Almost there...

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rome

Rome was a whirlwind. We met Dave Hartman the day before in Naples and ended up on the same bus again for Rome on our own. Turns out our plans for the day were pretty compatible, so off we went together, striking out across town. On the drive from Citavecchia to Rome, we had a great tour guide giving us all kinds of fabulous tips about Rome, but the hands down best tip was that the ticket to the Forum and the Coliseum is one ticket, and the line at the Coliseum is always long, but the line at the Forum is short. Later this proved the best piece of information we'd get all trip. Laura was our new hero.

We started at St. Peter's and headed out towards Castel Sant'Angelo, then crossed the Ponte Sant'Angelo, lined on each side with angels.

We stopped for a few quick photos, then headed out to Piazza Navona, walking the length of it. Exiting out one end, we happened upon a row of well, let's say vestament dealers. It was like your average clothing store, but for priests. Portable communion picnic basket? Check.

Robes for the new bishop? Check.

Multipart ceremonial staff with convenient screw apart sections? Check.

It's a weird place, Rome.

We misjudged the map briefly and ended up in the Torre Agentina cat sanctuary. The excavated Roman site wasn't on our to-do list, but finding it was a happy coincidence. Not only did we get to see where Julius Caesar was actually stabbed, but I got to pet a cute kitty (who told me I was doing it just right).

Next we walked up to the Pantheon. This architectural marvel was under renovation the last time I was in Rome, so this was my first chance to go inside. Originally a temple to the Roman gods, it was converted to a Catholic church and has thus remained one of the few remaining intact temples. Dating back to 27 B.C., it has the most amazing dome, built in concrete, 142 feet across with an 18 foot oculus in the center as it's only source of light. It is an engineering feat that would still be a challenge today, but it has stood for nearly 2000 years.

Outside of the Pantheon there were several "gladiators" milling around, willing to pose for a photo for a euro or two. My favorite photo of the entire trip is of a Roman gladiator, helmet in hand, talking on a cell phone. It made my day.

After the Pantheon, Frommer's recommended a local gelato shop nearby. It took some hunting, but we found the magical gelato shop and had FABULOUS gelato.

Appropriately fueled, we headed across town, passing the Vittorio Emanuele monument (the typewriter), and off to the left toward the Teattro di Pompey and over Capitoline Hill only to find the entrance to the Forum was on the other side. D'oh! Instead, we took the opportunity to walk the length of the Circus Maximus. Next we headed around the block, seeing the piece of original aqueduct and heading towards the Forum.

We walked right up to the clerk at the Forum, no line, no wait, no fuss. Just a quick transaction and we were in. We tromped all over the Forum, me wishing I could remember all the stuff that the tour guide told us last time I was there. Dave had Rick Steves on his iPhone, so he listened to that as we walked around, telling us bits and pieces.

Next up, across the street to the Coliseum. This was Erik's must-do for the day in Rome, and the Coliseum didn't disappoint. First we walked past a huge line and walked right in. (Thanks Laura!!!) We spent an hour or so looking at the inside and outside.

By this point, we really needed lunch, but each of us produced a banana from breakfast which successfully tided us over. We walked back up the hill, past the Forum, past Palazzo Venezia, and on up to Trevi Fountain. It really is a very pretty fountain, but oh my goodness the crowds were overwhelming. Laura had told us the local legend surrounding the fountain: if visitors throw a coin into the fountain, they are ensured a return to Rome, throw two coins ensure a new romance, and three ensures either a marriage or divorce. We all carefully threw a single coin - three coins in the fountain!

We'd failed to walk by anything particularly intriguing for lunch, and it was getting late, so we swung into a pizzeria and got pizza by weight. 1 euro for 100 grams. A cheap, tasty lunch was had by all for about 10 euro total, including one soda. With pizza in hand, we headed towards the Spanish Steps.

Now it had been a long day, and it was hot. The Spanish steps are lovely, but I stood at the bottom next to the man selling roasted chestnuts and asked the boys, "So, there they are. Spanish Steps. Want to go up?" After a bit of dithering about whether there was a spectacular view at the top, we decided to give it a miss. In the late afternoon sun, climbing stairs for fun didn't sound... fun. Instead we hit the Metro. 1 euro apiece, and in a few minutes we were back to St. Peter's Basillica with plenty of time to see the inside before catching the bus. We headed through the various security and decency checkpoints. The last bit of direction was a bit confusing, and we walked past where we were supposed to go in. We saw a group of monks in weird baby blue robes with matching baby blue backpacks go in one door, but though that door led to the very same place we were headed, we were turned back by the security guy. Apparently that door is only for the visibly affiliated.

