Sunday, September 30, 2007

could be bulls, could be eunuchs

It takes one taxi ride (with another pause for cow roadblock) and three dolmuşes to get from Lake Bafa to Selçuk. There's lots of budget accommodation in this town, and I choose to stay at the Australia New Zealand Guesthouse. After the solitude of Selene's, I'm pretty sure I won't be the only guest in a hostel. Directed to the massive basement dorm, I'm told "take any bed you want, they're all free." Indeed they are. Goldilocks-style, I tried out a couple before settling. The common areas are covered in pillows, carpets, and one bouncy kitten. The hostel owner also has a carpet shop, and one of the brothers who runs it offers to give me a tour of the town. We stop for a Turkish ice cream, which is called dondurma. It's heavy and dense, and the ice cream man scoops it out with a flat metal spoon that has a handle at least two and a half feet long. I get chocolate and vanilla, and he puts the flavors into four layers, then dips the top in chocolate. Munching our cones, Mehmet asks me to not mention it to anyone at the hostel, since he's supposed to be observing Ramadan. Aha, I'm just an excuse to get away from the hostel. But more than having the munchies, he really wants a cigarette.

Selçuk is a small and tidy. In Bodrum, everything felt crammed together and piled up, but here the city feels more open and spread out. There's an ancient aqueduct strung along the marketplace, abandoned storks' nests on top. The storks are all gone now, except for one recovering from a broken wing, who now hangs out in a vacant lot. No one is sure if it'll be able to fly again. It has a little cardboard house next to a nearby café, so I think it leads an okay life. The aqueduct runs toward the Basilica of Saint John, final resting place of Saint John the Evangelist. There are ruins of old Turkish baths, and the fourteenth century Isa Bey Mosque, displaying a number of Arabic tombstones in the courtyard. Mehmet points out a reappropriated stone in a stairway with some Greek letters in it.

In the marketplace we get some chicken doner for dinner (the sun still hasn't set). The cook dumps in two spoonfuls of chili to pep them up. My nose runneth over. Doner in Turkey is served on bread, not pitas. Fresh bread is everywhere here and a basket of bread is served at every meal. Stand on the street and look around, and someone will be toting a bread loaf.

A zippy chicken doner for 1.25 YTL is a good attraction for any town, but Selçuk's main draw is Ephesus. I pretty much reached peak saturation on ancient ruins sometime back in Greece, but made room in my brain for this. I really should have gone in the evening to escape the tour bus groups, but maybe the doner chili fried my brain a bit and I went mid-morning. Small tour groups are okay, but the big ones with full busloads of people wearing identical bright hats stir some blood lust in me. I don't object to having an educated guide, but rather to their manner. So often at these places a tour consists of over 40 people being led around by a guide who has no compunction about stepping into the way of everyone else, and parking it there while giving their extended spiels about ancient toilets and whatnot. I want to seize one of those long dondurma spoons and smack them all around. Ephesus is heaving with people, but my two favorites are a couple of older Indian ladies who are making gentle yet sardonic comments about the tourists and stray cats, and trying to make sense of what is what from their Lonely Planet guidebook (Ephesus is quite extensive). I kept bumping into them as I worked my way through, our last moment shared sitting across the the Temple of Hadrian, admiring the pediments. And waiting for a tour group to get out of the way.

The pièce de resistence is the facade of the Library of Celsus. You'd have to be the village idiot to not want to study here. The Library and the Temple of Hadrian are both on the back of the 20 lira note. Words can't do it justice, you'll just have to look at the pictures. Not mine, they aren't that great, and I didn't take too many of the Library. It came at the end of the three hours I spent there, and I decided to just sit in the shade and spend my time looking at it. Taking pictures of buildings is difficult in general, and taking pictures of ruined buildings is even harder. I've stopped trying so hard to get a good shot, since most of the monuments I'm seeing everywhere have already been photographed with cameras fancier than my digital point-n-shoot. Photo fatigue is also starting to set in. Anyway, more optical trickery is afoot here, the center columns being higher and wider than the ones on the side. Those wily ancients; I'm always fascinated by humanity's ability to solve perplexing problems, whether it's a matter of perspective or a matter of navigation in the middle of the ocean.

Walking the three kilometers back to town I meet an old codger who tries to sell me "Roman" coins that he's dug up from his tomato patch. He's holding an unlit cigarette and hacking up his one remaining lung that's able to draw air. First I humor his sales pitch, and then I tell him to quit smoking. A couple of kilometers later another guy is sitting on the side of the path with a cart full of fruit that he's handing out to passers-by, which is only me at the moment. He has a garden full of figs and melons, and just gives them away. I eat some fruit, listen to Turkish pop music, admire his garden, and decline his marriage proposal. At least, I think it was a marriage proposal. Whatever it was, I said no. Hayir. He doesn't seem terribly disappointed, and gives me a bag of fruit to take back to the guesthouse. When I get there, both the owner and kitten are fast asleep on separate couches. Siesta time. The days are still hot and sunny, but the nights are mercifully starting to be cool. Since I walk everywhere I'm still doing my fair share of sweating and feeling sticky, but at least it's no longer on a 24 hour basis.

I need food to prepare for the Ephesus Museum. Pide is Turkish pizza, elongated instead of round. I get a veggie pide and take it back to the guesthouse to eat in the comfort of the cushions. It's made to order, and is still warm and melty. I commit a complete faux pas asking the owner (now awake) if he wants any (he's Muslim). I didn't actually realize until the next day what I had done, and Harry hadn't seemed offended at all, but I still mentally banged my head on the table. As another hosteler put it, she was pretty sure she offended at least one person every day.

Speaking of food...Turkey has all sorts of sweets drenched in sticky syrup. I bought a tray of these little donuts fresh after being fried up. Straight from boiling oil to a a pot of syrup to my gullet.

And I took this surreptitiously at Ephesus. I've been looking high and low through Turkey to find another carton of this, but so far have had no luck. Must be a special brand:

The Ephesus Museum is quite small, the main draw being the two statues of Artemis. Ephesian Artemis isn't the same as Greek Artemis, and she has many of the same attributes as Cybele. I've only found a very basic explanation of why she is called Artemis; more of the proverbial research is needed. And all those bulges? Not breasts, as originally thought. No, current theory has them as testicles, either of the bulls sacrificed to her, or of her eunuch priests. Maybe she can be the new poster child for having your pet neutered, but obviously the eunuch theory is way more interesting. Either way, they weird me out a bit.

The Temple of Artemis is called the Artemision, and is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Massive. It has a bigger footprint than the Parthenon. Not much is left today except a foundation in need of a weedwacker, a flock of geese, and a couple of re-erected columns. The tall column is shorter than the original height, and the short one is barely there. The overall impression is kind of underwhelming. Given its Seven Wonders street cred, and proximity to the the major tourist draw of Ephesus, I would think that its presentation would warrant more attention. If you missed the rusty sign at the gate, you'd know you were walking through something from the days of yore, but probably never realize you were walking through major ancient history.

I spent my first night in the hostel dorm alone with one other person whose identity I never established. Something was breathing behind a sheet of fabric draped over the bunk bed. The third night has the place at least half full with travelers from all over the place and full of fun stories. Harry offers a nightly barbecue on the rooftop terrace, and most of us spend the evening sitting in the fresh air, eating good food, and talking until the nighttime chill drives us inside. It's a fairly international group, and topics range from cultural perceptions to how to dispose of a body (hypothetically). And travel. If someone is staying at a hostel, chances are likely that they love to travel. It's not everyone who can put up with funky bathroom doors that don't lock properly, deal with alarm clocks going off at all hours, wear the same pair of socks three days in a row, and still retain good humor. We may wish our laundry was clean, but we're not going to let it ruin our day or get in the way of exploring. Give me a band of whiffy happy hostelers over freshly bathed group tour group lemmings any day.

