Saturday, June 30, 2007

Emerging from the Cinque Terre

Everything you've heard about the "5 Lands" of the northern Italian coast is quite true; the Cinque Terra (/Chink-wa Tare-a/) are amazing. We were without net for several days, sorry to keep you all hanging, but there'll be stories aplenty when we can post at length. It was great to return to civilization and read all of your responses!

We are now in Genoa where we'll spend the night before moving on to Kandersteg.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Day 2: Eze et Cap d'Ail

Ever have one of those times when you can't decide whether you want to be in the mountains or at the beach? Whether you'd prefer to stroll among gazillion dollar resort houses or seventh century ruins? Boy have I got the spot for you. Just East of Nice lies the small town of Eze which displays its medieval heritage in one stunning cluster of buildings proudly atop a hill. Vieux Eze is home to an elegant menagerie of clothiers, perfumeries, suave cafes, private residences and one VERY exclusive hotel. (How exclusive is "very exclusive"? Well, they don't advertise, the bar menu offers a bottle of brandy for more than the cost of our stay in Nice, and if you drive yourself to to the hotel (how *common*) they will park, wash, and wax your Ferrari for you.) How much is it per night? You know the saying: If you have to ask...

Eze is also home to one big perfurmerie and a few hangers-on. We visited one and were treated to an *extended* ode to the benefits of "le bon sent" and gamely tried a few on. Men, particularly you manly men out there, take note: "cologne" is for boys, being mostly water with a bit of "essence" and some alcohol added as a mere afterthought. Even "eau de toilette" is a bit unassertive. A true man proudly wears "parfum" and caps his display of sensory savvy by opting for a floral jasmine or lily-of-the-sea fragrance rather than a compensatory musk.

We caught the bus to Cap d'Aile and picked our way down the meandering hill of this small seaside getaway. In addition to having many fewer residents than Nice it also has a much lower tourist to local ratio. The very air seemed more relaxed (and the postcards were noticably cheaper) as we found the 237 stairs down to Plage Mala, the town's public beach. It was MAGNIFICENT. They call this area the "Cote d'Azur", the Azure Coast, and for good reason. The dress code is "toptional" like most beaches on the Mediterranian coast. It would be a crime to not make time to swim while visiting the Riviera, and certianly made time. The water was surprisingly brisk (cold, for you killjoys out there) but it made up for it in sheer beauty. Plus, if you get too cold you can lay out on one of the areas few honest to God sand beaches and soak up some rays at near equatorial strength.

Getting outside touristy Nice also allows more opportunities to engage locals in conversation without exhausting their patience. I had a great conversation with the lifeguards Alain and Joel who complimented my french (nice) and then failed to guess where I was from (nicer!). We also spoke to several folks on the bus back to Nice cobbling together conversations out of French, English, en kleine Deutsch (<---That's spelled wrong.) and Italiano. Patrick talked to an Italian boy (via his mother, who translated for him) about Scouting and the differences between US scouting and international scouting.

Dinner began with a repeat of yesterdays regional transit experience. As WikiTravel notes, bus schedules in Nice rank somewhere between best guess and outright fiction. Consequently we were about 20 minutes late for our reservation. Fortunately the delay was made more bearable--and the dinner conversation more lively--by the presence of a new arrival that we Shanghaied into coming with us. Clea just arrived in Nice and was wondering what to do for the evening...aloud, much to her chagrin. We took her with us to try out Lu Fran-Calin which Patrick and I had noticed the day before on our walkabout in Vieux Nice. It's a GREAT little place, before you even taste the food. Spilling out into the middle of a non-descript back alley, Chef Daniel the master of his chaotic domain and the waiter (we'll call him Pierre, he might as well be) dashing around to cover the whole restaurant by himself. A 3 course dinner and a bottle of some MIGHTY bold Cote du Rhone later we're fat, happy, and ready to go home. But ice cream is so CLOSE. We ended up stopping at Fennoccio's (Pronunced like Pinnocio) for rose flavored ice cream. Sure, you can get chocolate and strawberry there, but that's missing the point.

