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|Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010|
On Monday, the Israeli Navy boarded a humanitarian flotilla in international waters, to prevent the flotilla from breaking Israel and Egypt's blockade of the Gaza Strip. According to Israel, their soldiers were attacked as soon as they boarded the first ship; the soldiers opened fire, and at least nine civilians were killed. Four Israeli soldiers were injured.
As usual, public opinion seems to be divided between most of the world, which denounces Israel's actions; and Americans, many of whom are defending Israel.
I don't know the correct answer. As much as I want to weigh in, the situation is too recent and too complex for me to fully digest right away.
That said, I have a question for those - often like me - who instinctively defend Israel in every situation:
Do you give America the same free pass? Do you assume that every decision made by American leaders is well-intentioned and well-executed?
If not, then why assume that every decision made by Israel’s leaders is well-intentioned and well-executed? Are Israel’s leaders always good? Are they always right?
Israel is currently led by Benjamin Netanyahu, a belligerent right-winger who, as an American politician, would be tremendously unpopular among America’s Jews. Yet too many Americans who would never have voted for Netanyahu nevertheless support nearly everything he does as Israeli Prime Minister.
It's important to remember that the best, most well-intentioned leaders in the world still make awful, even criminal mistakes. Franklin Roosevelt interned thousands of Americans in camps simply because they were of Japanese ancestry. Did this make him a “bad” leader, or America a “bad” country? I’d argue “no” on both counts. Roosevelt was a good leader, and America is a good country. But who today would defend internment?
Similarly, one can admire Menachem Begin's signing of the peace treaty with Egypt while criticizing his disastrous 1982 war with Lebanon.
Many democratically-elected leaders in what I call “good” countries – like Israel and America - aren’t even well-intentioned or competent. They commit acts that are either poorly intentioned, hopelessly bungled, or both. Witness Dick Cheney’s torture program, or George W. Bush’s Iraq war. These were American acts committed by American leaders. Should they be defended solely for that reason?
Even flag-wavin' Sarah Palin has no problem criticizing her country's actions when she doesn't like the current President. That may be the one thing we have in common. But she and many others immediately jump to Israel's defense, after every blockade and shooting and lopsided war.
This is blind approval that no country deserves or even needs. Sometimes an Israeli act may have been committed by a bad leader - and sometimes Israelis just screw up. Everybody does.
When George W. Bush screwed up, plenty of Americans were willing to criticize their country's actions. When Benjamin Netanyahu screws up, plenty of Israelis are willing to do the same.
But from America, we lose perspective when Israel does something controversial. Many of us assume that every Israeli act, no matter how grisly, must have been nobly conceived and flawlessly executed. At the least, the flotilla incident seems lacking in at least one of those categories.
Israel does face legitimate threats to its security. And it's my belief that much world criticism of Israel, however justified in the moment, is rooted in irrational antisemitic hatred. I'd go so far as to say that when the world starts shouting at Israel, its supporters should shout back just as loudly. But our shouted message should be "Wait for the facts" - not "Israel is always right".
"Always right" is blind approval we don’t give our own leaders - and nor should we. It’s blind approval Israelis don’t give their own leaders, and nor should they. In fact, it’s blind approval that no country or leader deserves, even the best of them. When Americans condone Israeli actions - right or wrong - we do Israel no favors.
|Wednesday, April 28th, 2010|
|Gordon Brown's gaffe
Nobody likes Gordon Brown. The British Prime Minister is losing badly in the polls, with the election just weeks away. He's being characterized as harsh and unlikeable, and even I'll admit that in the televised debates, he comes off as someone small children might have nightmares about.
His latest gaffe is calling a middle-aged voter "bigoted" after suffering through a conversation with her for the benefit of the media. At the end of the conversation, the woman - Gillian Duffy - asked Brown about "all those Eastern Europeans" emigrating to the United Kingdom.
Brown was polite and courteous, but afterwards in his car, with the his microphone unfortunately still on, he went on a rant, calling the conversation a "disaster" and Ms. Duffy "just sort of a bigoted woman".
It's become a huge story in Britain, destined to survive at least one 24-hour news cycle, and it may well sink Brown's Labour party in the elections. To many, Brown came off as angry, two-faced, and lacking even a glimmer of the common touch.
Granted, Brown isn't as touchy-feely or, well, Obama-ish as rivals David Cameron or Nick Clegg. Labour probably will lose big, and based on their handling of the British economy, they might well deserve it.
That said, I remain a fan of Gordon Brown, and I think today's gaffe - which it certainly was - has been blown out of proportion.
It may well be true that Labour has scuttled the British empire and the domestic economy. And enough people have characterized Brown as a partisan bully, rude even to aides and staff members, that there's likely a lot of truth to it.
That said, he still strikes me as an honest, deeply serious man who cares about Britain and its people - even if he isn't quite sure how to have a conversation with one of them. I'm not sure whether I can say the same about Cameron or Clegg. They play well on TV, but it's hard for me to picture them making the tough decisions - taking the 8 a.m. (EST) phone call, as it were.
Brown certainly did come off as two-faced today, but no more than any of us do after a conversation with someone we don't particularly like. He merely committed the sin of being honest with a live mic on his lapel.
And his characterization of Duffy as "bigoted", in my opinion, says a lot in Brown's favor. You call someone a bigot when, right or wrong, you honestly feel they have bigoted views, views that probably make a decent man like Gordon Brown blanche.
Brown seemed genuinely appalled by the idea that Ms. Duffy didn't want Eastern Europeans emigrating to Britain. If he simply didn't like Duffy, he'd have called her a bitch, not a bigot.
It's unlikely that Labour will win next month, and Brown will go down as an unelected and rarely popular Prime Minister. History is turning against him, and it's tough to fight that.
Much of this can be blamed on his gruff demeanor, and maybe even on his policies. But I find it unfortunate; I wish more Britons would look past his personality and see a man who can be trusted to helm the country through tough times.
|Thursday, April 8th, 2010|
|Execution Without Trial
I'm a big fan of Barack Obama. For proof, check out, oh, I don't know, Why I Donated $500 To Barack Obama Today
That said, I'm disgusted by his decision to authorize the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen living in Yemen.
I know very little about al-Awlaki, but I have no love for him. It's likely that he does incite and aid terrorism. He probably also kicks dogs and thinks your baby is ugly. In all seriousness, he probably is a monster.
On the other hand, Barack Obama is a smart, humane man, and I don't think he'd authorize someone to be killed unless he genuinely thought this man was a danger to American lives. Unlike George W. Bush, I don't think that raining death on faraway lands brings Obama a false sense of toughness.
None of that matters. In America, the President should not have the power to arbitrarily order the death of an American citizen. Even if the American citizen is a nasty guy. Even if he's a terrorist.
Such a power is blatantly un-American. The constitution protects us from imprisonment or death without a fair trial, and this proposed assassination undermines all that. If a constitutional law professor like Obama is too blind to see that, then he needs to be reminded right away.
I'm not naive. In conducting two wars and ordering drone attacks in Pakistan, Obama has already caused the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people. Meanwhile, al-Awlaki is still breathing, and there's no guarantee that the President will ever act on this threatened assassination.
So why the outrage? Because this power is so blatantly against everything our country stands for. We may imprison millions of people, and execute dozens each year, but we go through the pretense of bringing charges against them and putting them on trial. There is a burden upon the government to prove that someone deserves to be locked up or executed. This is how it should be.
Now consider what Obama is authorizing: the President decides, with no burden of proof, that an American citizen is a threat and must be killed; that killing is authorized behind closed doors, far from any courtroom; and then that person is executed, not in a gas chamber or by lethal injection, but shot while walking down the street or smothered while sleeping at home.Just because the President said he was a bad man.
It's easy to look at a freakshow like al-Awlaki and say, "I'm not that guy. I'd never bring that upon myself." But that's a fallacy.
