no French cuffs though). While waiting for my appetizer to arrive, a suited waiter came in pushing a gilt cart with silver tray bearing a crispy duck (or pig maybe. Anyway, some sort of animal of large-duck or small-pig size, missing non-torso bits that might identify it). Then, with tongs and a cleaver, he proceeded to remove the skin in 6 chunks from each side; swapped trays with another waiter; skinned a second beastie. The horribly-denuded animals were never seen again.
I spent most of the meal wondering what the hell I'd gotten myself into. That, and counting plates. I went through 12 plates and bowls, plus a goblet, an earthenware crock for my curry, and a dragon-themed chopstick and serving spoon carrier thingy. All for an appetizer and main dish, no dessert or coffee. None of which they would let me serve myself. My spring rolls arrived, nicely arranged on a plate. Plus a plate from which to eat. The waiter put my plate down and carefully arranged upon it a sprig of mint, some lettuce leaves, and two of the eggrolls. When I finished them, he reappeared to serve the last two. After the appetizer was cleared away, they brought me another washcloth. This continued throughout the meal. Once, seeing an opportunity when none of the waiters was in the room, and feeling cheeky, I grabbed the curry and started hunting for the onions they tended to leave in the bowl. Almost immediately someone arrived to take the utensils away and serve me another portion. It was maddening, particularly since I'd gotten used to being ignored by waiters (unlike in the US, you can sit for an hour after a meal and nobody will come by to grab your plate or offer dessert or the check unless you flag them down).
Woke up this morning and went downstairs for breakfast, mildly surprised that nobody was around. Someone fetched me food, which took longer than I would have expected, and was better than anticipated (good hot coffee, mostly). I got back to my room to find that whoever had been lending me internet access turned it back on again (the AP disappeared while I was talking on ICQ last night). I quickly noticed that my computer and alarm clock disagreed about the time. Turns out there was some sort of DST thing, and the EU's now an hour later. So breakfast was slow because I was quite late, and they had put everything away already. Whoops! boingboing says this applies to England and Ireland as well. And maybe Scotland and Wales?
Went to the Louvre again. Saw some paintings this time. Vaguely wierded out by the 2D nature of some of the first ones I saw, until I realized it was because of a complete lack of softening (of focus and color) of "distant" objects in the paintings. I've forgotten at least one thing I'd intended to mention here, but I saw an amusing painting of a pair of puppies on what was supposed to be a red pillow, but ended up looking like a flying carpet. Also a still life as attacked by monkeys. Fruits and such, all normal, except things are knocked over and spilled and there's a monkey staring at you while grabbing a bunch of grapes.
Got my laundry done despite the laundry I was initially directed to being closed, and the one I subsequently fuond being horrible. A payment station that gives no change and won't accept bills (nor nickels). So I couldn't even afford one washing; the hotel wouldn't give me change, and the supermarket I went to next would only give me 5 euros in change (I took another fiver to a bakery on my way back to the laundromat and bought a cookie to get more change). But I prevailed! And now have clean clothes, which will almost-but-not-quite last until it's time to come home. Also, I got my dates wrong - the Louvre is closed Tuesdays, not Mondays, so I'm going to stay here another day, as there's more to see yet.
And lastly, it's been rainy here, off and on ever since I got back. On the plus side, it's rainy because there's a warm front coming in, and during dry spells it's quite pleasant walking around with no coat on.
Last Louvre day. Photos. I haven't looked at them yet, so that adventure still remains. No working LCD means I can't change the ISO for indoor shots, and can't review them to see whether I have a decent one or just a bunch of colorful smears. Took a few flash pix too, so it should be interesting to see how that worked out. Again, with no LCD, I can't check to see how well the flash bounced off the ceiling or wall, and can't change the flash power without the menus anyway. I expect a very low percentage of good shots.
I guess I'm just awesome. Those photos turned out way better than I expected: 17 of 57 are going up online. Also, this means new photos up. I think this one's my favorite.