My original plan was to continue up the Aegean coast from Selçuk to Bergama/Pergamon and Assos, but my brain has now reached critical mass on ancient ruins. It won't absorb any more information involving anything with marble columns and pediments, so I decide to no longer chase Greek and Roman antiquities. Instead, I'm going to head east in favor of something even older, and way weirder.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

awkward eating

What did you eat for breakfast on the morning of September 19th? I bet what I ate was better.

I was the sole guest at Selene's Pension at Lake Bafa. I was hoping that didn't mean I would be the sole diner at their restaurant, but no such luck. It's starting to be low season. It's also Ramadan, and perhaps not as many Turks are traveling as would be otherwise. And Lake Bafa is a bit off the beaten path.

At the advice of Tariq, the manager of the Bodrum hostel, I phoned ahead for accommodation. I was thinking of finding something when I arrived, but Tariq wasn't sure a telephone would be easy to locate on arrival, which turned out to be a good call (no pun intended). Turkey has these little telecomm centers in addition to pay phones, which have regular home telephones hooked up to a meter. You make your calls, the attendant reads the meter and tells you what to pay. Handy dandy. No phone card needed, no scrounging for change to feed into a machine. I had inquired at the bus station earlier about the schedule, so returned to the same agent to get my ticket. "Bafa Lake or Bafa Town?" Umm... I found another call center and called the pension again. My call was only 50 kuruş, but I was trying to save the few coins I had for the dolmuş bus at the other end. Handing the call center attendant a ten lira note, he told me, "For you, no problem," and I got a free phone call.

Most travel in Turkey is done by bus, whether it's a couple of kilometers, or several hundred. Big buses, mid-sized buses, small buses, mini buses, and some scary buses are everywhere, all the time, and usually seem to outnumber cars. Dozens of different agents are competing for the traveler lira, and anyone approaching the rank of offices at an otogar (bus station) will be asked from all sides where they are going in an attempt to lure them in for a sale. Or big city names are called out. Izmir is a major destination on the Aegean coast, and invariably there was a tout at each bus station going, "Izmir, Izmir, Izmir. Izmir, Izmir, Izmir." The Bodrum bus station has a posted sign advising travelers to not let themselves be bullied into a ticket purchase.

Here's a pic I took of the agent offices at the Marmaris otogar.

And then there's the dolmuş. There's no equivalent in America. Dolmuşes are buses, sometimes just a big passenger van, that run along a route, usually from point A to point B, which is posted somewhere on the front. You can hail it anywhere along the way, and when you want to get off, you let the driver know. You pay your fee when exiting, ask another passenger to pass it up to the front for you, or an attendant will collect it on larger buses. It's a very efficient system for getting around, although a little challenging when you're a foreigner and not familiar with the routes and companies. When in doubt, just hail and ask the driver if he stops where you want to go. But like San Francisco's MUNI, if a dolmuş is full, the driver will just pass you by.

Long distance Turkish buses are always staffed with an attendant in addition to the driver. My guidebook tells me they are called muavin. The muavin will collect fares and inspect tickets, but more importantly hands out water, tea, soda, snacks, and will drizzle scented water on your hands so you can freshen up. All treats on a Turkish bus are free. The muavins are invariably wearing white shirts and ties, both standard neckties and bow ties. Well, at least they do if they are over eight years old. The eight year old was wearing a t-shirt, and was only slightly bigger than his two liter bottle of orange soda. Lots of orange Fanta in Turkey.

For all the beverages they hand out, Turkish buses mysteriously do not have toilets. To compensate, frequent stops are made. I don't know what you do in an emergency. I routinely refused drinks to avoid having to find out.

On the bus from Marmaris, right outside Bodrum, the driver pulled over to a jandarma post (a branch of the police; think gendarme). One boarded the bus, collected everyone's ID, including my passport, and took them outside for inspection. A few minutes later they were all returned and we were on our way. It seemed a routine thing, but I couldn't figure out why it was where it was. Seemed a random place, but maybe it's there because Bodrum is a port town, receiving both international and domestic ferries. The same thing happened on the way out, except my passport was handed back immediately after a cursory glance.

En route to Bafa, I had just accepted a cup of tea when we passed the city limit sign. We pulled over, and I was the only person who got out. Kind of in the middle of nowhere.

The muavin pointed me back in the direction from which we came, so I grabbed my gear and headed over. The pension is located 10 kilometers away along a different road, and the owner told me to catch either a dolmuş, or to call him again for help with a taxi. Evidently there's a taxi driver in town who will take me there for 10 YTL, And sure enough, there's was a guy waiting at the crossroads.

him: "Taxi?"
me: "Dolmuş?" (a dolmuş would be cheaper)
him: "No dolmuş."

Okay. WIth the aid of pen and paper he told me he'd take me to the lake for 10 YTL. He must be the guy, even though his taxi is a completely unmarked Murat 131 from the era of the cassette deck. There's even a cassette poking out of it, and who knows when it was last played. I completely missed a photo opportunity on the way in, when he had to stop for a cow who was wandering down the middle of the street.

My room at the pension was a cheery little bungalow with ridiculous sheets and a shower that didn't like to work in the mornings. The landscape is rugged and rocky, massive boulders piled up to form Mount Latmos. A really good hike would be completely around the lake, but that would be over 60 kilometers and take at least two days. The lake itself is ringed with coves, and in some of them the water has ceased to move, creating rather odoriferous areas where the ground feels like your walking on a sponge. In some other areas, the water is moving, and the ground is like a gigantic litter box, covered in small, dry, lightweight pebbles. I didn't spot any gigantic cats, but flamingos were in the water. Moving in for a closer look into one the stinky areas, both of my feet broke the spongy surface, right into sticky, black mud. Getting out involved splattering mud everywhere, and almost destroying one of my sandals. I cut my walk short just to go back to the pension and clean my feet.

The remains of a ancient town, Heracleia ad Latmos are scattered all around, even on islands in the middle of the lake. The modern town in its midst is Kapikirı. I say modern only because it is significantly younger than Heracleia. Most income seems be be derived from farming and handicrafts that the village women try to foist onto tourists (I resisted the temptation to pay them just to go away). Livestock hangs out on the street – horses, cows, donkeys, chickens. A young boy playing soccer on the street said hello to me, and before I knew it, he was off and leading me on a tour of the town. He brought his younger brother along, and they spent the entire time holding hands, except for when we had to hop over the rock walls. He always made sure his brother got over okay. I was left to fall on my face (but I didn't). He only spoke a few English words, and even though he got that I didn't speak Turkish, still bothered to offer explanations of what was what. He even drew something on the ground for me, but I didn't get what he was trying to say:

Practically at a running clip, we made our way through the back fields where there are the remains of a roman bath, a theater, and the city walls. He also pointed in the direction of the Temple of Athena and Agora on the other side of town. He showed me a stone fashioned into a pestle, and mimed crushing olives with another large rock. He dropped a small rock down a ground well to show me how deep it is. Popping back out onto the main street from the fields, they waved goodbye. I gave them each a lira.

There's also some stone tombs carved into rocks on the shore. The number of them visible at any time varies depending on the water level of the lake, which right now is low.

Selene's Pension is run by two sophisticated brothers, and I had an interesting conversation with the girlfriend of one, and German girl who works with primates. She used to work at an orangutan sanctuary in Indonesia, and had lots of interesting (and sad) stories from there and elsewhere in her studies. One good, and not sad, story involved an orangutan who couldn't figure out how to open up a grapefruit, went up to her, shoved the grapefruit in her lap, and made some grunting noises. She showed him how to break the skin with a stick, and a couple of days later he was self-sufficient in grapefruit consumption. To lead a happy life, everyone should be able to open grapefruit.

