Paris to Argentiere

France, January 8, 2015

We left Paris before dawn, which isn’t as alarming as it sounds. The sun doesn’t rise until 8:40am. We caught a cab to Gare du Lyon, grabbed a slim Parisian sandwich (ham butter and cheese) and got on the first of several trains to Argentiere in the French Alps. Our friends are there for a month so it was a good excuse to visit a new (to me) part of the world.

An hour out of Paris the gray weather cleared and I saw the sun for the first time in days. We passed through pretty, pastoral landscapes, most of which were nearly impossible to photograph thanks to speed and reflections in the train windows.


Things got really interesting once we changed to a local train at St. Gervais. Patches of snow on the ground…Alps looming all around. St. Gervais is in a beautiful setting, completely surrounded by mountains. We had less than 5 minutes to admire it as we dragged our now over-heavy suitcases up and down stairs to get to the right platform.


The crazy freeway, above the train

The “Mont Blanc Express” averages about 20mph and stops at every small town in the valley and is one of the best train rides I’ve ever taken. I hate to use the word “charming” but I’m not sure what else to say when you pass numerous tiny pink train stations like this:


We continued up hill and up the valley and the snow kept getting deeper. The houses looked like the Swiss chalet music box I had when I was a kid. I had to keep reminding myself these weren’t in that style; they were the real deal. Growing up in California, places like this only exist in fairy tales or at Disneyland.


We passed through Chamonix, the “big” town, and arrived at Argentiere.


We rolled our suitcases down icy sidewalks, skiers and snowboarders passing us, tromping in ski boots, clearly weary after a day on the slopes. Our hotel was close to the bottom of “Les Grands Montets” which I think is the name of the resort…or maybe the mountain range…I was never sure. Regardless, many lifts ended up a couple hundred meters from our hotel.

Our hotel was a cute family-run place. The kids treated the lobby as their living room, watching TV there in their pajamas. A golden retriever guarded the front door. I reserved a “suite” because I suspected a suite was going to be one reasonably-sized room, which was the case. I have no idea why they called it a suite.

We tried to find our friend’s apartment, slipping down a dark icy road, using our phones as flashlights. She eventually had to come get us since there were no house numbers.

We had dinner at a “tex mex” place, which was pretty dead for a Thursday night. In fact, the whole town was dead. I expected a buzz. The Alps! Ski season! I think any buzz was probably 15 minutes down the road in Chamonix.

Eh, anyway, bedtime after a long day of travel.

Strange day in Paris

France, January 7, 2015

We’ve always stayed with my friend when we’ve come to Paris, but this time we stayed in a hotel for a change of scene. We love its location in the first arrondissement, being close to the Louvre and the Seine and the “grand magasins” but the irony is that being in the heart of the tourist action has made me feel that Paris is overrun with tourists…whereas when we were here last time I felt like I was in Paris the normal city…too normal!

I was in kind of a bad mood about tourists yesterday because I spent too much time in the thick of it and I get irritated when people physically impede me. Tourists walk super slow and stop and turn suddenly and generally get in my way. I imagine living with that would be unbearable.

Today was extremely foggy, terrible visibility. I took side streets to get to the Musee Arts et Decoratifs–all the better to see non-touristy things.


 Aren’t the helmets amazing?

The museum was completely empty! It is housed in a far end “arm” of the Louvre. I started at the top and worked my way down and was often the only person in a room. The poor guards were nodding off. It was a nice change from the normal Louvre.


I emerged from the museum to find myself in a de facto dog park. Not something I expected to see in front of the Louvre, but it was real Paris and it made me happy.


I was just finishing up a quiche (Lorraine because I don’t know what the other ones are called) when R. texted me and told me not to go north of the Pompidu Center, there’d been a shooting at a French newspaper. As I searched the web to find out what happened I was disturbed by the fact that a) the police hadn’t caught the shooters and b) that no one on the streets seemed to realize this was happening. I guess Parisians don’t check social media every 15 seconds. Everyone was shopping and going about their business and I was thinking, shouldn’t we go hide in the cellar until they catch these guys?

It was like that for the rest of the day, everyone around me seemed very oblivious, though there were more police on the streets and more sirens.


I continued sightseeing a bit uncomfortably. I felt like I was visiting a friend I didn’t know very well and her great aunt died and I wasn’t sure how she felt about it and how I was supposed to feel. I knew how I’d react if I was in New York and this happened at the New York Times – I’d be horrified and completely freaked out. I didn’t know the newspaper though and the normalcy of Paris threw me off.

I’d intended to visit the Automaton Museum, so I went ahead that since it wasn’t near where the shootings happened. It was a cute, tiny museum. In fact the woman selling tickets tried to warn me off. The very old (1800’s??) automatons were pretty silly, most of them small and flat with few moving parts, but my experience was positively influenced by a young French girl who was in the museum at the same time and she was LOVING them. She described everything that was happening to her mother. “Look mama, the man is sawing the log!”

Photos were forbidden, so I didn’t take the one below. : )


The sun was setting and I headed back to the hotel, wanting to touch base and see what was happening with the shootings. At that point, not too much was known. It was all speculation.

Perfectly trimmed trees in the Palais Royal.

Paris is covered

France, January 6, 2015

It’s funny, the last time I went to Paris I carried around an article about the covered passages and could never find any of them. Today, everywhere I turned there was another one! I guess I was in the right arrondissement.

My extremely limited research reveals that these passageways were more or less the first malls. In a time before paved streets, when open sewers still flowed, these were great places to shop and hang out. They became less popular once department stores came into existence.

I discovered one on the same street as our hotel, on Rue du Bouloi–the Galerie Véro-Dodat, built in 1826.

North and west I ran across Gallerie Vivienne (built 1823).


Inside, a bookstore founded in 1826, still in business.


All these passages have really nice mosaic floors.


Close by, Passages de Panoramas, built 1800. More casual and fun atmosphere. I took a photo of the historic plaque…I think it says that it was one of the first public places to have gas lights in 1817 and had a “crazy” number of shops, some of which are still in business.

From here we took the subway to another covered passage–the Paris sewers. I’ve always wanted to take this tour but it was a bit of a letdown. It is a self-guided tour and is only about 20 feet underground. Granted there was a river of sludge (I’m guessing storm drain) and a mild odor, but we weren’t creeping down the dark passages with vaulted stone archways I imagined (and that I’m sure exist). Though I left convinced I do not want to be a Paris sewer worker.


We walked to Grand Palais from there to see an exhibit, but it was closed, so we strolled down Avenue Montaigne. I am tempted to say it is the Rodeo Drive of Paris, but everywhere we go seems like the Rodeo Drive of Paris. Rue St. Honore…this is a playground for super rich tourists and strolling past them I thought, huh, they shop in chain stores just like everyone. The same Chanel and Dolce & Gabanna and Stella McCartney stores all over the globe. Strange.


I don’t know how Parisians handle all the tourists. I know, I am part of the problem, but it still astounded me. I thought, okay, the holiday break is over, everyone is back at work, the city will be empty, but no. It was foggy, freezing cold, beginning of January, midweek, and tourists were everywhere. This is such a far cry from our roadtrips. Going to obscure places allows for a a sense of discovery, whereas Paris has been done and done.

I caught a break on my way back to the hotel though. A quiet street on Ile St. Louis, and I finally had a private moment with Paris and understood why we all keep coming, and coming back.


Paris Past

France, January 5, 2015

Paris has too many baguettes! I was only a block from the hotel when I came across this alarming sight:


We skipped breakfast and had an early lunch on Rue Montorgueil, a small shopping street with few cars and this bizarre old sign:


I checked this out on the internet and it is (supposedly) a sign from around 1890 advertising a shop with products from the colonies.

I was a bit shocked to see this, however I gather is it not necessarily controversial here as it is a preserved piece of the past and Paris is nothing if not a living museum.


Cute little pig pastries because – pigs with glasses!

After lunch, THE LOUVRE. It isn’t so much that it is big, it’s that it is u-shaped so you can end up at a dead end all the way down one arm and have to walk a quarter mile before you can even think of escaping. We didn’t try to see much, just Egyptian antiquities and oversized French paintings. Plus the Mona Lisa. Heh.


I’m mystified as to why certain paintings become famous. Qualitatively, there isn’t much difference between the Mona Lisa and dozens of other works nearby.

My jet lag was better today but still lingering, so I wasn’t in top museum form. I didn’t have any real “art moments.” Sadly, this visit was more checking a box than inspirational.