Since I can't change ISO, I'm using other tricks to try to get clean shots, but the lens is still all the way open. So on most shots of curved things you can see the depth of field, occasionally to the point that I wouldn't even post the photo. A lot of exhibits had things being renovated, so I could sometimes steal a pedestal in lieu of a tripod and take the shot from far enough away to make everything work. And in all but a few cases, trying to bounce the flash off the ceiling worked pretty well, when I did flash photos. No pix of paintings: those rooms were all off limits. And no, I didn't see the Mona Lisa. Probably walked by it at least once though.
Well, that was fun. I picked up my ticket at the train station and headed up to the departure terminal. There's a separate area for the trains to London, since that's outside the EU and you have to go through customs and whatnot. I go upstairs, get in the non-UK, non-EU passport line, and get my departure from Paris stamped in there. Then I go about 15 feet and hit the entering-UK passport control place, where a surly Brit asks if I have something. I can't hear him, so he repeats "do you have one of these?", holding up a card. "No." "You have to have one of these. Fill this out and then come back. There's a table over there." Well, 'over there' is through a line of people that's intended to be one-way, and I don't feel like salmoning over there, so I just use a conveniently nearby wall. I put my name on it, nationality, etc. It asks for an occupation, which I put a dash through. It asks for a UK address, which I also put a dash through. I'm thinking this could be problematic.
And sure enough, it is. The guy's already pissed off at me for the card thing, though I don't know why, unless there was a big sign that I missed somewhere. He asks my occupation. I say I'm unemployed. Just graduated university and am traveling. This fails to impress, and he continues reading the card. He asks my UK address. I say I don't have one yet. He asks why not, in an accusing tone. I say I'll find a hotel when I get there. This is the wrong answer. He asks if I have a ticket out of the country. I say yes. He asks to see it. I say it's an e-ticket, so I don't have a physical object. He doesn't seem to understand (or maybe just doesn't care). He demands to see my ticket out of the UK. Asks if I actually want to go to the UK. Uh. Yeah. My plane leaves from London, and I have a train ticket to get there from here. Kinda indicates I'd like to go. I say none of this. I haul out my laptop, hunt up the email, and demonstrate that I'm leaving from Heathrow, to Amsterdam, Detroit, and to Madison. Meanwhile, he asks how I'm paying for my trip to the UK. It's unclear what he means; I tell him the ticket went on my credit card. Maybe he thinks I'm planning on maxing out my card and winding up in debtors' prison or something. He asks how much money I have access to. I tell him. "Do you have any proof of that?" Well, no. I didn't happen to bring a notarised copy of my latest bank statement. He asks if I have traveler's checks or something. Oh. Yeah. About $1000 worth, and some cash. Of course, he wants to see those too. So I dig them out, half in my luggage, half in my wallet. I've been trying to get rid of them - about 3 weeks ago I counted what I had left, divided it by the number of weeks remaining, and set that as a target. I've been paying for hotels and stuff with cash rather than my credit card like I usually would, just so I don't end up stuck with a bunch of them back in the US. It's a good thing I fell behind in my schedule, I guess. The surly guy's writing something on the back of my immigration card. It being upside down and me still being busy with the e-ticket confirmation email (it's a damn good thing I've told Thunderbird to locally cache all my mail from the imap server!), I don't catch what all it says, but it looks like he's noting his examination of my traveler's checks. He says he has to go talk to someone, and takes my passport and immigration card with him. Several minutes later, he comes back and lets me through. Egad. I know the dollar's not the world's awesomest currency these days but I'd think they'd welcome tourists anyway. We do tend to splash money around the local hotels and whatnot.
I'm glad we didn't reach a point of needing to call the bank. Clerk guy'd be pissed off that I don't have a mobile, and I didn't see a phone behind his desk either. Besides: "Uh. Hi! This is me; I'm in Paris; I need to convince this officious oaf that I can afford a week in London. And first, I probably need to convince you that a random caller from overseas really is me. Can we get right on that? Thaaaaanks." Probably wouldn't go over too well.
Then we get to personal and baggage security. I put my suitcase and backpack on the belt, toss my coat after, and reach for my flashlight, which I've been carrying on my belt in an experiment to see whether it bugs me or not. It's not there. I have no idea where it ended up. Probably still at the hotel. Well, on the plus side, that means a lot less metal that I'm carrying. I go through the gate, which doesn't object to a pocketful of change and some nail clippers, so off I go. Now sitting in a departure lounge, griping and watching the local terminal downstairs, which is policed by "security" people (railway police, I'd guess), and military people. I thought it best not to accost French soldiers and ask what they're doing, so I can only surmise their purpose. They weren't here when I was through this station a few days ago, so either they're on random rotation or French intelligence has decided there need to be more assault rifles in this part of the city.