Time to be shoving off now. Pictures will have to wait til morning; the common room packs to the gills in the late hours so I haven't long on the computer. Also we're shoving off tomorrow morning for Genova so we have to be stirring our stumps, if not early, then merely promptly.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Nice, Day 1: Vieux Nice

Taking advantage of being on California time, I woke up early and took some time to look around. Through the trees at the top of the stairs in front of our room one gets a classic view of Nice; from the houses and hotels clustered on the hills, down Nice de Ouest and out to the water. Fantastique! I enjoyed an early constituitional to the top of the hill, breakfast and a second cup of coffee (american) standing and taking in the view.

We started our exploration of Nice proper with a friendly shuttle ride down to the bus stop, and got our first glimpse of the tremendous amount of work being done on their transit system. The city is in the process of a massive project to install trams, and nearly every major road (and many not so major) has been dug up to facilitate the work.

We walked along the waterfront (of course!), then through the flower market, where they also had blocks and blocks of fresh produce. We bought the fixins for penne chicken and pepper dinner. Travelling is many things to many people, but haggling over produce with hawkers at a farmers market is a classic experience.

Our sojurn took us up to "le chateau", the remains of a Roman fort that was torn down by Louis XIV, rebuilt during the war with Spain, and torn down again. Now it boasts the best view of Nice, an expansive childrens park and a man-made waterfall that we spent some time enjoying; the misty spray was the perfect foil for the hot tropical weather.

Getting back to the hostel turned out to be an excersice in forebearance. The massive overhaul of the streets to extend the tram system has also resulted in a reshuffling of bus routes. After about 4 trys we finally found an operational bus stop that actually had the line we were looking for. Sunburned and a bit footweary we set aside our penne ingredients and grabbed a short nap and then dinner at the hostel. Cooking can wait for tomorrow.

Edit: I've gone back through and spiced up Patrick's post with some of the photos from today. I also took a few of the hostel Villa Saint Exupery (22 Rue Gravier, Nice, France) so you can see what's home...for these 3 days at least.

Villa St. Exupery started life at least a century ago as a monastery. The chapel area is now a dining hall and common area. The stained glass window is a nod to its origins. The outside photo shows our room (bottom left door) and some the myriad stairs that meander all over the complex. There are a few more photos available at the flickr page. ~PNT

Monday, June 25, 2007

It's official!

This sojourn is no longer theoretical! As of 10:35 this evening we are in Europe, landing an hour late into Nice Cote d'Azure Aerogare. British Airlines is the way to go. Civilization itself can be found in a British accent and the rest of the flight followed suit. Pleasant staff, passable boeuf bourguignonne and surprisingly tasty syrah for dinner, and in-seat video screens make the chore of trans-Atlantic flight more bearable. We arrived in London to a grey drizzle, as if it was attempting to uphold its reputation. After the 14 some-odd hours of recycled air I was delighted to have an environment with some character. People we've met so far include Cyril, a British expat, lifelong thespian, and semi-retiree who described his double life in San Francisco and London as loving two womnen, only he couldn't decide which was his wife and which was his mistress. In the Gatwick airport we encountered the Brigitte, Alix, and Eloise. Patrick charged ahead, limited French be damned, and soon we were chattering away in an unsteady pidgin of French, English, and gesticulation. The photos from home came in quite handy, and being twins is something of a conversation point. A point of pride, I must say, is that despite the mistakes and hesitations I made in conversing, the conversation was primarily in French. By God, I'm actually accomplishing something with this long-fallow skill! Both Cyril and Alix received our Gentleman Adventurers calling card and responded in kind! I believe those cards are going to get quite a bit of use, though more for the incidental aquaintences than for the hostel friends. It seems to me that it would be redundant or perhaps self-serving since many of them are doing very much the same thing we are.

