A Hazy Shade of Summer

Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, denizens of this fine planet.

Another blog post follows that is anything but organized and is basically a collection of thoughts jotted down at different recent times that are all somewhat apropos to the last two weeks. The trip is finally coming to a close…

Written on Thursday, August 3:

Okay, so in my state, I maybe should not be writing. But I’ve been saying that at just about every juncture for the past couple weeks and the result is I do not have anything written to speak of to document the last, incredible two weeks and change. I left off when we had first arrived in Barcelona. We spent a swirling blur of a seven days in Barcelona, moved down to Valencia for a weekend, flew to Paris and spent a week there, and finally took a train to Brugge, where we’ve spent the last three nights. Let me take you back. I will endeavor to remember, to put myself back in the moments I was either too tired, too drunk, or just too spent from all the excitement and stimuli to document. The Flemish countryside is streaming by the window like so many pastoral landscape paintings blending together into a cinematic experience of horses, greenery, and fluffy grey clouds, but allow me to conjure up my memories of that first, sun-baked Barcelona day…

July 15

We amble bright-eyed through the massive Barcelona train station. We have come from Nimes and the new environs are a bit jarring. The linguistic shift is exciting. Hearing Catalan, Spanish, French, English, Chinese, and probably a handful more languages during the course of a five minute walk across the massive main floor is exhilarating. We consider a taxi, but want to give the metro a shot. It’s a hot, sweaty affair, especially jammed into the car with our big travel packs on. We ride a few stops before exiting and emerging like moles from their tunnel in the heart of town, in an area we later learn is called Gracia. A man plays us an accordion tune before asking us for money and then telling us he’s off to take a nap or go to the beach—I wonder what he ended up going with—as we sit on a bench in the sun on an island in the middle of a road just kind of resting and thinking about what to do next. We don’t much feel like getting on a bus. We find a cafe and summon a taxi to pick us up there. The change of heart was pretty quick.

We arrive at our apartment up in the hills north of the heart of the city and our genial host greets us in Japanese. She had written a few words in messages to us in Japanese, but her fluency takes us by surprise. It is quite a privilege to get to speak Japanese again and makes us feel at home right away. We take in the view of the whole city from the window. We see the Sagrada Familia, we see the ocean, we see all the Mediterranean rooftops. It’s like we are in a castle on a hill. We take some of the jamon and Moritz beer our host has prepared for us, grateful to be in our home for the week. I settle in and think of the pleasures to come. We relax in the air-conditioned room for a while, before heading out to walk in Parc Guell and then down into the core of town.

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We see the city from the top of Parc Guell and then we see what seems like a lot of the city on our walk all the way down to the Gothic Quarter. We get a feel for why people love this city seeing all the magnificently preserved old buildings down there. We get a certain magic feeling from the Cathedral de Barcelona. I go up close to it and inspect the intricacies of the ornate facade.

We head home by subway, getting in quite a good sweat on our way up the steps from our nearest metro stop, Alfons X. Our castle on the hill will be a beautiful base from which to explore Barcelona, but also a test of our physical endurance.

Written Wednesday, August 9:

It’s already here: it’s our last day in the Netherlands, which means also our last day in Europe for this time. Since that first day back in Barcelona, so much has happened, and I’ve barely stopped to chronicle it all, which, I know, is a mistake. Yes, I do feel as though so much has been filling up our lives in Barcelona, Valencia, Paris, Brugge, and now here in Weesp, just outside of Amsterdam. I regret not filling these pages with more of what was happening as it was unfolding, but I don’t regret living each of those days until I was 100% ready to just hit the mattress hard and sleep until daylight when I would get up and do it again, each day excited to greet the new sights and smell the new smells.

In Barcelona, the smells were of the sea, of thick-layered sun screen, of sweet, heavy, summer air at night, and a bit of sweat. In Paris, urine, freshly bloomed flowers, the weight of time and its effect on all the artists who haunt her streets. In Valencia, it was just grass and trees and saltwater. Brugge had the horse dung and the canal water and the swans, which do I think have a smell. Time to go outside here in Weesp and make note of how everything smells, looks, tastes, etc. I really don’t want to forget. That’s my worst fear about leaving Europe after staying since the end of June. I’m scared to forget the feeling of walking down the street, the smell of the waffles, the feel of the morning air on my skin, or anything like that. Of course, I get to go back to Japan and experience the senses engaged there, but I want to retain each town we have passed through and where we have stayed a night in Europe. From the sleepy seaside town of Fiumicino, Italy, where we went upon first arriving on the continent, to Saint-Raphael, where we built memories that we never thought we would, to the heart of France in Provence, to Nimes, where we saw the 14th of July celebrations, to gleaming and magnificent Barcelona, to the new wave-y Valencia with its city of arts and sciences, to Paris in all its mystique and glory, to Brugge with its otherworldly charm that slowed us down a bit, to the Netherlands, with its undeniable warmth in spite of its cold and gray exterior. So in that interest, let’s go see what Weesp inspires in the senses… I’ll be back in a little while (7:57).

(8:43)
Well, the answer will be rather verbose, I’m afraid.