Other than dogs barking at me, and consuming elaborate Turkish breakfasts, it's pretty sleepy in Lake Bafa. A nice kind of sleepy, since the scenery is beautiful. But there are huge humming clouds of bugs, mostly non-biting, but that doesn't stop them from landing in any food served at the outside restaurant. I've been consistently mosquito-bitten throughout the Mediterranean, and I think a couple of other insects contributed as well to the assorted bumps. Thankfully they are mostly confined to below the knees and on my arms. I probably could have been more liberal with the bug repellent, but sometimes after I had a nice shower to clean up after a hot day, slathering repellent all over my clean body seemed wrong. I learned too late to just put on the chemicals. Despite the swarms, I almost stayed another day to enjoy wandering around the landscape some more, but part of my mind had already made the decision to leave. Also, being the only guest in a hotel and having the owner hang around to cook dinner just for you is a little awkward, no matter how good the food is. A call to the Murat 131-driving taxi driver, and I'm on my way out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

bodrum doldrums

The immigration officer at the port of Rhodes was not happy, not happy at all about the lack of entry stamps in my passport. Maybe he was having a bad day, but it was only 8:00 in the morning. "Where were you before Greece?" "Italy." "No stamps." That's right, no stamps. I try to explain my border experiences so far, but we're not having the greatest communication. I arrange my eyebrows into the universal Innocent Stupidity configuration. He glares at me, give me an exit stamp, and hands my passport back. He wasn't quite as bad as the US immigration agent I got earlier this year returning from Canada. First he heaved a sigh when I told him I was carrying some herbal flu remedies, and at the time was really about to fall over from a combination of a killer flu, the excessive weight of my rucksack, and the fact that I'd been standing in the customs line for close to an hour. Letting that transgression slide, he proceeded to give me grief about the picture quality in my passport. It really was terrible quality, so dark as to be almost unrecognizable, but I figured since the Passport Agency sent it to me, it was okay. I got a new passport before I left.

Two hours later the immigration agent at the port of Marmaris has no problems with my passport. I'm at the ready and holding a $20 bill for my Turkish visa (Canadians need to pay USD $60. Maybe as penance for not selling Airborne in their country). I give my two Turkish vocabulary words a test run, and seem to pass the pronunciation test. I'm greeted and welcomed in Turkish.

When I was a kid I always wanted foreign money. So much more neato than boring American greenbacks. The euro is a convenient thing when you are skipping through countries, but I'm going to miss all the different currencies that have now been burned, melted down, or otherwise gone the one-way road of old money. Turkey still has its own currency, and there's a moment of that childhood glee when the ATM feeds me a wad of YTL.

Marmaris is a resort town, and on a daily basis is full of at least one hydrofoil full of day-trippers from Rhodes. From what I've read and heard, there isn't anything here that makes me want to stay, so I catch a bus to Bodrum, 3.5 hours northwest on the Aegean coast. From what I've read and heard, there isn't anything that makes me want to stay in Bodrum, either. It's a disco resort town packed with party people and restaurants advertising British fare. There's a medieval castle (more Knights of Saint John), which now houses an underwater museum. Herodotus was born here. The remains of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus are here (I didn't go. More on ancient ruin fatigue later). No, my main interest in Bodrum is the Bodrum Backpackers hostel, which costs only 15 YTL a night for a dorm bed. My plan until now has been "get to Turkey," and now that I'm here, I need to spend a couple of days somewhere cheap to read through my guidebook and figure out a plan for the next couple of weeks.

Before leaving home I was convinced that I was through with hostels, but found out this isn't true. I'm still able to deal with dorm accommodation that offers minimal privacy, if no privacy at all. Shared bathrooms are fine if you don't look too close and have a pair of cheap plastic sandals. To date, I've found more wireless connections in hostels than the budget hotels I stay at. True, they can be full of the (usually) younger travelers who haven't yet got a grasp on how to behave responsibly in shared accommodation, but these are easily quieted with a pillow gently pressed over the nose and mouth while they are sleeping off their 40 ouncer. But more often than not there are also more mature, budget-minded globetrotters present, and they are usually willing to share their adventures and knowledge, frequently passing on good information not found in guidebooks. Anyone who plans out a vacation simply by doing what a book tells them is missing an awful lot.

Getting sleep at Bodrum Backpackers isn't guaranteed, since most of the rooms are directly above the attached British pub. Pop and rock music are blared alternately with football matches. We're served toasty cheese sandwiches with cucumber slices for breakfast, and as an example of how much of a party town this is, breakfast isn't served until 9:00 am. When I walk down to the pub on my first morning, the only person there is a Brit sporting a stripey mohawk and otherwise resembling an unrefrigerated bratwurst . I'm pretty sure he's the one I heard talking all night after the Pink Floyd died off. "So, where does one get coffee around here?" He gestures to the bar. "But don't ask me to make it."

So, not a lot to report from Bodrum. I took a break from reading to go to the castle. Learned that the seemingly nonsensical shape of amphorae (pointy bottom) allows them to be packed tightly in the hold of a ship, and is also a nifty third handle when pouring your newly imported wine or olive oil.

There was also some graffiti, supposedly left behind by knights with a lot of time on their hands. They must really have had nothing to do, since they had to chisel it into rock.

I was originally planning on spending three nights in Bodrum, but on the morning of my third day realize I've accomplished what I set out to do, and there isn't any reason to stay. Everyone is in my dorm room is leaving, and swept up by their momentum, I pack my bag, head to the bus station, and get a ticket to Lake Bafa.

posted from Gorëme, Cappadocia. I'm sitting on a little stool, across the street from a carpet shop, and drinking tea with a guy who is repairing carpets by hand.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Another night journey.

Mithynma to Rhodes is a long haul. First I had to catch a bus to the port at Mytilini Town. Then I was in the annoying yet inevitable position of having to kill time (~six hours) with my rucksack, since there didn't appear to be any sort of left luggage facility anywhere. Dealing with luggage is just a reality of travel, and it is what it is. I don't let it bother me. But I will never understand the people who travel with suitcases big enough to fit a body. The payoff of having however many changes of clothing or other luxury items can't be worth the hassle it is to manhandle those beasts up and down stairs, onto and off of transportation, and everywhere in between.

Mytilini Town has a couple of ruins - one castle and one ancient theater. I walked to both, and neither was worth the sweat involved when you have a rucksack. The theater, especially. Up a winding hill, getting there was starting to border on the absurd because at every turn there was another Ancient Theater sign with an arrow pointing the new way. I should have given up after the first five, but I've proven time and again to be too bloody-minded for my own good. It's lasted this long, so I don't think I'll be changing my ways. Returning to the city center, I stopped at the grocery store to get some ferry supplies (water, soda, pastry cake for next morning), ambled around the streets until I was too tired to do it anymore, then got some take out souvlaki in a pita and sat by the harbor to eat. I should have gotten two, because I was still hungry afterwards. Luckily there was another café near the port entrance, and I got a slice of spinach pie. Then I was too full.

My ferry sailed at 23:00. This one was better than the last. There was far less interior seating than the other vessel, but the arms on the seats raised up, allowing people to lay down across three seats. I initially gave the deck a go, but after a couple of hours it was too windy and cold, so I went inside, found three adjacent seats, and conked out. Woke up a few times during the night from the standard interruptions, but overall got some sound sleep. At 7:00 am I dragged myself into an upright position since sunlight was streaming into the cabin. We weren't arriving at Rhodes until late afternoon, so I had about nine hours to twiddle my thumbs. I started reading up on Turkey, since I'm going there next. Took a nap. Stared at the sea, hoping to see dolphins, but no sea life appeared. Sunburned my face. By the time we got to Rhodes between 16:00 and 17:00, I was plenty bored and ready to be off the boat. Rhodes is the last stop on that run, and only a handful of passengers were left at the end. The vessel had taken on a creepy, deserted feel. At one point I wondered if I was the only person left on board. Turned out everyone was sitting on the other side of the boat, cooking their skin in the sun, or else in the table seating area next to the smokestacks. I couldn't figure out why they were sitting there, because the boat exhaust smelled terrible.