We escaped and headed back to the hotel, and passed probably the best business I’ve seen in Paris yet – the Duluc Detective Agency!



Celebrating in a fog

France, January 4, 2015

I really hoped that by day three in Paris I’d be over jet lag, but not quite. I got enough sleep but still felt like I’d been up all night. I wanted to write, but travel writing springs from an inquisitive mind and my mind has been almost completely blank. Look at map. Go to place. Examine place. Look at map. Go to next place. The freezing air helps a bit, but only to keep me awake. It didn’t manage to slap my brain into action.

baguetteWe got a late breakfast and as soon as I swallowed the last bit of baguette and cafe creme I hurried to a writer’s group that was supposed to be held at Shakespeare and Company. What a great story, huh? Going to writer’s group at such a famous place. I arrived, breathless, having turned the wrong way down the street and not figured it out for several blocks.

The cashier informed me it was cancelled! I was quite annoyed because I’d checked in several different places online to confirm. He did say that someone else was upstairs for it and maybe we could run it ourselves. I figured I’d go introduce myself and chat a bit.

That worked! I met a woman taking four months off from her psychiatry job (teaching?) to finish a memoir about wine tasting around the world. I met another woman who split her time between New York and Paris and was writing a fiction book, something to do with two generations…someone in Holland. She said she found it odd that people asked her if she was “inspired” by living in Paris. What was that supposed to mean? Inspired how? She said that might be relevant if she were writing about Paris but she isn’t. I have to agree. Any change of scene gets the gears turning, but being in an exciting urban environment is more distracting than inspiring. Yeah, all this input might end up digested and in a story a year from now, but certainly doesn’t help me write now. Evidence my lack of blog entries. Hmm, wander the streets of Paris or write this dumb blog? Not a hard decision!


Resident cat at Shakespeare and Company

After while my jet lag started to kick in and I needed to get moving or else pass out. I decided to pop into Notre Dame.


From there I headed to the Pompidu Center to see my friend’s friend’s exhibit.


Bubbles near Hotel de Ville

It was free day at all museums and Pompidu Center was a zoo. I decided to get a ticket to a non-free exhibit just to avoid the lines. The irony was–they made everyone who *had* a ticket wait in the long line and people who were there for free got to go right up! Oh Paris!

I saw the Jeff Koons exhibit. I’m not really a fan. Suffice it to say–kids loved it. Seven-year-olds finally understood why their parents rave about museums. I’m not saying kids don’t have an innate appreciation for art but they tend to have different taste than adult museum goers.

From there I headed to Montmartre cemetery because it was supposed to be a “strange and unusual” attraction. Bisected by an overpass! Infested with cats! Big disappointment. I saw one cat, briefly. And the overpass wasn’t that weird. I wanted it to be ironic, the old vs. the new, but it was a decent-looking overpass. I thought, oh, the fancy graves under that are going to hold up a lot better than those out in the weather.


I had to hurry back to the hotel because we had our one and only dinner reservation–Buddha Bar. We’d been there once years ago and felt nostalgic towards it. Plus, they put out a series of chill CDs so we hoped to hear some good music.

Sadly, the place is past its prime. The decor is still impressive but the food is just average and the clientele is no longer even pretending to be cool. Most people in Paris dress nicely. Not fashionably, just in good-looking basics. These people didn’t even hit that mark. Sweatshirts, jeans. I was disappointed.

Fortunately we took a trip a few blocks down the street to Hotel Costes, which also puts out their own chill CD compilations. And woo hoo! People-watching jackpot! Great drinks, fashionable young things in headbands, and next to us? A geisha from Tokyo! That’s what I’m talking about!



Four days in Paris and counting…

France, January 2 & 3, 2015

I’ve been here since Friday and I haven’t written a damn thing. No one expects an explanation but I feel I owe one. I had a few days of very strange jet lag. We arrived and despite having only a few hours sleep, I stayed up until midnight Friday night–as was my intention (thought being I’d get on Paris time). Our friends were in town and we went out to dinner and took a long walk so it all worked out.


I thought I’d have a great sleep but I woke up at 5 a.m. full of angst. I don’t know what it is about jet lag but it gives me these “midnight of the soul” moments. I didn’t know where I was, whether I was supposed to be asleep or awake but once I was truly awake, I didn’t know how to go back to sleep. What kind of thoughts should I think? The small street our hotel is on was definitely asleep. In New York someone is always up to something but it was dead silent here.

The next day I went on the usual first day of vacation marathon walking tour. We are staying near the Louvre so I thought I’d start there. Not! I’ve never seen such a line! 1000 people I’d guess. And standing in the freezing rain.

Plan B: tour the Opera. I walked there from the Louvre. The Opera is grand and impressive and overwrought. One part of me likes this, the other part feels I’ve been force fed a big meal.


I did like two small salons, one sun-themed, the other moon.

sun2Sun (above)


I left the Opera and was trying to find Galleries Lafayette when I stumbled across this amazing manhole cover, right at the foot of a set of stairs leading to a side door of the opera:


I was really excited because this called out this was an electric sector, which meant that most of Paris wasn’t electric, and I suspected that manhole covers that weren’t on “historic” property had probably been updated. I scoured the ground on other streets; I never saw another old cover.

So woo! This is the kind of travel moment I love. Me, standing in the wind and rain next to a trash can trying to kick away a plastic cup the keeps blowing into my frame and experiencing a bit of completely overlooked history.

After that I did go to Galleries Lafayette and it was a total zoo. I mistakenly imagined that everyone would have left Paris for the holidays, but no, they came. As if I’m one to talk.

I then went to go see an impressionist exhibit in the 16th because it was the first day and I had to keep going, even though I felt like a zombie with a pillow for a head.

I wasn’t naked but I could kind of relate to this sculpture:

nakedandsadTired, wet, surrounded by French people who will never invite me in.

The exhibit was nice, but I’m over my Monet period. I was a huge Monet fan in high school. Granted, there was a great painting there of a train stopped at a station in the snow and fog that really moved me and I wished I could take it home.

After that I wandered around a bit and began to suspect the 16th is a pretty swanky arrondissement. Many embassies. Security cameras. Dudes in dark glasses leaning against fancy cars. Women in fur coats.

I found a cute shopping street and stopped at a patisserie because I was starving, having eaten nothing since breakfast. I was lucky enough to have a view of a super popular bakery. I took this photo at a slow moment but the rest of the time there was a line.


They only made one thing, so it must be some kind of trendy thing, but I still am not sure what this thing is. I guessed it was a meringue ball rolled in something kind of wet then rolled in shaved chocolate/coconut/nuts/whatever. I could have bought one for 3.5 euros. The shop was called Aux Merveilleux de Fred so maybe one day I’ll look it up and kick myself. I just didn’t want a big candy ball at the moment.

I wasn’t far from the Eiffel Tower so I decided to walk there. This area really interested me:


So you’ve got this super nice area that somehow ended up with an elevated metro running smack dab through the middle of it. I love how they have done everything in their power to make the underneath bit into a grand hall with fancy columns and hanging lights. I’m sure the elevated sections of the metro in the other parts of Paris are just as nice! Mmmm probably not.

I finally made it to the Eiffel Tower, or at least close to it.


And now, argh, I thought I’d get through the first days of the trip in one night of writing but I’m done, put a fourchette in me. I’ll work on this again tomorrow.


GEA2014: The Real World, Paris

June 12, 2014

The breakneck pace of the trip slowed considerably once we hit Paris (much to R.’s relief and my chagrin). We stayed with friends and spent a few days experiencing a lazy three-day weekend from the point of view of actual Paris residents taking it easy.

Locks from canal St. Martin to the Seine

Locks from canal St. Martin to the Seine

I found it tough to transition to “guest” mode after gallivanting around for two and a half weeks following my whims. We arrived Friday night and I kind of hoped we’d go out to dinner, but my friend met us in the lobby of his apartment, arms loaded with groceries for a home-cooked meal. Which was nice actually. Once I stopped moving I had to admit I was tired.

Dinner was good, but the first of many meals that left me fatigued. We had aperitifs and snacks before dinner, wine with dinner, bread and cheese and wine “after” dinner (I’m sure that was still technically dinner but I thought we were done) and then dessert. Coma time.

Today I woke up fairly early, eager to sneak out and get to some museums, but my host was awake and waiting for me to join he and his girlfriend on a trip to the farmer’s market. This did sound like fun so I went along.

