Helping You Get the Most Out of Your Misery
Friday, August 27, 2004
What'd I Miss?
We've been out of the country since August 3. That's a long time to be gone. Tomorrow evening, we'll be getting on a Virgin Atlantic plane at Heathrow and heading back to the states. I've not been keeping up on current events back home, as newspapers run around 35 Euro in most places in Europe, which is even more expensive in puny, worthless American dollars--seriously, as my wife noted this morning when we realized that our £3.50 breakfast cost roughly the same as a moderately priced used car in the States, "Isn't America supposed to be a big deal or something? Wouldn't you think our currency would be worth a bit more?"--and I haven't checked the news much on line, as it's taken every available nano-second at these internet cafes to book more and more creaky hostels whose "breakfast included" inevitably ends up consisting entirely of toast. So I have absolutely no idea what's going on in the world other than the front pages I've glimpsed of European tabloids, which have kept me well-informed of David Beckham's marital woes and little else. But I feel like I know my country pretty well, so I have a good idea what to expect when I get back home. I'm pretty sure the headlines will look a little something like this:
U.S. Olympic Basketball Team Acquits Itself With Grace and Humility in Athens Games
Political Pundits Call This Presidential Election "The Most Cordial Ever"
Governor James McGreevey and Wife Renew Vows in Governor's Mansion Ceremony
TV Networks Vow: No More Reality Shows
"What Were We Thinking?" Asks Exec
Shiite Radicals in Najaf Throw Impromptu Fundraiser for Bush Campaign
Dick Cheney Instructs Justice Department to "Leave No Stone Unturned" in New Haliburton Investigation
Newly Released Harvard Medical School Report: Abstinence-Only Sex-Ed Works!
John Kerry Welcomes Courtney Love as New Campaign Manager
White House Shocker: Laura Bush's Porn-Star Past Comes to Light
Kobe Bryant: Innocent!
9/11 Commission Finds CIA and FBI Are Competent and Efficient
Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony Still Married
Ku Klux Klan, NAACP to Merge: "Man, We've Been Assholes" says Grand Dragon
Catwoman Expected to Sweep Oscars
You see, even when I'm away, I've got a pretty good idea what America is up to. Man, I'm so ready to be home.
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Boredom Thy Name Is Bruges
So on this trip, the Wife and I had far-ranging plans to visit all corners of Europe. We'd planned to go from Paris to Southern France to Madrid to The Costa del Sol to Geneva to Vienna to Prague to Berlin to Amsterdam to the whole of Ireland and thence home. After a day, we were behind schedule and realized some moderation of the plan might be needed. We were put another day behind when I jumped on the wrong train leaving Bordeaux.
Then we went to Fuengirola.
Fuengirola is a little town near Malaga on the Costa del Sol in Spain. It's got nice beaches, a large population of vacationing Britons and Spaniards, along with my exchange student brother from high school, Alfredo. I hadn't seen Alfredo for nine years, so we decided to extend the Fuengirola stop a bit and possibly, oh, let's say, cut out Berlin, which is full of Neo-Nazis, so fuck it.
Then Alfredo, who has traveled extensively through Europe and has very, very strong opinions on these sorts of things, told us we were deluded. There was no real way for us to do the trip as I'd planned it out, he said. We should localize more. Actually, he wanted us to stay another five days or so in Fuengirola, but our tans were already perfect, so we decided to just stick to Western Europe. We added various locales in Spain to our itinerary, including Valencia, Barcelona and the Alhambra, which was okay if you're into impressive stuff. We returned to Paris, which we'd both loved the first time, to give it a more thorough going over. And then we thought, "Hey! Bruges!"
The books describe Bruges as a lovely little Belgian town with a picturesque square and lovely countryside. We got in late--because that's what we goddamn do--and, after being rejected by several hostels, we got a room, dumped our stuff and headed "downtown." We walked from our hotel toward the square and were delighted. There were streets full of people leisurely strolling and pausing by closed stores to window shop. Window shopping! Nobody takes the time to do that in New York! We were charmed.