Again, I arrived in town without a paper map. To avoid carrying guidebook paper weight, I scanned a bunch of guidebook sections before leaving, and do a map check the day before traveling, at least trying to commit basic town layout to memory. It's worked so far, mostly because all the towns I've been in have been fairly small. I found my hotel after only overshooting it by one street, and a minimal amount of zigzagging backwards.

It shouldn't do, but sitting for hours doing nothing on transportation always makes me tired. I usually take a walk to get my bearings, determine the lay of the land, and stretch my legs, but mostly after I've traveled, I want to sit around. And eat. More chicken gyros. Hey, they're cheap and fast, and include protein, veggies, and yogurt, and come in puffy pitas to fill you up. The only place I walked to my first night was Old Town, where I also spent a large part of the following day. Rhodes Old Town is the fourteenth century medieval fortress of the Knights of Saint John, and is so well preserved it kind of makes one think it was made just to be a knights-in-armour tourist attraction. It's even got a moat (dry), which serves in part as a community park. Appropriately, there are murders of hooded crows flapping around, in the moat and everywhere. I don't know if we have hooded crows in America, I've never seen them there. They are oh so pretty, all grey and black, and floating in the air. I could never get a good picture of one because they were just a bit out of range for my little camera. I'm quite fond of all the Corvidae family birds, since they manage to pull of being obnoxious and clever at the same time.

Old Town has several medieval attractions, but the two main museums are the Palace of the Grand Masters, and the Archeological Museum, both jam-packed with medieval, and older, artifacts. Lots of stone coats-of-arms. Stone altars from graves, many of which are decorated with the heads of oxen around them. Asking one of the docents about these, she explained that since an ox was the ultimate sacrifice someone could make, the frequently decorated altars. And...cheese graters from the 8th to 7th century BC. Seeing them from across the room, I though, "Whoa, those look like cheese graters. Naahhhh..." You can clearly see that the cheese grater design has changed little in over two millennia, having achieved almost perfect functional form from the beginning.

To be sure, these places are full of interesting things, but I sorta like the building themselves even more. I'm no expert in medieval architecture, or any architecture, but I'm guessing the building of this fortress were designed to be sturdy and utilitarian above all. No sense looking nice if it doesn't keep the enemy at bay. Yet for all their perfect function, and walls of stone so rough that even looking at it too closely will take skin off your eyeballs, I thought they were really beautiful and elegant, with their arched doorways and windows, and vaulted or timbered ceilings. Many of the windows had nifty window seats on each side, but they only worked well if the windows were closed, since all the shutters opened inward.

I also went to the Ottoman Library, which is housed in a perfectly proportioned little building. The building turned out to be more noteworthy than the collection; I was hoping to see Arabic calligraphy, which is there, just not many originals. There's lots of displays of scans which are showing their age. Since it's free I can't complain. The perfect building is surrounded by a similarly perfect little terrace garden with small trees, and each of the trees had ram horns tucked into the branches.

I spent the next couple of day commuting by bus to two archeological sites on opposite coasts, Lindos and Ancient Kamiros. The ruins at Kamiros are more extensive, remains of houses and temples covering a hillside that felt like an oven on the day that I visited, but the Lindos acropolis is perched above the town atop a cliff. It's easy to walk up to the ruins, but a lot of people go by donkey. You need to be careful on some of the narrow streets, because passenger-less donkeys are heading back down at brisk trot. They won't barrel straight into you, but they are a bit wide in the middle, and their saddles make them even wider. Visitors to the acropolis are responsible for their own safety, which is the way it should be; the bastions are not fenced off, so you can take a flying walk right through them and off the cliff if you like. Parents are encouraged to hold hands with their children. Or, not.

Like many tourist-centric towns, including Rhodes, Lindos has the tourist trap/souvenir shop area, and a residential area. Other than meandering through the residential streets, I don't generally find a whole lot in these towns to keep my attention. One thing that did catch my eye and ear was a British family who were all royally pissed off at each other and having possibly the absolute worst time any family on holiday could have. They were enjoying neither their day nor each other's company. It isn't the first time I've seen a family on the edge of combustion, and it's always a bit painful to see. One the other hand, it makes me feel smug and relieved that I'm not part of such a unit. Holidays should be a time of enjoyment, not a time to gnaw on the bleeding esophagus of your significant other. Maybe if they plummeted through the acropolis bastions they'd have a better time.

Since Rhodes Town is so small, I made a point to walk to the entrance of the small harbor, reputed site of the Colossus of Rhodes. It seems pretty well accepted that the Colossus existed, but there is no definitive documentaton about its exact location or form. Reputedly 32 meters tall and fashioned of bronze, the statue of Helios is frequently depicted straddling the entrance to Mandhraki Harbor. Inspiring imagery, but technically questionable, if not totally impossible. In any case, it hasn't been there since an earthquake toppled it around 225, and the Saracens sold it for scrap in 654. The only thing there now are two pillars with deer on top. I don't know why deer.

If you go to Rhodes, there's a tiny scruffy café across the street from the east coast bus station that you should find. It has a chained up cooler on the sidewalk outside, two granite machines, a stack of fresh oranges, and no pretensions. It's run by an equally scruffy, chain-smoking guy sporting a shock of grey hair. There were never that many people sitting there, and those that were seemed to be locals. Initially lured in by a sign advertising €1.50 lattes, I ended up there once a day afterwards, to get coffee, sit at one of the shabby tables outside, and write in my journal. On my last day there, needing to write a lot, I got two coffees, and according to posted prices should have owed the owner €2.80. Handing him two €2 coins, he teased only one of them out of my fingers and gave me a wink. I was wondering if he was going to be offended when I didn't show up the next day, but imagined he would figure out that I had moved on.

On my last day in Greece, I:

° visited some ruins (Ancient Kamiros)
° had a Greek coffee in a café
° admired indigenous fauna (hooded crows, stray cats)
° ate gyros and drank sour cherry juice
° swam in the Aegean Sea

I'm going to miss the Aegean Sea. It's so warm and clear and pretty, and sometimes there are little fish swimming around in the surf with you. You can only tell they are there from their shadows.

By the end of my days in Greece, I can mostly grind my way through words written in Greek. I know almost all of the capitals, and about half of the miniscules. I recognize phi because it's in καφές, which is the third most important phrase to learn in any language. The second most important is how to greet someone, and the first is how to thank someone. It's the easiest thing in the world to do, and for some reason loads of travelers don't bother. Or worse, it hasn't even occurred to them to bother. In Budapest a few years ago, I got a really bright smile from a ticket seller when I thanked her in Hungarian, which really was the only word I knew, Hungarian being kind of a difficult language. I couldn't even figure out how to pronounce words properly by looking at them on paper, so I just eavesdropped on a conversation until I heard it. Loads of people in Greece speak English, especially in the tourist industry, and I suppose this gives many people reason enough to not bother with pleasantries. But similar to my experience in Budapest, I've had several moments here where someone seemed to appreciate the fact that I had at least learned how to say thank you, and frequently I was answered in Greek. I didn't see this happening with people who just started right in with English. I'd really like to learn Greek, since so much of the English language is rooted in it. When I'm President of the United States, all schoolchildren will learn Greek and Latin.

To thank someone in Turkish, you say "Teşekkür ederim."

Friday, September 14, 2007


Only a blind fool would pass up this tantalizing opportunity:

My shining steed, Poppy:

Poppy was clearly the brains of the bunch, shoving past other donkeys who didn't quite know the way when it came to crossroads, and heading down trails with confidence. As soon as my ass hit the (side)saddle, she was on the trot. She had a distinct preference for being on the outside of the donkey pack; if I ever guided her inside to let automobile traffic pass on the left, she would immediately cut out as soon as tension was off the rope. But I figured she knew what she was doing more than I did, and let her do her thing. At walking pace, donkeys don't actually go a whole lot faster than humans. But their noses are way softer. Like, chinchilla soft.