It was a great market, stretching for blocks. The one thing that surprised me was that the vendors yelled to potential customers. I couldn’t understand–both what they were saying and why. “Get yer apricots here, I’ve got the best apricots!” ?? Strange! Does this guy really think he can harass me into buying fruit?

In Paris everyone jaywalks (unlike Berlin). Crazy dangerous jaywalking that I thought would get me killed. I was seriously nervous as I followed my host and his GF around. Traffic in Paris is nuts. I am sure everyone there gets it, but I don’t. We took a cab from the train station to the apartment yesterday and we entered a roundabout and I was SURE we were going to get in an accident but everyone honked and played chicken and it all worked out. I would not drive here. Never.

Paris is so Paris, isn't it?

Paris is so Paris, isn’t it?

When we got back to the apartment, I said I was going to a museum, and he propose I go to the museum tomorrow because many museums open tomorrow, but not La Grande Epicerie, which we must see, the very nice food store. There is water from all the world, and a cave, how do you say it. A wine store underground. We eat lunch, then go over the bridge. To the store. 45 minutes.

By the end of the visit R. and I were unintentionally speaking this same disjointed English to our host and to each other. It was contagious!

I did want to go to the great food store. He cooked, we chatted, and I watched as he added goose fat and butter to EVERYTHING.

Lunch was the same multi-course meal with drinks again. Not super gourmet or anything like that, just food, and some more food and then more. Not huge portions, but we were there until 3p.m. And though I wasn’t physically forced to drink alcohol, when we sat down in the living room before lunch with a bowl of chips and some nuts and my host set out glasses and some strange liqueurs and asked me, “Do you take a drink?” and I said no and he looked at me with horror, I realized he wasn’t asking IF I wanted a drink but which one I wanted.

We made it out of the house, barely, and took a nice walk to the food store, hurrying past all the places tourists love and residents are sick of.

Street art on Ile St. Louis, or somewhere near there

Street art in the Latin Quarter

I snapped photos of Notre Dame as I hurried to keep up. Turns out there is this strange phenomena that happened where people put “love locks” on this fence (and others) near the cathedral. ___ + ___ is written or scratched onto the locks. My host said that so many locks were put on one railing that it collapsed!

Locks on bridge near notre dame

I’ve never been to Paris during high season and oh my god…certain areas are mobbed. Completely mobbed. To the point you suddenly realize, oh shit, this isn’t a pedestrian street, this is too many humans to fit on the sidewalk and they can barely fit on the road!

My host said famous Cafe de Flore was a place to see and be seen, but based on the guy on the left, I'd say it is a meeting place for SPIES

My host said famous Cafe de Flore was a place to see and be seen, but based on the guy on the left, I’d say it is a meeting place for SPIES

I felt really bad for being there too, but this was the way to the store so it wasn’t my fault. La Grande Epicerie was nice, but not something easy to do in a group. We had cokes at a sidewalk cafe…a pretty crappy one, but my host never goes out so he couldn’t suggest anywhere.

Back at the apartment, everyone collapsed and took naps. I pulled a chair out onto the balcony and wrote. My host reacted in surprise when he saw me. Apparently no one has ever taken a chair out there. Wow.

He doesn’t feel much love for Paris, even after all the years he’s lived there. Why? He is from the Alps. He points this out whenever he gets the chance, usually in association with a product or art object.”This jam, it is from the alps, from a special berry that grows only there.” He says he doesn’t have any friends in Paris, and I wonder, who is snubbing whom?

I’ve been thinking a lot about culture, race, and immigrants on this trip. We started in Finland, which was very homogeneous (population is 94% Finnish, 5% Swedish). One of the planners of the ambient music conference was originally from England, and is married to a Finnish woman. They have two teenage girls. I remarked to him about the people glaring at me from their garden plots and asked if he “fit in” in Finland. He said, you have to speak really good Finnish to fit in, and I don’t speak it that well.

What really amazes me is that if you overlay a map of western Europe on a map of the U.S., the distance between where he and his wife were born might be not much further than the distance from Los Angeles  to Seattle. And to think…he will never fit in in Finland…and he looked Finnish (to my very untrained eye mind you! The fact that he still had hair might have been a giveaway…)

OTOH, I think of the nice 20-somethings that befriended me in Berlin. One from Iceland, one from Hungary, one from Italy. All working together in a design firm, all speaking English as a common language. I doubt they will snub anyone who can’t pronounce a word correctly! In fact, it is interesting they’d settled on a game of drawing tattoos on one another, leapfrogging the language barrier entirely. Inclusion, not exclusion, and creativity to smooth the way. I vote for that.


GEA2014: It’s not you Reims, it’s me

July 11, 2014

We had to see by the light of the Sexy Dance poster after they closed the station

We had to see by the light of the Sexy Dance poster after they closed the station

You closed down the train station when we arrived. You don’t have any cabs. You roll up the sidewalks at 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, which is practically the weekend. Your bartenders measure booze in those stupid thimbles. Your hotel doesn’t have art in the rooms though the theme should be obvious and easy. You tell me the champagne house I like was founded by Germans. You take me on a tour of this house and explain a bunch of equipment, and then mumble that you don’t use it anymore because it is too hard to clean. You show me barrels and then admit the champagne is produced in huge steel vats across the way. You have gray skies and rain. You keep all the shutters on the pretty houses closed.

Worst of all, I can’t pronounce your name. I thought it was pronounced “reams” or maybe “rem,” like REM sleep. But when I ask a French person, they say some word that could be the running joke in an SNL script. The R is some deep down in the throat rolling sound that a baby has to hear before it is six months old so that pathway is formed in the brain, the M at the end sounds like an N, and the S is definitely not silent. So it comes out like RRRRRRrrrrrrronzzzzzzzz. Sigh.

This is not your fault. It is mine. I’m tired. This town would have bewitched me two weeks ago. I really appreciate you putting on that sound and light show on the cathedral last night, though. It was as if you could read my mind. 2000 years of art and culture and cobblestone streets not enough for you, you stupid American? How about THIS???

That worked. I’ll be back when I’m better rested, I promise. : )

Cool equipment that they don't actually use at Mumm Champagne

Cool equipment that they don’t actually use at Mumm Champagne

GEA2014: Three meals, three countries

July 10, 2014, Breakfast in Germany, lunch in Luxemburg, dinner in France.

feather2This is a day that armchair travel me planned, and real life me tried to live out with enthusiasm. Three meals, three countries (plus a cab, a train, a bus, another train, and another cab). If this were an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” I’d be trying the local booze with every meal and a crew would shepherd me around. In real life, it was tough to carry out with limited stamina.

Breakfast in the hotel was the usual cold cuts, bread, and cheese, but there was an odd table decoration.

While R. eased his way into the morning I hurried to the graveyard to see if I could find any Webers. My great great grandfather was born in Trier, and I appreciate the mix of art and nature in graveyards, so I figured it was worth a look.

I lucked out and did find a few Webers! The place was huge and I figured my chances were slim, but I found three different plots. I had no idea if they were actually my relatives, regardless, I paid my respects.


House near our hotel

Trier has numerous Roman ruins, including baths. We headed to the “kaiserthermen” through the old town–picturesque buildings now housing what is essentially an outdoor mall. I didn’t mind that as these stores were clearly for residents not tourists. I’m still scarred by my experience with that medieval town in Estonia…home only to jewelry stores and authentic crafts. Shudder.

Old town. Cute or too cute? You decide.

Old town. Cute or too cute? You decide.

We came upon one of the oldest churches in Germany–the remains of which are beneath the current church. : ) I liked many of the medieval carvings inside…how they were religious but also promoted their own coat of arms. Adam and Eve, brought to you by…


The roman baths were in an ongoing state of vigorous reconstruction. However, the tunnels below were an unexpected pleasure (I mean this sincerely) thanks to the dozens of school children that ran through them screaming at the top of their lungs. I’d never have thought to do that and the acoustics were amazing! They probably don’t have Halloween in Germany but these tunnels would be a great place for a haunted house.

We hurried to catch our train to Luxemburg. (R. got to the country first because he was sitting across from me). As we’ve gone further and further south (from Helsinki…god that seems ages ago! Like another trip!) the diversity in the population has increased, but this soup of people is different than the Bay Area’s soup of people. I didn’t realize how attuned my eye is to our special mix. So many factors tell us when we are home and when we aren’t.