We got to the square and bought two things of delicious Belgian frites. We'd heard that the Belgians have a special art to frying potatoes. Okay, well these were pretty much just french fries, but that's fine. We took our fries and sat in the square, where three young girls were playing as a string trio. They were cute. We were even more charmed.
The next morning, we rented bikes. After a half-hour or so of being chased through narrow and winding town streets by huge buses, we headed out into the country and peddled past postcard-ready farmhouses and cows and windmills. It was charming. We rode back to town with sore asses and smiles on our faces.
And we looked for something else to do.
This is not a huge town. They have one movie theater, which was showing Garfield. In Dutch. They have no theater theater. They have the square, which is great and all, but once you've sat there eating fries, you don't really need to do it again. So we wandered the streets. It was about seven in the evening. All of the shops were closed. People were window shopping because they couldn't do any actual goddamn shopping. The Seven-Eleven closes at eight. This is not a late-night place.
Once we'd walked the length and breadth of the stagnant, puny canals, we returned to the square. Then we left again, then we walked the streets again, which all lead invevitably back to the square. We drank a couple of beers. It did little to improve the place.
An analysis of the many stores in town might prove helpful. The majority of the stores fell into one of the following categories: bar, lingerie store, liquor store, travel agency, baby clothes store. So the residents want to either get drunk, have sex (and babies) or get the fuck out of town. Can't say I blame them.
We went back to the hotel. The common room was closed. Our room was, to be charitable, closet-sized. We went back out. At this point, I decided that any kind of excitement was good and I punched a young Belgian man in the face to see what would happen. He dropped his waffle. He then picked it up and walked the other way.
So I threw a rock at a cop. He handed it back to me and expressed concern that I might lose it.
So we went to sleep. At eight-thirty.
We're going to Amsterdam next. Hopefully, they'll actually have something to do there.
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Europe, home to the glories of religion throughout the ages--the glimmering cathedrals of Valencia, the timeless grace of Notre Dame in Paris, the soaring bravado of La Sagred Familia in Barcelona, the faded Moorish opulence of the Alhambra. Europe, home to the most important art treasures on the planet--the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, the works of Goya, el Greco and Bosch at the Prado, the pinnacles of Picasso´s career spread over the continent. Europe, home of the glittering beaches on the Mediterranean and the majestic beauty of the Alps.
As I travel from wonder to wonder on this aged continent, there is but one thing that mars the splendor around me:
Those damn, dirty hippies.
They´re goddamn everywhere. As we walked from the train station in Valencia toward the Plaza Reina, we passed two patchouli-smelling, white-boy-dread-locked, multiply-pierced and tattooed bums. They ruined the street for me. On our train from Bordeaux to Irun, we were forced to share a compartment with about four chain-smoking, hairy little shitheads, smoking unfiltered Camels or rolling their own. They don´t open the window to do this. Sometimes they even did it with the door closed. Worse, when we opened the goddamn door, there was a fucking drum circle going on in the next compartment over. They all had their fucking tablas or tom-toms or what-fucking-ever and they would pound on with the same stupid goddamn beat for a half an hour. And the ones who left their drums at Burning Man felt free to join in by pounding on the walls and doors.
Maybe I´m just old. Maybe that´s it. Was there a time when I would have been thrilled to sit with unbathed morons still in mourning for Jerry Garcia? Was there a time when, say, strolling through Golden Gate park, I would have dropped a hit of ecstasy or acid or whatever the hell they´re on and spun around for two hours, thinking I´d found spirituality when I was just fucking dizzy? Was there a time when all this would´ve been preferable to sitting quietly in first-class non-smoking with my wife beside me reading a good book?