I took an overnight ferry from the Athens port Piraeus to the island of Mytilene, aka Lesvos. If I need to do a long haul over distance, I prefer to do it at night - I save on accommodation, and don't waste daytime hours sitting on transportation (at least, not all of the time). I paid a couple euro extra to get an assigned airline-style seat inside, instead of out on the deck, and I'm pretty sure the people I saw crashed out on the upper deck in sleeping bags got better sleep than I did inside. Like trains, the vessels are stopping at various ports during the wee hours, loudspeaker announcements are made, and a whole bunch of people grab their gear and head out. More people head in. All the inside seating was in one massive room, and the lights and television were on all night. I basically took a series of naps propped up against my rucksack, and didn't feel too wasted the next day. Had I still had my sleeping bag I may have gone out to the deck, but I sent it back to England along with my tent. Camping is no longer an option, but my rucksack is somewhat lighter, and a lot smaller. If only this laptop weighed half as much. It's by far the heaviest single thing I'm carrying.

I'm a little anxious about landing on Mytilene. Athens marked the end of all my planned travel. I had hotel reservations all through Italy and into Athens, but nothing after that. No accommodation lined up, but no schedule to keep either, except for what whimsy tells me. After reading my guidebook material, I decided to just show up and find something on arrival. The island port is in the town of Mytilene on the east coat, but I want to get to Mithynma, up at the top. Conveniently, the vessel docks at 7:30 am, leaving me plenty of time to figure stuff out. Since I have no map of the town, I just start walking in the general direction I think the long distance bus station is. The main street leading from the harbor is lined with travel agents, and I snag a town map from one of them. Within a half-hour I find the bus station almost by accident - looked down a promising street and hey, there's a bus. I have 45 minutes until departure, and kill time at a grocery store. I need toothpaste.

I don't get a chance to test out my accommodation-finding skills in Mithynma, since a member of the local tourist board meets the bus and asks if I need a place to stay. We go back to the tourist office, she asks me what I'm looking for (safe, clean, cheap), and one phone call later I'm set in a €20 a night pension, The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes, named after a book by a Mytilenean author. I get a sparkling clean room with two single beds, a private bathroom, and a little balcony that looks over a garden. The first thing I do is take a nap. The second thing I do is go get coffee.

Mithynma is a cute, picturesque village with steep hills, lots of steps, and shady streets.

Built up on a hill, topped with a little crumbling castle, many of the restaurants have balconies that look over the sea. I don't think I've written about cheese in a while, since I've been snarfing gyros,

but I did eat a lot of cheese here, including grilled oil cheese, a pile of mini cheese pie pastries, and of course, feta in a Greek salad. They don't bother crumbling it up here. You just get a big slab of it on top of your veggies.

I also tried some ouzo here. Umm, not so tasty. When diluted with water, it goes from clear to opaque, but doesn't improve the flavor at all.

A few kilometers away is a town called Petra, and at a restaurant there I saw some informal Greek dancing, just to music being played over the stereo system. An old man who looked like he had only a single tooth in his head, and could barely lift his feet got up and shuffled around, and he looked so happy. He was clearly pleased that everyone was enjoying his performance, but I kind of think he would have been just as joyful had no one been there, and it had just been him, dancing away to awesome Greek music, even if the dance steps were only in his head and not really in his feet anymore.

I think Mithynma is the smallest village I've been in so far. Other than donkey trekking, conventional strolling and eating, there isn't a whole lot else to do here but go to the pebbly beach. Being a mid-sized city girl, I frequently find myself walking in circles when I get to places like this; because I keep looking for something new, something that I missed, or because I still haven't quite adapted to slow life, at least, not when I'm on my own. Perhaps it's not for me, but that's okay. Others wouldn't want it any other way; at least a couple of people I met here were born here, are still here, and don't seem likely to leave, except to go on holidays. They work seasonal jobs because few jobs are year-round. The young guy who runs the pension has four months of doing nothing after he closes in the fall. Admitting he gets a little bored, he told me about working with his brother in Athens for a bit, but doesn't care for the Athenian sprawl or traffic. Many of the people who vacation here do so for weeks, instead of the days that I spent, and return every year. I think all the other guests in the pension were on some two-week yoga holiday. No one is in any rush to get anything done. Shopkeepers sit in their doorways chatting with the shopkeep next door or across the street. There's no line at the post office, but it also closes for the day at 2:00 pm. I did manage to get some writing done, and considered staying a couple extra days, but also felt a little tug to move on. Rest will come later when I'm tired, but not now.


Don't they check passports at borders anymore? I breezed straight out of the Athens airport without anyone giving a damn who I was, what I was doing in Greece, or if the luggage I had grabbed from the carousel was even mine. So far I have one stamp in my passport, from London. Where, by the way, I got totally, yet politely, grilled by an immigration officer. Why are you traveling, for how long, where are you staying, how do you know the person you're staying with, is she British or American, please show me your ticket to Rome, will you be coming back to Britain, and, since I wrote Coordinator as my profession, what do you coordinate? Nerds. I coordinate nerds.

Arriving in Athens in the early evening, I didn't do any street excursions, except to find food - a gyros and sour cherry soda, which could have been way more sour to suit my tastes. My hotel has wireless in the lounge, so I park myself there for a couple of hours, updating Italy blogs. By now I'm sure you've noticed that my postings are a couple of weeks behind. I'm a slow writer and can only post as wireless is available. It'll all be there eventually, but in all likelihood, long after I've left. I'm staying at the same hotel that Ling stayed at when she was here. The Acropolis is still there, in plain view from the rooftop bar, all lit up at night and looking majestic. I'm not much of a drinker, being able to count the drinks I have during one year on one hand, usually on one finger, but I can't pass up the chance to have a gin fizz, just because I like the way it sounds. The last time I had a drink was at San Francisco's Absinthe, and the main reason I ordered it was because it was called a Ginger Rogers. Total girly drink, and I couldn't even finish it. My friend Xandy is clearly more of girl than I because she was able to finish it off, as well as her own. I managed to finish this one, though.

I'm not staying in Athens for long, so the next day I lace up my shoes tight, apply sunscreen, and head out to take in as much antiquity as I possibly can. Athens is another sprawling city, but all the ancient sites I went to are within walking distance from one another. I'm saving the Acropolis for the evening, so I first head to the Ancient Agora. Snuffling deeply in case any of Socrates' cells are still floating around, I prowl the grounds. It's not quite as hot here as Italy was, but it's super sunny. The ancient outdoor sites can be slightly jarring, because they are staffed by people wearing whistles to get the attention of anyone who is touching or walking on something they shouldn't be; unfortunately it gets the attention of everyone else in the area, who immediately think they're the ones doing something wrong. If there's one thing here that I need to see, it's the Temple of Hephaestus, god of the forge. I haven't forged anything in several years, but if welding existed back then, he'd probably be the god of that as well.

The Stoa of Attalos is restored, and if you can say one thing about the ancient Greeks, it's that they really knew how to make a long, tidy building. Classical, in every sense of the word. I really like lettering and letter forms, so anything that has inscriptions will also catch my attention, and lots of antiquities have inscribed writing. I think this contributes greatly to their being able to withstand time and the ages. I can read something written more than two millennia ago, clear as day, but I can't read something written twenty years ago on software and hardware now outdated. Modern society produces a profusion of documentation and information, yet so much of it is fleeting in the digital aether. I don't think modernity will have the same lasting power as the ancient civilizations, and perhaps it's better that a lot of what we do is forgotten. But I digress. This would have been a good debate for the stoa!