There were some shady characters hanging around the train station, but they thinned out after a few blocks.

I really liked the geography of Luxemburg city! Yet another place to research. I’m guessing they are sitting on limestone or sandstone, because the train ride was on relatively flat ground the whole way, but the city’s river has carved out a lovely steep-sided valley. Houses huddled on the sides and castle-like buildings sat atop the plateaus above (no idea what they really were) as did, to paint the full picture, modern high rise apartments, but the effect was still charming.


We tried to have lunch and ended up with tortilla chips and mojitos because the kitchen wasn’t open yet. As we lingered over our drinks (the next train didn’t leave until 7p.m.) I realized I could have planned a mellow trip where all we did was sit in a cafés and eat and drink and people watch, but I just can’t do that. I want to see as much as I can. This trip will fuel my imagination for the next six months! I know spending three hours in a café would probably net me as much information, but my impulse is to physically explore, so I go with it.

Then, confusion on the train platform. We got there in plenty of time, and there weren’t any announcements on the sign, but after an indecipherable voice said something over the loudspeaker, everyone left the platform. I found a conductor and in French and English he told me there was a problem with the TGV and we all had to take a bus to Metz where we’d catch a different train. We banged our suitcases down and up the stairs and out to a bus platform, where total confusion reigned as a trains-worth of people swirled around other people trying to catch the regional buses, and everyone was yammering in French about which platform which bus what is going on blah blah blah.

Long story short. We made it onto the bus and the next train with much running and stress and in the course of this I split the leg of my favorite pants. : (

We arrived in Reims, France, around 10p.m. The station was in the middle of nowhere, and there were no cabs. They literally closed the building and locked it as soon as we stepped into the parking lot. We called the hotel and had them order us a cab. I couldn’t figure out why there were 10 euros on the meter when the guy arrived. I found out later that in France (a worker’s paradise) if you call a cab, they start the meter RIGHT THEN no matter where they are.

A Tour de France team was staying at the hotel, with all their buses and support vehicles parked out front. That was kind of cool!


The hotel restaurant was closed and the front desk guy made it sound like the only two restaurants in town closed at 11p.m. so we rushed out to get something to eat. Fortunately he was full of sh*t and there were a decent number of places to choose from that stayed open late.

As we walked back to the hotel we came upon a magical sight. Notre Dame de Reims, a cathedral we’d caught a glimpse of on the way to dinner, was the canvas for amazing projection art made from at least 14 projectors mapping onto the front of the church.My picture doesn’t do it justice (I only had my phone.)


It was trippy and amazing, like the Amon Tobin ISAM show we saw in New York. The church stretched warped, grew, shrank, figures climbed up it…it was really well done. The image mapping was incredible, especially at the end, when they “colorized” the church. I wonder if all medieval churches were this bright back in the day? I saw remnants of paint on the exterior so I expect so.

These aren’t the exact same figures, but you can see how the colors looked at night vs. how the church looked during the day:


I was so happy to fall into bed tonight. My three meals, three countries idea? Meals, C+, countries, no time to evaluate them. Pretty silly, but it got us 4 hours closer to Paris and I saw things I’d never otherwise have seen, so ??

GEA2014: Too much and not enough

July 9, 2014, Heidelberg to Trier, Germany

Woke up in Heidelberg, went to bed in Trier. Planning this “jaunt” from Berlin to Paris sounded fun when I was home sitting on the couch, but I didn’t consider how many sets of stairs I’d be banging up and down with my now overstuffed suitcase and how packing and unpacking twice a day is a pain in the ass, as is waking up in the middle of the night and having no idea where the bathroom is.

Armchair travel definitely requires an armchair! And I’m afraid many travel writers either don’t actually make the journeys they are proposing, or are told, “Make it sound fun! No one is going to really do this!”

I was super groggy this morning. I’m not sure why. Yeah, we had drinks at the bar while we watched the world cup, but the bartenders use those ridiculous thimble-sized measuring cups to measure the alcohol, so it wasn’t that.

It rained all night and was still raining this morning. Windy, cold, it could have been a winter day in San Francisco. Old town Heidelberg is very picturesque and though it has some tourist shops it still feels lived in.


I really wanted to ride Germany’s oldest funicular. Unfortunately, you have to ride the new funicular to get to the old funicular and all that would have taken more than an hour and I didn’t have the time. I walked the streets instead and cursed my shoes, which quickly soaked through. They look waterproof!

We rode one train, then transferred to a line that ran from Mainz to Koblenz that “the internet” promised was one of the “most beautiful train rides in the world,” with “fairytale castles” etc.

Is it the light? Am I getting travel fatigue? This didn't amaze me.

Is it the light? Am I getting travel fatigue? This didn’t amaze me.

The towns were certainly cute, nestled in a river valley on the shores of the Rhine, but the clouds hung low, the rain streaked the windows, and the gray light was dull. My photos were terrible.

Instructions on how to escape from the train...rather more involved than I'd expect!

Instructions on how to escape from the train…rather more involved than I’d expect!

Even on a perfect day, this pastoral beauty would be best seen slowly. On a hike from the shore of the river up to the ruins of a castle, or from a picnic blanket. Not from a speeding train. We’d say, “Hey, did you see that castle?” “Where?” “Oh never mind, it’s gone.”

It might be fun to spend a week in one of the towns…maybe? Maybe not. I could experience a very similar landscape at home, for much less $$.

We went out of our way to visit Trier because my great, great grandfather was born there. Like many people in the U.S. I’m a euro-mutt and I’ve never felt particularly strong ties to any country but California. : ) but knowing that two of my ancestors lived almost directly on the train route from Berlin to Paris, I felt I had to drop by.

Perhaps it was the location of our hotel, but Trier felt more like a working class town than any we’ve yet visited. We started to see homeless people and beggars. It was late, and still raining, so we only saw Porto Nigra (Roman, A.D. 180?) and had dinner before calling it a night.



GEA2014: Silver Linings

July 8, 2014, Berlin to Heidelberg

I love European train stations! Such life, such sense of forward motion.

We left Berlin, headed to Heidelberg. Turns out fast trains and rain make it difficult to take photos. Most of the journey looked like this:


As we passed small towns, I noticed many of the old train stations were boarded up. It’s a pity something can’t be done with them. I was thinking, summer artist in residence programs where you live there and spend 2 hours of every day fixing the place up.

At this point in the trip I realize there are summer garden houses EVERYWHERE. Most are what I imagined they’d ideally be–cute sheds and actual food producing gardens. I’ve never seen another example of the upper East-side action I saw in Berlin.

I don’t know anything about Frankfurt but WOW. We pulled into that station and I felt like I’d stepped onto Wall Street. Buttoned-up, super intense business people on the platform, boarding the train. The change in mood was incredible.


We arrived in Heidelberg in pouring rain and, spoiler alert, it never let up. The town was cute but nearly impossible to photograph in that weather.

h1The good news: It was Germany vs. Brazil world cup at 10pm and though I could see the festive outdoor venues weren’t going to happen, the indoor bars were packed. We stumbled upon a Brazil-supporting bar and loved the vibe. The people were singing, passing out candy, trying to give us slices of homemade cake. I was overwhelmed by their hospitality.

I was so torn. I wanted Germany to win because we were in Germany, but the Brazilians were so happy! They were some of the nicest people we’d met on the whole trip.

Unfortunately German really kicked Brazil’s ass and near the end of the game the TV was filled with crying faces and the Brazilians left before the bitter end.

Despite the sadness, it was one of the nicer nights on the trip, experiencing a local bar filled with locals in what I feared would be a tourist area and being treated like family. I’m pretty sure this soccer match was the first sports game I ever watched from beginning to end and I thoroughly enjoyed it.


GEA2014: More old stuff

July 7, 2014, Berlin

I was going to fake it, but I’ll admit, I’m writing this from the future. I’ve fallen behind.


We started out the day (late) with great Vietnamese food at District Mot, just around the corner from our hotel. Later tonight, the restaurant was allowed to close off part of the street and put tables out there, which was cool.

Afterwards, I wandered over the to Pergamon museum, not because I particularly wanted to go there, but because it was one of the only ones open on a Monday. I’d have preferred to see modern art. Bad planning on my part!

I was pleasantly surprised, though. Really awestruck to be in the presence of art from 4000 years ago.

I have mixed emotions about large-scale exhibits like the Ishtar gate and the Pergamon alter.