I'm in London now, and it's just started raining. And I have a problem. The UK's got this chip and PIN credit card system now. I guess it's catching on in France too since the train station automatic ticket vendor machines won't take magstripe credit cards. But you can go to the hu-mans and they've got machines to read magstripe cards, and all is well. Ditto Gibraltar: automated things want chip and PIN cards; manned readers will take either. According to the barkeep at the pub where I'm staying (more on that later), it's going to be nigh on impossible to use a magstripe credit card in the UK. And since I have no PIN and my credit card has no chip, this could be problematic. I'm going to investigate more tomorrow, but if it's true, then I probably have to stay here with the weekly rate (half price) because I won't be able to afford leaving. Eep!
Ok, so I end up in Waterloo International. Yeah, that's what they call their train station. Yes, it's on Waterloo st. And yes, you can get to !UK destinations. Well, at least one: Paris. I'm not sure you can actually get directly anywhere else... It's also a tube stop, national train depot, etc. I look for change booths, and save myself maybe $3 comparison shopping. Whatever. Off to find a hotel. Only there aren't any. I wander all the way around the train station (it's elevated so there are streets all the way around on ground level) and see some restaurants but mostly small apartments and houses. I wander some more, heading toward larger buildings. When I get there, I'm pretty sure they're dorms. There seem to be various school bits in the area, and some of the shops advertise student discounts. Finally, after over an hour of dragging my suitcase over damned unfriendly sidewalks, I see a place advertising accomodations, short- and long-term. I head into a the pub with the sign on it and inquire of the barkeep. Yeah, that's here. Yeah, they take credit cards. Then he sees my inferior magstripe card and says that won't work. Crap. So I give him cash, about $100 for the room and a $20 deposit for the key. Which I guess I can understand since it's got 2 keys and an electronic lock fob on it. There were signs near the station advertising various attractions, so this isn't a completely boring university section of town, but it's not exactly the surroundings I'd expect for a big train station, either. I am going to go get something to eat and have a chat with the barkeep about this London situation.
Right, then. The cheerful barkeep of last night has been replaced by a more attractive, but grumpy, bar girl this morning. She'd rather spend time in the kitchen being fondled by her boyfriend than answer my questions. So, off I go. I end up in Victoria station, which is superior to Waterloo in two crucial ways. First of all, the hotel reservation desk is open. And second, the exchange rates are better. No more $1.97 per pound. More like $1.80, which is about right. Now, I have a tube map, courtesy of the travel desk, a street map courtesy (in this case meaning I paid $5 for it) of the hotel reservations desk, and a very reasonably-priced hotel for the next several days. Perhaps Mr. Barkeep lacks experience with this part of town (near Paddington station), which is considerably more touristified, judging by the approximately one beeeeeellion hotels (OK, I stopped counting after about 10) within a block of here. There was no trouble at all using my magstripe credit card, which means I have copious amounts of cash (in 4 currencies, now!) to spend on random gifts. As long as they're small and sturdy.
Actually, the hotel's pretty nice. The shower's tiny but has a not-disgusting shower head that actually will stay above head height without help. The sink is the cutest little thing I've ever seen. It's literally less than a foot from front to back, maybe 18" wide, and 6" deep. The furniture, such as it is, is cheap but cheerfully modern, and clean. And the towels are good. Also, there are about a half-dozen power outlets in the room, which is about 8' square. Alas, I have but one UK power adapter, though I appreciate the thought anyway. So far, the worst thing I can say about the hotel is that they only serve breakfast from 8-9:30 in the morning. I'll try to get up in time tomorrow, and we'll see whether it's worth the effort later, especially given that I can get what promise to be tasty breakfasts elsewhere, much later in the day.