One of the things I like about Europe is that it's old, and the old stuff is still around. America is young, monumentally speaking. We don't have too much that goes back more than a few centuries, and I imagine most of that is in the northeast. In Europe, the old is right there next to the new, and it imbues the place with a sense of history that I find lacking in America. Or maybe I don't notice it because I live there. By the way, did you know that Oakland has lots of really cool art deco buildings? I only found that out when I started doing some research on art deco, and noticed the books had tons of pics from Oakland. Worth seeking them out if you like the style. It might be more evident if downtown Oakland weren't so neglected. Oops, I digress again.

Taking a break from the ancient, I walk to Parliament to see the evzones guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The evzones are the guards who wear the berets, pleated kilts (is that redundant? aren't all kilts pleated?), and funny pompom shoes. Two are in front, and spend their guard hour tracing out a path around the patio with rather complex choreography - slow, high steps, ankle kicks, about faces, arms lifts, all the while maintaining an inscrutable face. I need to research this a bit, because it seems the furthest thing from practical. More ritual. Not that the Buckingham Palace guard baking their brains in bear hats seems more practical, but at least they are presumably watching out for things from under those low furry brims. The evzones had pauses in their beat, but during the short time that I watched, and they didn't seem to repeat any of their steps, so I'm not sure how long the cycle lasts. No idea how they remember what to do. I tried to catch the changing of the guard the next day, but arrived a bit too late and only saw the new guard assume their position, and get their kit straightened out by a modern-dress guard (whose job is was to shoo spectators off the steps).

Parliament is near the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian's Gate. Not much remains of the Temple, but what does is towering. Given how little still stands, it's a wonder that the columns are still upright. One did topple in the 19th century, and still manages to look distinguished, lying in pieces on the ground.

Hadrian's Gate could do with a scrubbing. It's caked with the infamous Athenian pollution, which is obscuring interesting inscriptions on each side, one of which reads, "This is Athens, ancient city of Theseus," and the other reads, "This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus." You can only just make out that some words are there, but I'm not even sure that a Greek reader could tell you what they said. The gate is mere meters from the street, so the only way to get a full view of one side, without craning your neck up, is to cross the street; and then it's not much of a view. It's odd to see how some monuments are protected to a greater degree than others. I'm sure funding and staffing plays some role in that, but it's too bad to see some things neglected and left to endure millions of cars spewing exhaust driving by, where others don't even endure the soft touch of a tourist who maybe just want to lay a innocent hand on something so historic. Nope, the antiquity guard will blow a whistle on you. Inconsistently, there's a fence around the Gate, so pollution can touch it, but you can't.

It's late afternoon, and time to see the Acropolis. I'm coming up the south slope, which is full of interesting things, most of which I'm not taking in because my brain is full, and I'm a little bit tired. It's still sunny out. But there is a theater, and I'll always stop to look at a theater. Backstage at modern theaters, with the trap doors, catwalks, flys, and velvety curtains will always be one of my favorite places to be. This theater has none of those things, but does have really beautiful seats carved from marble. Even modern theater seating is rarely this refined.

Walking through the Propylaia and seeing the Parthenon for the first time is a pretty gulp-worthy moment. Sure you've seen pictures of it, but nothing really prepares you for how immense it is. Even as an exploded and pillaged ruin it makes your eyes twirl a bit. It would have been fearsome back in the day. It's being restored very slowly (a good thing), but as a result is covered in scaffolding (a bad thing). It's difficult to take any picture that doesn't capture something of the restoration work surrounding it. It's also obscuring any good look at the architecture of the columns, which involves some nifty tricks that deceive the human eye into thinking that all the columns are identical and placed exactly straight up and down. They aren't.

I don't care at all for most of the religions practiced today, especially the monotheistic ones, but the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods has always appealed to me. And I especially like Athena. Clever, strong, independent, gave her dad at least one massive headache. Not only goddess of wisdom and warfare (I'm not so into the warfare), but also of craft. Has a pet owl. I probably would have worshipped her if I lived in ancient Greece. She did have the best temple, after all.

I spend a couple hours at the Acropolis, some of just sitting on a bench and looking. There's a few other things up here. Marble and stone strewn around everywhere. The Erechtheion, with its pretty lady pillars. Tourists. Dogs napping, as they do everywhere in the Mediterranean (only big dogs, though; no small dogs. Umm). This dog was handsome and friendly, left a puddle of drool on the pavement where he was napping, and his left eye was milky blue blind. And he gave me a great photo opportunity.

I've seen enough grand antiquity for one day. I'm hot and covered in dust. On the way back down I sit on Mars Hill to rest and scribble some notes in my journal. A family of three asks me to take a picture of them. I get asked to photograph people a lot, from singles to families, and many of them are still using film cameras. This family doesn't speak much English, so I make a gesture to see if they want me to include the Acropolis in the background, and they nod. I move them a little out of center to accommodate the Acropolis. I always wonder in these cases if whomever it is gets home, gets their film developed, and totally hates the picture I've taken of them. If anyone is using a digital camera, I always ask them to check and make sure they like what I've done.

Since I'm on my own again, I'm back to eating fast and cheap. Gyros are everywhere here, and with another bottle of sour cherry soda, make a good dinner for blogging.

I know I asked for chicken, but there's a slight chance that those weren't actually chicken, and were in fact something else that hasn't been in my diet for years. I ate them anyway. Experiencing global travel isn't the time to be self-righteous about one's voluntary dietary restrictions. I'm sure I'll draw some line at some point, but this wasn't one of those times. Trying new things is one of the joys of travel, and I don't have enough convictions anymore to say no to something based on ethics alone. At least, most of the time. I won't be eating any endangered or baby animals.

The next day I go to the Archeological Museum. The Archeological Museum contains every object that could possibly come to mind when thinking of ancient Greece. Red figure vases, helmets with cheek and nose guards, coins, swords and chariot bits, marbles and bronzes, amphorae, jewelry, and the Antikythera Mechanism, the ancient computer that was fished out of the ocean early last century. For being over 2000 years old, and having spent however long underwater, I suppose it's in pretty good shape, but not at first glance. Inconceivably, people have managed to reconstruct this, although I think its true function is still a matter of some debate.

I'm not sure if it was the sunniness of the day or the overload of information, but I'm having a lot of trouble staying awake in the museum. I keep sitting on benches and wondering if anyone would notice if I take a short nap. Fortunately I find the cafe, and get a Greek coffee. Greek coffee is entirely unlike an Italian cappuccino. It's served black in a tiny cup, but in a volume somewhat greater than a standard espresso shot. It has grounds in it, which makes it sludgy at the bottom. Sugar is added while it is being made, not after. One of the first times I ordered one I was asked, "Medium?" Ummm...I just nodded. She was asking if I wanted sugar. I think you're supposed to down it all in one shot, but I always downed mine in three or four big sips. Maybe if you do it all at once the grounds don't have time to settle at the bottom, but they arrive fairly scalding hot. Coffee in the Mediterranean is also frequently served with a glass of water, which is a good and proper thing. If you order a second cup of coffee, you'll get a new glass of water, even if you haven't finished the first. In Greece, you may even get ice. I don't think any ice existed in Italy, although it sure could have used it.

The one thing I missed taking pictures of in Athens was a crazy fish and meat market near my hotel. The first time I went through I was too scared to whip out my camera in case one of the butchers took offense and came after me with a cleaver. They use enormous trapezoidal cleavers, which mimic the shape of japanese saws; except they are a lot bigger, a lot heavier, and made for hacking instead of sawing. And when I decided to go back and chance it, my battery had run out. Curses for taking all those pictures the previous day of classical antiquity. The meat section had all sorts of internal organs that I couldn't identify, and a skinned cow's head. I'm pretty sure the eyeballs were still in it. When I cruised through a second time the cow's head was gone, and had been replaced with part of a pig's head, one ear still attached. Kinda made me want to eat a salad.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

words and pictures

I started posting pictures to the gallery. Thanks Mike W. for hosting. Most snails can move faster than my uploading speed, and I can only do it as I get wifi access, which hasn't been very often. So it'll be updated sporadically in little snack-sized chunks.