At the risk of sounding paranoid, if the President can order al-Awlaki killed without explaining why, and without bringing charges against him or trying him in court, then he can
do the same thing to you.
That's the reality when something like this becomes law. It's suddenly commonplace and accepted. Nobody bats an eyelash. And even though there's a 99.9% chance it will never happen to us, we'll have no right to act surprised if it does.
|Sunday, February 21st, 2010|
I'm supposed to hate McDonald's. After all, I'm a vegetarian. Budweiser has to pretend to like designated drivers, but McDonald's very plainly acts like I'm a scourge on decent society.
The relationship is usually grudging at best. We're an urban legend they can swear they've never actually seen; they're something we might have enjoyed as stupid kids but have since matured out of.
However, on my trip out west this past week, I've realized how impressive McDonald's actually is.
For one, they are beyond dependable. Wherever I order a McDonald's hash brown, I am guaranteed to get the same crisp, greasy soylent-green slab in every restaurant. Never mind that it remembers being a real potato like members of the Jefferson Airplane remembers the 60's: vaguely, a lot of years and a ton of chemicals ago. It's still dependably delicious, whatever it is - in every McDonald's, in every town.
Second, they are efficient. They deliver what you want, quickly, without the need for their employees to think for even a moment.
When I order coffee with one cream and two sugars, there are buttons that the employee hits once for one cream and twice for two sugars. A monkey could make my coffee and it would come out exactly how I want it. Of course, my example of a monkey making my coffee is absurd; any monkey applying to McDonald's would make manager pretty quickly.
Finally, McDonald's is just there. They're is in every town, at every stop on the interstate, and very possibly creeping up behind you as you read this.
If you're tired, hungry, or need a clean restroom during a road trip, you can count on a McDonald's being no more than a few minutes away. Travelers know they won't be getting anything with nutritional value, but they also know they won't starve.
I'm sure I should resent McDonald's for putting a lot of mom-and-pop artery-clogging processed food establishments out of business. I'll miss Wanda's Lard Palace, for sure. But there's something to the massive corporate aesthetic - the idea that someone in a suit can write a memo, and I can count on today's egg biscuit in Seattle tasting exactly like it did in Miami when I was a kid. It's comforting.
I haven't gone to McDonald's much in the last ten years, since I began shunning everything that real Americans love. But even though McDonald's still hates me, I've come out of this latest road trip a genuine fan.
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|Friday, July 31st, 2009|
|Lost book reviews
I've read these books over the last few years but neglected to review them. Most of them deserve more than a few sentences, but they can suck it up, because that's all they gettin'.Malcolm Gladwell, Blink
attempts to explain our split-second judgments and determine whether or not they are trustworthy. Gladwell is a terrific writer, so engaging that you might finish the book and swear you learned more than you actually did. One can debate whether he actually proves his scientific thesis, but the book is still stuffed with entertaining, thought-provoking vignettes.Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics
Apparently there's gold in wrapping complex socioeconomic theories in the breezy prose of a New Yorker article (see also: Blink
). Each chapter of Freakonomics
is one of economist Levitt's theories dressed up in journalist Dubner's hip, accessible lingo. If there's an underlying theme, it's that conventional widsom is almost always wrong. As with Blink
, the storytelling is top-notch, and you might feel like you're learning a lot....until you actually try to explain it to someone else. That said, it's still a really fun read that will make you question some of your ingrained assumptions.
Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang Leader For A Day
' best chapter features an Indian sociologist who stumbles into Chicago's projects, almost gets killed, and ends up befriending the leader of a crack gang. Here, the sociologist tells his own story. It's a maddening look at life in the slums of Chicago, which are almost little third-world countries unto themselves. Venkatesh also paints a complex picture of gang leader J.T., who tried college but gave it up to run a local chapter of the Black Kings. It's endlessly fascinating; I wondered how anybody in America could still live that way, and how fearless and cracked Venkatesh had to be to throw himself into it day after day.Wallace D. Wattles, The Science of Getting Rich
Yes, this was the inspiration for The Secret
, which you hate. And the worst salesmen of Wattles' theory do imply that it will bring you something for nothing. But Wattles' old-fashioned prose merely encourages you to picture what you really want and then bring it into your life. Whether that represents a lifetime of sharp focus and productive work - or simply a magic genie - is up to each individual reader.Rocky Blunt, Foot Soldier
This is one of the best World War II memoirs I've read: honest and unsparing but still sympathetic and personable. Blunt was a young jazz drummer who joined the Army and slogged his way through months of fighting in Europe. His story is vivid but never sensational, just the story of what the war looked like from the muck on the ground.Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
is a standard Sherlock Holmes story, stretched out to the length of a short novel. As such, it's dry, without any characterization or heart, but still ripping good fun.Jon Krakauer, Into the WildInto the Wild
profiles Chris McCandless, who graduated from Emory in the nineties, donated all his money to charity, and then disappeared from his life. Krakauer's detective work allows us to follow Chris as he travels the country, hitchhiking and sleeping under the stars and thumbing his nose at modern society. All of it leads to a fateful trip "into the wild" of Alaska to live off the land. By tracking down people who knew Chris, and by relating his own feelings of wanderlust, Krakauer paints a vivid picture of a boy both foolish and admirable. To anyone locked into a mainstream existence, Chris's story is an inspiration and a heartbreaking cautionary tale.
|Saturday, July 25th, 2009|
|Berlin, Day 2: What world war??
Stan calls Berlin a museum replica, and he's not far off. Ninety percent of it was destroyed during World War 2. There are beautiful buildings with old designs, but they're fakes: almost everything has been rebuilt since 1945.
Even World War 2 is ancient history in Berlin; the most visible scars are from the Cold War, when the Soviets encircled West Berlin with a wall that cut the city in two.
Despite the wall, West Berlin was stuffed with American investment and protection, and its citizens could travel in and out at their leisure. East Berliners were stuck behind the wall, run by a country that wanted revenge after the war. A few thousand East Berliners made it over to the West; a few hundred were shot dead trying to.
The Berlin Wall is everywhere in the city, in photo exhibits, in souvenier shops, in the tiny cobblestone path that marks where it used to stand. It fell in 1989, and the city was reunited; so in a sense, the Berlin we visited is only 20 years old. The city's history isn't in the architecture, but in the people and what they've perpetrated and endured.
Despite all this, Berlin is as pleasant and open a city as we've encountered. It's new, vibrant, multicultural, and liberal - perfect for a hippie like me. The streets and sidewalks are spacious. The people are nice. It feels good to be there.
There's a sense of being free to pursue your happiness - not to wacky extremes like in Amsterdam, but as a productive member of society (or a leeching tourist). Even the subway seems to run on the honor system; there are no turnstiles, just tickets that nobody checked while we were there. Also, the streets are paved with happiness, and strudels rain from the sky, even on sunny days, which is all of them.
We took the train to the city center in the morning and found Unter Den Linden, near all the cool communist stuff. It was rainy out, and we wandered for a while and looked for monuments.
Stan struck up a conversation with an Indian person next to him; he turned out to be a New Yorker who knew Stan's brother. This in Berlin! I thought Jewish Geography was intense, but Indian geography is on another level. The guy showed us around for a bit and then headed off.
We waited in line at the Reichstag, the huge, ornate house of the German parliament. But it took forever to get in, so we cut out to catch our walking tour at 4 pm.
The tour was intense. It lasted for 3 1/2 hours and showed us a history that makes Belfast look like Del Boca Vista. We saw typical European monuments like the Brandenburg Gate; but also the Holocaust Memorial, the site of Hitler's bunker, and the old Luftwaffe (German Air Force) headquarters. And we saw what's left of the wall, and the site of Checkpoint Charlie. Berlin hasn't always been smiles and sunshine.
After the tour, we found food at a diner that mounted a big American flag in the middle of my veggieburger. I appreciated it. Then we got some ice cream and headed back to the hostel.
