Monday, October 31, 2005

Happy Halloween!

My stepsister took this pic of her daughter with my dad. So cute!

So, as you've deduced from this post's title, it's Halloween. Quite a few people donned costumes at the office today, and now I wish I had done the same. Tonight I'm planning on being a Grinch and pretend I'm not home. Just can't take the strain of opening the door to strangers, though we don't get many trick or treaters anyway.

My biggest fright today? M was laid off. No, that's a *good* thing. I think. If we can scrape by on unemployment for a while--if he's eligible--that will give him time to look for a few part time jobs, which he was planning to do anyway, and study for his midterms, which have really been stressing him out enormously. I'm trying to remain upbeat, but financial transitions are not my strong suit.


One other thing I wanted to make a note of about my European tour: the church bells. I loved hearing them. Especially my last night in that tarry room in Amsterdam when I had to leave the window open and the sound counted down my last hours in that city. There just aren't enough bells in the world.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Euro Post

Ahem, where was I? Oh yes...

I'm home and happy in the comfort of my husband and blessedly wordless companionship of our four-legged family. How I was missing their furred warmth, antidote to the cigarette chill and damp of Amsterdam. We're going to a party tonight (my idea! Mark your calendar, it's my once-every-fifth-year foray into socializing with a group of people I mostly don't know) and I've discovered that I don't have enough fake blood for my dead poet costume, but I'm darned if I'm not going to finish this post before that errand, nap, and dog walk...

After my first day in Florence, I was going to title this post, "I Am NOT Florence," but things got better the second day. Not that the first day was so bad. But my high expectations were dashed, perhaps unsurprisingly, upon the rocks of reality. But I'm getting a little ahead of my traveler's tale...

After some nail-biting delays with the Amsterdam metro, my colleague and I arrived at Schipol Airport a week ago Friday, in plenty of time to chat with an ex-pat Brit working in Amsterdam on his way to Pisa to visit a friend. Deplaning in the Pisa airport, though overcast, the warmer air was immediately relaxing. Italy at last!

On the advice of another colleague, instead of boarding the train for Florence right away, we took a taxi to the Leaning Tower. I had always imagined the famous landmark to be in a square on its own, but instead the Piazza dei Miracoli where it's located had several other lovely buildings. We had our luggage with us, so didn't try to go inside any of them, but their exteriors were delight enough. We eyed our first genuine Italian souvenirs and had our first Italian meal, in a tourist stand just outside the imposing Piazza wall.

I was pleased and surprised when my companion suggested that we hoof it back to the train station (she has a few mobility issues), so off we went, our bags clattering behind us and echoing through the narrow streets of lovely, uncrowded Pisa to the train station. I'm surrounded by Tuscan-wannabe architecture out here, and it was so wonderful to be immersed in the real thing!

After a half-hour wait, we boarded the NJ Transit-like train (serviceable but hardly elegant) and chugged our way to Firenze, peeking into backyard gardens and enjoying the California-ish landscape. We crossed (I think) the Arno several times; it poured, and I worried about getting rained on while getting to our hotel, but it had stopped by the time we reached Florence. One bit of excitement: a pretty train conductor explained that we needed to stamp our tickets in a little yellow machine before boarding--she'd let us off this time, but next time there would be a large fine. Scary!

Another round of bag-dragging in Florence made longer by poor navigation on my part, and finally we arrived at Residenza le Rondini--luckily before dark or we may never have spotted the modest plaque. I realized that while I accurately recalled where it was on the map, I had forgotten to bring the hotel's actual address and phone number--so unlike me! Small, fourth-floor walkup, impregnated with a damp that might've been nice in summer but was not so welcome in October, the stairwell light is normally not kept on to conserve energy so it was a little disconcerting. We were left in the dark on our way downstairs to a nearby restaurant that our kindly host recommended for dinner (chesnut gnocchi in a parmesan sauce, "black cabbage" aka spinach flan, chianti, rosemary creme brulee--oh yum) but we made sure that never happened again.

The next morning, rain and the need for caffeine got me up early out of my squeaky little cot-sized bed. The rain had stopped by the time went out for my first real Italian cappucino at a little place down the street. I collected my companion back at the hotel, had another cappucino, and then it was time to stand in line for the Accademia, even though we had reservations. The first gallery in the Accademia was filled with religious works, which wore on me a bit. ("How many times can you see Christ on a stick?" my travel-mate quipped.) But turning the corner into David's gallery, lined with prisoners and seeing him there, large and gloriously lit under his dome, was wonderful. More religious paintings followed, and we returned to the streets of Florence. This seemed like an appropriate time for our first gelato--grainy, but all succeeding gelatos were mouthfuls of heaven.