It's an impressive place. The structure is remarkably similar to most Roman temples. One we'd stood in earlier in the Forum in ruins had the same sort of height and structure. You get the idea of how impressive that would be with a huge statue of a god. But here, it's all Jesus and Mary worship, and the aggrandizing of men who choose to climb the political hierarchy of the church. I can't manage to separate the beauty of the space from the corruption in Vatican City. What if the money spent on this structure was instead spent on science for the last 1500 years? I bet we'd have far better medicine and I'd have a flying car. What a waste. After several days in Europe, I was already getting church fatigue. Yes, opulent. Yes, impressive. But it's hard to separate from the creepy child molester cover-ups and the lies about AIDS transmission and the abuses of missionaries throughout history.

Outside, I felt a bit better, watching the afternoon sun stretch shadows across the square. We paused for a bit to send postcards from the Vatican post office. Back out to meet the bus, I pondered that the original departure time of 5:15 had sounded awfully early, but as 5 p.m. neared, I was hot, sweaty, and foot-sore and sitting on the air-conditioned bus sounded great.

Laura, my new favorite tour guide, offered each of us a bottle of chilled water. We rolled back to Citavechhia and back onto the boat. Before dinner, we eschewed all planned activities in favor of a good soak in the hot tub. Here we learned the etiquette of the hot tub: when the bubbles end, the person sitting next to the button will immediately restart them. Stays in the hot tub are measured in the number of times the bubbles are restarted. But after all that walking in Rome, my feet were so happy to have 40 minutes of soaking. We had a lovely dinner and then went straight to bed.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Beyond Gotham

My favorite little jewelry shop in Sacramento is going out of business. Ack! Beyond Gotham has everything 50% off now, and that makes a lot of pretty things very reasonably priced. Need something fancy and sparkly for Gaskells? Shop here first! Well, for the next 3 weeks anyway. Harumph.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pompeii and Naples

While most of the entries so far were written while we were actually on the trip, the next two were written now, a couple of weeks after they happened. The reason is simple: we were having far too much fun to stop long enough to write anything down.

We pulled into Naples a little tardy, but still had plenty of time. We got off the boat and on to a bus. Our tour of Italy started with a Half-Day Pompeii tour. This was the first time that I truly questioned the sanity of some of our fellow guests. While America is good at being ADA compliant by and large, ancient Pompeii is not a place for a double-wide stroller. Our guide Francesco was awesome, full of anecdotes, and gently pointing out the special "arrow" pointing to the houses where ladies were for hire. He did it in a level of gentle language that was at once inoffensive and blew right over the heads of the kids on the tour, but that was abundantly clear to the adults. (Note: the special arrow was distinctly penis shaped.)

He also went over the religious practices of Rome, discussing how the sacrificial animal was referred to as the host, and how that was translated into the wafers in Christianity. I do so always love it when sacred traditions are really just descendants of the pagan religion that preceded Christianity.

Francesco asked if anyone had some water to pour on a mosaic in the entry to a house. A little water brightened all the callers to reveal a "Beware of Dog" mosaic. The more things change, the more the stay the same.

One of the things I fell in love with in Pompeii is the dog population. Throughout Pompeii, they found dogs that had died from being changed up at the time of the eruption, so the law now is that dogs cannot be tethered in Pompeii. There's a decent sized feral dog population wandering around Pompeii, most of them very friendly and all of them completely familiar with wandering tourists. Near the cafe, there was a sign about the history of dogs in Pompeii, how they're cared for by the local humane society, and a note that if you met a dog you liked in Pompeii, they're available for adoption, because though they have it pretty good here, they'd be better off in a good home. How cool would it be to adopt a dog from Pompeii!?

We also toured a Roman bath with it's cold room, tepid room, and hot room. In the hot room, a dog lay napping behind the brazier where the coals kept the room warmed. He mentioned that the dog "was not original."

In Pompeii, they made plaster casts of the bodies where they fell as they excavated, keeping the figures in their original positions. The flesh decayed away, but left space in the rock where the person had been, and generally their bones were still intact. It's a bit creepy, but truly an amazing window on the past. You get to see the real size of these people, and how they exited the world.

While on the tour, couple number 1 from the Match Game asked what else we planned to do in Naples. I was quite certain I wanted to go to the Naples Archeological Museum. Another chap overheard us and asked if we wanted to share a cab as that was his plan too.