Briefly, about Nice and the Villa Saint Exupery. Stepping of the plane one immediately gets the humid, by-the-sea sense of the Carribean or perhaps Hawaii. It's a nice reminder of the change in latitude even if sweat rolls down your back while you're merely sitting enjoying the view. The villa itself has that charming sort of winding, odds-and-ends architecture that you get from old buildings which have been much added onto with regard to function rather than form. I swear I took 4 left turns to get to my room. The lingua franca here is emphatically English and the group is raccously good-natured; most everyone are students of some stripe and the camraderie is easy and quick, owning to the transitory nature of the connections. That said, however, I was laughed at when I said we were staying only 2 days. Apparently it's pretty common to "tack on" and hang around a few more days. I can see why already. Happy, healthy, a bit tipsy, and glad that the great endeavor is now in the flesh.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

International currency

Quick, what's the single international currency? If you answered dollars you're wrong. Try a Starbucks gift card. Nearest I can figure, you can use that sucker anywhere in the world.

It's pretty nice to have time to worry about the small things at this point. Incredibly, there's no running around or panic. We're good to go and more than ready to do so. Patrick updated the route map and I updated the itinerary one last time as it occurred to me that I honestly have no idea where I'm going. Theoretically, of course, I can tell you. But it's all just names and numbers at this point. What do *you* know about Budapest? Me neither.

We spent about an hour last night with a scalpel surgically removing the relevant portions of about 5 guidebooks (all Rick Steves books, actually. Patrick asked a good question. Which guidebooks does HE use?) As much as I feel a little dorky/touristy carrying around a freaking guidebook, I think I'd feel a lot dumber just staring at the pretty buildings knowing nothing about them. Plus, they're no longer off-the-shelf immaculate display copies, that bewildered tourist stamp of shame. These are *workin* books; they're lean little 30 page vagabonds with staples for binding, annotated, highlighted, and better for wear. And they haven't even been on the plane yet! It's going to be an interesting return to paper products for my information needs. I already feel a little unplugged knowing I'm not going to have Wikipedia and WikiTravel at my disposal.

We were offered a last bit of advice this morning after church. In addition to receiving the traditional blessing for travelers (People need to use "Godspeed" more in their farewells!) we heard from someone who had traveled Europe already that postcards from SF are a hit abroad. Being an iconic and distinctly Californian location, it apparently hurdles barriers like Halloween revelers in the Castro. Patrick wonders if we can fine some with the Gubernator; I don't doubt that the Austrians would love to see proof that they conquered Cal-ee-forn-ya.

Wheels up at 6:50pm. Godspeed and tally-ho!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Siquid mantica non capit, domi relinquendum est.

Another shining example of "Anything said in Latin sounds profound." It means "If it doesn't fit in your knapsack, leave it behind." Rick Steves phrased it quite nicely as "You can travel happy, heavy, and cheap. Pick two." 4 shirts, 2 long pants and 1 shorts pretty much suffices for day to day clothes especially if you get all non-cotton for sink washing and hang drying. (Socks and boxers are gonna be the determining factor for laundry days. God help us dividing and rematching 20 white socks after the tumble dry.) Neither of us are taking computers, the cell phones won't work, and I don't have an ipod.

Patrick has finished packing; the photo above shows everything he's taking, the photo at left shows our documents. We've taken closer images of each and stored them in a safe place to act as backups/reference should we need them. The photo also shows off flickr's slick photo-embedding. We'll be hosting our photos over there and linking to the highlights here.

With about 36 hours till wheels up it's mostly odds and ends left. I'm working on getting calling cards printed so that we can dispense with scuzzy bar napkins or opera programs. The gentleman adventurer does not bum a pen from a new acquaintance to provide his contact information. We're also ransacking the guidebooks to bring the necessary pages with us while leaving the bulk behind. I guess we could do that on the plane if we run out of time. Course, we'd have to chew the pages out with our teeth due to DHS/FAA/TSA hysterics. I can't wait for European airports again. They've been dealing with this for so long that they're down to a reasonable bark:bite ratio. Something along the lines of "Ja, die nailclipers ist OK. Iffen du misbehaven, I hast ein Uzi. Kapische?" Remember, in Germany, if it's not verboten, you can do it.

[A bit of housekeeping: If you're viewing the blog from the wiki (ie. in an embedded frame) you might experience a little quirk in getting back to the wiki main page when you make comments. To solve this, I've added a link on the Comments page of the blog that will take you directly back to the wiki after you've added your comment.]