On my walk around Wesp this morning, all of my senses were engaged, as they have been all the previous mornings I have gotten up and had a walk around the town. Today, I encountered a lovely cat, a collarless ruffian, whose name I did not learn, who sat at the top of a small set of stairs that lead down to a small promenade that runs along the canal and has about twelve nicely spaced benches for Weesp citizens to sit down and take in the beauty of their town. The cat was standing watch over this area, as if to keep it sacred and safe for the residents. He immediately approved my entry, sensing my affinity for his species and goodwill towards Weesp. We then struck up a friendship. He allowed me to pet him and he arched his back and moved into my hand just as though he were my own pet. From the window of the house behind the steps, another cat, black and white just as my friend, looked on, judging.

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The sun was just starting to break through and the canal air was cool and pungent and conferred a sense of peace and well-being on me. I stroked my feline friend’s ample body and he responded with visible glee. I walked on to go stroll along the canal and the cat just looked on from his post. I summoned him to come join me at the canal for a stroll, and at first it looked like he would take me up on the offer. He walked down his steps to the promenade but then instead of turning to walk towards me, he just sauntered down the river bank, which was paved with ancient bricks out of which grew random weeds and grasses. When the cat found some grass that was to his liking, he perched there on the sloped ground beside the water and began to feast. He greedily chewed away at the mouthfuls of grass and looked up at me for my approval. I bowed my head to him slightly and he continued to eat, like a fiend. Just as suddenly, he got tired of eating and traveled back up the bank and up the stairs to his post, his chest puffed out and his eyes gleaming in the muted sunlight. I made up my mind to go back and stroke him again, if he was still there when I came back from my walk.

I walked farther down the canal along the little benches and then turned around and started to walk back. I sat down on one of the benches and just watched the ripples in the canal that formed when the wind came over the water. The people on the boats sitting on the canal were starting to wake up and I could see them moving around in their galleys and sipping on coffee on their decks. I wondered about the cat and whether he was still stationed at his post or whether he had had to go sort out an altercation with the other judging cat that had been looking on from the window. Either way, I hoped he would be there when I got back.

When I finished sitting there on my bench, I started ambling back down along the promenade, back toward the bridge that opens that I have to cross to get to the apartment we’re renting. (It’s easy to find because it’s right next to this big clocktower in Weesp, which is a nice feature.) The sun is doing slow work on the mass of white, thick, cotton candy clouds barring its proper entry into the morning. The cat is on my mind. I keep ambling on back and I approach the staircase. I don’t see the cat and my heart sinks. Suddenly from behind a ledge, I see the white of the cat’s snout poke out and then his whole glorious body emerges and he comes right up to me and rubs his ribcage against my legs. I’m overjoyed. He asks me to share the morning with him and so I spend a nice little portion of it with him, sitting there idly stroking him while we both look out on the canal. I noticed that the other black and white (judging) cat, is gone.

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I move on, content. The cat remains at his post. I look back and he looks up at me with gratitude. I, too, am grateful for the small moment we shared here on this, our last day in Weesp, and our last day in Europe. I hope I will see the cat again, but even if I don’t, I will always remember him, which is what counts, maybe.

After leaving the cat, I kept just ambling around Weesp, taking it all in, feeling the cool air, touching the smooth benches, seeing the charming boats in the canals, breathing the cool air, sitting on the smooth benches, looking around at the people and the ducks, and watching the ripples form on the water some more. I looked at all the quaint little houses, and the mills a little ways away. I thought to myself, I am happy to be in Weesp.

I’ve been doing some journaling lately. I want to transpose a bit of it here:

August 4 13:09

The clouds were wisps of white cotton candy
Floating over the infinite tracks
The train whistles were the subtle tweets
Of birds in the rafters
The breeze was the conductor’s caress–
The day was beginning.

I wrote that on the train after waiting at Weesp station for a while before boarding a train to go into Amsterdam. It was a really pretty morning. It was probably more like around noon actually, but it was our morning. Here’s one from last night:

August 8 22:00?
Back in Weesp. I’m not sure if it is 22:00, but the bells just rang next door for a while, so we are going with that. We just ate some bomb-ass sandwiches we made at home. We each had two! 
Turkey, swiss, roast beef, swiss, lettuce, mayonnaise. Dank. 
We[‘re] about to go out into the Weesp night for a minute, you feel me?
We’ve yet to really enjoy the town night vibe. Not too late.
[Shino] is hesitating. She’s getting tired. Better roll out. 

The bells just rang a nice little song for me as I was transposing that last part. That’s a great part about living in Weesp. You get to have songs of the bells showered down on you all the time.

Looking back on this trip is emotional. I have a hard time accepting that it is coming to a close and it is tying up my insides a little bit. I already feel what I know I will feel when I miss this trip in the days, weeks, months, and years to come. I’m not sure when or if I’ll get to come on another trip of the kind we’ve just been on. Though I suppose there isn’t any special reason why not. We had the time of our lives! Why wouldn’t we try to improve on that?