We wandered to the Duomo, a magnificent place inside and out. Had lunch in a mod little place (Greek salad with excellent feta cheese, a glass of white wine), headed for the Ponte Vecchio but, disoriented, headed back to our hotel inadvertently. Finally found the famous bridge and elbowed tourists out of the way to cross it. Gelato stop. Thought about getting tickets to the Pitti Palace and Boboli Garden, but it was closing soon. Back across the bridge, admiring the sparkling baubles in the windows and then the statuary in the Piazza della Signoria. We stopped for a drink and shelter from showers in a cafe across from the Duomo. A mediocre dinner for me (ravioli a little too "to the tooth" for my taste) served in a restaurant filled with a tour group of young women--O the din!

Florence impressions: Crowded with tourists from many nations. Gypsy beggar women roamed the Duomo piazza in their uniform of long broomstick skirts and bulky sweaters. Small portions of shops, food, rain. Not as many bicycles as Amsterdam. The Arno was milky mud-colored. It was an easy city to get lost in. I seemed to be staring up most of each day--up at the mosaics, towers, statues, elaborately painted ceilings of the Uffizi. Asian women trying to sell scarves to tourists in line at the museums. It's a magical city, no doubt, but I didn't feel any magic that first day--too many gray skies and crowds, I think.

Sunday was sunnier, inside and out. A quick coffee in one of the many tiny coffee bars, and we hustled down to the Uffizi for an early entrance. Sunday morning meant quieter streets, and I was able to enjoy the atmosphere more. Vendors were setting up stalls in the Central Market (stuff, not food, which disappointed me a bit) and we passed Trattoria ZaZa, a place a friend had recommended we eat--hooray, that seemed like a good sign.

The Uffizi was also amazing, so much to take in: The Birth of Venus, The Battle of San Romano, the "Tribune" room, the Sacred Family, so many portraits, statues...Refreshments taken on the roof cafe and then off to the Pitti Palace, with a stop for gelato (hazelnut and tiramisu--o my god!!!).

In the Boboli Garden, my companion and I parted ways, agreeing to rendezvous for dinner at ZaZa. It was a long climb up a steep slope in the Garden, but oh the views were spectacular in every direction--city views behind and Tuscan countryside ahead. A quick turn through the Porcelain Museum, wondering how it would be to have a backyard abutting the Palace, and then a long wander down the allees of the Garden. It was such a relief to just have a few people around me--no crowds or traffic here--and I felt like I was getting some good exercise.

After a play-tussle with a Pitti kitty that made me wistful for TomCat and a visit to the Grotto, I was off for the Piazzale Michelangelo. I tried to stop for a glass of wine and bite to eat at a place far off the Ponte Vecchio, but it was the wrong time of day, and had to content myself with overpriced fare with a fabulous view at a restaurant near the Piazzale M. I listened to a few songs by a gypsy jazz guitar group, then continued up to Santo Miniato. I loved lingering here. It was the one place where I actually saw a monk and nuns, and people were actually there to worship. The cemetery was beautiful. Inside, it felt very spiritual but not cavernous. There were just a few tourists, a small group at the altar. I followed the tour group downstairs, and as I was admiring the altar there, the tour group leader raised his arms, and the group burst into the most glorious hymn--my magical moment at last. It was over too soon.

I sat outside the church for sometime, then headed down a pedestrian walkway past a protected cat colony made up of cat-sized cabins painted white with green roofs and little plastic panels curtaining the doors, back across the Arno to the piazza outside Santa Croce. I sat on a bench with some older ladies, watching a group of boys kick a soccer ball and tourists and locals crowding into tents selling local foods.

Then on through the crowds into the Central Market, purchasing a few glass souvenirs (well, Venice was close) and then dinner. I had almost an identical meal to the night before, ravioli with a creamy walnut sauce, sauteed spinach with garlic, chianti, chocolate cake, but it was much better.

A restless last night in Florence. I went out early for cappucino, and drank it standing at the bar like a real Italian. It was so odd yet good to be surrounded by people speaking a language I couldn't understand. I went back to the hotel, wrote a few postcards while my companion got breakfast, then off we went to the train station. We remember to stamp our tickets this time, and just barely made the train that went straight to the Pisa airport. I was a bit worried that the conductor would hassle us about this, since our tickets were just for the main train station, but we never encountered one. The back of the train was crowded, so we sat amiably in the door compartment on fold out seats, so we had good views of the countryside.

At the Pisa airport, our Brit friend was also returning to Amsterdam, so we had a merry time chatting with him.