I stopped by the Imperial War Museum this morning after convincing the grumpy bar girl to store my bags for a couple hours. It's bigger than I expected, so I saw only a small part of it. However, it's free so I can go back there for about $10 in tube fees. I should investigate multi-trip passes. Speaking of the Underground, it asks you for your ticket on the way out. That's odd. Also odd is that there are no trash cans (pardon me, "rubbish bins" :) in the station. In fact, there are signs saying it's for security reasons, and you should give your trash to station personnel or take it with you.
One last London observation before I go survey the neighborhood. It's true that there's good Indian food here. I don't know why that's one of the UK trivia bits that I know, but it is. Actually, the Indian restuarants I've been in everywhere have been good, and quite uniform in taste. Chinese restaurants vary enormously, to the point that you're never exactly sure what you'll get. Indian restaurants not so much. A tandoori or vindaloo is the same the world over, it seems. The variations tend to be in the extras that are included, and general restaurantly niceties.
Yikes. It's 4:30 and I haven't eaten today, unless you count a bottle of OJ as food. And it's a bit late for lunch, I think. Maybe I'll stop by a supermarket. Or, more likely, get caught up doing other things until a proper dinner time. Ciao for now.
Back to the War Museum. I got there about 12:45 or so, and stayed until they started shooing people out at 6. There's a ton of stuff there. Back to the hotel; arranged to stay longer; asked about a laundry and net access; nap; dinner, and vegging out for a while.
Pretty similar to yesterday, actually. I got up later but got going earlier, and despite sleeping in I ended up napping for several hours before dinner. I hope I'm not getting sick.
Quite a few phone-sex operations advertising during Letterman. I happened to glance up during one of the ads - they want almost $3/minute. It's been a while since I've seen the back of an Onion, but I thought 99c/min was the going rate. Triple that is really expensive. There are cheaper prostitutes advertised in the Amsterdam phone books.
Laundry day. Last one (yay). The closer, and cheaper, laundromat was closed "due to an emergency", so it took a bit longer than I anticipated, but I've got clean things to wear now, and all is well.
Finally got around to a fish and chips lunch, the first I've had since Gibraltar last year. And not as good, actually. Maybe I'll have a chance to try again, but the days are definitely counting down. Hopefully I'll get a chance to head back toward the Thames to check out some gardens and architecture today, as it's forecast to be a blustery and rainy next couple days. But I have to head over to the internet point this afternoon and get this stuff posted because otherwise it just won't get done. Though maybe I should put it off until tomorrow - I think they'll let me check my flights 48hrs ahead of scheduled departure, which should be about 11am tomorrow morning, and I could get both errands done at the same time. That might be best, since the internet point folks are sophisticated enough to take into account that many people will be traveling with laptops and just want that ether cable. Which is a polite way of saying they're clued-in enough to be assholes about it, charging more for bare ether than they do for ether + a dodgy Dell box and LCD.
Walked around downtownish. Saw the London Bridge (not the one that's in Arizona!), and got caught in a brief rainstorm on it, huddled against one of the big pillars on one side. Walked along the Thames for a while, past the restored Globe Theater.
Wandered around London one last time. Had a Cornish pasty ("hand made in Cornwall" and "baked fresh daily") for lunch, and went to the Tate Modern museum, but couldn't find postcards of either of the two things I liked there. To be fair, half of the museum was closed for renovation and whatnot.
Checked on my flight tomorrow. Or rather, tried to, and couldn't get nwa.com to tell me about a KLM flight (hint to NWA: I don't give a shit whose name's on the plane. You sold me the ticket, you tell me whether the plane's going to be there), and couldn't get KLM to tell me about it either. I think the KLM site was supposed to give me the information but I'm not sure since it repeatedly crashed Firefox. Bad Firefox, no biscuit. Do not trust the bits that come in. Do not let them push you off your rocker. I'm paranoid about oversleeping so I set up a wakeup call for departure time - 2 hours checkin / general airport bureaucracy, paranoia, and inefficiency - 30 mins estimated walking time from the shuttle stop to wherever I need to checkin, since I'll have to do it in person - 15 mins claimed shuttle time - 15 minutes general wasteage - 30 mins breakfast - 30 mins wake-up / shower / packing the last 5 things / checkout. That's 7 hours from now, so I should go to bed.