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Leaving the Vatican, June 

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Standing on a bridge in Amsterdam, August

Well, I guess every good thing must come to an end, but I really wish this good thing didn’t have to. I have loved every minute of this trip, even the challenging minutes. It has all been life at its fullest. But Japan awaits. For that matter, the rest of the time here in the Netherlands awaits. Shino is still sleeping away. The 10:00 am bells are about to ring next door. Maybe they’ll wake her.
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While this is the last day of this trip and the last time I will likely write on this blog during this trip, I look forward to editing and piecing together more content from the photos, videos, and journals of this trip that I have. I plan to compose plenty more posts inspired by the magic that this trip has showed Shino and me. I also plan to approach my life back home with at least a small portion of the wonder with which I have approached every day waking up here in Europe, from Fiumicino to Weesp. My heart aches a bit, but my spirit is flying high up in the sky.

We still have over twenty four hours; it’s time to go out and make merry in the Netherlands.

Update: France and Spain (What Day Are We On?)

Hi all, and thanks for your patience. It has been a busy week, so this will be a long (but still not very thorough) account of it, written on three separate occasions, so pardon the disjointed and rambling character of this post.

July 6, 2017

Oui, nous sommes en France!

It feels great to be back. Of course there will still be the bit of time to readjust, but having been here for a length of time before (a month in 2008) certainly seems to be helping. My ability to hear and understand French in a natural setting remains poor, unsurprisingly. I think my ears will adjust gradually if I have people actually speak to me in French (this has been hard to come by thus far), but I was disappointed in myself when I didn’t know what the barista who served me an espresso this morning was asking when she offered me a glass of water to go with my coffee. At least I was able to reply when she asked me if I were English. I was honest, I told her I was American. No, I haven’t lied about that to anyone yet. Weirdly I haven’t taken too much flack from anyone for being from the U.S.A. yet. I remember times when I almost had to answer for the crime of G. W. Bush being elected and the subsequent crimes he inflicted on the world. You’d think it’d be worse with Trump, but I think Obama was so popular with Europeans that he bought us a bit of capital in terms of our reputation abroad. I still remember being in Paris in 2008 and the look of excitement that appeared on this jolly drunken man’s face when he randomly started to talking to me in the street and the subject of Obama’s potential presidency somehow came up. I know it was just one guy, but anecdotally it still seems to be good evidence for how big of a deal it was for us to elect him, in the eyes of the world. I’m fairly sure we only get the one fuck-up, though. If we re-elect Drumpf, I’m afraid we will be back in the international dog house (if we aren’t already – and let’s face it, we probably are) and won’t be able to regain face, like, ever.

Pardon the digression – Nice, you are a stunner. Your azure waters, picturesque buildings, charmingly cosmopolitan mix of people and food, your streets, your trams, your interesting artwork in the streets, and your implied invitation to open a bottle of wine and pass it around with friends at night wherever you may be all implore me to make sure to return again. Both times I have visited my time has been far too short.

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Saint-Raphael’s cathedral (and McDonald’s)

Finally, we are en route to Saint Raphael, where our old friend Sydnie will be married, the occasion which gave us an excuse to make this journey to Europe. We have already reunited joyously with Wilmer and Jamie (and met her new dude, Chris) and there are more reunions to come, in addition to witnessing what promises to be the spectacle of a French wedding on the Riviera. This train ride has me filled with an irrepressible joie de vivre.

Bring on more of your immortal sunshine, Cote d’Azure!

14:50 Saint Raphael, France.

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July 12, 2017

“2 Days in Provence” might make for a good film, too.

Shino and I have been in the heart of Provence, staying in a small hamlet in a place called Bedoin, since the evening of the 10th. To be honest, we spent the better part of a lovely drive up here from Saint-Raphael and our first evening here in the heart of Provence feeling a bit melancholy, as we parted hurriedly from our dear old friends in the morning after spending a handful of days on the Cote D’Azure that none of us ever dreamed we would get to experience together back when we were all living in Seattle, before we all went to our various pockets of the world in a sort of small scale diaspora. We reprised that pattern after eating breakfast in the lobby of the Hotel Continental, our nest for a sojourn that we will all, I’m sure, cherish in our memories. As though in some surreal dramatic film, the actual good-bye with Wilmer, Kevin and Michael eluded us. We had arranged with them that we would go get the rental car we had booked for the trip to Provence and then return to the hotel to say goodbye properly, since Kevin was still finalizing getting ready to go. It took a tad too long for us to come back, though, and our friends had to set sail for the Nice airport so they would not miss their connections. We arrived to a vacant lobby at the Continental, and felt all the emotions we would have probably felt saying our good-byes (or “see you laters,” if you want, but that seems to cheapen the fact that parting with good friends hurts, and more so when you’ve just formed some memories together that will stand the test of time) hit us like a truck. Initially, we were actually hopeful maybe we would catch them in the parking garage, but when it became clear they were gone and we sat down in our newly-rented, maroon Fiat 500, we were undeniably sad, in spite of our excitement about the upcoming trip into Provence. The wedding week was a blur of good times and merriment, but the good-byes were all far too abrupt.