I could live in Berlin. I think. We were only there for two days, and I don't see myself wanting to live outside the US. But if I had to flee the country, I could see myself hiding from the law in Berlin. It's comfortable and full of energy at the same time.
We just landed in New Jersey. It doesn't have the same flair as the last few places, but it's close to home, and I kind of missed it. It's been a great trip - I'll sum it up soon. For now, thanks for reading.
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|Friday, July 24th, 2009|
|Berlin, Day 1: Still haven't seen it above ground.
It's strange not speaking the language. After four weeks in Russia, I found myself staring at bad American movies and straining to hear the English under the Russian dubbing. It sounded like home.
Now, after one day in Berlin, I feel like the German language is closing in on me. It's everywhere. This isn't the Germans' fault. They're enitled to their overly harsh, z-filled language. But it's not mine.
We encountered a lot of German on Thursday while we spent four hours trying to find our hostel. Finding our hostel doesn't have the same panache as visiting Stonehenge or the Eiffel Tower, but we still made a day of it. We should have sold tickets so people could watch us bumble our way through Berlin.
We started at the Hotel Kooyk in Amsterdam, rolling our bags for a half-hour across the town's bumpy sidewalks, waking up everyone and not particularly caring. Trams weren't running, even when we tempted them by standing in the middle of the tracks.
Our train left at 7 am; it was a six-hour ride to Berlin, shared with a meowing cat, loud German teenagers, and some Italian kids who whispered louder than I will ever shout. But overall it was pleasant, and we watched the Dutch countryside blend into German farms and towns and factories.
On the border, some German guards came in and asked a scruffy Italian kid if he'd brought in anything from the Netherlands, maybe some drugs, hmm? As always, I remained above suspicion. I could have blown smoke in the guard's face, and he would have mumbled "Good, good" and moved on to the next guy.
We reached Berlin Spandau rail station at 1; and here our troubles began. Our hostel's website had said it was near the train station, on Kurstrasse, but the crabby lady at the train station showed us that Kurstrasse was in another part of town and printed us directions in German.
At this point, Stan pulled off an amazing feat of navigation, matching the subway stop names to a giant map of Berlin in the subway station, and even figuring out what bus we should take, and where. We took the U7 thirteen stops; and then the U3 nine stops; and then the bus a few miles down the road. Finally, Kurstrasse.
We rolled our suitcases, bump by bump, down Kurstrasse, looking for number 20. It only went to 11 and then disappeared. We rolled back and asked a cafe owner where number 20 was, and she took us down a dirt road that had more buildings, none of which were number 20. For us, this was banïktervenderschkossen, which is to say, bad.
It was a student living complex, and the clerk there swore that there was no Kurstrasse in the area, despite the fact that we'd just sweated all up and down it. She nicely printed us directions to our hostel.....which was 10 minutes from the original train station. Dämn.
We took the bus, the train, the train, and the bus again. Once we got off the bus, we asked several people for directions. Eventually we reached the other Kurstrasse (not to be confused with the other other Kurstrasse, apparently even further across the city).
Four hours after we'd originally reached the area, we rolled into the Hostel Reiter - and the clerk wasn't there. We called the lengthy German phone number on the door, and finally he showed up and let us in. We went upstairs and collapsed for a while.
What did we learn from our journey? 1) Google this shit before you leave the United States. 2) Don't be too proud to take a cab. 3) The whole thing was kind of fun anyway. We saw Berlin off the beaten path and became experts on its absurdly efficient public transportation system.
Also, 4) Germans are as friendly as I'd heard. The harried clerks at information booths didn't seem to like us, but everyone else went out of their way to help us get where we were going. One lady ran away to get us directions, leaving her young son with us for a second. I wouldn't even leave a sandwich with strangers. Everyone in Berlin smiled and tried to speak English. Everyone was polite.
As lame as we felt for it, we didn't have the energy to go into the center of Berlin after our journey. We rested a bit and found a good dinner at a chain restaurant in the Spandau area. When we said we didn't want meat in our meals, the waitress looked stunned. "You mean you don't like meat?" I guess that cultural gap is tough to overcome.
So, our first day in Berlin wasn't touisty - or educational - or planned - or refreshing - but it was an experience, and it was a deep immersion into a fascinating culture. Today is our second and last day in Berlin. I'll write about it from the plane on Saturday, and I'll post it from New York. For now, thanks as always for reading.
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|Thursday, July 23rd, 2009|
|Amsterdam: Nothing like the movie at Epcot.
Amsterdam could play up its history as the capital of a an old seafaring empire; instead, it's chosen to become the sex and weed capital of Europe. I guess the souvenier wooden shoes weren't selling. We only saw a few, one shelf below the ceramic penises decorated with marijuana leaves.
There isn't a single Starbucks in Amsterdam, but there are dozens of coffee shops selling "space brownies" and a variety of joints. The smell of, uh, coffee wafts through the streets. Then there are the sex toy shops, live sex shows, and yes, girls hawking thrmselves in the windows.
If that sounds sleazy and single-minded - like, say, Las Vegas - it's not. As Stan pointed out, Amsterdam is like a European Key West. There's no hard sell, just the feeling that you should have fun and do whatever makes you happy. If you're not sexing and weeding, it's still a cute little city with lively energy.
We arrived around noon. Our first impression was that Amsterdam is damn chaotic during the day. The streets are filled with cars, horses, trams, buses, and happy little bicycles that will run you down if you ignore their happy little bells. They weave in and out of each other, leaving narrow, near-nonexistent paths for pedestrians. The second we stepped off the train instead of rolling off in a bicycle, we were marked for death.
When the city clears out, it becomes much more pleasant. You are more likely to be paralyzed by the lovely architecture than by a speeding tram car. The row houses are all different colors, and the styles of several centuries are often represented on the same block. Brown canals criss-cross the city, and people peacefully row them or putter by on quiet motorboats.
Unlike Paris's endlessly cloned bistros, Amsterdam features a variety of cuisines, if slightly bastardized for tourists. The city loves Italian food; it seemed like every other reataurant was a pizzeria. Like Paris, the stores are rarely open; there were a ton of dark shops with the sign "GESLOTEN" plastered on the door. One sign did attempt to explain the proprietor's absence: "Geen Fietsen".
After we took a tram to our hostel and dropped off our bags, we found some bar food at a smoky little pub. From there, we explored. Amsterdam doesnt seem much for churches and monuments; there are a few good ones, but many are more decayed than inspiring. The city's charm lies in its streets, narrow and cobblestoned and lined with shops. The streets are clean and well-preserved, but you always feel like you are in a pleasant old town.
We hung out for a while by the Nationaal Monument, where hundreds of people had gathered to enjoy the sunny day. Then we headed back to the hostel to check in.
In the lobby, we met Greta, a recent college grad from Virginia, and she became our buddy for the rest of the day. We got shifted to another hostel because ours was overbooked, so we checked in there and then the three of us headed to town.
Unlike in other cities, we didn't attempt to find any tourist spots in Amsterdam. The three of us simply wandered and tried to get a sense of the city. We shot pool in a bar, had some drinks, sat by a canal, and ate greasy falafel sandwiches and fries.
Once rush hour ends and the bicyclists stop competing for your blood, Amstrdam is a very peaceful place to explore. There was no sense that we had to be anywhere or do anything except relax and wander. It's a good feeling. We soaked in the city and talked about the best places we'd seen in our travels.
Finally, we took a long walk back to our original hostel, where we dropped off Greta; she'd been fun company for the day, but we were all kind of tired. We went to our new hostel and fell asleep pretty quickly.
Amsterdam was fun; you'd have to go out of your way to have a bad time there. Yea, it's hard to get a sense of a city in 18 hours, but I've gotten good at making merciless, rapid-fire judgments during my time overseas.