And thanks to everyone who's been writing to me. I'm sorry I can't always respond right away, but rest assured I greedily read everything you write. Postcards forthcoming at some point in the next few months!

how to get a train ticket refund in sicily in less than 20 steps

1. Arrive at train station in good time to catch train from Messina to Palermo.
2. Notice that said train is leaving 40 minutes late. Decide that you can live with that.
3. Purchase ticket from ticket machine. Friend puchases ticket from human at ticket window, since the other ticket machine is not behaving.
4. Tickets in hand, notice that said train is now leaving two hours late. Decide you can't live with that.
5. Inquire at bus station across the parking lot if a bus is running to Palermo in the next couple of hours. Yes, there is. The ticket is a little more expensive, but it gets there faster. You want to do this.
6. Return to ticket line to get a refund for train tickets.
7. Approach window, and ask ticket seller (in Italian) if he speaks English. He says yes.
8. Ask for a refund. Ticket seller starts answering in Italian. Act very confused, mostly because you are very confused.
9. A few "non capiscos" later, go to information office, next to ticket windows.
10. Slowly approach female information officer who looks like she's been doing her job for 40 years, and has only successfully informed a handful of people.
11. Explain late train situation, and ask for a refund.
12. Information Lady takes each ticket, and lays them on desk in front of her. Slowly opens desk drawer to reveal a box of rubber stamps, but no ink. Very methodically, seeks out three separate stamps, and stamps each ticket. Carefully checks date on date stamp. Adds a scribble to one of them.
13. Return to ticket queue with stamped tickets. Neglect to take a photo of stamped ticket.
14. Approach ticket seller (same one) again. He's much happier this time now that tickets are officially stamped, even though no one can't read them all that well, since there wasn't any ink. Passport requested.
15. Two friends present two passports - one American, one British. The American one is accepted. The British one is declined.
16. Ticket seller enters much information into computer terminal in front of him. American friend is obliged to sign a slip of paper. Twice.
17. Cash drawer is opened, and finally refund is offered, for both tickets.
18. Ticket seller, all smiles, hands back passport. "New York?" Ah, he thinks I'm a New Yorker. Born there, don't live there. Tell him that in English, but don't think he gets it.
19. Go get cappuccinos to recover from ordeal, and have a laugh.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

sticky fingers in sicily


Sarah is in Messina for a conference, so I'm going down to meet her and see a bit of Sicily together. I catch an overnight train from Venice, boarding at 7:03 pm and disembarking at 11:00 am. I had an whole couchette car to myself the entire trip. The conductor and I established fairly early on that we didn't speak each other's language, so except for dropping off an overnight kit for me (paper slippers, sleep sheet, pillow, single serving of water, all delivered one by one) he leaves me alone. Until some point in the evening when he walks in, and speaking in Italian, demonstrates how to pull out the lower bunk. "Buona notte." He was rather nice, and had a snappy cap. I kinda wanted to try it on. At the port of San Giovanni, the train rolls onto a ferry, and rolls off the other end straight into the Messina Centrale station. According to the paper that is delivered to my cabin, I'm due for some torrid weather, but it doesn't seem unbearable when I get off the train. Tucson, AZ in the summer was way worse.

I have no map of the city, and no idea where my hotel is. Thankfully, tourist offices generally exist for people like me, and the tourist office in Messina is right by the train station. When I walk in there are about six people behind the desk, and after establishing that I don't speak German, they have a funny little conference to decide who gets to deal with me. Most of the Italian I know comes from listening to opera, most which doesn't do a whole lot of good when arriving in a new town, although it is how I know the word for "where", which has come in handy a few times. The woman who helps me knows plenty English, and gets me going in the right direction.

The concierge at the Jolly Hotel is clearly enamored with American pop culture. At the presentation of my passport he sings a few bars of "Born in the USA", and when I ask him about wireless, he points out the double antennae. "Like Batman." Yes, I suppose it does loosely resemble Batman. I should have asked where Robin was.

sea critters

Seafood is a main staple in Sicily, and Sarah and I do our fair share of sampling local cuisine. Normally I don't eat a lot of seafood; it's mostly in protest of the fishing industry trashing the ocean floor, scooping up marine life it doesn't want and then chucking it out of the boat (dead), and generally screwing up the marine ecosystem. But sampling local flavors is part of the whole travel experience, so this time I'm overlooking my morals and tucking in. Also, I figure seafood here has a fairly good chance of having come off a small, local boat instead of a commercial trawler.

I ate one of those tentacles. Sort of crunchy and chewy at the same time. But even better was the plate of fried olives I ordered, not really knowing exactly what a fried olive was. I got a plate of what amounted to olive fritters. If I ever see them on a menu again, I'll be ordering them. They were so damn good. Eating right when traveling and being almost constantly on the move can be hard. It's easy to keep a bag of nuts or an apple in my bag for snacking, and to keep hunger pangs at bay, but for the most part, I buy food and eat it right then. A lot of my diet until Sicily had been made up of mozzarella and tomato sandwiches (tasty, cheap), so I can do with a dose of protein.

Something else I tried here was Chino soda; spicy, bitter and not too sweet. I still haven't figured out what flavor chinotto is, but I didn't turn into any sort of cat, either cute or ferocious, after drinking one.

I didn't actually see a whole lot of Messina, since I was there for just under 24 hours. After a brief excursion to find a cappuccino and some fruit (leaving the fruitstand with four peaches. I'm pretty sure I only asked for two. My pronunciation must be truly terrible), I spent the afternoon of my arrival taking a nap, and strolled around only a little in the evening. Evening is really the time to enjoy the Mediterranean. I didn't really figure it out for a couple of weeks, since I always wanted to run out first thing to do stuff. But the evenings are cooler, and since a lot of people are heading to restaurants, walking the sidewalks can be a little more mellow. Mediterranean cities pep up at night. The map the tourist office gave me was actually quite a good one, and pointed out a lot of pretty, historical buildings that would have been worth a look if I had hung around longer. The next morning we left early by bus, to Taormina, just down the coast.


Greta Garbo and Winston Churchill both stayed in Taormina, so we figure we should stay there as well. It's one dinky town, so dinky that I managed to find our hotel simply by walking around (the tourist office was closed when we arrived). It's dominated by a major shopping/perambulating thoroughfare, which is dominated by two churches and a cathedral, which on a Saturday are dominated by couples getting married. At least four couples tied the knotty knot in Taormina that day, and provided photo ops for the hundreds of vacationers who were clogging the town. Why someone on vacation would want to take pictures of a wedding couple they don't know, I can't fathom, yet a whole bunch of them were waiting outside the church, cameras in hand, waiting for the bride to appear. The only reason we were there is because one of the churches is across the street from a library housed in a medieval building that we really wanted to check out. Unfortunately, it was closed. Maybe the librarian was getting hitched.

Indulging in midday refreshments is essential here, so we plop ourselves at a cafe. Our waiter, an older gentleman with very well-toned arms and sporting closely cut grey hair that's almost white, is a master at the art of indifference. He's moving through the tables with slow ease, wearing a little smile that suggests that he knows something you don't, taking orders with the absolute minimal amount of conversation that any waiter can manage, and afterwards has a tendency to linger next to the table for slightly too long, causing us to wonder if we've committed some potational faux-pas. He doesn't seem in any hurry to do anything, but maybe that's the way it should be. If you sit down in an Italian cafe, you shouldn't plan on being anywhere soon. That's what drinking at the bar is for.

Other fun facts about Taormina - incomplete translations, for one:

And a dog sleeping on a windowsill. I've seen lots of cats in windowsills, but this is the first dog I've seen that was crashed out on one. His name was Rocky, and he really couldn't have cared less that we were standing there, thinking he was cute:

In Taormina we ate at Il Ciclope, where I got a plate of mixed grilled fish. Included in that was the entire back half of a fish. I think the front half was in Sarah's bowl of fish soup. Also two shrimp, eyes and legs still present. The place was staffed almost entirely by cheerful old gentleman. If you go to Taormina, consider eating a meal at Il Ciclope, and get the truffle gelato for dessert.