A lot of what Shino and I talked about on the way up to Bedouin was that feeling, that kind of hole you feel in you when you part ways with people with whom you have been having such a great time. We talked about how great it would be to have a redux of sorts of the festivities in Saint-Raphael and Frejus in another few years and how, while we could try to do it somewhere else, there was just something about the Cote D’Azur and its hopping seaside towns, lush Mediterranean beaches, and lively French being spoken all around (or maybe just the sheer quantity of pugs – we saw four of them during our time there)  that we weren’t sure we could find anywhere else. Food for thought. We eventually started to drift towards the stage of dealing with parting where you focus on your gratitude to have gotten to have the experiences you just had, and not just dwell on how you can’t hang out with your friends anymore (for a while, anyway).  We started to absorb (and be absorbed by) the landscape we were slowly penetrating. We knew that we had just experienced one of those brief little moments in time that you never expect you’ll get to but yet you sometimes forget to appreciate.

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Near our place in Bedouin.

Note: I should probably write a separate post about this, but the wedding and the associated activities were off the hook. A ceremony in a classy cathedral followed by an all night party at a remote chateau on day one, followed by an all-day brunch at the beach in Frejus, complete with beach volleyball, swimming, and supreme lounging on day two, and an all-day catamaran cruise on the Mediterranean on day three, complimented by bottomless wine and hors d’oeuvres platters. Can’t thank Sydnie and her husband enough for having us, as well as the wedding planner, Daisy. Those matrimonial festivities will be tough to top.

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Les Vendras, Bedouin, France

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July 15, 2017

We are in Spain, just like that. Our train has just carried us over the border from France and we should reach Barcelona in about 40 minutes.

France has been good to us and I’m certainly pleased to know we will be going back in a short while to stay in Paris. The southern regions, all of the towns we visited and the lush roads we traversed in our Fiat, were dreamlike. We couldn’t stop saying how much the whole experience felt like a dream.

We drove all the way up Mont Ventoux, which looms large over the heart over Provence (and neighbors the town of Bedoin, which we called home for a couple of days. We came down the other side and visited Vaison-La-Romaine, where we walked on, stood on, walked under, and drove over a bridge built in the 1st Century. We climbed to the top of the medieval town that is Vaison’s claim to fame to find a dark age castle overlooking the gorgeous environment that surrounds the city. We drove out of Vaison, without knowing where we were going, to see the sunset, dizzily chasing after a sinking Provencal sun, ending up on the Cote de Rhone road somewhere outside of Valreas where we finally parked the car to take in the sight of the sun morphing from a blazing yellow-white light spilling out its rays everywhere into a smoldering orange ember sizzling in the distance, seeming to give its gentle fading heat only to us, as we gazed out over a scene of a shepherd and his two dogs bringing in his herd of goats and sheep for the night (a pastoral scene interestingly accented by the shepherd’s lively conversation with someone on his iPhone).

Nights in Bedouin, I walked out a couple hundred meters from the door of our gite and felt as though I were in the middle of nowhere, with just the stars, the brilliant moon (which was nearly full), and the chirps of crickets and distant bays of dogs to accompany me. I heard strange stirrings in the brush from time to time, but mostly my immediate surroundings were silent and the sound of my steps on the gravel path seemed to be amplified. I wondered (with a tingle of fear) whether the sangliers (wild boars) we saw on our first beautiful walk at sunset around the Bedoin commune of Les Vendrans (where we stayed) might be foraging nearby. No one warned us about the population of sangliers in the area and we both did a handful of double takes when we saw the pair of them bounding playfully between trees in a vineyard before making a swift beeline back toward our room. They didn’t make themselves known to us again after that first sighting. I had to wonder whether we saw them at all or if it was a trick our minds played. (Google searching did confirm there is a widespread population of sangliers across France, laying waste to farmers’ crops and serving as the most popular prey for French hunters, so the two we saw probably weren’t phantoms, it just felt that way.)

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Les Vendrans at night.

Rolling out of Bedouin, we set a course for Sault, whose spacious lavender fields welcomed us in with the most pleasant and quintessentially Provencal aroma imaginable. We walked around the antique markets for a bit there and Shino bought some lavender soap that helped make the 500 smell delightful the rest of the way. Continuing on, we drove out to see the most dramatic gorge I’ve seen since Taroko Gorge, Taiwan last year (and without the blight of loads of tour buses). We weaved through stunning roads along with the cyclists who surely were treated to an even more spectacular show. Eventually we ended up kind of where we had started before heading to Sault, but we didn’t care. The drive through Gorges de la Nesques is one we won’t soon forget. We wound up in a charming little town where we received down-to-earth and friendly service at a brasserie in front of a quiet roundabout. We enjoyed beverages (for me an excellent Belgian ale, for Shino most likely a peach ice tea) and a pair of perfectly simple ham and cheese sandwiches; it was a perfect respite in the mid-afternoon. Next, we would head on to Roussillon in the Luberon, which was named one of France’s most beautiful towns and lives up to that billing with aplomb. We bought some artisanal candles there, which added to the potpourri of Provencal scents filling the 500.

After a long and (again) dreamlike drive through countless pastoral scenes and idyllic villages, we touched down at a farm a few kilometers outside Arles. Two genial dogs (of the sort you expect to be living on a farm – fairly big, lean, and fast-looking) greeted us literally as we opened the doors to disembark. We passed a few pleasant minutes just petting the dogs and taking in the endless fields and abundance of animals that made up the environs of our resting place for the night before we went to one of the doors of the house and a woman whose kindness matched that of the welcome dogs greeted us and showed us to our room.