I mean yes, I am glad they exist and there isn’t any way to understand the scale of these ancient cities without exhibits like this, I just find it so odd that they are in Berlin.

ishtargateI’m more or less ignorant of the politics behind all this, (I’m adding this to the list of all the history I need to study up on when I get home) but as a person staring at it I wondered, did they save this art, or steal it? Or both? Is there so much of this stuff laying around (or still buried) that the countries they originated from think, fine, take it, we’ve got more where that came from. Or did King so-in-so have no right to give his country’s treasures away to Baron Von something er other? And/or, do the countries in question already have so many old things and such a financial burden taking care of them that they don’t have the money to dig up and restore ancient city gates like the Ishtar gate?

A glass of absinthe held the questions at bay for the night.

GEA2014: Berlin Walls

July 6, 2014

I’m like Goldilocks, “too hot, too cold” whine, whine, whine. Today was too hot. I thought I was being a wimp until I got back to the hotel in the evening and checked the temperature and it was 94!

I set off in the morning on a multi-line underground journey to get to a garden house area (like the one I saw in Helsinki). I’d read that these particular plots were under threat of being sold to a developer. From what I can tell, the plots are leased from the government for a low yearly rate, around 400 euros. I tried to find out if these are awarded based on need (i.e. given to lower income people who don’t have their own yards) but it doesn’t seem that way. Many plots are passed down from generation to generation, which would make it hard for newcomers to get one (I’d guess).

Wow – the vibe was totally different at this place. The cute picket fences of Helsinki were replaced by ugly chain link fences, in some places topped with barbed wire, and “beware of dog” signs! (Chain link fences don’t photograph well so you’ll have to take my word for it). All the plots were locked. The structures weren’t cute sheds you could spend a night or two in like camping, but actual houses, and the gardens well-tended suburban front yards.


The place left a bad taste in my mouth. These plots seemed a perversion of the spirit of the small garden. The residents have taken a public resource and built second homes and are certainly never going to share, and though “the public” has a right to walk the paths, and technically owns the land, the message is clear: you are not welcome.

The houses were real houses, fenced in, with mature yards vs. gardens

The houses were real houses, fenced in, with mature yards vs. gardens

Green space was at a premium when West Berlin was a walled city…but it is a pity that the response of some was to build more walls, and while the big wall has come down, the small walls remain.

Later, I saw garden plots out of train windows that were more modest and more permeable (and much less peaceful). I stumbled on an upscale area by accident. I just hope all Berliners have equal rights to small gardens and that the nicest ones aren’t restricted to “old” families.

After the gardens, I took the underground to the Bauhaus Museum.


The collection, or at least the portion that was displayed, was small. I was disappointed, and then angry when the guard told me “NO PHOTOS” and then followed me around.

I’m sorry, you are probably getting that I was easily irritated today. I was tired and dehydrated and hot and everything set me off.


Tiergarten was nearby, so I took what I hoped would be a leisurely walk through the park. It was really nice in there (though completely devoid of the naked people I was promised!) but when I tried to lay down on a bench to rest my feet, tiny mosquitoes swarmed out of the boggy ponds and I had to get up and keep moving.

The big street that runs through the park was closed and turned into a Hyundai-sponsored world cup theme park. The Brandenburg gate, from one side, was completely obscured by a giant screen and sponsor logos. Yay team.

Yes, that's Berlin's iconic Brandenburg gate, hidden behind a Hyundi ad

Yes, that’s Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg gate, hidden behind a Hyundi ad

We had a good dinner in a peaceful, tastefully decorated courtyard. Afterwards we headed to the last night of the chill festival, this time in a hotel a few stops away on the S. It was a great venue–an inside courtyard with tables, chairs, food, drink, and the happy buzz of conversation.


Now that I’ve attended a few chill events in the past weeks, I’m thinking that ambient music works much better in a mellow but active environment, a place where you don’t feel you have to watch the guy twiddle nobs for hours. Sometimes, sure, but rapt attention shouldn’t be required.

GEA2014: Big City

July 5, 2014

Argh! Just when I thought I was getting a handle on things, we went to the top of the Berlin TV tower. The 360° view was accompanied by information graphics about what we were seeing from each window–and there were so many windows! So much history!

tvtowerI was surprised by the frankness of the text. I don’t think we’d put up a display on the window of San Francisco’s rotating restaurant that said something like, “Here is the tenderloin, where poor people and drug addicts live,” but that is exactly what these signs were saying. Here is where all the rich people live, this is a working-class neighborhood. Granted I couldn’t read the German, but if I lived in some of these places I’d be a little insulted by being described this way.

One thing was funny though. In French, a huge, subsidized housing project was described as being where a famous book took place, “Christianne F., 13-year old drug addict and prostitute,” whereas the English version only listed the book as, “Christianne F.” with no other description. Too racy for us!

Before and after visiting the tower, we walked around town. We looked at things, pointed them out to each other, and ate mediocre food when we were hungry. In the past I’d have tried harder to find an amazing place, but being hungry=being cranky, so for the sake of humanity, we had pizza.

I enjoyed walking around, but I think that Berlin is a working city, not something to be stared at from the sidewalk like Venice. I wished I had an appointment or someone to meet or something to do.

cutecarMore things we saw:

reflectionThis building used to be a Jewish department store, then later an art gallery/club, now? Nothing.

usedtobeJunk shop:


Night two of the Chill Festival happened at Platoon Kunsthalle again. It was a bit cooler so I could better appreciate the music. The sound was good, but it was too dark for my taste. You couldn’t really see the musicians. Seating (which I shouldn’t complain about because at least they had seating) was on the German equivalent of milk crates cable-tied together to make awkward bleachers.

In Berlin, you can put infinity numbers of posters on any pole until they are inches thick! This would look much cooler if people didn’t pile garbage on top of them. People… : /


We didn’t stay out too late.

GEA2014: Berlin museums and music

July 4, 2014

I rented a bike from the hotel and took off to explore the city. I was so happy to be riding after all this walking!

bikeriderBerlin has very well-marked bike lanes on most streets–in some cases completely separated from sidewalks and roadways–and signals just for bikes. It also has very law-abiding bike riders and pedestrians. I tried to take a photo (just missed it) of four bike riders waiting at a red (bike) light to cross a single-lane, one-way street that had no traffic. Wow. Contrast that to my drive to the gym (at home), where it isn’t unusual to have a bike rider keep pace with me for a mile by riding full speed and not slowing at any of the stop signs or lights. People here ride at a slower pace, on upright bikes, nowhere near the speed of traffic.

I found myself on Karl Marx Allee and realized I was definitely in east Berlin. Mirror image apartment buildings lined the streets. I’m curious as to who in the communist party decided that workers liked symmetry.

In my quest to visit strange museums, I went to the Stassi Museum, housed in the building that was the headquarters of the East German secret police. Overall, it wasn’t that interesting (most of the rooms were bare but for photos on easels), but I did like all the hidden camera gear. The stuff was straight out of what we’d consider a spy movie spoof. Cameras in purses, in gas cans, in fake delivery vans.

Camera hidden in a purse

Camera hidden in a purse

The staff weren’t allowed to listen to anything but East German radio stations, marked with white tape.


Germany was playing in the World Cup, so we went to an outdoor restaurant with a giant TV and cheered and booed with the locals.

From there, on to the first night of the “Extreme Chill Festival Berlin.” Ironic title given that Berlin was in the midst of a heatwave (which some locals declared normal and others said was very unusual.) The event was held in a cool but very hot venue–a building made of shipping containers with no climate control. I met a woman who used to work there. She said winters were terrible for the staff. The place would heat up with enough bodies but before and after events they’d freeze.

I listened to Mixmaster Morris’ set, then went outside to cool down.


I haven’t gotten any fashion vibe here. Nothing like, hey! Everyone is wearing red shoes made from yarn! People are wearing the same stuff you see in San Francisco. A relief, frankly.

I was befriended by a group of fun 20-somethings. Fascinating…they all worked together at a design firm. One woman was from Iceland (educated in Holland), another was born in Hungary, raised in Moscow, moved to Berlin, and the guy was Italian. They all spoke English as a common language.

They were drawing tattoos on each other’s arms. I got one as well!


I envied the fact, again, that you can drive 100 miles here and experience a completely different culture. I wondered about Berlin and what it means for a city to be made up of people like this, from so many different backgrounds. For some reason we got on the topic of Dante’s Inferno (this was common ground!) and began to argue whether Hell or Limbo was worse. The Italian guy was so cute, cracking us all up as he tried to explain why limbo was worse. “You are followed by clouds of flies!” Why this was worse than having your head in a lake of hot lava, the rest of us could not understand.