I don't get much from the Dutch. I expected happy and friendly, or at least really, really mellow. They are definitely fun-loving and independent, but also brusque. Pleasantries - even in their native language - seemed annoying to them, tourists a money-making necessity. They helped us only when cornered. Every conversation felt like it was going on too long for their tastes, and we felt endlessly in their way. It pains me to say so, but they made me miss the French.
Because of that - or maybe just the bitchy clerk at the train station - I wasn't unhappy when we boarded our train to Berlin this morning. I don't know if I'll miss Amsterdam, but it was an extremely enjoyable place to spend a day.
Right now, we're in our hostel in the heart of Berlin's Lödendistrikt (Loud District). We have no idea what to expect from Berlin. I am trying to piece together what German I know from hearing Wayne Newton songs and from playing Wolfenstein in middle school. We'll see how well that works. For now, and as always, thanks for reading.
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|Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009|
|Paris, Day 2: The city is closed; please come back after 11.
Paris is full of delightful little shops, most of which are shuttered up for approximately 23 hours each day. I've started asking shop owners, "Quelle est votre heure aujourd'hui?", or, "What is your hour today?" Invariably, the answer is, "Desole, elle a juste passé. Au revoir": "Sorry, it just passed. Good bye."
Thus, we spent much of Tuesday searching for places that were open. Not in the morning. Not in the evening. Maybe a little in between.
We set off in the morning for an Internet cafe that turned out to have a big shutter over it at 10 am. No luck there. We used finding Internet and lunch as an excuse to wander Paris on a quiet morning. The sights weren't as breathtaking as the day before, but that's relative in Paris; the statues were ornate; the buildings majestic.
Parisians apparently don't use the Internet; they mumble things to each other, and word eventually gets around. So we didn't find Internet, but we did have lunch at a cute little bakery. I had a baguette that was crunchy and chewy at once; it was the first time I've really enjoyed one.
We inched our way towards the Eiffel Tower, which we hadn't yet seen during the day. It looks a little grimier in the light, like everything in Paris, but it's still incredible. We decided to climb as far as we could and eventually make it to the top.
The tower is insanely busy during the day. We waited in line for tickets, then began our climb. 668 steps take you to the second level; it's exhausting but fully worth it because we saved a few Euros that way. Also the sense of accomplishment, or something. The view from the second level is magnificent, and the wind up there relieved us on a humid day.
On the second level, we waited in line for elevator tickets, then again for the elevator, and then we took it up to the top, 300 metres above Paris. From there, the city spreads out before you, old and sprawling and beautiful. Imagine Parisians in 1890, before airplanes, climbing up and suddenly seeing their city as they never had before. It's breathtaking.
We took the elevator down and walked a bit before taking the Metro back to our hostel to check on something. From there, the day was disjointed but relaxing. We wandered around our area and had some fries at a bar that miraculously had wi-fi. We took the Metro to the northern end of town and fruitlessly tried to find Montmartre Cemetary before evening overtook us.
Then we spent about an hour searching for cheap vegetarian food, very little of which exists at all of the identical restaurants in Paris. French pastry is superb, but the meals aren't necessarily geared towards me. Finally, we gave up and headed back towards our neighborhood, where we did find delicious, inexpensive chocolate crepes.
Stan and I disagree about Paris. To him, it's everything that New York and London aren't: relaxed, peaceful, full of beauty. It makes London look like it has a permanent stick up its ass. These days have been Stan's favorite in Europe, for reasons I completely understand.
To me, Paris is amazing and a beautiful city to visit - by all means, if you haven't been, then go. I could have stayed an extra week and enjoyed every second of it.
But I don't think I'd want to stay forever. Peace isn't everything, and most of Paris is lacking the crazy energy I like in a city. Outside of the Champs Elysses, it's beyond relaxed; some would say it's asleep. Shops and subways open whenever and close too soon. Things break down and stay broken for a while. People help you when they get around to it. Everything is old, which is fascinating for the tourist and frustrating for the human being.
The people were friendly - they didn't go out of their way to help us, but we were almost always greeted with a smile and a friendly word. I've experienced unfriendly before - Russia, and I should mention Russia again - and this wasn't it. The customer service here, as much as I hate to say it, is much better than Miami or New York; the bored French teenagers behind the counter still attempt to give a shit. If we hadn't come in with any notions of French rudeness or superiority, I don't think we would have walked out with any.
Maybe it's that Paris seems beholden to its past. I look around London and New York and Washington and think, "Great things happen here." In Paris, the sense is, "Great things happened here."
That probably isn't fair - there is a downtown area we didn't see; and the French are still a potent diplomatic force in the world - but we didn't encounter much innovation in Paris. All the best buildings were built hundreds of years ago, and modern Parisians seem afraid to tinker with anything.
If that's the case, though, Paris is less a historical artifact than a living art museum. From the top of the Eiffel Tower, the city's beauty strikes you in every direction, from the parks to the cathedrals to the old apartment buildings and the layout of the streets. For sheer visual wonder, Paris beats any city I've seen, hands-down. For that reason, I'll miss it, and I look forward to visiting again. I'd bet that Stan will beat me back here.
Now we're on a train to Amsterdam. If the Dutch government chooses to censor some of our adventures there, I can't be held responsible. For now, thanks for reading.
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|Tuesday, July 21st, 2009|
|Paris, Day 1: Walk into traffic, sil vous plait.
We traveled first class by accident. Someone - I shall remain nameless - didn't book the train to France until the last minute, so the only option was first class tickets on the Eurostar to Paris. What a shame.
First class isn't something I'd pay for ever again, but after our experience on Eurostar, I'm open to someone buying me tickets. We sat in comfortable seats with actual legroom while friendly stewardesses served us delicious cheese omelettes. Not too shabby, considering that the passengers in coach had to prepare breakfast for the train crew. We, on the other hand, sipped rich-people hot chocolate and calmly watched the French countryside roll by.
Reaching France was a different story. Within a minute, we were approached by three people holding up signs asking for money. We got lost from each other for a few minutes. We helped a Brazilian girl find the ticket booth, and I bought her a $3.75 water, because she was feeling sick and she was cute and I'm a sucker. And entering the train station, Stan's bag got caught in the death-grip of the turnstile; one of my first French memories is me trying to wrench the security doors open while Stan pulled at his bag for dear life.
Thus, my first impression of Paris was that it's insane. The Metro is stuffed with people, poorly ventilated, and with lightning-fast doors clearly modeled after the guillotine.
But once we reached Glaciere, where our hostel is, we found a different Paris. It's a lot like the movies, with winding cobblestone streets and little cafes and shady trees all over. This Paris thankfully lingered; most of it is as relaxed as a big city can be.
After we checked in to our hostel, we started north. We strolled among the stoned cobbles and found an Egyptian restaurant. We had falafels and a surly waiter, and we chatted with a couple from York, England, who were far from surly.
Next came the walk, or as they call it in French, Le Marche du Morte. In seven or eight hours, we covered most of the big Parisian monuments, churhes, fountains, statues, apartment buildings, and gorgeous stand-alone bricks.
Many of these buildings must be seen to be appreciated - so I will say up front that my writing and evntual photographs will not do them justice. They are so vast, so detailed, and so majestic that I can't picture anything giving a worthwhile impression other than standing next to them and gawking.
Notre Dame is an example. A photo can show you the shape of the cathedral, which is admittedly a bit clunky. But the facade is stunning: hundreds of religious statues, each one different, arranged symmetrically in the most beautiful designs.
The Louvre is even better. As a showcase of architecture and of man's ability to come together and create a masterpiece over years and years of time, I've never seen anything that equals it. It stretches on for block after block, around a peaceful courtyard, down both sides of a square, three imposing granite stories decorated with impossibly detailed classical statues. I forgot for a while that it's also an art museum that must take weeks to truly appreciate. Just the building is staggering in its scope and beauty.
We saw others: the Hotel de Ville, the Sorbonne, the Palace Luxembourg, various ridiculously ornate statues on the side of the road. There is so much beauty here. I knew Paris was a big deal, but I didn't understand why until yesterday.