We planned to meet up with him about an hour after we got back to the ship, giving time to freshen up, have a bite of lunch, and head back to the port. We approached the first cab. Our new companion (also named Dave) had heard you shouldn't pay more than 10 Euro for a cab to the museum. Armed with this Knowledge, we asked how much to the first cab driver. His answer was "20 Euro apiece, and I'll wait for an hour while you tour the museum." Um, no, thanks. The second cab driver said, "20 Euro, for all three." Still, we passed. We crossed the street and up a block where we found another line of cabs. We asked that driver and he said, "15 Euro." We said, "Ten." He waffled and said 15 again, so we started to back away. He said, "Okay okay, 10, but I want a tip." Um, okay, sure. We hopped in the cab and off we went, the driver turning right from the far left hand land across four lanes of bumper to bumper traffic. Yeehaw! A few minutes later, we hopped out, and gave him an extra Euro in tip, and were into the museum.

My impression of Italian museums is that they have a lot of incredibly valuable pieces that aren't especially well cared for. The first floor had a fabulous collection of Greek and Roman statues including the Farnese collection. Gorgeous stuff. Unfortunately, the Mosaics of Pompeii and the Secret Cabinet were both closed due to some sort of structural failure in the building. The Mezzanine had a sort of history of the Roman Empire via the coins. The size and values changed over time and became more important as things went along. The second floor had a fabulous collection of daily objects - mirrors, flatware, vases, plates, etc. from Pompeii and Herculaneum. It never ceases to amaze me that I can see my face reflected in a mirror that was held by someone 2000 years ago. There were bits of fresco and other paintings and generally just more than you could possibly absorb in a day.

The final room that totally grabbed our attention was the 1/100th scale model of Pompeii, one on the floor, and one on the wall. We could retrace our steps from earlier in the day, and correlate that to where various pieces we'd seen came from in Pompeii. Also in the same room was a display on the foods of Pompeii, with preserves and seeds rescued from the beneath the ashes.

We thought about taking a taxi back to port, but after discussing with one driver, we decided to just walk it. Naples is a dirty, poorly maintained city, but it felt good to stretch the legs at full speed, passing gelato shops and pizzerias along the way. My only regret is being too full of lunch to sample pizza from its birthplace.

Back aboard, we took a few minutes to decide if we wanted to do "Who Wants to Be a Mouseketeer" or see the Euphonia String Quartet, on board from Naples, both happening at 7:45 before dinner. We decided to start with the game, and go see the quartet nearer the end of their set. Turns out, our seats for the game were called just after we left to see the quartet, but they were lovely to listen to for 20 minutes before dinner.

We enjoyed dinner thoroughly, but decided to skip making Flubber and call it a night early. Rome beckoned at 7:45 a.m. and we were bushed.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dan Savage Makes Me Smile

Dan Savage has a new project: It Gets Better.


So while Dan and Terry are saying this to kids with sexual identity issues, it stands just the same for all the other misfits in high school. There's the popular kids, and then there's the rest of us. I was definitely in the other group, and sure enough, life got IMMEDIATELY better after high school. I know of at least one teenage girl who needs to hear this right now. Time to bust out the old copy of Pump Up the Volume and loan it out. It was said best there: "High school is the bottom, being a teenager sucks, but that's the point, surviving it is the whole point." I think that bit may well have saved my life back then.

And living well is the best revenge. The high school baseball jock who made my life miserable showed up at the 10 year reunion and was living in a junkyard and had been married for less than a week before he got divorced. My life, well, my life is pretty awesome and I'm very lucky and those folks who held all the good cards in high school don't necessarily keep their reign once their loosed from the confines of their petty high school world.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tunis

Tunis was the best and worst of what I expected in North Africa during Ramadan. We boarded a bus for a tour of Carthage and the Medina. Carthage was a world heritage site, largely in poor shape, but interesting none the less and with beautiful views of the city below. The Medina was a typical Arab/Berber market, made far less bustling, thank goodness, by observance of the Ramadan holiday where generally folks do things at night and sleep during the day. The narrow alleys and tiny shops of the market flow one onto another without any plan or order. The shopkeepers try to pull you in "just to look" and try to convince you to buy. They had no shame about staring at the tourists. Erik made a deal for some Christmas presents for his brothers. I couldn't really get into the spirit of it. I like to have a price and decide if that's what I want to spend my money on rather than haggling on a price, so shopping there felt more stressful than fun to me. By the time the tour returned, I was ready to be back on the predictable economy of the ship. Sure, you'd pay more for some things, but I never feel hassled or cheated. I get to choose to spend or not without guilt trips or drama. Many places I travel, I think I could live there, but Tunis was not that sort of place.