Perhaps. Perhaps I´ve just grown intolerant. Perhaps it´s actually not hypocritical to sit there--with the perfectly worn Doc Martens and the tongue, eyebrow, penis and armpit piercings that mumsy and dadsy bought for you before you declared them bourgeois and had them book you first class fare to Madrid so you could join your "anarchist" friends--and beg for change. Perhaps it´s not idiotic to go to protest after protest without having formed any kind of clear idea of what the fucking issues are. Perhaps these people are admirable. But if they are, dear fucking god shoot me.
Also, and this should go without saying, this does not apply to cute hippie chicks who go around practically nude and giggle and dance. See, they´re fun to look at, so we exclude them from this rant.
And now, back to Barcelona with me. Ciao.
Thursday, August 12, 2004
Getting Some Goddamn Culture
There are a number of things we've done in every city we've visited in Europe. The first is, of course, to see what McDonald's is like there. 'Cause you never know if those foreigners are going to do something weird like make the Filet o' Fish with some fucked-up French cheese or something (it's usually been good ol' flavorless, processed American, thank God).
The next thing we usually do is to go to the art museums. That's not so much because we care about art, but there's usually at least a few paintings with nudity and we're too shy to buy porn in a foreign country.
The other thing we do is to visit the churches. And, man, there's lots of the fucking things. And they're frigging huge. I'm not talking huge in the American sense of the word. I'm not talking about something beautiful, like the Crystal Cathedral or Heritage, U.S.A. These're all tall and dirty. And they've got these gargoyle things hanging off the sides of 'em. It's like they wanted the church to be a scary place. Hell, most of them that we been in don't have elevators or nothing, so you can't go to the top of them huge organs and drop things down the pipes. They've got these huge ceilings and you know they're just a bitch to heat in the winter. It's like these guys didn't know what the hell they were doing. Now, the Methodist church where I'm from, they put in a normal size ceiling and that place is so well insulated, there isn't one puff of air gets out. I don't get why those old-timey guys thought they had to build them places so damn tall.
Another thing, they got all these stainy-glass windows, right, but they have pictures of, f'r example, some guy named Charlemagne. I never even heard of him. You'd think they'd update these things every once in awhile. Maybe put in a picture of George Bush or something.
One thing's for damn sure. If I ever come here again, I am not going to France. We went to this museum, right, the one where they got the Mona Lisa. And they cram you in there and you have to walk with these huge groups of people and it's kinda like being a cow at auction time, the way they have you moving through that place. The worst thing is, though, that there's people who want to stop along the way and look at all these other paintings they got hanging there. Most people know enough to just move along to get to the Mona Lisa, but you have a few people now and then who want to stand for like five seconds and stare at a picture of Jesus or something. This one guy, I finally hadda yell, "Hey! You're holding up the line, jackass!" He got all pissy and started jabbering away in Spanish or something.
So then, when you do get up to the Mona Lisa, they don't even want you taking pictures or nothing. I thought it'd be kinda funny to get a shot of me with a paintbrush, like I'd just finished painting it. But these snooty goddamn guards come over and started in on us, so we just left. It's not like we ain't never seen the goddamn picture before, anyway.
And then, just so you know, the people at Notre Dame do not give a shit about college football. I thought I'd try to be friendly and I started asking our tour guide questions about the Fighting Irish's coaching problems, but he acted like he didn't even know what I was talking about.
Anyway, just for the record, Europe isn't anything great. The buildings are old, the cheese has mold and everybody talks in these whoop-ti-do accents, when they bother to speak English at all. So next year, it's Dollywood.
Sunday, August 08, 2004
Those Wacky French Are So Nutty
The longer I stay in Europe, the more convinced I am that America sucks. Sure, we're pretty good in the abstract, with our freedom and our democracy and blah blah blah blah blah. But in practice, Europeans just have so much that we're lacking.
For instance, we--as evidenced by our president--seem to have absolutely no humor about ourselves. Contrast that with the group of skater kids we saw in Bordeaux. They were skating on the edges of marble park benches, jumping things, grinding here and there. But in rollerblades. They looked so fucking stupid. Americans would never do that. But these kids didn't care. Pretty cool.