Finally (to gloss over quite a bit), we got to experience the 14th of July in Nimes! Turns out the French do kind of celebrate their big summer national holiday in much the same way we do in the U.S.A., with reveling in the streets, quality time with friends and family, and fireworks (of course). Differences would be: people seem to like playing boules, there is less drunken obnoxiousness, and the buildings are much older. In Nimes, we got to walk by the second largest Roman amphitheater in existence (after the Colosseum) on our route back our spacious den. The mornings in Nimes were breezy and peaceful. Our walk to the stately (and very Romanesque) Nimes train station this morning made for an ideal sendoff from southern France.

We now find ourselves just starting out our highly anticipated week in Barcelona! We’ve already taken in a lot of it in the afternoon and evening we have been here, but there’s so much more to come. Will try to keep this updated. Shino’s agreed to at least spend one night partying all night, as you do in Barcelona, right?

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Barcelona: it begins!

The End of Italy

Well, that’s it for Italy. That was a fast week. Half of it I spent trying to get onto a normal sleeping schedule. If I could do one thing over again, it might be to try harder to get adjusted European time from the get-go. Running on fumes in the middle of the afternoon was a bit challenging when we were trying to enjoy seeing the sites of Rome and Florence in the span of just a few days. A contributing factor to my jet-lag-that-just-wouldn’t-die was admittedly staying up late writing this blog. I won’t regret that, but I am now trying to write it when I have down time in the day, not deep into my allocated time for slumber.

The past couple nights I have gratefully gone to bed at a more standard time, but last night, our last in Florence (and in Italy) found us out late taking in the night beat in spite of having to start our train journey toward Nice, France quite early this morning. We set out from our glorious apartment (which we will miss) on yet another perfect Florence day at around 7:30. The heat of the day hadn’t yet kicked in, so it was a pleasant walk to the station. The lack of sleep meant we were both a bit wrecked, though, and we had a slightly convoluted commute from Campo di Marti station to Santa Maria Novella, where we eventually boarded a train back towards Pisa.

Once we reached Pisa, we found our platform for our train to Genova. As I write this, we have completed that journey and are en route from Genova to Nice. We must say our farewells to Italy, as we knew we would. This Europe trip will not take us back to this country that has been so good to us. We will have to settle for a return visit in the future. Allow me to take you through some of the treasures that we encountered during our time here. To reflect, many of the high points were food-related, which is to be expected. We found out what real pizza is, discovered that the Italian craft beer scene is in fact booming, and ate a magnificent lunch (likely the meal of the trip so far) that featured meat of remarkable quality, including Sushi di Chianti (the chef’s name for beef tare tare) during our epic scooter journey through the vineyards of the Chianti region, which had to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever ridden a scooter, or, indeed, even been lucky enough to visit. Flying through these winding roads and rolling hills took our breath away and enabled us to experience a state of mind that we’ll look to keep pursuing throughout the rest of our travels on this trip and those to come.

The warmth of the Italian people wherever we went (with the possible exception of a sullen young woman serving gelato across from San Gimignano’s Museo Della Tortura, but who could blame her?) I think will be an indelible aspect  we recall when we reminisce about our week spent here. Even though we barely managed to say the few Italian phrases we knew, the baristas, servers, and shopkeepers we encountered were by and large affable, helpful, and patient. That this will continue to remain with us as a significant part of our image of Italy reinforces how actually meaningful customer-facing work can be. Since travelers interact primarily with service staff, the character of these people inevitably forms a large chunk of the impression visitors to any place will carry with them for the rest of their lives, and, in turn, pass on to their social network back home. (This reminds me of the other side of the spectrum and the nasty cab driver we had from Kyoto station to our accommodation when my family visited last year. I hated him for his rudeness, not because it did much to ruin my sparkling image of Kyoto, but because I knew that for my sister and stepfather, this man represented their first point of contact in Kyoto. I don’t suppose that grouch really considered it his role to give people a positive experience in his city, but whether he likes it or not, his warmth, or lack thereof, will impact the impressions of Kyoto that countless travelers take home with them.) We will have nary a negative thing to say about the Italians when we go home.

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The booming beer scene was a highlight of Italy.

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In the end, even the supposed aggressiveness of the drivers turned out to be overstated. Actually I think drivers in Japan tend to be more egregious in their tendency to tailgate at speed and suddenly stop in the middle of the road, etc. My theory would be that Italians express themselves openly and without hesitation in most areas of public life, whereas Japanese, by and large, refrain from letting others know how they feel, until they get behind the wheel of a car… I digress. Italian drivers were not hesitant or overly courteous, but they were actually fairly predictable once you got used to their style. Once we got used to how to order and pay (in the correct order) in Italian caffe bars, too, the baristas were nothing if not incredibly genial and courteous. I guess knowing the rules and knowing a bit more of the language would have helped us get into the swing of things and move on to appreciating the little things sooner, but I suppose that’s always true. The saddest thing about leaving Italy now is that I felt like I was just getting acclimated to being there more completely and thus, had we another week here, I’d have surely been more thoroughly equipped to enjoy it. Next new country I go to, maybe I need to read up just that little bit more, or get more sleep upon arrival so that I am more ready to be a cultural and linguistic sponge during the day.