Back on the ship, we had plenty to entertain us. We'd been introduced to Alfred and Seymour on the first night, but got the full blast of their show at 6:30. Imagine two black guys from LA in Lakers duds riffing off each other for 45 minutes on a cruise ship filled nearly to the brim with middle-class white folks. They kept saying, "You spent seven thousand dollars on this cruise. They ain't giving your money back. You better find SOMETHING to laugh at!" Here's a sample:

They closed their show with an unexpected message that if you don't like what you're doing, read a book, learn something, and make your life what you want it to be. Cool.

We left there and headed over to Studio Sea where we played The Feud. It's like Family Feud, only instead of playing against another family, we played against the other side of the bar. It started off with our team doing really poorly, down by over 300 points, but we stole the points for one round and won the final two rounds and squeaked in with a win. Go team!

The least well-described event on the boat was Magic Quest. It was in Rockin Bar D at the Adults Only hours. It was described as a game. We were utterly in the dark until dinner, and we knew we wanted to go to One Hit Wonders after the game, and our server overheard us talking about it and said it was sort of a scavenger hunt. Ah! A scavenger hunt! Wait... in a half and hour? Well, we opted to go check it out.

I realize at this point that I failed to mention The Match Game on our first night. There were three couples on stage: a couple married just about a year, a couple married ten years, and a couple married 51 years. By the end, we knew a little too much about each of them, and were all rooting for "The Bruce-ster," half of the 51 years married couple. There was this question about "making the magic" that ended with a story of them, another couple, and a boat on the Mississippi. Anyway, we ended up sitting down to Magic Quest with the other two couples from the Match Game, and Team 4 had this game nailed! It was indeed a scavenger hunt, but one where everything you need should be in the room and you just have to get it to the front fast enough. I had my purse with me, so I was solid gold. American dollars? Done. Euro? Done. Thong? Well, the girl from the newlywed couple had that. (And yes, one guy brought up his flip-flop.) And she was also willing to swing her bra over her head. And she had a tattoo. And the guy from the other couple was willing to wear my lipstick, shoes, her bra, and carry my purse. By all rights, we should have one, hands down, but they let another couple have it. Still, we had an absolute blast.

After that, they brought out shots and played one-hit wonders. If you could name the song, you got a free shot. Egad! Luckily, it was a sort of one-per-person thing. I don't usually play drinking type games, but I was good at this one, so I gave answers to others as well. And well, I knew one right off the bat, so after being chided that single gulping was required as this was not a sipping game, I chugged it and went back to dancing like the dancing fool I am. By now, we were known as the dancing couple on the ship. And the best part of the ship is that you can drink all you like and there's someone else driving the boat!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Malta

I had no particular expectations on arriving in Malta. I'd never heard anything about it, bad or good. We didn't plan a shore excursion as its a small island and the major city, Valetta, is near the port. We disembarked and set out across town. Erik opted for us to tour the St. John's co-cathedral. It was swelteringly warm and decorated within an inch of its existence. The church officials over the ages seemed quite full of themselves, giving themselves titles like "Grand Master" and "Knights" and so on. After a while, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the apparent total lack of women in the setting, save for passing references to the Virgin Mary. Erik said I got to pick what next, so we made for the thing that looked like a Greek temple on the hill. It turns out we found the Lower Baracca Gardens, a truly lovely spot and perhaps my favorite place on Malta. The temple was a monument to an Englishman, but the gardens were just lovely with lots of seating where you could sit beneath the shade of a tree and watch the sea.

We trekked back across town to see the Upper Baracca Gardens and the Hastings Gardens (both lovely, but not quite so much as the charming Lower Gardens). Then we made our way down to the Fountain of Neptune, which also serves as the bus depot. The busses of Malta are famous it turns out and many of the souvenirs feature the red and mustard yellow busses. For E1.16, we took the 135 express bus out to the Blue Grotto where we walked down a long winding path to the seaside. There we paid for a tour of the grottos and waited for others to show up. Within 10 minutes, another seven folks turned up and we were off in our little boat with an outboard motor. Being in a small boat like that on the open sea was a bit disconcerting, but the views of the caves were lovely. The winds and seas surged on our way back and we had to rebalance the boat a bit, but we didn't flip over. On the boat, we'd chatted about making it back to Valetta and I told Erik I was fantacising about paying a taxi to take us to the top of the hill. He chatted with a chap a bit of the way up the hill, and he said he'd drive us to the next town where we'd have a shorter wait for a bus for 7 Euro. Sold!