Up early. The wakeup call never happened, but it didn't end up being a problem. Quick breakfast, checked out of the hotel, and then off to the tube station. For almost $25, I got a fast train to Heathrow (the alternative being a 60+minute subway ride with stops aplenty on the way. I figured it was worth it to sleep in), where I spent 95 minutes in line. I got there 2 hours before my flight left, and by the time I got to the front of the checking line, they were worried enough about the timing that there was a guy asking if anyone was still waiting to checkin for flight 1010. About 10 of us raised our hands, and got bumped ahead in line, though by that point we were all pretty close to the front anyway. Security wasn't a problem, and off I went.
Schiphol was fun. The takeoff at Heathrow was over 20 minutes late so we landed in Amsterdam after when my boarding pass said boarding would start for the flight to Detroit. And it took forever to unload the plane, dinky as it was, because so many people had issues getting their ginormous bags out of the overhead bins. So I finally get to the gate, which is roped off and there's no way in. This confuses me for a moment, but it becomes clear that they're letting people in one at a time for some reason. I go in and a guy says "stand over there please". So over I go, put my backpack down, and am getting out some snack food when a woman asks me to "come this way please". So I go over there, put my backpack down, and am once again just reaching for my apricots when she asks me to come away from the window, something about the light. At that point it becomes clear that what they should have done was say "please wait here to be interviewed" way back when I first came through the roped-off area around the gate. Yes, I own all my stuff. Yes, I packed it myself. In my hotel. Last night. No, I'm not bringing bombs for other people. I list the electronics I'm bringing. This takes a while. Eventually I get a sticker and go sit down for a while longer. In response to questioning, I'm told that the "boarding time" listed on my ticket is a lie to get people to the gates early enough that they can interview 300 passengers with a minimum of airport personnel. Great. Eventually we board. The machine that reads boarding passes jams on the person two in front of me, but it's apparently a fluke, as it works fine after that. While I'm standing in line there waiting for them to clear the paper path, there's an announcement asking for anyone who can translate Russian into English. They're not asking for an airport translator to come over, they're asking if any passengers happen to speak Russian and English. Note to terrorists: bring any necessary planning docs in not-English and not-Arabic, and have a confederate on the flight to come forward and tell the airport people they're harmless. Further note to terrorists: do your planning ahead of time so you don't need any incriminating paperwork onboard. Note to airport security: why are you worrying about paperwork in Russian?
My seat on the trans-Atlantic flight was in the third row of steerage, so I got off the plain in Detroit in record time, allowing me to clear immigration before the lines really got long. Not so lucky on baggage claim and customs. I did get chem-sniffed though. Nifty automated machine that puffs at you with a dozen or so nozzles, sucks up the air it dislodges, and analyzes it before letting you through. It's got voice messages for things like "ok, you can go now" and "please stand back" when the proximity sensors indicate the next person in line is a few inches too close to the machine. Also got asked for my boarding pass about 4 times. What is this US fascination with boarding passes? The rest of the world doesn't freak out about it. Note to FAA / DHS: you do know I can print as many boarding passes as I want, with whatever names I want, from the airlines' online check-in systems, right? I mean, the passes I was issued for my flight out of the US had reminders for security personnel to check my passport; I deleted them before printing because I didn't want to be hassled. It took a text editor and two minutes.
When I got through the bureaucracy and looked for my flight out of Detroit, it wasn't even up on the departure boards yet, but I did see another flight leaving soon for Madison, so I rushed over to that gate. When I got there, they were just finishing up boarding, so I asked if there was a free seat. The person said yes, asked if I was on a later flight. I said yeah; she asked for ID and my boarding pass. She glanced at my passport, tore up my boarding pass and issued me another one, and I hopped on the plane. None of the BS my brother encountered trying to get on an earlier flight that you're not allowed to fly without your checked luggage. Just gave me a ticket and on I went. I was person number 2 in a row of 3 seats, so the flight wasn't bad, even though my seatback wouldn't stay up. Despite having to go back tomorrow to pick up my checked luggage, I'd call that a win since I didn't have to spend 4 hours in Detroit. Those being the hours of 1am to 5am London time. Got home, brushed my teeth, fell asleep.