The craters of Mount Etna are swathed in mist and clouds, and positively chilly. Just standing there doesn't indicate that this is still an active volcano, but all you need to do is scuff up an inch or so of the top rocks with your shoe, and you can grab a handful of toasty stones to warm your hands. Something is going on down there. The forge of Hephaestus is busy. Heading up to the crater, we didn't really expect any action, but, kaboom! the earth was barfing out smoke and chunks of rock. Unfortunately, it was all shaking at a crater further away from where we were, so there was no danger of getting pegged by a hunk of lava rock and taking home a few volcanic souvenir stitches. Hoping to inspire more thrilling geologic action, we looked around for a toddler to feed into the crater we were standing at, but all the ones we spotted seemed well guarded. We should have just waited. Mount Etna erupted two days later, and we missed it. Rats!

To get to the craters, you first need to take a cable car, and then a volcanic flow-proof Mercedes Benz minibus will lurch you the rest of the way. I think I caught some air going over a bump.

We're led around one of the craters by a rugged guide wearing the latest alpine fashion. It's a monochrome world up there. The ground is black, and the smoke and mist are white. Standing on top of a volcano is pretty cool, but after a bit, there really isn't a whole lot to see. After our guide leads us around the crater, feeding us fun facts in Italian that we don't understand, we didn't linger too long at the top.

But someone has to do something with all that volcanic rock, and the the souvenir shops of Sicily are stuffed with figures fashioned from lava, and dressed up with a little glitter. And the most common figures? Jesus and Mary of course. And, Mussolini. Or, a face that is supposed to be Mussolini. None of them really look like him, but there's no doubt who it's supposed to be. I snapped this outside a shop in Taormina, and have no idea why my camera chose to focus on the Blessed Virgin instead of the Dictator. Divine intervention, I suppose. Or else she was just in the focus frame.

petty thievery

I've seen lots of Annunciation paintings in my many museum visits here, and having no religious education whatsoever, was curious why the Virgin Mary is always depicted reading a book. No better person to hit up for info than Sarah, the lapsed Catholic who holds a degree in theology. Annunciation paintings abound, but her favorite is Antonello da Messina's Annunciata. This painting features Mary alone; Gabriel presumably somewhere out of frame. Normally housed at a museum in Palermo, it was recently in Taormina for an exhibit. I ask Sarah why this painting appeals to her, and she said that Mary has a really lovely face. I think she does, too. You can judge for yourself, because we nicked a poster of the exhibit.

The exhibition was over, so really, we did a public service by removing outdated information. But it wasn't all that easy. The decision to liberate it from the display case for a second, happier life on the wall of Sarah's flat was cake, but the display case was in a really public area, pretty much the most public any area in a town can be. Our decision to pursue careers as petty criminals made in the afternoon, we cruised by after dinner one night, but there was still way to much going on. Our last chance was the next morning, on the way out. Emerging into the square shortly after 8:00am, the first thing we see are three members of the carabinieri, one branch of law enforcement, who are just standing around chatting. Hmm. Also, the display case is directly next to a taxi rank, which at that hour is totally full, and since we're carrying our rucksacks, the drivers think we want a cab. Waving them off, we wait for the carabinieri to stroll away, then get busy (a) opening the case, hoping the cabbies are too busy smoking to notice what we're doing, and (b) looking like we're busy doing other things (taking photos, sniffing an orange). It's a double-sided case, standing in the middle of a planter, so all we need to do is loosen the two bottom nuts and slide it out. Except, it's taped up inside. My Swiss Army knife finally makes itself useful, and cuts through sticky tape goo. Poster in hand, we scurry off to the bus station. I only regret that I didn't put my map of the town in its place, to help future travelers like us, who show up in town without a map when the tourist office is closed. It was kind of a thrill.

And in case you're wondering, the reason Mary is always reading is Logos. You can look it up.

pussycat horrors

Like Venice, much of Palermo are dilapidated, but you can still discern an antiquated elegance beneath the decay and dirt. But unlike Venice, it's not because of the natural elements; more because someone just forgot about part of the city. The life of Venice's crumbling exteriors is no doubt somewhat prolonged by lack of car exhaust, but Palermo is good and gritty. Except the post office, which has a totally scary (and clean) fascisty facade, although I suppose it's safe to assume your mail will be handled with ruthless efficiency.

Traffic is nuts. Everywhere in Italy the pedestrian is the lowest form of life. Step out the way for a car zooming down a narrow medieval lane, and the driver doesn't even give you so much as a glance or nod to acknowledge either your presence or your having moved out of the way. Nope, you'd be just another dent in their bumper if you hadn't moved. Although, I must say that I'm inspired to ride a scooter after visiting the Mediterranean. On the sidewalk, helmet unsecured, bag of groceries or hapless infant just sitting on the running board, wearing a string of pearls, and checking my watch instead of watching where I'm going. Since I was too busy trying to stay alive while crossing the streets I was never able to get a handle on when cars are supposed to go and stop. Sometimes they were stopped but I couldn't figure out where the traffic light that was instructing them was.

Italy is of course filled with old cars, many of them Fiats. Since I'm traveling here with Sarah, this is a good time to share the story of her paternal grandmother's navy blue Fiat 500, which met an untimely and unexpected demise on a country lane in Surrey, when a cow sat on the bonnet, crushing it beyond possibility of reignition. Sarah's father was obliged to render a drawing of the accident in order to secure insurance money. Having seen both a Fiat 500 and a standard British dairy cow, it's a wonder that Sarah's granny escaped unscathed. Physically, anyway. She never did own another automobile after that.

Palermo is my last evening with Sarah before she goes home, and I go to Greece. We arrived too late in the day to do much of anything except stroll around the streets, and we go out to dinner one more time. Sicilian cooking seems to combine tastes that perhaps at first glance don't really seem to go together. We find Casa Santandrea, serving seafood, in a tiny square behind a big square, next to an abandoned church and a sagging apartment building, and totally overrun with leggy cats and kittens topped with ears as big as their heads. They're hanging out in the square, and winding their way through tables. One of them deigns to let me give him a backscratch, but most of them are playing cold and aloof. Until our food arrives.

I've got a goat cheese basil ravioli topped with fish ragout, Sarah has a slice of sardine pie with more fish bits stacked on top, and both of us have cats at our feet, gazing up at us with inky eyes in pretty cat faces. Not doing anything, just staring. Staring and waiting. Occasionally playing with our shoes. They really are very cute, especially the kittens, who are prancing around in that gangly manner that only baby animals can do, when things are still growing into place and locomotion is still a new skill. Finally I hand down a chunk of fish, and faster than you can say meowmix, cute cat morphs into feral cat; claws out, eyes gone slightly deranged, and moving a whole lot faster than the previous languid strolls through the tables, my offering is swatted out of my fingers and disappears down a pussycat gullet. Sarah got the same treatment, plus her blood drawn. We probably both have rabies now. Thankfully lockjaw didn't set in immediately, and I was able to enjoy my dessert, a basil cream in a pastry topped with peaches. Basically, a pesto fruit tart. Sounds weird, tastes gooood.

Palermo has me in a ruminative mood. I've been in Italy for just about three weeks, and as much as I've seen and as much ground as I've covered, it really just amounts to wiping fog off a mirror. When I planned this trip I considered two approaches - stay in only one or two places and really get to know them, or keep moving and see many places. I chose the second, not because it's the right or better thing to do, but because I've barely seen anything of this great big planet, and I want to fill my eyes with new sights. I still want to do that, but it's also hard to leave things and places I've become accustomed to. I'm sad to be leaving Italy, but excited about embarking on something new. Especially if it involves learning how to read a new alphabet.