At one point, we saw a car smash into another with a loud crack. The little car spun around and spilled glass and parts all over the street; then the driver sped off like nothing happened. This doesn't have much to do with Paris, but considering that nobody got hurt, it was pretty cool.
Onward marched our march, through the Louvre Gardens, down the Seine, and finally into a more commercial area. We had dinner at an Indian restaurant, then walked down the Champs Elysses. It's full of life, loud, and busy, with flashy wall-to-wall stores and cafes where people celebrated an ordinary Monday night.
It was a long walk down the Champs Elysses, and we dodged the crowds until we reached the Arc de Triumphe. Here is another monument that has to be experienced in person: the shape is just like pictures I've always seen, but it wasn't until we stood underneath it that I realized how large it is, and how small I felt underneath it.
Like everything else here, it's not just big, but detailed: carvings on the dizzyingly high ceiling, names neatly etched in marble, eye-catching statues on the front. Seeing it at night, with the flame near the tomb of the unknown soldier flickering in the dark, was a particular thrill.
We knew the Eiffel Tower was off in the distance, but it was nearing midnight, and the trains here go on strike every night at 12:50 am. But there it was in the distance, lit up and looming over the city. We were tired, but we walked on, not even knowing the way, just following the tower. With every street we passed, it became more entrancing.
Finally, we reached the tower. I will stop harping on this point, but once again, it has to be seen in person. I say this only because I thought I understood it from reading about it and seeing pictures. Everyone knows the Eiffel Tower. But standing underneath it, watching the glittering web of metal snake up into the sky, I again felt tiny. It's so tall, so intricate, such a mind-blowing display of architecture and engineering.
At midnight, the crowd started cheering, and so we looked up. The tower was covered in rapidly flickering lights, an eye-catching display for all of Paris to see. When that was finished, we took the Metro back to our hostel and went to bed.
Today is our second and last day in Paris, so I will save most of my thoughts on the city for the next entry. But I will say, before it possibly changes, that almost everybody in Paris has been friendly to us. One couple walked away when we asked them for directions; and one policeman, when I crossed the street in the wrong place, politely motioned me to walk back into heavy traffic. Otherwise, we've received smiles and courtesy from almost everyone we've talked to. Maybe we're just meeting the wrong people?
More thoughts on Paris tomorrow. For now, we are exploring again. Thanks for reading.
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|Monday, July 20th, 2009|
|London, Day 3 / Stonehenge: In the time before history...
Stonehenge shouldn't be anything special. It's a pile of rocks in the middle of a field. If it's a temple, mankind has somewhat improved on the design since 2000 BC. Stan wanted to go; it was his only request besides the Guinness Factory. I was indifferent.
Sunday morning, we took the train to Salisbury, England, near Stonehenge. We passed through the English countryside, which rolls on as far as the eye can see. For people who live so crammed together in cities and suburbs, the English leave a lot of open space to admire from train windows.
Salisbury is a charming town, old and modern, dotted with 18th-century buildings that have Dominos Pizzas and Burger Kings on the ground floor. From the train station, we took a tour bus to Stonehenge. Hundreds of people had the same idea. Apparently it's famous.
If it's not, it should be. Stonehenge is a pile of rocks that is absolutely worth seeing. I can't explain it. Yes, the history is fascinating: massive stones, dragged 240 miles from Wales thousands of years ago, pushed upright and assembled in a circle for reasons that nobody has been able to explain. But if you look at a picture, it's not very inspiring. Just rocks.
In person, it's different. You stand on a field, miles from everything, with grey skies and wind whipping in your face and threatening to knock you down. Hundreds of people are there with you, circling around, but you can barely hear them over the wind. And everybody is staring at the stones.
They stand in a circle, quiet, imposing, almost menacing. They've lasted thousands of years; we're the interlopers, flitting in and out on our tourbuses. Near the stones, you feel insignificant, ignorant, ephemeral. You circle them and gawk, as the wind forces you and the grass to sway back and forth.
I'm skeptical enough to wonder if it's merely the presentation, the fact that you have to orbit them from a respectful distance. But that's true of famous paintings and buildings, all of which are more ornate than a pile of rocks; and yet very little else I've seen commands attention, all of your attention, like Stonehenge.
We circled around for an hour, Stan even more transfixed than me. It was clearly the high point of his trip so far. I stared at the stones and watched rabbits hop obliviously among them and giant crows fight the wind overhead. Two Chinook double-helicopters flew by in the distance, towards one of the military bases in the vast fields around Salisbury, and I geeked out watching them.
Finally, we took a final glance and walked back to the visitors' area. Our bus didn't leave for a half-hour, so we sat in the freezing, windy, rainy English summer and waited. Finally, we boarded the bus to Salisbury, then slept on the train back to London.
Back in town, we had dinner at an Indian restaurant, succesfully avoiding another British meal. Then we did some last-minute sightseeing, walking across London Bridge and looking out on the River Thames and Tower Bridge in the distance. Finally, we took the train back to the hostel. We played ping-pong, had a drink at the bar upstairs, watched a bootleg of The Hangover with other travelers, and went to sleep.
Like Belfast, I didn't want to leave London, but for different reasons. Belfast had a potent hold on me, even after I'd seen its tourist attractions; London is simply fun, and I haven't come close to seeing everything. There's history on almost every block, too many of which we didn't reach.
The trains are efficient, and it never takes more than a second to figure out where you are and how to reach your destination. Helpful workers are everywhere. Some might be creeped out by the thousands of CCTV cameras scrutinizing your every move, but I felt safe, and people walked around freely, not with the lock-step trudge of citizens in a police state.
The people are friendly; the streets open and fascinating. The energy in the city is almost tangible, much like New York. In fact, walking through London was like walking through a dream for me: streets and vistas that looked similar to ones I've seen, but with the details slightly altered and nothing wholly familiar.
I felt comfortable in Britain. I speak the language and dig the additional habits and slang that I've learned. It's a mix of things multicultural and endearingly British, with respect for both ways. Everything is disgustingly expensive, making even this New Yorker's jaw drop, but people seem to survive.
I get the sense Stan can take Britain or leave it, so I'm glad he had Stonehenge. I'd enjoy spending a lot more time there, existing for a while in London and exploring the little towns up and down the island. I will be back - I already can't wait.
For now, we're on a train, zooming through the French countryside. We're not sure what to expect here, but we're excited anyway. I'll keep everyone updated. Thanks as always for reading.
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|Sunday, July 19th, 2009|
|London, Day 2
It's hard to maintain an insane travel schedule. I swore when I came here that I wouldn't sleep, that I would spend every moment seeing new places and trying new things. That lasted about a day, and since we've gotten to London, we've slowed down a bit. We wake up late and blearily go through the process of getting ready, and then we get lunch, and only then do we tackle London.
Some of our activities have nothing to do with London. We could talk with other travelers in any European city, and we could play ping-pong in a basement, well, anywhere. But it's new and relaxing, the "vacation" aspect of being away from my routine.
And if I'm not feeling as much pressure to see, see, explore, explore, it means I'm learning to simply exist in an unfamiliar place. Hanging around Shepherd's Bush (which we have done) isn't as exciting or memorable as, say, touring Westminster Abbey (which we haven't), but it's still seeing new sights and adjusting to a new culture. It's still London, if not as London.
We still spent a lot of Saturday playing tourist. After we enjoyed a relaxing morning in Shepherd's Bush and a hearty Jacket Potato (baked potato stuffed with pretty much anything), Stan's cousin came into town. He drove us to Hyde Park, which is green and open and filled with relaxing Londoners. From there, we walked a half-hour to Wellington Arch, named after the Duke of Wellington, who something something something in seventeen whatever.