Edit: Mer-duh. I heard back from Sister Dominique. No dice; she says it's full up with the same ESA group that I can with the first time. Phooey. At least she understood. Maybe we can get in at Sacre Coeur. Not that hostels are bad, but I think it'd be great to change it up a little. Plus, nuns are remarkably cool.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Clicking off like an abacus

At less than 72 hours 'til wheels up I'm pleasantly surprised how *not* panicked I am. Things seem to be slotting into place just right. We bought the cameras today in a thousand dollar Best Buy raid; easiest sale the clerk ever made. Having done the research for so long we went in there and grabbed gear off the shelf like it was 7-11 and finished by pointing the bewildered clerk to the cabinet in which our cameras were reserved. End result, for those of you interested: A pair of Canon SD800IS's with 2GB SD cards, an SD to USB adapter and a spare battery. My camera is charging right now while I read the manual to bring myself up to date on 7 years worth of photographic innovation.

I've also set up the flickr account with a public page ( , naturally) so people may browse at their leisure once there's content. (The only content right now is a photo from the SLO fencing tourney after PST and I fenced to la belle in a "by popular request" face off. Tomorrow I'll add the photos from the camera's maiden voyage so you can see how it performs under ideal and "adverse" conditions.)

Lastly, if you're up for a laugh, Patrick took an idle musing I had and ran with it. As a way of breaking the ice with fellow travelers and keeping perspective when "schiesse happens," he created Travel Catastrophe Bingo. Stiffed by the moneychanger? Chased by the cops? Lost in translation? Mark it down, shake it off, and ramble on! (Suggestions for additional catastrophes encouraged, just use the comment button immediately below!)

People round here ain't from around here...

Living relatively insulated from other countries and other languages, foreign accents have always been kinda neat. A cheery British accent livens up a routine tech support call and an unplaceable lilt makes the woman on the bus seem instantly more interesting to talk to. Though I don't want to be called out as the tourist that I am, I am looking forward to having the accent for a change. Even though the "value" of an accent is really just supply and demand (with a dash of stereotype, prejudice, and cultural taste thrown in) it's hard to deny the instant impact of an accent in the way you perceive someone.

Being the linguistic voyeur that I am, I'm always cocking an ear for the sounds of a foreign language. Some of my friends have seen me double back on a crowded street to stalk passers-by until I can discern what they're speaking. God help them if they're French; I've ambushed people many a time with a "Pardonne-moi mais est-ce que j'ai entendu du francais?" I do it partly to practice my French, but in large part it's for the novelty, mine and theirs. I've hardly ever gotten anything but a delighted reaction and they've usually conversed at length. I have no shame, here, in the US. Strangely, though, I sense that it would be somewhat less appropriate in France to do the same. The novelty, perhaps, is removed. "So you speak French. You're bloody well IN FRANCE! Get away from me and let me finish buying my baguettes." Coming full circle, however, I would be delighted if some kid came up to me and asked if he heard me speaking English. Well, probably the first few times. I wonder how often Madame Unetelle and her daughter get stopped in Raley's. Somehow I don't think conversing in French carries quite the public magnetism as being a rock star. I figure it's somewhere between wearing a Ren Faire shirt and teaching at the local high school.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Now with more comments!

Ever get the feeling you're being watched?

We certainly did. In fact, talking with our friends and family we realized "Hey! Wow! People are reading RamblingRovers and they're interested in our trip!" As nice as it was to know that people enjoyed hearing about our preparations there was something missing: you! Though the wiki masquerades well enough as a blog most of the time it just doesn't have a way for us to hear your thoughts, feedback, suggestions, and reminders. Plus, you might have timely news for us along the way (like "Military coup in Krakosia, skip that stop").

Enter a kludgy hack and a real, honest-to-goodness blog. (, naturally) Sure, frames make my skin crawl, but I want to make all trip-related information available on one site. You're welcome to access it directly through blogspot if you just want the updates, but you can save a few neurons and just keep in mind as the main resource. And since you're saving some grey matter, share the wealth. Give us a piece of your mind. Anyone may comment on this blog using the "Comment" button at the bottom of each entry and we encourage you to identify yourself in some way; we're all friends here.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Clickey-clack, we're on the right track!

(Puns, rhyming, and cliche all in the same title. Hand me the hemlock, it's for the best.)