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Genoa, during our transfer layover. Sadly, just a half hour.

Incidentally, we’re cruising along and getting ever closer to the French border, which is exhilarating. The Mediterranean Sea is blurring by outside our train window, along with so many blue and yellow umbrellas, complimented by idyllic looking waterfront apartments with terraces. I’d gladly live in any of these little towns, just from the look of them. The city of Genova, too, was somewhere I would love to spend more time, judging from the view as you enter it from the main train station. The bar man at the little caffe we stopped into for a coffee and light lunch before boarding our next train was a perfect representative of his city. I do hope I will be back again with more than a half hour to pass there.

For now, I’m going to keep trying to adjust my ears from Italian to French by spinning some more songs by La Femme, a band I’ve just discovered, and who are doing a bang-up job of soundtracking the quaint scenery that keeps on flowing by my window. See you soon.

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France isn’t too shabby.

Days 4-6: Into Tuscany

Our days in Rome are now just a memory, as we took the train out of Roma Termini station yesterday and spent last night and the beginning of today in Pisa, Tuscany (UPDATE: that was two days ago now, that we left Rome, as it is now tomorrow. The second Rome video is live on YouTube!) I’m writing this sitting at an antique table in a Florentine apartment that is unlike any place I have ever stayed in my life. Our time in Porto, Portugal last October was somewhat similar, but the high ceilings, tiled floors, and (I’m not sure what you call them, but for lack of the term) Florentine shutters of our new abode have redefined our concept of what a European apartment can be.

Florence, by the way, is uncommonly gorgeous. It isn’t any wonder why the Renaissance began here, along with pretty much the entirety of modern European history. We just spent the evening whipping around the hills overlooking the city on a flashy Vespa scooter, complete with a GPS display, which I thought would be ideal for the occasion of being here in Tuscany. Even with that handicap, making sure not to turn onto a one way street or into an area pedonale (pedestrian only zone) is a challenge when in the heart of town. The GPS came preloaded, however, with some tours to take us way away from the lively and atmospheric core of the city onto some roads that seemed to be from a different era altogether and whose narrowness necessitated signs indicating the maximum width of vehicle that could traverse them (a first for me). There was nary another motorist–nor even a soul to be found, until we were making our descent back into town and came upon a pair of cats who had probably just embarked on their evening adventures in what must be the ideal feline playground, what with its silent , winding streets sandwiched by medieval walls forming perfect parapets for stalking along whilst savoring views over Florence–on most of these serpentine showstoppers, which transported us to another world whilst only taking us a mere handful of kilometers away from the city center.

This all came on the heels of a visit to Pisa, which we only really planned as a stopover town between Rome and Florence, but in less than 24 hours it had made a significant play for my undying affection. True, the Tourre Pendente (Leaning Tower of Pisa) is a silly sole reason to visit (though it’s certainly a magnificent structure and the square where it sits, the Piazza del Duomo, is charming in spite of the throngs of tourists), but I could see returning to the city just to walk the streets of its old town and marvel again at how picturesque each one is. We walked this area both at night and in the morning and both times it filled me with vigor. Something about the energy stimulated me in a way that somehow even Rome didn’t. It’s hard to put a finger on. The youthful energy (the University of Pisa’s influence on the atmosphere looms large) was perhaps contagious, or maybe it was the ease of wandering aimlessly while taking in sights rare to see when seeking them out, or possibly the rustic little residential roads that we often had all to ourselves to take in with wonder. At night, students and revelers spilled out into the squares enjoying the same energy that fueled me on the late night portion of our brief Pisa wanderings. We visited a brew pub that seemed to be one of the hubs of the Pisa nightlife, Orzo Bruno. I tried their Belgian ale, called Yeti, poured by a jocular lad, and could understand why the place draws a crowd. The strong brew proved an excellent pairing with the walk home along the Arno, the river that splits the town. We slept well and woke to a gloriously sunny morning outside our bed and breakfast room windows. I captured quite a bit of footage of our ensuing walk through town this morning (which we capped with our first pasta lunch in Italy) which I plan to compile for a future video post.

While the initial days here in Tuscany have me wondering whether this is the part of Italy I will most want to revisit again (with the notable exception of some American bro who loudly asked his companions in the pizza place we visited, the delicious Gusta Pizza, why they were so aggressively anti-Trump–I won’t even get into everything wrong with this guy’s whole existence, let alone the people who were willing to go for pizza with him), Rome did give us a fond farewell before we had to catch our train out. Our first scooter rental wasn’t like the top notch Vespa we got set up with today a few blocks from our apartment; we picked it up near the Vatican (after our obligatory visit to the Museums) and it was one of decidedly lower quality rented to us by an obese, lazy (this guy asked me to copy my own driving license while succeeding in not moving from his stool throughout the course of our rental transaction) Sri Lankan man with Yoda-esque hairs coming out of his ears who told us, “Florence? There’s nothing to see in Florence.” He was wrong, obviously, but he was a friendly enough man who rented us a serviceable, if a bit worse for wear, scooter, that allowed us to experience Rome as many of the Romans do. Regardless of the make of the scooter (or the bells and whistles that come with it), Shino and I always seem to experience an elevated sense of joie de vivre when we ride one through (and around) a city–we are certainly looking forward to exploring the Tuscan countryside on our Vespa tomorrow. (And our visits to Lisbon and Porto last October wouldn’t have been the same without our scenic two-wheeled adventures.)