There, we joined up with a free walking tour of the city. It was intense. Our guide took us to more London attractions than I had energy for: Buckingham Palace, St. James's Palace, Trafalgar Square, 10 Downing Street, Westminster Abbey, the tower Big Ben, and the houses of Parliament. In particular, Trafalgar Square is open and inspiring, with ornate fountains and a towering memorial to Admiral Nelson. Westminster Abbey and Parliament are huge and ridiculously detailed, all the more impressive for being centuries old.
Touristy or not, these are big-deal landmarks, and we only scratched the surface of London. The statues are so striking, and the buildings so rich with decoration and history, that I'm happy to go down a checklist here. And three lazy days aren't enough to check off everything. I already can't wait to come back.
After three hours of walking, we were quite tired. First we paid a dollar each (!) to use the loo in the subway station. Then we took a taxi back to the car, drove to Shepherd's Bush, and had dinner at an all-you-can-eat vegetarian restaurant. After that, Stan's cousin left, and we relaxed in the hostel's common room for a while.
People trickled in and out, and we talked with them and played ping-pong.
Around 11 pm, Stan joined a group that was going out to a bar in Soho. I declined, as I'd grown quite attached to my couch. I braced myself for a crazy night of falling asleep early.
Then, at 11:30 pm, a girl walked in and sat on another couch. I asked what her excuse was for staying in on a Saturday night, and she said she was also tired from sightseeing. She turned out to be from Moscow, so I surprised her with some very detailed, knowledgeable criticisms of her hometown.
We ended up talking for two hours, about my trip to Russia, her getting her Master's Degree in Iowa (!), politics, food, and the pluses and minuses of different cities in Europe. She shared her bag of Doritos with me, which I think meant she was in love. And only when she left did we exchange names (and e-mail addresses). It was an unexpected connection on a drowsy Saturday night, two people whose paths were unlikely to cross but who still had a lot in common. And she was really cute.
At 1:30 am, I headed upstairs and collapsed on my top bunk. Stan came in two hours later and described his crazy adventure getting lost in London. Then sleep pulled me back in till the morning.
I feel far away from my life. It feels good to play ping-pong with strangers and not care what time it is, what day it is, or even where I am. I can't live my life free of responsibities, but for ten days, I can happily be a vagabond. Stepping out of my routine tires me out and rejuvenates me at the same time.
As I write this, I am ignoring the scenery as we ride on a train to Salisbury, home of Stonehenge. I'll let you know tomorrow how it went. Thanks as always for reading.
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|Saturday, July 18th, 2009|
|London, Day 1
Friday was a day of transition. Our original plan was to take a ferry from Belfast to Scotland, then zip down on a train to London in time for lunch. When we presented this plan to the clerk at our hostel, however, we were met with a less than serious reaction.
Time to re-plan. As much as I wanted to see miles and miles of Scottish train tracks, I didn't want to make an entire day of it. When we learned that it's never too late to buy an expensive airline ticket (FlyBE charges you an extra fee for a seat!), we decided to fly.
So, Friday morning, we took a cab to Belfast City Airport. Stan lost his body wash at thr security gate because, well, he's brown. I passed right through. And we took off on a one-hour jump to London Gatwick Airport.
I don't know where London Gatwick is, but it's not in London. I'm thinking Iceland. We took an hour and a half busride that wove through every suburb in the city. The suburbs were peaceful: all with little shops, big apartment buildings crammed together, cozy-looking row houses, and enough trees to make the whole area look like a park.
Finally, we made it to London. I'll start by saying that central London is insane. I thought New York was insane, but it's a cozy suburb compared to central London.
Additionally. the tube station is a zoo. Actually, that's not fair. Zoos are relaxed places where animals sleep and lick themselves. In tube stations, if you paused to lick yourself, you would be knocked over within half a second, and six people would politely yell at you for holding things up. There is no stopping in London, no thinking, only moving.
We had some Subway sandwiches in a grimy shopping mall, then navigated our way to our hostel in Shephard's Bush. Shepherd's Bush is outside the city center, almost a suburb, teeming with young people. It's open and relaxed, circling a park, with dozens of unpretentious shops and restaurants lining the streets. There's a little more room to breathe out here, although the crowds can still get you.
After resting for a bit, we took the subway to Picadilly Circus, which is slightly crazier than the name would suggest. It's basically London's Times Square, filled with theatres, expensive theme restaurants, thousands of people, and no room to walk. It's still a lot of fun and filled with energy - it's a rush to zoom around and avoid getting flattened.
By then, we were hungry, and we set off in search of that mythical London creature, cheap food. We started off speed-walking in a random direction, looking for entrees that weren't 18 dollars each. It was a long walk.
We walked through some fascinating areas, sparse and wealthy, ornate and gaudy in the Victorian style. There was almost nobody out and very few restaurants. We got strange looks because we wore tee-shirts and hadn't inherited millions of dollars from our parents. No matter. We searched for an hour and a half, rushing through London streets in the cool weather after a rain.
Stan would disagree, but I'm glad we couldn't find food for a while. Getting lost in London on a guerilla walking tour was a rush, the kind of adventure I wanted after the day's incremental travels. It was getting dark, but I didn't mind; if anyone in the area was a mugger, the locals probably assumed it was us.
Once in a while, we asked for directions; some Londoners brushed us off, but others gave us helpful suggestions. We found Soho, where cheap food was rumored to exist. We waded through crowds of kids who were out for the night. Finally, we found Diner, serving (relatively) inexpensive American food. We ate and rested, and it was good, but I had more fun just getting there. As they say, life's a journey, not a basket of cheese fries.
We reached the hostel around 11:30 pm and went down to the common room. A kid from Hong Kong asked if we wanted to play ping-pong, so we did....and then two brothers from Switzerland joined and kicked our butts....and then someone from Canada joined up....and then we all just sat around and talked. It was fascinating being around so many perpetual travelers, whose ranks we've joined for a scant ten days. I stayed up talking until 3 am, Stan until 5 am, and then we crashed.
I'm still formulating my opinion of London. That it's amazing is not in doubt; but it's so many things in so many directions that I can't get an overall sense of it yet. I'll keep trying, though. Thanks for reading.
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|Friday, July 17th, 2009|
I had to come to Belfast. Stan didn't, but after he signed on to our crazy trip, he didn't have a choice. I've read so much about Northern Ireland, about the Troubles and the IRA, the years of hatred and violence that have scarred the country. Northen Ireland's story has fascinated me like little else I've encountered. When I planned this trip to Europe, Belfast had to be on the itinerary.
Thursday morning, we caught a lazy train from Dublin, gliding through the Irish countryside, past the coast and green hills and tiny villages. Some areas seemed peaceful in a way I've probably never experienced; others struck us as empty, depressed, and filled with drudgery.
We reached Belfast in two hours and rode a free bus to the city centre. We found the welcome center, which became our home base for the day: a place to leave our bags, an Internet center, and an all-important loo.
Belfast was nothing like I expected. For a city that's seen so much death and destruction, it's friendly, open, and helpful. Taxi drivers made animated conversation and took an interest in us. Everyone there had lived through years of fighting and hatred, yet they seemed genuinely optimistic that things are finally getting better.
The original plan was to take a black taxi tour around the city, but the man at the welcome center suggested something else: a three-hour walking "political" tour through the Catholic area of Belfast, guided by a former IRA man. Wow. I half-asked Stan if he was okay with a three-hour walk, then I ignored his answer and signed us up.
The tour was one of the high points of my life; I almost don't care if everything from here is a letdown. Our guide was an animated, grey-haired, potbellied man in his 50s. He'd fought for the IRA all through his youth and into middle age; he'd been in the Maze prison in 1981 during the hunger strike; he'd even been Gerry Adams's bodyguard and traveled with him around the world. Hearing his first-hand perspective illuminated events I was certain I'd known everything about.