A good night! : )

GEA2014: St. Petersburg to Berlin, travel day

July 3, 2014

We had a crazy taxi ride to the airport in St. Petersburg. The driver drove like a maniac in the city, constantly lanes and changing stations on the radio. He settled on a dance music station I liked but probably irritated R. We had time to spare until we got to the freeway, which was at a dead stop thanks to 3 accidents. The driver was visibly stressing on our behalf, even turning off the radio which really worried me!


The outskirts of St. Petersburg are dotted with modern, huge apartment buildings. Given there was nothing but empty land all around us, I puzzled as to why some of the buildings were U shaped, dooming the residents to stare at each other instead of a view. What a miserable place that must be to live in the winter…isolated from the city.


We did make it to the plane (after having to run across the tarmac and up the stairs in pouring rain! The weather changes so quickly in St. Petersburg. It can be sunny then raining in a few minute span) and made it to Berlin, hitting rush hour traffic here when we tried to get to our hotel. I’m so happy with this place, Casa Camper hotel in the Mitte district. We always complain, why aren’t there any hooks on the wall? and this place has a whole wall full. Also, they have a 24-hour FREE snack bar on the top floor…soda, water, chips, fruit, candy, fresh apple cake. How humane! R. said they calculated the cost of putting a mini fridge in every room (energy $$), and realized it was cheaper to keep the stuff in one place and give it away for free. They also have a fully stocked honor bar. You make your own drinks and mark a card with your room number.

As soon as we got settled I found a nearby laundromat and washed clothes. It was so cute…the place was populated by backpackers and I got to eavesdrop on their conversations. Being “older” is fun in that I might as well be invisible to 20-somethings. They met, talked about where they’d been, the best hostels, the cheapest places to eat, the pub crawl they were going on that night.

I’m glad I had a chance to do the Europe backpack thing but didn’t feel particularly jealous of them. Hostels were a good place to meet people but miserable for sleeping. I’m grateful that I can now stay in my own private room with my own bathroom, and I’m happy that I don’t have to stay up all night clubbing. That was never my personality, but as the stinky guys in the laundromat proclaimed, “It was Amsterdam, man! We had to do it!”

I immediately felt much more at home in Berlin than in any of the other cities we’ve visited. I like the stores, the casual dress code, the restaurants in the blocks around us and the slightly more diverse population. (Still pretty white though.)

I like the mix of old and new buildings side by side. This is a living city, not a mausoleum. It isn’t particularly photogenic, but in a good way. It is more about the content of the buildings then their exteriors.

We wandered the neighborhood and found a great tapas place for dinner. I keep forgetting, oh right, we are in the EU, so that means the tapas place is staffed by people from Spain! The people running Italian restaurants are from Italy…and not like, “I moved to the U.S from Sicily in 1970,” but from Italy a month ago and soon to head back to visit family. So amazing that so many different cultures are so close to each other. I’m jealous!


After dinner we found an awesome little bar in an alley, the walls of which were covered in graffiti and art. So nice. I like this town!

GEA2014: Beauty and Decay

July 2, 2014, St. Petersburg Russia

Firstly, I have to apologize for all the sweeping generalizations I made yesterday. When you first arrive in a place you’ve never been, everything different stands out. I think our brains are designed that way. Overload, process data in large chunks, draw conclusions. Otherwise we’d be left standing on a street corner gaping…though I did a lot of that too.

So really, only about 5% of women in St. Petersburg (not Russian women in general) wear so much make up they look clownish. Today I looked more carefully and saw many women with little or no makeup, though per capita, much more makeup gets consumed here than San Francisco. As I’m sure is also true in Dallas.


That said, high heels are really a thing here. High heels and tan nylons. Mostly stilettos which I didn’t fully capture. I hate to get political but to me 4-inch heels are on the spectrum of foot binding. They will actually cripple you if you keep wearing them. I’m guessing that happens sooner rather than later when you walk on cobblestones.

The globe I didn't see is up here.

The globe I didn’t see is up here.

We started the day at the Kunstkammer Anthropology and Enthnography museum. It was established in 1727 by Peter the Great and is the first museum is Russia. It is basically all kinds of “exotic” stuff he collected (or had delivered) from around the world. There is a whole room full of creepy things like two-headed (stillborn) babies in jars and human and animal skeletons. What was extra creepy was that someone went to the trouble of putting fake glass eyes in some of the decapitated baby heads. WTF??

I was hoping this museum would be like a crazy Victorian gentleman scientist’s parlour–dark, things piled everywhere, but alas, though the cabinets were old-ish, the displays were pretty straightforward. Also, the main reason I was there to see a big, water-powered 17th century globe. The museum plan showed it located on the fifth floor, but when we got to the third floor, there was no way up. The grandmotherly guard woman explained that we could see it on a special tour (i.e. by paying more $$). Go back down to the first floor, go to room 100, blah blah blah. I was mad. There was nothing about this at the ticket office, in fact, the globe was prominently featured. I was tricked! In a typical tourist fit, I thought FINE. I’m not going to see your stupid globe, and left.

I was happy to get out of there, and into…BRIDELAND!! Apparently, we stumbled on the spot to have wedding photos taken (right across from the winter palace.)


bride2Yes, the woman is the fluorescent dress is also a bride:


From there we rode the metro to the museum of the arctic and antarctic. By “ride the metro” I mean, walked a mile to a metro stop (they aren’t that frequent) and then walked half a mile to the museum.

This place was pretty much all I hoped it would be. It was touted as a throwback to the communist era, pretty much untouched, and though new material has been added, the old stuff is still there. You can’t really appreciate it from these photos, but many of the paintings were really nice.


I particularly wanted to see the dioramas. I loved them! Regarding scale, the figures are around an inch high.




I expected this to be an experience in kitsch, but this was actually an interesting museum. R. didn’t particularly want to go, but he got into it and really read all the material.

woodtentThe above is an actual fold-up wood explorers “tent” from…I’m not sure when. 1950’s? I think the typewriter will be the giveaway for the date. There were few english translations in the museum.

From there we walked a short way to the Dosteyevsky museum, housed in an apartment where he used to live. He moved a lot so I suppose these museums are all over the place. It was disappointing. I wanted to see what he saw when he sat down to write, but the place was “recreated” from drawings and letters–nothing original. Despite that, rooms and sections of rooms were roped off. If it is all fake why not let us walk around?


We chanced upon an indoor market. I immediately felt extremely out of place, like I’d walked into someone’s living room.


The amount of energy needed to keep a city like St. Petersburg from crumbling to dust must be enormous. For every beautifully restored building there are 20 shedding chunks of plaster to the streets below. Imagine the winter, with water seeping into every crack, freezing, expanding, then melting and freezing again. I mean, look at that angel I saw yesterday.


I wonder who pays for all of this? Museums–I assume it’s the city, and tourists. Churches…I hope it is the church and not the state. What about individual apartment buildings? I tried to find out who owns what. In the communist era apartments were “nationalized” and people had to share apartments. I’m not sure what happened after that. I asked the guy at the front desk how many people live in free housing. He said very old people and the military, and that the state built free housing for “poor people with many children.”


I’ve always appreciated the random beauty that results from things disintegrating, but I’ve never pictured living in the midst of it. The places I like to photograph are usually abandoned. I stared up at a wrought iron balcony half eaten away by time and thought, shit! They are still using that!

Visiting the walled city portion of Tallinn really left a bad taste in my mouth with regards to forcing a place to stay frozen in time. I know there is plenty of “new” St. Petersburg when you get further out from the old town…and it isn’t particularly pretty. But maintaining thousands of buildings built in 1700’s? That’s a tough job.

We leave Russia tomorrow and I am relieved. This is a different alphabet, a different culture, and I am not going to understand it anytime soon.

GEA2014: St. Petersburg icons

July 1, 2014

I don’t know what to say about St. Petersburg. I’m limiting myself to half an hour of writing time because I am again exhausted, though I overslept until 11am and missed breakfast.

The city is big and on the main streets, incredibly noisy from all the cars and trucks. Probably no worse than New York, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t any emission controls here; the place smells like Los Angeles in the early ‘70’s. The side streets are peaceful but the sidewalks are treacherous, ranging from uneven cobblestones to broken up asphalt.