Amsterdam blustered around us when we arrived. A somewhat easier time getting the metro back into the city. We collected our additional bags from our colleagues who had stayed in Amsterdam and off I went to check into the Hotel Winston. I went upstairs to my tiny, dark--er, artistic--stiflingly cigaretty-smelling room (guess with that name, smoking was inevitable), dropped my bags, left the window wide open and went out again.

Walked just a little in the Red Light district--what a strange feeling that neighborhood had. Sipped a beer at an outdoor table on Dam Square, snug under a heat lamp, the wind wiping menus and ashtrays off the tables around me. The ferris wheel was still up, but circling empty. A not very good Indonesian meal. Souvenir shopping, and then one last trip to Albert Heijn for chocolate to bring back to the office. I wanted to wander more, but the rain was too heavy, and I worried about packing wet clothes home.

Back at the hotel, I tried to call M several times with no luck getting through. I was missing him something awful. The room smelled a little better. I repacked my bags, and pushed them all up against the door. I peeked out the window at the sex trade next door: a row of five red light windows lining an alley. Men, mostly alone, walked up and down, looking in at the scantily clad denizens. One woman's gimmick was wearing white lingerie with a black light; another, dressed in standard hooker attire, put on girl-next-door glasses. I was curious about how long clients stayed, aren't you? The two I timed spent just about ten minutes behind the drawn curtains before exiting again.

I awoke on my last morning in Amsterdam feeling as though I'd had a nicotine pie shoved in my face--stuffy, puffy, and headache-y. A shower in the tiniest shower stall ever and pleasant breakfast downstairs while watching Dutch MTV. Back in the rain to the Kras with all my luggage to await the airport shuttle which didn't stop at my new hotel. It was a very long trip home, over 20 hours. Thank god for the movies in the tiny screen in front of me, all four and a half of them.

And now I'm home and Europe is very far away again...


Halloween fun, by way of BoingBoing (I typed Booing first--another Halloween-inspired slip?): Monsters Photoshopped into great works of art.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Still Jetlagged

I fell asleep last night in the midst of writing up my travel post! Here are pix of Amsterdam and Florence. It's pouring rain. I'm going to the gym this morning, hoping the exercise will help to clear away the travel fatigue. I'm so behind at work that it's depressing. Oy.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

I Could

Dam Square from the staff office
Originally uploaded by suzipaw.
Rob sez: It's high time for you to lose control--in the most constructive way possible, please. You can no longer afford to be as tightly wound as you've been lately. While I don't want to lose control--I am a Virgo, after all--nothing like travel to ignite a sense of adventure. Even buying snacks at a foreign supermarket can be fun. Walking back to the hotel after dinner alone last night felt exhilarating. I could live here.

It's been a few days of contrasts--crappy food and little sleep punctuated by delicious, dreamless sleep and really wonderful meals. I've been out of the hotel little during the last four days. A couple of stealth shopping trips to H&M and a great meal at Envy last night. One night a few of us conference folks gathered in one of the meeting rooms, ordered room service, and watched an episode of "Survivor," my second ever.

Random observations: They've build a ferris wheel in the square. It's enormous, and I can't wait to take a ride. I love hearing the unexpected, to me, clang of tram bells as they rumble through the cobblestone streets and chiming of church bells. The withering glance of bicyclists cut off by pedestrians--no epithets are hurled. The Dutch sense of safety is a bit different: while signs note that elevators should not be used in case of fire, there is no map nor signs pointing to stairways; the hot water spurting out of the tap is scalding.

The weather report that predicted showers for Florence this weekend now show partly cloudy skies. I don't know if I'll be able to blog after today til I return to the States, but I'll be thinking of you as I wander the streets of Florence, searching for buffalo mozzarella and for moments of stillness, of perfect appreciation for where I am in the world.

Amsterdam canal by night

Saturday, October 15, 2005

A Day Awake in Amsterdam

My first night in Amsterdam was not particularly restful. After just two hours in deep velvety sleep, I received a work-related call from the States ("Oh, is it late there?"). I woke up again at 4:00 a.m. then tossed and turned for several hours. The alarm went off at 8:00 a.m., but I felt absolutely drugged, and slept for another two hours. A brisk walk through the crowded pedestrian shopping alleys and a couple of cups of cafe latte later and I felt ready for adventures.