We hopped in the back of a black Mercedes and were off, twisting around traffic in a car with a broken speedometer. Arriving in Zurrieq, we wandered around a bit waiting for the 4:15 bus back to Valetta. The town was being decorated with statues for a religious festival the following weekend. An older gent with a little black dog suggested we could see the church while we waited, but it was closed with only the statuary coming out of the storage out back.

Our bus 34 pulled out and our bus driver made a wild trip through three small towns before arriving back in Valetta ten minutes ahead of schedule. For .47cents it was a crazy trip of sharing lanes and squeaking past parked cars. We walked back down to the boat and reboarded with time to change for dinner.

We had scheduled our special dinner at Palo for 6:45. Generally, all dining on the ship was free, but Palo was $15 for whatever we chose for dinner. We sat watching the sun set as the ship pulled away from Malta while we enjoyed calamari, antipasti, and a quattro frommagio pizzetta. In my day-to-day life, I frequently pick out several things that sound good on a menu, then select the less expensive one to have for dinner. Here, it was $15 no matter what, so I treated myself to the seared ahi tuna. For dessert, the chocolate souffle came highly recommended and was definitely a treat, made more so by a plate that was decorated with chocolate syrup, raspberry and mango to say Happy Honeymoon.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Day at Sea

The engines were restored, but seas stayed rough. I awoke feeling a bit motion sick and questioning choosing a cruise for a vacation. We got up, had a bit of breakfast in Topsiders, explored a bit, watched a lecture on Tunis, and came back to the room to change for a trip to the gym. I laid down for a moment and realized it was really time for a nap. I sent Erik on to the gym without me and crashed. After a bit more than an hour, Erik returned in bathrobe and slippers and I felt very much better.

(As it turns out, I may have discovered a super-power. I occasionally get a little motion sick, but if you let me take a nap for 30 minutes to an hour, I'm right as rain. This was tested a few times at sea with universally awesome results, and amuses me greatly because usually I can't nap for beans, but when a little seasick, I drift right off.)

I got up and we headed for the Salsa class with Hilda. She's another of the crew staff and I had a moment of feeling like one of the guests at the resort in Dirty Dancing. A roomful of folks trying to learn salsa on a swaying ship is kind of funny.

Tonight was a "formal" night for the Captain's Welcome Party. We dressed and headed downstairs to meet the now infamous captain. The poor guy must have been asked at least 2000 times, "So what happened with the engines last night." On the plus side, there were free cocktails, so we enjoyed those, got our photo with the captain, and chatted with some of the other senior staff. My favorite was Nick, the head of security. He used to be a policeman in Liverpool and this is his retirement job. As retirement jobs go, I'd have to say that sounds like an awfully nice change of pace. He said that the first few days of the cruise are always easy and quiet, up until about day 5 when the teenagers start forming groups and having ideas. Apparently trash cans and chairs stuffed into elevators is a favorite.

We also saw our first Disney Cruise Broadway-style production, "Twice Charmed." The idea is that Lady Tremaine, Cinderella's evil stepmother, makes a deal with an evil Fairy Godfather (in fabulous waistcoat and cape!) to get a do-over on the whole Prince and glass slipper drill. It was well put together and entertaining. No, not something I'd pay a hundred dollars to see on Broadway, but beautifully costumed and lovely live theater for the evening.

After dinner we opted for Cognac Tasting at The Cove, the adults-only coffee bar on Deck 9. We tasted four cognacs, mostly Courvoisier and Hennessey, with a nice Remy Martin, but we passed around a bit of the Remy Martin Louis XIII for a look and a smell. Too rich for my blood. I can't spend hundreds on a single drink. Still and all, a lovely, relaxing way to end the evening.

The ship steamed steadily onward to Malta. This cruising thing - I could get used to it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Potpourri

My Firefox window is a mess of open tabs. Here's a bit of potpourri for a Friday.

We watched an episode of 30 Days this week where a Mormon woman from Orange County went to live with 2 gay dads who had adopted four special needs kids after caring for them via the foster system. Nothing could sway her from her belief that gays should not adopt. She'd never admit she'd rather these kids had no family rather than two dads, but having two dads is just plain Wrong. 30 days of living with two incredibly loving fathers did nothing to sway her. It's Wrong. This was heartbreaking to watch. Meanwhile, I'd read about a study based on census data that showed that kids from gay families are doing just as well in school as kids from hetero families. Always glad to hear, and so help me, I'll fight that woman every time I vote.