He led us and five others through the Falls area, spinning tales and answering our questions. Despite his years of partisan fighting, he was open-minded and all about reconciliation. He took us past a wall full of murals, pointed out bullet holes in the side of a school, and brought us to the city's shining Bobby Sands mural.
We visited the Catholic cemetary, filled with ornate plots, shiny tombstones, and crosses taller than me. The last stop was the IRA section of the cemetary, where we walked past the graves of Sands and other IRA men who died on active duty. We admired the pristine stones while our guide breathlessly described the 1988 funeral he'd attended there that had been shot up and bombed by a crazy Protestant loyalist.
I was happy for Stan, who didn't know about the Troubles but still got so much out of the tour. As for me, the tour - and just being in Belfast - was the culmination of years of reading books and watching movies and being fascinated despite my disconnect with the actual place. That disconnect ended Thursday - ideas, however fascinating before, took on color and shape, became experiences, and are now memories.
At the end of the tour, the eight of us went to a pub for a complimentary Guinness. We all talked, and as people trickled away, eventually it was just us and two others: Jesse, a cute, excited college graduate from California, and Gemma, a 50-ish Belfast native who now teaches high school in California. Gemma bought us another round of drinks, and we all got to know each other over the next few hours.
When we were done, the four of us took a taxi back to the city centre. Gemma headed out, and Stan and Jesse and I jumped on a cheesy double-decker tour bus for a tourist's-eye view of the city.
Cheesy or not, the tour was a lot of fun. We all sat on top and let the cool wind hit us as our Scottish tour guide pointed out the wonders of Belfast. There was the shipyard where the Titanic was built and launched ("It was just fine when it left here"); and dozens of buildings that were fascinating for being either ornate and Victorian, or surrounded by thick, bomb-resistant walls, or both.
We visited the Catholic Falls Road again, as well as the Protestant Shankill Road, full of proud murals depicting paramilitary men wearing black ski masks and clutching rifles. We passed through the "Peace Wall" between the Catholic and Protestant areas, which is still closed every evening.
Every hour or so, I'd catch myself and yell at Stan, "We're in Belfast!" It seemed so improbable - to be so far away, in a city that's so important to me, far from my routine and normal life. But improbable as it was, we were there. I soaked it in as much as I could.
After the tour, we made tentative plans to meet up with Jesse and Gemma later in the evening. We retrieved our bags and rolled them down Great Victoria Street, towards our hostel. On the way, we stopped and ate at an excellent Indian restaurant, then rolled on to our hostel and checked in.
By the time we washed up and ran through the cool drizzle to meet Jesse and Gemma at Madden's pub, we were an hour late. They were still there, though, with a bottle of Magner's cider, which they shared with us. Then I bought us a round of Guinnesses, and we talked and joked and drank. Gemma told us about growing up in Belfast and taught us about hurling and gaelic football. I've rarely felt so relaxed and happy as I was at that pub, drinking in a festive atmosphere in a new city with incredibly friendly people.
Finally, we headed out, walking through an empty, almost eerie quiet that was occasionally pierced by the sound of carousing Irish kids. We stopped in The Crown, an old, ornately decorated pub still lit with gas lamps. There, Stan bought us another bottle of Magner's cider, and we talked and drank some more. Then we all headed out and said our goodbyes. Stan and I stumbled through the cool evening back to our hostel and crashed.
It was a relentless day, trains and buses and taxis, walking and walking, stark, depressing, fascinating history, and making fleeting, deep connections with incredibly warm people. Maybe you've noticed the lack of snark in this entry, that I haven't mentioned the jaw-dropping prices or the shower that was just a lonely nozzle in the middle of our bathroom. None of that mattered on Thursday. It was simply one of the most fun, rich, and rewarding days I've ever had in my life.
I didn't want to leave Belfast. I know we had to - there's so much more to see in Europe, and as our cab driver pointed out, you can see most of Belfast in one day. But my connection to the city over the past day has been so strong, almost tangible, and I'm sad knowing that I might not be back for years. Still, I know I'll visit again.
As I write this, we've just touched down in London for the next leg of our journey. Thanks as always for reading - I'll do my best to keep you updated on our travels.
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|Thursday, July 16th, 2009|
The flight to Dublin was uneventful, as nighttime transatlantic flights should be. We landed Wednesday morning, bleary-eyed but ready to bum rush the city.
We took a double-decker city bus to our hostel, rocking back and forth and praying we would have some clue when our stop came. Once we found our hostel and stored our bags, we set off on a long walk down the river and across the city.
In many ways, Dublin could be a town from the 1800's. It's dotted with mid-level red brick buildings and anachronistic smokestacks. On the ground level, it's more modern, with Burger Kings and Subways and all the other trappings of a cosmopolitan society. But Dublin maintains an unpretentious sense of history. It's a real, old city chugging along and trying to stay relevant - not a souvenier shop.
One thing we've barely found in Dublin is Irish people. I'd been led to believe that the city would be stuffed with four-leaf clovers and leprechauns begging for spare change. Instead, it's barely even green, and the inhabitants are from all around the world. In that sense, it's a lot like New York, a melting pot, almost anonymous except for the Irish translations displayed on every sign.
But it's not New York. The people are friendlier and go out of their way to help you. The streets are wide and veer off in creative directions, and the River Liffey glides through the center of the city, giving it a sense of openness and freedom.
Amazingly, it's more expensive than New York. I don't know how anybody can afford to live in Dublin. Earning a euro (about $1.45 American) must be a major accomplishment; and it has to break an Irishman's heart to blow it on 1/4th of a slice of pizza. Stan bragged tonight, "I'm rich, I have three euros!" I countered, "Great - that'll buy you two euros."
From our hostel, we headed towards the river and began a long walk through Dublin on a gloriously sunny day. The river is strewn with fancy bridges, and we crossed and re-crossed at will.
After a while, we saw a sign for the Original Jameson Distillery, and I demanded that we go. It's a tourist trap, but sufficiently historic....and if I am going to spend seven dollars on a tiny shot of anything, it's going to be Jameson.
Of course, we got shots. Remembering the countless times I've sipped shots and gotten flack for it, I pounded this one back - and the bartender gave me flack for not sipping and appreciating a fine whiskey. Given my sudden foggy-headedness and the satisfying burn in my throat, I'd say that I appreciated it just fine, but she wasn't one to argue. I still love Jameson, but I'm juat fine now drinking it in my own town. They're too touchy about it here.
We wandered further, until the people disappeared and the area was infused with the smell of poo. Then the odor abated, and every tourist in Dublin converged, along with us, on our destination: the Guinness Factory.
Built in the 1700's, the Guinness Factory is almost a city unto itself, one tall, greying brick building after another. It's a historic spot, a tourist goldmine - and they make a beer I crazy enjoy. It's win-win-win.
These days, the Guinness Factory is set up as though Disney created an exhibit on alcohol - and I mean that as a compliment. It's frighteningly well done. We led ourselves through the tour, complete with waterfall and oversized "sandbox" filled with grains. TV screens and colorful exhibits explained the beer-making process step by step, treating it as though Guinness was printing money or manufacturing cancer medication.
On the fourth floor, we entered the beer "testing" room, which was packed with teenagers. At first, I thought, "These kids can drink like I qualify for social security." But then I realized that the age limit is 18 here - and even that didn't stop families from bringing their toddlers to marvel at the beer-making process. No, little Seamus, not till you're eight... But I'm at least eight, so I tested the beer a few times. It all checked out.
For all the weirdness of a massive tribute to beer, the tour was fascinating and user-friendly, from the first floor through the complimentary bar on the seventh floor, where families drank and admired a stunning 360-degree view of Dublin. The factory is a solid value and a fun, frendly time - even for the wee ones.
After that, we walked all the way back to the hostel and crashed for a while. Since then, we've eaten unbelievably bland "chips" (french fries) and had one more beer at a bar that features riverdancing every night (it's impressive and scary at the same time). Drinking is one Irish cliche we were happy to indulge; I'm sure the real, hard-working citizens of Dublin looked at us like we were alcoholic Neanderthals.