After some anxiety we've finally made the last big single purchase for the trip, Eurail passes. If you're interested in planning your own trip, I recommend checking out Rick's website for a nice overview, then going ahead and ordering from him or from Rail Europe, which we did. Because we're hitting many different countries over the course of six weeks we found that a full 2-month Global Eurail Pass was the no-worries option. As youth (under 26) we're entitled to purchase second-class fares for a reduced rate of $1000. Though the pass doesn't cover us for all the countries we'll be traveling through (Czech Republic and Poland will be bought on a train-by-train basis) it's the easiest way to know that we're covered.

In other news, I still haven't heard back from Sister Dominique, so I might have to call. That oughta be interesting. (French 4 lab practical, ready go!) Also, as this front page was getting rather long, PST has shortened it by removing old entries to a separate page. If you missed the beginning of the saga, you can start there to see where this whole thing came from.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Francophones just skip this one

This is partly a practical matter and partly an exercise. Knowing that I'm going to be spending some time in Francophone countries (France, Monaco, Switzerland, and Luxembourg) I'm going out of my way to rap on the sluggish ketchup bottle that is my knowledge of the French language. The below is a letter to Sister Dominique, the head Sister of the Dominican dormitory that I stayed at last time I was in France, asking if PST and I might be able to stay there. If this works it's gonna be a coup. Practically speaking it's a GREAT location, right in the 6th arrondissment, near the Luxembourg Gardens and the Latin Quarter. More on the experiential side, I would be delighted to be able to return to the same place and develop some continuity in a foreign country. Though part of the goal of this trip is to see and experience a great deal, the subtler and more important part for me is to get out of the tourist rut and *experience* Europe rather than just seeing it.

Anyway, the letter. I post this for the same reason that a cat brings you a decapitated mouse. Because I'm proud of it (dirty and disheveled though it may be) and because I like you. Bon appetit!

Cher Soeur Domininique,

(Je suis sur que vous etes toujours en charge; je ne peux pas imagine la centre sans vous!)

Je vous souhaite un bon matin! Je suis ravi d'avoir vous trouver encocore, grace a l'internet et mon memoire faible. Il y a presque trois annees que je suis passe une julliet chez vous en assistant des courses a l'Institut Catholique. J'etais avec une groupe de etudiants des Etats Unis avec Tom Blair et Shelley Vincent et j'ai aime bien la centre et la compagne des soeurs. Merci, encore pour une accueil chaleurex a France et une introduction magnifique a Paris!

Je suis heureux de vous dire que j'ai l'opportunite de retourne en Paris cet ete. Mon frere vien de obtenir son licence universitaire et nous allons faire un sejour en Europe pour fete son succes. (C'est genial, n'est pas? Si vous avez un frere, et vous deux avez acheve vos etudes, qu'est-ce que vous devrez absolumment faire? Oui, voyager en Europe!)

Je voudrais savoir s'il est possible de retourne entre vous (avec mon frere, cette fois) pour deux ou trois soirs au fin de juillet. Je crois que nous allons arriver en Paris vers le 30eme.

Je vous remercie de l'attention que vous avez accordée à ma demande. Dans l'espoir de recevoir bientôt une réponse de votre part, je vous prie d'agréer Ma Soeur, mes meilleures salutations.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Tragedy of Suburbia

I recently watched a lecture on the dismal failure that is community design in America. James Howard Kunstler gives a powerful and insightful look at "places not worth caring about", and how we come to have so many of them. I heartily agree with many of his concerns and conclusions, and I hope to spend time in Europe grokking what makes spaces alive and worth caring about.

PNT: What I found interesting about Kunstler's indictment of failed [sub]urbanism in the US is that many of the proposed remedies have a very pronounced European feel to them. It seems to me that one of the things that makes Americans abroad so delighted by the architecture and layout of the cities is that we simply don't get it around here. Quaint streets, narrow pedestrian alleys, bustling squares, and quiet courtyards are not attractive because they're merely novel; I think they provide us with something that we're just not GETTING in much of American. Un certain "je ne sais quoi", if you will. No wonder all these new strip malls and housing developments are trying to channel Tuscany or provincial France.

is not
(Images courtesy of Valley Commercial Contractors and yours truly, RamblingRovers.)