One of the few news stories I actually caught while away was about dance moves and attracting women. A boy with moves really will get the girl.

One of the central themes of the year that keeps coming up is that raising kids is a whole lot of awful, peppered with little moments of absolute joy that keep you going. It was in a truly awful romantic comedy (The Back-Up Plan) I watched on the flight home. It has been said by friends on Facebook again and again. It was highlighted in this NY Magazine article. I think this is the wisdom my generation is gaining, likely far too late for many who went into parenthood with starry eyes and dreams of having a cute little baby. I also enjoyed watching Babies on the flight home. It's amazing the difference between how kids are raised around the world.

We had a moment on our trip where we had to decide if we were going to be "that couple." You know, the Disney couple. We got engaged at Disneyland. We went on our honeymoon via Disney Cruise Line. Were we going to go to Disneyland Paris too? We don't necessarily feel like a Disney couple per se. Disney just happens to do things in a customer-centered way with an attention to detail that appeals to me. And well, Walt Disney really was a visionary. So maybe I am that girl. And maybe we are that couple. Still, it was awfully nice to stumble on a fan correspondence to Ray Bradbury this week where Ray totally stuck up for Walt. It made my day.

Need to know how to save a few bucks on well... lots of things? Check out this list of tips.

While overseas, a common question was always about where we were from. Depending on who we talked to, the answer varied from "California" to "near San Francisco" to "San Jose." But I left my heart in Alameda. Other folks are taking note! We even told Massey, our desk clerk at the hotel, about checking out Alameda when he makes it to SF. He's writing his thesis on classic American cars, so when we found Forbidden Island having a classic car day on the first day we were home, we knew we'd steered him to the right town.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Blackout at Sea

At 3:30 or so I woke up for my usual trip to the toilet. All well and good, but getting back to sleep proved tricky. I found myself overly awake. Harumph. Jet lag was not averted, but merely delayed. Oh well. In the past, this early morning European wake-up was the worst of it, so no big deal.

Until 5:45 when the ship lost power. Suddenly eerily quiet after a night of steaming ahead with the roar of the engines in the background, the ship rolled differently on the water. There was an announcement over the shipwide P.A.: "00 to the bridge." Erik woke up and headed to the toilet to discover that the lights would not turn on. The light by my bed was also out. Our room was blackness. The hall had some lighting. We waited, using my phone as a flashlight.

Erik decided to call Guest Services. The hold recording answered saying all staff were currently busy. Well, yes, I guess so. We opened the door back up and peered into the hall. Other guests were starting to do the same and one announced that she'd gotten through and that is was a power outage.

Moments later, the Captain got on the P.A. and announced the engines had shut down with an emergency protocol. They were investigating why and it would be 15 minutes or so to get things back online. He added what was probably intended to be reassuring, but was anything but, "We're not near land or any other ships, so there was nothing to worry about." To his mind, this meant we weren't going to crash into anything. To the newly arrived guests, it sounded like, "We're out in the middle of nowhere with no engine!!!"

A few minutes later, the lights came back on, but clearly not everything was running as the roar was much quieter than before and the ship still pitched much more. The weirdest part was the up and down shudders, as if the whole ship were jumping up and down or as if a giant was trying to start the world's most recalicitrant motorcycle.

The captain came back on and said that one of the engines was back online, but that they were moving slowly to ensure no further damage. Interesting. The ship continues to pitch and roll rather more than before, but so far, my stomach is not especially upset about it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Barcelona

We arrived in Barcelona around 6, picked up our bags, and caught the A1 bus into town. For 5 euro, this is a heck of a deal. It drives the 45 minutes to Plaza de Catalunya. From there we caught a taxi to the Hotel Banys Oriental. Our choice of hotel came from online recommendations for boutique hotels and it turned out to be a fantastic choice. Located in the Gothic Barrio, we checked in, and headed back downstairs for a walk and to find some dinner. It was around 7:45 local time on Friday and everyone was out and about for the hot summer evening. We looped through the alleys around the neighborhood, and narrowed down our dinner options to two choices - one an inexpensive prix fixe of paella and an appetizer, and another tapas restaurant called Origins. Though the cheaper prix fixe was tempting, especially for its 3 euro mojitos, the "one night in Barcelona" part of my brain voted for Origins, which not only offered an extended array of tapas, but the menu included a description of the history and geography of each dish. We had a half-liter of sangria, stuffed aubergine, duck with peaches, coco with cheese and local sausage, nettle soup, and a meatball dish. After dinner the waiter asked after dessert. We pleaded that we were too full, though really, the gelato outside beckoned. He said, "Ah, only one thing for it" and produced two digestifs - a moscatel in a shot glass, on the house. Sweet and delightful, we enjoyed this, paid the check, and headed back into the streets. Street sellers had LED flying toys that enchanted Erik. He couldn't resist and bought one. Then we found a gelateria and had limon and strawberry sorbetto.