Because it's so low-key, I'm wondering how much Dublin will stick with me. But it's vibrant and relaxing at the same time, just fun to exist in. Stan thinks he could spend a lot of time here, and I see where he's coming from. And it's possible - merely possible - that spending 24 hours here isn't giving me a complete impression. In any case, I'm glad we visited. Now onward to Belfast.
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|Tuesday, July 14th, 2009|
|Off we go...
When I got back from Russia, I declared that I had "the travel bug" - that it wouldn't be long before I again left the United States. Perhaps I overstated things. I tend to do that, every single second of my life.
But tonight, 48 short months later, my buddy Stan and I are leaving from Newark, New Jersey, and tomorrow morning, we will land in Dublin, Ireland. From there, we are headed to Northern Ireland - home of hundreds of explosions in the 70's and 80's, but only one this week- and then Scotland, England, France, Holland, and Germany. All this in ten days.
Is it realistic? Hell no. I should not be allowed to plan trips. Maybe I could have scheduled stops in South Africa, Japan, and Narnia while I was at it. And all in six days instead of ten.
But we're doing it. Stan is a good sport for trusting me, especially since everything is on his credit card.
When I was in Russia, I managed to update this journal every day, using a typewriter, two cans, and a piece of string. In Europe, it should be easier. I will do my best to keep you all updated on our adventures, or our plight, depending.
I hope everyone has a great week and a half. As they say in Europe - actually, I don't know, I left our Lonely Planet guide back at my apartment. But I'll find out soon.
Posted via LiveJournal.app.
|Sunday, July 12th, 2009|
|Monday, June 22nd, 2009|
|Shakespeare #4: Henry VI, Part 2
Henry VI, Part 2 has 43 characters, 42 of whom want to kill Henry. The young King has to watch out for close friends, relatives, and even envious horses.
Reading about Henry makes me glad that I have no real power in life. Still, there may be usurpers out there who shoot really low:
"Thy cubicle job right now is thine / But soon enough, it shall be mine!"
"Bad Match.com dates I now lack / Though soon 'tis I girls won't call back!"
Hey, hands off, buddy! This is my fabulous life. Get your own.
Everybody wants to be King. Everybody claims that their great uncle was the bastard child of the Duke of Cornblossom, and therefore they are the true ruler of England. Nobody wants to earn anything on their own.
There is no talk of whether a person deserves to be king, or whether their accomplishments have made them a good candidate. It's all about bloodline and family name. Thank God I live in the United States, where this kind of thing doesn't happen.
Meanwhile, Henry VI has grown into a young, bible-obesessed leader who is manipulated by the older members of his court. Thank God I live in the United States, where.......yeah.
The Henry VI trilogy isn't Hamlet, or even Indiana Jones. But Part 2 is much more concise and exciting than Part 1. The action is frenetic, and the play moves along at a respectable pace. Also - and stop me if I've mentioned this before - Shakespeare really can write some beautiful dialogue.
After two plays, King Henry has survived so much that I'm beginning to root for the guy. But I won't get too close, because then I might try to kill him and steal his place in life. I imagine he works in one fancy cubicle.
|Monday, June 15th, 2009|
It's hard to fathom what's going on in Iran right now. Usually seen as a closed, controlled soceiety, the country has erupted over the past few days.
At first, there was joy over a nationwide Presidential election, a chance to effect real change in a stagnant theocratic system. But the joy quickly faded when the results favored incumbent and avid Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by a margin of 66%-33% (!).
Most reliable polling had shown a much closer race. Now thousands of supporters of reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi are demonstrating in the streets of Tehran, alleging - probably correctly - that the election was blatantly stolen from him.
It makes sense, because the numbers certainly don't. What was the Ayatollah's rationale for inventing such skewed results? If he had pretended that his henchman won in a photo finish, maybe hundreds of thousands of Iranians wouldn't be screaming for both their heads right now.
Those demonstrators are currently captivating the world. They're being beaten and even shot by police and soldiers, but they're still out there. The government has done everything it can to restrict the use of the internet, but students are still using Twitter to stay united and get their message out to the world. At night they stand on the rooftops of the capital and chant their message. It's inspiring.
There's certainly danger in seeing this through an idealistic lens. The "reform" candidate in a country like Iran might not be as squeaky-clean as we'd like. As President Obama recently pointed out, "there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others." Being the underdog doesn't necessarily make one virtuous.
In addition, a violent mob isn't always a good thing. When the Americans took Baghdad, hundreds of Iraqi youths cheered and tore down statues of Saddam Hussein. But it doesn't take much for groups of unemployed young men to start screaming and yelling in the streets. A few months later, those Iraqis were shooting at their "liberators". Similarly, the youths on the streets of Tehran may eventually keep their rage and lose their high-minded focus.
But for now, I'm willing to be an idealist. A Mousavi victory might really mean more freedoms for the Iranian people and closer ties with the West. In any case, that seems to be what his supporters want. And the demonstrators and tweeters and students don't yet seem like a nihlist mob. They seem like people who have been beaten down their entire lives but cannot accept this latest, worst indignity.
If this all accomplishes one thing - short of overthrowing a facist government - hopefully it will give the world a more realistic, less cartoonish picture of Iran. Did we really have a President who named an "Axis of Evil"? We removed one corner of the axis, and it's bled uncontrollably for six years. Now we suddenly realize that another corner is - shockingly - filled with human beings.
Some would force those human beings to fight us in another endless desert war. And sometimes those wars need to be fought, when a people's good intentions can't overcome the entrenched power and bullying of their leaders. But the Iranian people just might not be willing to let that happen anymore. Even if they don't topple the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad, I can't imagine things continuing in Iran as they were before.
We've seen what happens when someone who doesn't understand a region starts a war there anyway. That's why it's so dangerous even when John McCain jokingly sings "Bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb Iran" to a chuckling crowd. Many of us would have passively let him do it - and the bombs would have fallen on those who are currently fighting in the streets for a prosperous, democratic life that's strikingly similar to our own.
|Shakespeare #3: Henry VI, Pt. 1
Shakespeare's plays are usually divided into tragedies, comedies, and histories. Henry VI, Part 1, catchy title and all, is a "history".
For Shakespeare's purposes, this means including every single thing that happened in the 1400s. At one point, Columbus sails by in the background, and three cast members drop dead of bubonic plague, which was in vogue at the time.
This makes Henry VI, Pt. 1 a fairly crowded play. The English fight the French. The French predictably lose. Noblemen squabble with bishops. There are 37 characters, which I think was everybody alive back then.
To audiences in the 1600s, this was electrifying stuff. They knew all the players. So when the Duke of Whippleshire threw his glove at someone, they hooted, "Oh no he didn't!" But today, the Duke is just another inbred nobleman I've never heard of.
Like Donald Rumsfeld, Shakespeare panders to his audience by insulting the French at every opportunity. The French are whiners because they object to the English invading their land and slaughtering their people. French hero Joan of Arc is renamed Joan La Pucell, or "Joan The Whore". You know that inspired some Arsenio-barking from the peanut gallery.
There is also a jaw-dropping exchange between England's toughest soldier and his son. They argue about courage and honor and pride, all while speaking in perfectly rhymed poetry. Is this how men talked back then? It's a brilliant scene, but I was surprised that the next battle wasn't a choreographed dance-off. Then again, the French would have lost that, too.
I mostly kid. Henry VI, Pt. 1 is complex and intriguing, and often quite exciting. As always, Shakespeare's language sparkles even when it's not quite clear what's going on. But it's long, and it's only the first play in a trilogy. I joke to stay sane because I know what's ahead of me.
As for Henry VI, he's still a teenager and barely shows up in his own play. It's a sneaky bait-and-switch - like a review of Shakespeare that turns out to be a lot of ignorant rambling. The nerve of some writers.