This makes it all the more incredible that about 40% of the Russian women wear high-heeled pumps. I don’t want to focus on clichés but a portion of the women do dress very bizarrely. Picture black leggings, but alternating opaque and see-through horizontal stripes an inch wide, paired with a bright floral shirt, bright blue jacket, high-heeled blue pumps, platinum bleached hair in an elaborate up do (bridesmaid style), jeweled earrings, bracelets, and a Chanel bag (real or fake, who knows).

WTF? It makes the women of “mob wives” or whatever that show is look tasteful. And the makeup. So much makeup. What is worse is that it doesn’t stay in place. I see black smears under eyes, eyeliner half on, half off, clown faces. A strange hair color is popular, a strange reddish-purple that is not meant to be ironic. I am trying to hard to get a photo of a good example but it is hard to secretly take a picture.

Our hotel is walking distance to the Hermitage (and, unfortunately, far from any metro stops), so walk we did.


Fortunately, we knew to buy our tickets ahead of time on the internet because the lines were insane…I’d guess 1000 people total. Unfortunately, it was just as bad inside. Mobs! Tour groups blocking narrow passages. Still, the palace was really impressive. I am not a palace person but the grand staircase is breathtaking. Nonetheless, as I passed through room after room of unrestrained opulence I couldn’t help but think, why didn’t the revolution happen sooner? The place is completely ridiculous. Some queen said, “Bird claws, that’s what I want for doorknobs. Make it so.”


Of course R. and I spent 5 of every 10 minutes looking at the map of the museum and arguing about where we were and which way to go to get to the exit. : )


From there, we wandered to the Church on Spilled Blood. R. got honked at by a policeman for taking a picture of what I guess is a police van. It was unmarked so who knows? Oh yeah, there are (mostly) men in uniform everywhere. I don’t know if they are in the army or what. They seem to have medal-type things on their chests. I’m guessing a portion of the population here is really into uniforms.


Anyway, Church on Spilled Blood was interesting, inside and out. Inside, mosaics covered every surface. So much work!



After this it got kind of death-march-y. We were hungry and tired but wanted to see more. We got a piece of pizza and people-watched on Nevsky Prospect, and from there took the metro home.

The metro! So bizarre! Line 3 was super deep underground. At one point while riding the escalator, you could barely see the top or bottom. Made me kind of dizzy. Most bizarre thing – you can’t see the trains. There are solid walls on the platforms with closed doors that open when the train arrives.

We had dinner at an Italian place near the hotel. I spent dinner staring out the window at a decrepit church dome a block away. After all the gold in the Hermitage it was interesting to see a building in decay. We went to investigate after we finished eating.

Turns out it is St. Katerina church, given to the hydrological institute after the revolution, now returned to the church and is in the process of being restored.


I saw this incredible angel through the gates. I started to take photos and a caretaker came out. I motioned that I wanted to take a photo, sure I was going to be yelled at, but instead he opened the gate and invited us in.

He chattered on in Russian. I love that the Russian people feel totally comfortable speaking to me in Russian, extensively, though I obviously have no idea what they are saying and answer in English. I guess they think I’m just shy, and actually do speak Russian?

The amazing thing is that he unlocked a shed and we climbed a ladder and inside were other angels in the process of being restored. The scary, unrestored angel was straight out of the Dr. Who episode with the weeping angels. It really gave me the creeps, but what a moment. One of those travel, wow, didn’t expect that, experiences.



Restored angel: just as scary.


All the Russian people we’ve interacted with so far have been really nice which is really disappointing. I wanted them all to be rude! This guy at the church went out of his way to show us something so cool…I was really touched.

GEA2014: The Ambient Music Conference

Espoo, Finland, June 28, 2014

I’m outing myself right now. We just arrived in St. Petersburg and I’m behind on my reporting. I’m going to have to hurry through the past two days to catch up to the present.

However – Saturday was the ambient music conference, the reason we came to Finland. It was held 20 minutes outside Helsinki at a newly-built nature center. All blonde wood and great design. The program was a mix of educational lectures and live performances.

Steven Hill, creator and producer of "Hearts of Space"

Steven Hill, creator and producer of “Hearts of Space”

It was hard to sit still though. I’ve been facing forward, sitting in a chair a bit too often in the past few days (taxi, plane, train, bus, taxi, tram, bus, etc.) After lunch I took a hike in the woods. Very pretty. My first encounter with Linden trees.

woods2The nature center was near a lake, and around the lake were summer houses. These were more substantial than the garden houses I saw the other day, but I’m sure you couldn’t live in them in the winter. I came across one that appeared to be abandoned. I love photographing abandoned houses but I’m always a little scared when I’m creeping around these places. I worry that I will step on something rotten and get trapped, or that a dog will come tearing out of nowhere and bark/attack me, or that some crazy person is actually living in the house and will yell/attack me. None of that happened because this is Finland and it is perfectly safe except for tourists creeping around abandoned houses.


After the day program, we had dinner. This conference was very intimate. Artists, speakers, and attendees all sat down to eat together. I met many amazing people. I particularly liked chatting with speaker/performer Ivan Black. He told me tales of his crazy past with Iggy Pop, and his present life as an ambient artist and psychiatrist. Due to attendee/speaker confidentiality agreements I can’t disclose the details of the stories he told, but I’m sure he is often the most interesting person in the room (which I consider a terrible curse, like “living in interesting times.”)

After dinner, the night program, all performances. Note that in the photo below, it is actually 11pm. See how light it is?

Nemesis - described to me as Finland's Tangerine Dream

Nemesis – described to me as Finland’s Tangerine Dream

After way too long of a day, we boarded a bus back to town. I’ve never traveled with a group like this (I’ve never been on a tour) and I’ve gotta say, it is enjoyable. Meeting people, making friends. Good times. But man, I’m tired.

GEA2014 Day 4: Secret Gardens

Have I mentioned the hotel’s amazing breakfast? We joked they’d probably set out a plate of weird cured meats and some stale bread, but no, it is a feast. Oatmeal, scrambled eggs, sausages, cereal, fresh fruit, ham, turkey, smoked salmon, fresh baked croissants, fresh bread, yogurt, and a huge bowl berries in sauce, a kind of unsweetened jam. Yum!


My jetlag was almost completely gone today. Just a few moments of strange fatigue that coffee seems to exacerbate rather than alleviate.

We caught tram number 4 out to the Arabia district, ostensibly to visit a Finnish glassware’s seconds shop, but really just to take a ride. I read in a guide book that Helsinki has made an official decision to keep the skyline a certain height; I’m guessing the 8 stories I see everywhere (though I did see a few higher buildings out in the distance).


This, the lack of significant hills, and the trees all growing to that same height as well is all very strange to me. I was chatting with a Norwegian guy, and he hemmed and hawed about what he did for work, and when I told him I didn’t understand, his friend laughed and said, “Oh you know, he is being modest. Typical Scandinavian modesty.” I had to say, no, I didn’t know. Could he explain? He said they are taught to think about community, not about standing out.

I wonder if people in Finland are taught the same? I’ll have to ask. The fact that nearly everything in the whole city is the same height raises the suspicion that they might be. The native Californian in me is put off by this. We crave drama, superlatives, contrasts. I realize that because of this we get many visionaries but we also a lot of assholes…still, I’m glad the idea that anything is possible is part of my core.

Out the window of the tram, on the way to the seconds shop, I caught site of a small valley filled with what I was sure were little summer houses. I’m not sure what they are called, but we saw something like them in Iceland. Tiny houses “in nature” for summer use only–they’d be too cold in winter. After looking around the shop (meh) I went back to find them.

Wow. The place was magical. There is probably a very long German word for “stumbling across something amazing by accident in an unfamiliar place and having your mind blown” and it is what I love about travel. It doesn’t always happen. 90% of the time I walk miles and end up tired and cranky but when the magic happens it happens big, so you have to keep at it and keep trying.


So, this magical garden land is probably one square kilometer, with plots about 20 feet wide and maybe 100 feet deep (?). I believe they are called “The Vallila Allotments.” Each has a tiny house on it and AMAZING gardens. No cars are allowed; you get to the plots via dirt footpaths. I assume people can sleep in the houses because I saw chimneys and they must have electricity, though I saw no power lines.


You could feel 6 months of frozen pent-up longing for green and sunlight popping out of the ground and the people tending it.