Back to the room at 10:30, we settled in to use the free wi-fi as it was our last chance for cheap access for a long time. I fell asleep first, waking only briefly in the night for the usual 3 a.m. toilet break. Waking again at 8:30, I felt rested and hopeful that we'd beat jet lag utterly with such a perfect schedule.

We headed out in the morning to see how far it was to the port. Grabbing a ham and cheese croissant and a coffee, then walking down to the waterfront. It was farther to Terminal C that was prudent for walking with several bags, so we headed back to the rest of the city to see things on the must-do list. La Sagrada Familia is the one thing we were told repeatedly just had to be seen, so we hpped the Metro out to that neighborhood. Unfortunately, we underestimated the line to get in, which wrapped around the church on two sides. After looping the outside, we headed back to check out to the hotel with plans to return after checking into the boat.

This didn't go quite as we'd expected. The check in was a little more confusing at first, made worse by our not having the book that Disney Cruise Line had sent us. We weren't sure what had happened to it, but it wasn't where I thought it was, and I didn't remember packing it. The last time we'd seen it was a week earlier.

But, we refilled some basic paperwork, handed off our bags to a porter who knew no English, and checked in. They handed us our Key-to-the-World cards and we were off. We figured we should walk up, see our state room, see what the requirements for getting back were, and then head back out to Barcelona.

We got to our state room and it was perfect. Somehow we were upgraded to Deck 6, which was a huge blessing. Even better, we were in an interior stateroom that was turned 90 degrees from the normal stateroom, leaving hallways on the two long sides of our room, a linen closet on one end, and one other guest room attached near our bathroom. Honeymoon suite indeed!

It turned out, all hands were required to be present for the evacuation drill at 4 p.m. This put a big crimp in our original plan. We figured we'd take the ship's tour at 2 p.m., unpack and wait for the drill, then head off the ship for dinner in Barcelona. We went and toured the spa on Deck 9. It smelled like relaxation. We also toured the gym. We entered a raffle for some spa stuff and had to return there at 3:15 to see if we'd won. (We didn't, but it still smelled fantastic in there.) We headed to Deck 10 Forward for the ship's tour. (Yes, really, 10 Forward. We have pictures.)

Ashlee from Kentucky and Dave from Australia led us around the ship in two rather large groups. They were part of the crew staff, the staff whose entire job is to ensure the rest of the guests have fun via various activities. Dave had that sort of infectious love for his job that made him instantly charming. He took us all over, told us the basics and a few tidbits, and promoted his later tour: The Art of the Theme Ship. Released, we had a little while before the drill, so we started unpacking. Unfortunately, all but one of our bags had turned up. From some miscommunication earlier, I thought they didn't want us carrying any bags aboard ship on our own, so I'd handed everything off, including my bag of necessities containing books, my liquids bag, and my computer. Losing this would be bad.

We unpacked everything else, then went on the drill. We stood dutifully with our life jackets on and waited to be counted off. Released a few minutes later, we headed back to the room. Still no bag. Hmm.

We checked with Guest Services and they said to wait until 5. If it still hadn't turned up, they'd put a note in our file.

We waited til 5.

They put a note in our file.

I got increasingly worried.

Around 5:45, they called our room and said they had a bag which might be mine, and to please come by the Guest Services desk on Deck 3. We headed down, and sure enough, there was my little Sierra Club backpack, safe and sound. Whew!

But this had thoroughly fubar'd our plan to go back into Barcelona. It was now less than 2 hours before the ship set sail. Bummer.

So, we made the best of things and decided to stay on the ship. We explored and settled on cocktails and Fluxx in Diversions, the piano bar on Deck 3. This is when we learned that cocktails aboard ship were very reasonably priced, usually $5.60 or $6.60, plus 15% tip. I had a pomegranate cosmopolitan and Erik had a gin martini and cards were played.

It was a perfectly relaxing way to start the trip, and we figured we'd just have to see more of Barcelona the morning we returned.