I know we only just scratched the surface (if that–perhaps “kissed the surface” would be more accurate) of Rome. And we will only really have the opportunity to do about that here in Tuscany, but Italy has taken us in with comforting arms thus far. Surely, we have more than ample reason to come back already. The bed down the hall is calling me. I cannot wait to sleep in this place!

Our arrivederci to Rome, soundtracked by “Hear Me Now,” by Alok e Bruno Martini, the song that has followed us everywhere we go in Italy thus far:

Until next time.

Day 3: Il Colosseo

The one site that we knew we had to see, The Colosseum, or the Flavian Amphitheater, was the centerpiece of this second full day in Rome. We still found, we were moved when walking through the quiet streets in our neighborhood than when visiting the massive arena (though it was very cool and the weather couldn’t have been better), whether it was in the morning en route to Il Gianicolo, or at 2:00 am on our way home from a night out that featured miraculous pizza at Pizzeria Nerone, named after an incestuous arsonist, torture-loving, sexually predatory autocrat (basically the Donald Trump of Roman Emperors). Seriously, though, the pizza was all-time. I had the Agrippina, named after Nero’s mother/lover.

Here is a video collage of some scenes from this lovely day in the sun, starring Shino and music by Fleet Foxes.

Day 3: video diary.

Day 3-Il Colosseo-6/27/2017 from Hunter J.W. on Vimeo.

Day 2: Veni, Vidi, Vici

It’s begun! Our first full day in Europe has come and gone.

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Buongiorno, Fiumicino.

We woke up to hazy gray sky in the coastal Italian town of Fiumicino. We took our breakfast of toast with ham and cheese, croissants with jam, and scrambled eggs on the patio of the bed and breakfast where we spent our first night of this 45-night sojourn in Europe. After the first few bites, a light rain started coming down, not hard enough to deter us from finishing up the humble but delicious meal out there. It cooled us down a bit before the heat of the day that was to come.

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The First Breakfast.

Then it was time to drive! Not into Rome just yet. Before hazarding the accurately-billed streets of Rome proper, we took our time a bit driving around Fiumicino. First it was off to a supermarket. Visiting a foodstuffs supply center is one of my favorite things to do to get oriented in a new country. It just lets you know what your possibilities are for purchases and what types of items the populace seems to value. For Italy, as expected, the standouts were copious different varieties of prosciutto, cheese, and pasta, all of which delighted both of us. For this trip, we just decided to pick up some cold beverages and some cherries and beer for later on. (We figure we will be picking up some of the aforementioned items on a future shop.) I’m sipping on some of that Birra Moretti Ricetta Originale as I write this.

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Ready to conquer Rome.

After a quick walk out to the sea, just to feel the salty air on our faces, we got back in the Panda and set our course for the Eternal City. Things started out mellow enough on the outskirts of town, but sure enough, they heated up once we got deeper into Rome and towards our AirBnb. By the end of the day, which also involved whipping through numerous chaotic traffic circles en route to the Stazione Termini where we arranged return the car, I had actually kind of gotten accustomed to the Roman driving style, which, true to what I’d read beforehand, was radically different from that of any other locale in which I had previously gotten behind the wheel. I reasoned that, while it is frenzied, mentally exhausting, and, at times, terrifying, there still are rules to it, sort of. The rules are just different from the rules in Seattle or Hokkaido. The main rule seems to be: don’t ever wait or yield for others unless you have no other choice, and when you need to get somewhere (like another lane, for instance), give others no other choice but to yield to you by seizing the moment and forcing your way in when you get a small window of opportunity to do so. Signaling also seems to be a formality most Romans consider outdated. I probably gave myself away as an outsider via my excessive signaling and tendency to let people in when I probably could have just stepped on it and let them deal with that. It wasn’t quite a “white-knuckle” experience but it certainly was “sweaty-palms” one.

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The Swiss Institute of Rome – looks like a love hotel.

As we were walking away from the station after returning the car without a scratch – an accomplishment which induced me to whoop and holler in the car like I’d just gotten the winning save in the World Series after I’d finally backed into the parking space that marked the finish line for the car rental, unfortunately devastating Shino’s eardrums. The adrenaline rush had built up a lot of energy in me that needed unleashing I guess. I kind of lost touch with my sense of chill – we heard the sickening, unmistakable sound of two cars smashing into each other. We looked back to see a taxi and a car that had collided whilst coming around the turn into the street in front of the station. I was frankly amazed (and relieved) that it was the first such occurrence we had witnessed during the day and that I wasn’t involved in it! Also, I couldn’t help thinking that such collisions are surely inevitable when there are essentially no clear-cut lane distinctions on a huge number of streets. Shino wanted to observe the aftermath. The visceral sensations of driving through this labyrinthine city at speed were still too fresh for me – I didn’t want to see someone else dealing with that result, especially as it could have just as easily been me.

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Cool steps – on our first walk around the neighborhood.