Monday, June 11, 2007

Full disclosure

During my Washington, DC trip of a few weeks ago (to check out, and eventually accept a place at, Catholic University of America School of Law) I ended up chatting with some folks from the Air Force OSI. OSI's mission is most succinctly described as the Air Force's in-house FBI/CIA/Spooks. They have a much broader mission profile than the larger agencies, and, being small, they operate with a greater degree of independence. Sounds pretty interesting, and only reinforces my interest in some of the spookier careers out there. One of them had a bit of advice for me when I told him that I would be traveling Europe this summer: Take a Standard Form 86 with me and fill it out along the way.

Apparently the US Government is mighty particular about where you've traveled and how you account for your time while abroad if you are interested in working intelligence. SF-86 is the standard questionnaire for national security positions, and collects this as well as much more information. So little as a single day or country not disclosed can be grounds for immediate and irrevocable termination of candidacy.

Considering my and my brother's perennial interest with this sort of work, I think it's probably prudent to do exactly as the man says. Plus, once its filled out for this trip and for our previous trips (including Canada, Vatican, British Virgin Islands, and Berkeley) we'll have a complete list of everywhere we've been for ourselves, as well.

[Edit: 2/2/09 - That advice was right on the money. Though it's been my experience now with DoJ and State that low level (less than Top Secret) clearance doesn't demand the closest scrutiny, not having at least estimated information will leave some conspicuous holes.]

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Cream-filled Rorschach tests

Apparently there's a tradition/running joke in Prague that came out of a novel by a famous (though inexplicably lost to history) Czech novelist who once mused that people can be divided into 3 categories:

1) Those who would pass by a plate of stale donuts and think nothing of it
2) Those who would pass by a plate of stale donuts and consider throwing them at passers-by
3) Those who would pass by a plate of stale donuts and actually throw them at passers-by

In honor of this all-encompassing personality test, the Imperial Cafe, an upscale Prague eatery, offers an additional menu item: a plate of rock-hard stale creampuffs and the tacit permission to pelt your fellow patrons. Just remember that in doing so you've not only united the populace against you, you've also armed them.

Also, if you'd like to contact us, you can always email me at pnthomas(at)gmail(dot)com. (Donut story first heard on "Czech Republic: Prague with Samantha Brown" on the Travel Channel.)

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Oh captain, my captain

Since we are both unabashed geeks, we've decided that a particular obscure village in France must be on our itinerary. It turns out that the eventual birthplace of a certain French captain is in fact a real city and is not too far off our route. La Barre is a tiny village in the Loire Valley between Le Mans and Orleans. Is there actually anything vaguely related there? Probably not, but it's really about the journey, a sentiment I'm sure our good captain would agree with.

Monkeries and Nunneries

Reverend Teri had a magnificent idea for yet another place to stay in Europe: monasteries and convents! It may at first seem like staying with the monks and nuns would cramp your style if you were a twenty-something romping across Europe, but remember: The monks INVENTED beer! Plus, I hear that the monks are known for eating well (The cliche isn't "skinny friar," after all) and they're apt to have a great deal more to tell and share about the area. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea. Plus, it promises to add a new and interesting dimension to the "Your place or mine?" discussion. (<--- If you are a parent person, I'm only kidding.)

*PS: Apparently the Basilica of Sacre Coeur de Montmartre (oh, THAT one) has a retreat house/pilgrims house. Could be interesting!

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Bottoms up or the rest in your hair!

An essential part of going local is knowing how to raise a glass in the proper fashion. Cheers has the local toasts for each of the countries that we're visiting. The title of this post comes from the translation of the rather charming Danish toast, "Bunden i vejret eller resten i håret."

In other news, Patrick and I have hammered out a couple more changes in the schedule. We're stealing a day from Berlin and adding it to Prague (I think we'll have more of interest to us in Prague) and we're also liberating a day from St. Malo and trying to find out where to stick in an R&R day. After all, quaint and historic as St. Malo is, it's 300 square yards of beautiful old city, then 2 miles of Oakland shoreline.