When I was trying to decide where to visit in Europe after Amsterdam, I asked my cousin, who travels often, what his favorite European city is. I was surprised when he said Amsterdam--but it does feel a bit like New Amsterdam, where he lives and where I often miss living. I was refreshed by a stroll through Vondelpark, which is much like Central Park, amused by the middle aged ladies rollerblading by while talking into their cell phones. It's a very human-scaled city--no monstrous skyscrapers blotting out the horizon, lots of water, trees to balance the paving. It feels foreign but not alien, and so much English makes it easy to get around. I did stray into the Red Light district today, which is close to the hotel. I didn't explore too far, mostly because it was starting to get dark and it felt strange being on the streets populated almost solely with packs of men roving around. I did manage to achieve my twin goals for the day: consuming a cone of frites and sitting in an outdoor cafe on Dam Square quaffing a glass of the local suds.

Some other observations: Smoking is allowed indoors as well as out. I'm a spoiled Californian, and not used to it. Lots of interracial couples. Even though enormous quantities of French fries are sold in cones, almost all other food portions are small. Which may explain why there are very few overweight people here. That and the bikes. I loved watching the bike culture here--vast fields of parked bikes, ridden everywhere by all ages, for pleasure and mundane transportation. Quite a few are outfitted with not just a child's seat on the back, but another one for babies on the front, just behind the handlebars, complete with fairing. I saw a whole family on one bike--two toddlers in a large box in front, dad pedaling, mom riding side-saddle over the back tire.

Work starts in earnest tomorrow, so I don't know how much more of the city I'll see. More pictures here.

Friday, October 14, 2005

I AMsterdam

I've arrived, and am loving this tightly packed city through my fatigue. Spent some time trudging the cobblestone streets, crossing many bridges over canals, dodging the hordes of bicyclists, eating crispy cheese-laced pancakes, squinting at the gorgeous relief of van Gogh's brushstrokes--anything to stay awake til a reasonable hour. I only have a few more minutes of Internet time, so I leave you with a few images of my day:

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Yet Again, I'm Not Ready

Nope, I'm just not mentally ready for Amsterdam. Yeah, boohoo, baby, I know. I kept looking over my eticket, making sure I hadn't booked the wrong flight and really and truly am flying out tomorrow before the crack of dawn. The bed is barely packed (my ritual is to lay everything out on the bed, review, edit, then stuff into luggage). My cold is making me feel crappy, and interfered with my last minute shopping joy. No, not even buying pink cashmere-rich socks could lift my spirits. Well, ok, more memory for my digital camera was a brief high--now I can snap up to 420 pix, woo!

But I already miss M. I miss spooning Rex. What if I can't shake my cold and jet lag hangs on for days?

OK, focus on Florence...focus. That's better. I know I'm supposed to be all tingly about the art, architecture, history, but all I can think about is the food. I may even have mac-n-cheese tonight, just to make the delineation of the pasta experience even more acute when I finally get there. My only worry at this point? I won't be chic enough for Italy, particularly in the area of footwear. And while I realize that Florence is renown for it's fine leather, which would probably translate into really excellent shoes (ooh, ooh, like the pair Kate Hepburn bought during her visit to Venice in Summertime!), I fear my vegetarian guilt would prevent me from acquiring a pair.


My Life's Minutiae: I watched the first four episodes of Colonial House this week. And while I mostly enjoyed it, it was more about the people trying to get along with each other and live their 21st Century lives in period garb rather than knuckle down under custom and law from the 1680s. I also watched the first half of the version of Pride and Prejudice featuring Colin Firth--most excellent. While I was in SF last week, I caught the last 10 minutes of My Super Sweet Sixteen--my goodness, nothing sweet about that girl, I tell you what! What will Dutch TV be like, I wonder?

What else? The beach was lovely.

Rex on the Beach

M and I went out to dinner Saturday night, and had to drive through That Intersection, the place that nearly changed the course of my life. (Note passive voice--no, I had nothing to do with it, oh no!) Which was a good thing, to have absolutely nothing happen--possibly because *I* wasn't driving. Ahem.

Maybe part of why I'm feeling a bit uneasy is that I haven't exercised much in the last couple of weeks. I did go to the gym on Tuesday, but the teacher was sick, too. And I'm a class kinda gal--I just can't do the machines, so I just showered and got to work early. Hardly the endorphin-producing experience I needed.

The Petaluma Writers Group celebrates its second anniversary this week. Go, Julia! Go, Rebecca! I'm humbled and honored that I'm a member of their writer tribe.


OK, enough of this bloggygagging--time to pack...

Monday, October 10, 2005

OK, That Thing That Happened

I volunteered to drive two colleagues down to the City for our conference last week. So last Tuesday I picked up the first co-worker--the one coming to Florence with me--and we headed down to the other rendezvous point. I pulled off the freeway, we were talking about her recent spa experience, and I was trying to figure out where to go in the intersection, and I ran a red light. Just like that. The red light, the most important part of any intersection, literal, philosphical, or otherwise, just didn't register. It somehow didn't apply to me at that moment.