Now, I'll admit, we had a moment of nervousness. We were supposed to have dinner with total strangers every night for the next 11 nights. What if they seated us with the guy in the Bible quotes t-shirt that said we could believe or burn in hell? But we hoped for the best. Turns out, they seated us with three other couples, all in their thirties, all without kids. Kevin and Carrie were from Virginia. Claude-Eric and Josee were from Quebec, and Lee and Mitzu were from Columbus, Ohio. Over our first meal, we all hit it off right away. This was the biggest relief of the trip. We also met Orlen, our server, and Erwin, his assistant, and Godwin, their boss. We then had the first of many very leisurely meals in the Animator's Palate, a room mostly in black and white animation sketches with a few screens displaying finished artwork.

Meanwhile, the ship had set sail. It rocked a bit under us at dinner. Those more susceptible to motion sickness were feeling it. At bedtime, I wondered what we'd gotten into. I wasn't terribly motion sick... yet... but I didn't want to spend 11 days feeling woozy. Hopefully I'd feel better in the morning.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Escaping SFO

(Note: We had little internet access on the boat. This was a blessing as much as a nuisance. The net result is that you'll get our trip reports now over the next few days. These were largely written while at sea.)

James graciously offered to let us leave our car at his place, less than a freeway exit from SFO, and shuttle us over to the airport. We figured we were well on our way when we walked through the door, arriving about 15 minutes later than we'd planned, but with plenty of time.

The baggage war on customers has gotten ugly. The humorless clerks at the Air France counter weighed our checked bags, which we'd carefully ensured was under the limit. No problem there. Then they wanted to weigh our carry-on as well. Turns out, we were over a bit on the carry-on, and if it was over, it wasn't going on the plane. We could check it, but no carrying on. No way. No how. Not for an extra charge.

So we pulled off to the side, slipped on a half-dozen outfits, stuffed our pockets full, and tried again. Still over by 3 kg. So, check a bag at $55, throw something away, or call James to take something back. Great. The Air France clerks were absolutely firm on this front. Nevermind that Erik and I weigh well less than the average passenger, if it was in a bag, it had to be under the limit, no exceptions. So much so that I noticed one of the ticket clerks down at the gate later, presumably to check up or some such. I don't know, but this is not an empowered workforce with customer service in mind. Nope, rules are rules.

We checked a bag, praying that everything makes it safely to Barcelona. If not, it will be an interesting start to the trip. All of our carefully separated items, conscientiously loaded to ensure we'd have enough to go on even if our bags missed the boat were now a jumbled mess and we'd have trouble making it more than a day or two without luggage arriving.

Next we made it to security. I've no idea what makes me such a fantastic target for extended search, but I seem to get the special treatment every time. This time, the metal detector made no alarm, but they STILL wanted to pat me down. So, I was sequester in a little plastic box while they called for a female to check me. Erik put himself back together and I stood in stocking feet waiting
and waiting
and waiting
and waiting for a female to come check me.
Erik mentioned that our flight was now boarding in 5 minutes. The agent said he'd called for a female agent. I told him that it was fine if he could just do the check so that I could get on my way. He said they weren't allowed to do that. I suggested that maybe they should have staff on hand to handle it then. And we waited. At this point I was pretty stressed out and figured that the only thing that might get some action was if I burst into tears, so rather than trying to contain my emotion, I started just letting it go. This actually did seem to make a difference as the supervisor came and got me from my box and walked me over two lanes to where the female agent was standing and had her do the search, and we were off.

We arrived just as the plane was boarding, but we weren't to our row yet, so I left the bags with Erik and sprinted for the toilet. My intended leisurely calm start to the trip was not to be had, but soon we'd be on a plane and away from the torture of the airport and it just wouldn't matter.

The flight was lovely, though I was sitting next to an overly chatty used car salesman from San Leandro headed to France to visit his wife and son. The chatting was good mostly, but there came a point where I just wanted to read my book and he kept talking about how life isn't complete until you have kids. Ah well. Mary Roach will have to wait until the next leg.

We made our way through French customs, which was as easy-going as ever. No questions, no fuss, just open the passport and ka-chunk goes the stamp. Trekking over to Terminal 2F, we went back through security where we did not have to remove shoes, wait for a pat down, or generally be treated like a criminal in Mary Janes. In fact, the guy guiding the line was really helpful and friendly. I miss that. I miss the excitement of travel and the joy of where everyone is heading. It's all hostility and rules and show-of-force in American airports nowadays. Leaving SFO, sweaty and flustered, I thought to myself that it was a good thing this was the trip of a lifetime, because I wouldn't want to travel again anytime soon. Sitting in Charles de Gaulle, it feels a little different. It's a beautiful terminal - light and airy with an open ceiling. There's the sound of multiple languages being spoken around me and the smell of good coffee and good bread in the air.