About the only thing not exuberant were the people. I expected them to smile and nod and say “hey” when I walked by, but they either ignored me or watched me warily. I’m guessing this is a northern, cold-climate personality thing. It made me want to stop and say, “Excuse me. You are sitting under a gazebo covered in roses in a Disney movie come to life. Birds are singing, the sun is shining, and I’ve never seen peonies this big. Can I get a smile and a good day?”


Eh. What can you do. They probably think I’m crazy for walking around smiling. I don’t have any friends from northern Europe so the mindset is a complete mystery to me.


I got back to the hotel in time to borrow a bike and take a ride before the ambient conference dinner. I rode along the shore. Highlight? Coming upon a place where Canadian geese hang out, with their very large babies. They literally stop traffic when they make their way from the beach to the lawn across the road.


I quickly changed and met up with the group for dinner. Met a bunch of interesting people, ate food, then we all moved en masse from the restaurant to a tram like we were on a school trip together. The evening’s ambient performances were in a bar adjacent to a tram museum (which we could not see.)

The music was very experimental…too experimental for me. After a long day sightseeing, I didn’t have the mental capacity to untangle the car accident sounds and find the art there. I snuck out fairly early and caught a tram back to the hotel and did my own version of crashing.

GEA2014 Day 3: Hello Helsinki!

Before we arrived, Helsinki was more a concept than a place I believed actually existed, in the same way people use “from here to Timbuktu” to mean very far. The name called to mind spy movies (not sure why) and little else, meaning, I’d never bothered to actually learn anything about it.


To spare you the suspense, in case you don’t know much about Helsinki, here is a summary of what I learned tonight. Founded by Sweden in 1550. Moved locations in 1640. Conquered by Russia in 1809. Finland declares independence in 1917. Interesting to note: no buildings survive that were built before 1750.


When we left the hotel this morning, the first thing I noticed was that the local people are prepared for the cold. Even though it was around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, or 16 Celsius, many people wore heavy jackets and scarves, and some poor kid in one of those RV-like euro-style strollers was dressed in a ski suit. To me, it was just another typical San Francisco day, cool and vaguely overcast; to them, it was a potentially hostile environment and appropriate precautions were taken.

We wandered down to the water and I initially thought, oh how cute, a farmer’s market, then realized, oh shit! This is the Helsinki equivalent of Fisherman’s wharf.

From there we chanced upon the Katajanokka district. I guess chanced is the wrong word. We were pulled in that direction by a crazy church on a hill. Behind that though were a bunch of amazing art nouveau apartments.


I love art nouveau! I had no idea I’d find it here. So much beautiful craftsmanship. I wonder why we stopped making our buildings beautiful. I do love modernism but I also love variety, and when I saw all the beautiful woodworking and non-standard windows and doors, modernism starts to feel less about style and more about saving money. Standardization. Cold beauty vs. the warm quirky heart of these unique art pieces.



Sigh. I guess in this day and age making a building like this would cost millions more than making a “standard” building. I mean, I’d like to get a new front door on my house, and even a very plain custom door would cost around 5k. Can you imagine what one of these doors would cost?



After this, we went back to the water and caught a ferry to Suomenlinna, an island fort originally built by Sweden starting in 1760-ish. I mainly wanted to ride the ferry, but the fort/island turned out to be really pretty and fun. Wildflowers were in bloom and looked great against the gray stone.


This place is a world heritage sight, and I didn’t realize (why do I even say that? I didn’t realize anything about this city) that people still live there. What an odd existence, to be overrun by tourists all day, and completely solitary at night.

girlAfter tromping around the island (we saw a cat catch a mouse) we were getting to the end of our ropes, though we didn’t know it. I was starving, R.’s feet hurt, yet for some reason we decided to try to find the “design district.” I was very confused, because we were staring at a map that said we were there, but there was no “there” there. Maybe every third shop was a clothing shop, or sold stamps, or posters. Many were closed (possibly for summer holiday). Hmmm. I dunno. I think I was duped.

At this point it began to rain and we made our way back to the hotel, dead tired. I started to get that see-saw dizzy feel I get from jet lag, yet we still popped into Stockmann’s, a famous department store. R. called it “out of stock man’s” because the ground floor was a mess, full of empty tables. Not at all the nice store I expected. I need to go back when I’m not insane and check it out again.

I napped, thank god, and then we went out again to eat. I thought I was so clever to find a tiki bar here. Though the décor was great, there were only about five customers in the place and I’m pretty sure only one guy worked there. We stood around while he made drinks, then he ran out, handed us menus, and told us to sit at any clean table. After 10 minutes and no attention, we left and ate at a café–where we saw a Finnish guy in an “Oakland, California” sweatshirt. Hah!

On the way back to the hotel we ran into Chris Bryant co-founder of the ambient music conference that we are here to attend.

We met his family and some of the speakers and musicians that will be at the conference. We had a drink in the hotel bar then fell gratefully into our respective beds.

Great European Adventure 2014

Day One/Two: Flying sack of meat

Plane travel is so dehumanizing. Once you arrive at the airport–it’s over. All you are is 100+ pounds of meat to be transported from one city to another. I don’t mind a short flight with a window seat, but these long hauls suck. Go here, go there, stand in this line, give me this piece of paper, take off your shoes, walk this way, sit in this seat. My mental capacity shrinks. I’m reduced to following orders, both from people of authority and my increasingly irritated body. “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, that bag is too heavy, I’m tired, my neck hurts, I’m hot, I’m cold.”

We flew from San Francisco to Paris on an Airbus 380 – the biggest passenger jet I’ve flown on. All in all it was a nice plane, very quiet, large seatback screen, but sitting in an economy seat for 10-plus hours is torture.


I dressed nicely because our first stop was Paris, but all the French people around me were proudly wearing matching, bright pink “Santa Cruz” sweatshirts (or equivalent.) if anyone told me I’d be the best dressed person on a Paris-bound flight I’d have laughed, but I guess the age of glamorous travel is long dead.

We had to change planes at Charles De Gaulle. I wondered why, as soon as we got off, many of our fellow passengers started running. This became clear after we’d walked half a mile just to get out of our arm of the terminal, then went through a series of bizarre series of security checkpoints, none of them customs. We ended up on a bus that drove all around the inside area of the airport, basically on the tarmac, dropping people off at different gates.


I don’t know much about CGD, but it appears to be a multi-armed octopus built over decades. We ended up in unfashionable 2D, waiting in nicely-lit but poorly-air conditioned space. By this time I was reeling from lack of sleep. The gift store across from us sold perfume and cheese and those scents mingling didn’t help me feel any better.

Finnair kept us well-hydrated, thank god. They served coffee immediately and often and pretty much every single person on the plane drank it. Didn’t help me much, but I did wake up in time to see our approach to Finland. I wish I had my camera. It was a beautiful, fairytale smattering of tiny islands, rocks, green grass, and when we hit the mainland, amazing, tall deciduous trees. These kinds of forests are probably an ordinary sight for people from the east coast, but not for me! They were all of fairly uniform height, lush and healthy, topping 8-story apartment buildings.

I haven’t seen much of the city center yet. The main street we drove down to get to our hotel was flanked by a seamless wall of stern, flat uninteresting buildings. We love our hotel, Glo Hotel Kluuvi. Great bed, tons of storage, nice décor. We forced ourselves out to get some dinner, and walked a few blocks and found a great Italian place, Presto. I was worried about not being able to speak Finnish but it seems to be no problem. No problem as in people take one look at us and immediately speak English. Anyway, the food was great, wait staff super nice. We lucked out.

I didn’t take many photos today. Dehumanized sacks of meat aren’t very creative it turns out.

Finally, to bed, and hopefully awake renewed.


Expanding the universe

I’ve tried to limit this blog to posts about road trips, and while this is a great theme, I’m starting to find it constricting. We’ve been doing other kinds of traveling. Last year, we went from Seattle to Chicago by train, and I wrote about that here as I didn’t have anywhere else to blog about it, but I felt faintly guilty.

We’re heading to Europe on Tuesday and we’ll probably never set foot in a car after we take the taxi to the airport. My original intent was to write about my travels here so that I didn’t inundate my friend’s email inboxes with many megabyte files, so, from now on, this will be an account of ALL TRAVEL. Planes, trains, automobiles, buses, horseback, foot, funicular, whatever the heck conveyance I use, I’m now allowed to write about it without guilt. I’ll tag the posts by category, so if you only want to see road trips, you can.

And now? I’m off!