Beyond the eventual success of our drive into the ring of fire, we fit in an absorbing afternoon walk from our quite spacious studio apartment into the Trastevere neighborhood, which featured a maze of cobblestoned roads filled with pizzerias, gelaterias, and intriguing street art. I loved the street art back in Lisbon and Porto when we were there on our last trip, and Rome’s is off to a promising start as well. We started off our time in the neighborhood by treating ourselves to delicious lunch at La Renella, followed up with gelato at Cremi, all for a quite reasonable 15 Euros.

 

 

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Check out that stormtrooper helmet.

Also in Trastevere, we got our first taste of Catholic Rome when we stopped in at the Basilica di Santa Maria, a prototypically awe-inspiring church. Again, we were reminded how difficult it must have been to resist the allure of piousness for anyone who walked into this mind-boggling wonder of a building (or another similar one) back in the early days of the Church (you know, back before you could Google things.) Indeed, even the two of us (decidedly irreligious types though not without a profound history of exposure to Catholicism – what do you know) were nearly moved to start saying Hail Marys. That was, until we saw a child laid naked on the floor outside of the basilica to have a diaper change. That, coupled with the shirts these people were wearing that this poor child was the property of,  kind of killed the vibe. They were this huge group of Americans wearing these T-Shirts in a hideous shade of turquoise that read in a bizarre Jokerman-esque font: “Catholic: The One True Faith.” (That kind of annoyed the hell out of me.)  We heard more American English today than we had all year in Hokkaido, by the way.

 

 

 

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Holy shit.

Especially around Termini, where we walked about after witnessing those two cars crunching each other, there was a notable concentration of tourists and American English seemed to ring the loudest through the streets. We mostly succeed in keeping a low profile by comparison (I think).

We walked a lot after finishing the drive around 6:00 pm – so much that Shino could barely move by a certain point. We hit the Spanish Steps, saw the Roman Forum and Pantheon after dark and finally arrived at the Colosseum. Everywhere we went on this walk there were these guys trying to sell you these laser lights that cast stupid green patterns all over everything. Another guy tried to force Shino and me to buy some pitiful-looking roses by basically thrusting them into her hands. She was prepared for the move, though and literally threw those sad excuses for flowers on the ground. “I don’t want these,” she told the presumptuous little man, and we walked on. Sitting on the Spanish Steps was actually kind of cool. Well, the steps were warm, having been baked by the sun all day. We hadn’t been surrounded by people from so many different countries at once in a while. It was a welcome respite for our feet as well.

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The eye of the Tiber.

Also, we saw a lot of machine guns. Thankfully, Italian commando types were holding them, not unsavories. Weirdly, even having grown up in the land of the guns, we both felt we had never been so close to heavy weaponry. It did kind of give me peace of mind once I stopped worrying one of them might have his trigger finger slip. While I was filling up at this pretty cool free water station (complete with choice of still or sparkling; I’ve become partial to the later, which is called frizzante here), one of the guys with machine guns near the Colosseum also seemingly told off one of the stupid green laser salesmen for treading into what was apparently an area where he wasn’t welcome. That was satisfying.

When our legs could take no more, we posted up at a cafe for some beverages and to use the Wi-Fi to hail a taxi to deliver us back to our quiet abode where I type and Shino snoozes now. It’s an attractive little studio, incidentally, in a neighborhood I would not mind calling home.

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Day 1: NRT to FCO

It started like this at Narita Airport almost 22 hours ago now:

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An auspicious beginning.

And now, we’ve arrived. We paid Moscow airport a visit again before taking a relatively relaxing, sunny flight to Fiumicino.

My wife and I are in Italy for the first time, just eight months removed from our first trip to Europe together.

I also drove a car for the first time on this continent and it went off, mostly, without a hitch. Tomorrow comes the big, scary test of driving into Rome. I won’t pretend I’m not a little anxious to drive in Rome. Driving in big cities tends to elevate my stress levels anyway, but Rome is notorious for the insanity of the driver’s experience. Countless websites have given me same the now useless advice apropos to driving in Rome: “Don’t do it.”

But we have the car as our means of getting into the city to our AirBnb and we must return it to Stazione Termini, Rome’s main train station, so there’s no choice in the matter for me now. I have vacillated between fearful apprehension and bring-it-on joie de vivre about the task that lies ahead during the past week. After driving tonight in our decidedly cool set of wheels (a brand new Fiat Panda), I’m leaning more towards the latter.

I’m hoping the challenge will be an enjoyable one to take on and my hands won’t slip off the wheel from all the nervous sweat that stress tends to make pour out of my palms.

Time for bed. We can’t wait to get up and have our first breakfast here in Italy and perhaps have time to drive down to the beach here in Fiumicino before making that supposedly harrowing automotive journey into the heart of the fallen empire.

The real action gets going after a well-needed few hours of shut-eye.

Good night.

I Started a Blog

Hello, visitor to my blog site.

I started a blog today.

I’m not sure what direction this is going to take and that’s kind of the point.

Feel free to join me on this journey of blog purpose discovery. I would be humbled if you read even a post or two. I’ll try to make it readable, at the least.

For its genesis, its pages will be filled with ramblings about the 6-week Europe trip I’ve just begun with my wife.

Thanks for being here.

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This is me, thinking about starting a blog.