Fate and God must've been on my side--no cars were coming from my left (at least, I don't think they were, or they managed not to hit me), and I was able to pull a NASCAR move and crank the Wonder Wagon out of the path of the large silver SUV coming from the right. I somehow pulled off the road, the passenger of the SUV cursed me roundly as they drove by, my head in my hands, trying to digest what had happened and how. My companion took it very well, considering she was several inches from serious injury. We decided not to tell the other person we were picking up to spare her nerves (I had gone to the wrong side of the freeway, so she blessedly had not been witness to this incident).

I had a hard time sleeping that night, and was exhausted the next day at the hot, crowded, noisy, never-ending event--no wonder I have a cold now. Every time the thought of that SUV sliding so close to me popped into my mind, I would give an involuntary little gasp, and a bit of adrenaline would squeeze my heart. I'm still walking around making little sound effects.

But, on the bright side, suddenly my priorities were realigned. So what if the New York Times didn't write a story about the conference? I was safe, my car intact, and best of all someone else wasn't in the hospital due to my incompetence. I talked to her later, and said that I could completely understand if she didn't want to ride back with me, but she pooh-poohed that--it happens to everyone, she said; she'd been in two accidents herself. Which was M's response also. But, it hadn't happened to me before. And it was a pride-goeth-before-a-fall-kinda moment, too. I have to pump myself up before these conferences in order to get through them, so I was feeling all suave and competent. It was probably good that I had to continue driving into the City, and had to drive everyone home again a few days later. I'm still fighting feelings of fear, stupidity, and guilt, and need to rev my confidence a bit.

I regularly wonder when my car accident will happen. It's just a matter of time, given how often I'm in my car. And now that I've had a close shave, is the big bang even closer?

Thank you FSM, good luck shamrock charm, God, fate, etc.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Home for a Few Days

SFMoMA by night
Originally uploaded by suzipaw.
I came home last night and am nursing a conference hangover today. I hope my head clears in time for my next one. I realize that I'm also recovering from an incident that really shook me up, that I'll try to blog about later. I've checked my email (good thing I did, I had an important message I needed to forward to my CEO--sort of sad that I feel like I can't have a day completely to myself), paid bills, written a card to a friend in New Jersey who just had a baby, watered the plants--one homecoming joy: the dahlias and chocolate cosmos blooming away. It's noon. Fiona Ritchie has introduced "The Thistle and Shamrock." And now, I think I'll take the mutt and spend a few of these utterly glorious October hours at the beach to try to clear my head and soul.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Out Conferencing

Northwest from the Argent Hotel
Originally uploaded by suzipaw.
I'm in San Francisco for a conference. I wasn't able to leave the hotel yesterday, but Tuesday night I walked down to the Ferry Building and had dinner at Taylor's Refresher. It's been busy, stressful (hence focusing on food, the familiar), made somewhat moreso by the realization that this time next week I'll be stumbling into Amsterdam. Yes, I'm lucky. Yes, Amsterdam is wonderful, but it's also work. OK, I'll stop whining now. I think I just need to breathe some non-hotel air. Behold more pix:

Murray and llama
M at the Harvest Fair, a pleasant distant memory...

Felicia and Courtney

My brother sent this way cute pic of my niece and her best friend.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Another Month Begins

BoingBoing was indeed filled with wonderful things today: unicorns, parody movie trailers, and hilariously bad Van Morrison songs that he recorded to fulfill a contract, covering such topics as ring worm and royalty checks.

I'm so excited--M is taking tomorrow off, yay! We haven't had a Sunday together since, well, since the wedding. And before that, who knows when. We'll do a little housecleaning, go to the Harvest Fair (I'm obsessed with the sheep dog trials), and then have a little bbq with some of his school friends if I can get off my duff to buy that pork loin he wants to grill at Costco, a heinous activity on Saturday afternoon. (I was thinking that imbibing a bit of Bud Light might help, but it's probably not a good idea to have one's defenses down while at Costco--who knows what I might come home with?)

We saw the San Francisco Comedy Competition semi-finals last night, using tickets "purchased" with my usher vouchers. We probably never would've gone otherwise. It was another excellent show--eight competing comedians, plus an emcee and last year's competition winner. It definitely improved after intermission when the drunken couple to M's left--who had be hollering unstintly during the first half and sucking face so loudly that even I could hear them--did not return to their seats next to him.

Back to work...