Then there's our cars. In New York, you can more than occasionally see Hummer Stretch Limos. So, a vehicle that's roughly tank-sized to begin with is then pulled out to ridiculous length. This thing gets about one inch per gallon and Americans think it's the perfect thing to show off how successful they are. Meanwhile, in Europe, everyone is buying Smart Cars. You may have seen them before; they're basically what Shriners drive around in parades. You could fit three of the things in one Chrysler Town & Country.
Every major European city has a great mass transit system. You walk--walk--to the nearest bus/metro/rickshaw/whatever stop, pay a relatively small fee and leave your car at home. You hear that, Phoenix? You don't' have to take your car everywhere! You don't have to drive half a block to get that microwave burrito. Plus, with a decent mass transit system, you can get as falling-down drunk as you want to and spare yourself the massive argument with your wife about who was supposed to stay sober enough to drive, the $35 cab ride home and the embarrassment of picking up your car the next morning in front of your friend's house with a pounding headache and vomit on your shoes.
Now, I'm not saying that Europe is completely superior to the U.S. For starters, thanks to our brave American capitalists, Europeans are eating more American fast food. There's a Dunkin' Donuts right by the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. Not two blocks from the Sorbonne, you can by a Croque McDo and a large Coke. Soon, they'll have to increase the size of Smart Car seats to accommodate larger French asses.
And then there's the sorry state of French movie and theater posters. They all seem to be stuck in some bizarre 1988 time warp that's vaguely reminiscent of a Mentos commercial. Half of them feature a person with a "wacky" look about them and their friend/parent/pimp in the background, shaking their head as if to say, "Henri, you are so iconoclastic. When will you conform and lose your individuality?" The other half feature a group of people bunched together, each expressing their nuttiness individually. This is, I suppose, meant to entice the viewer into thinking, "I must go and see this to understand how such a diversely cooky group of people can form a cohesive, loving group." So we've got 'em beat there.
To sum up, then: America--bigger egos, bigger cars, bigger wastes of gasoline, bigger asses (for now). Europe--sucky movie posters.
Saturday, August 07, 2004
Je Suis Un Retard
At long, long last, I have found a keyboard in English. The keyboards in France are, strangely enough, not set up for people who type in English. This means that the typing class I took in high school does me no good. I am forced to hunt and peck like a moron. Actually, most everything in France is designed to make me feel like a moron. And I'm playing perfectly into their scheme.
They insist on writing the majority of their signs in French. There's the occasional "Sex Shop" or "Porno DVD", which is handy and all, but it's hardly all inclusive. In Paris, I could not read the operating hours of the Metro, so I figured it was a great idea to go for a late night beer way on the other side of town from our hostel. As we strolled leisurely to the platform to go back, French guys ran past us desperately. We figured maybe they were in training for the French relay team. Then one passed us on the way back to the platform and gave us a "C'est fini." and a shrug. So we had to hail a cab. New Yorkers, of course are aware of the difficulty of telling someone who doesn't speak English, "Drop me off at the corner and could you please roll down your window, as your body odor is making me ill." This is made even more difficult when you don't know where the hell you're supposed to be going.
Another fun mistake I made was in not realizing that the French train system is so efficient that they'll sometimes have two trains on the same track at the station; one goes in one direction and the other goes...in the other. So when our train from Bordeaux to Madrid was on Track 4, I assumed that the train I saw on Track 4 was ours. In fact, it was headed in the exact opposite direction, going very slowly. I don't know what the French word for "fuck-up" is, but I believe I may have heard it a good dozen times, accompanied by pitying stares, in the ticket office in Libourne, the tiny town where we ended up. I used to work in a nursing home. The way the conductor gently guided us to the train back to Bordeaux was exactly the way I used to take advanced Alzheimer's patients to the van for outings to the zoo.
And so we're back in Bordeaux. Which is lovely, by the way. As long as you're in the actual town and not fifteen miles out of it, where we stayed our first night here because I had stupidly booked us into a chain hotel off the freeway. Try navigating through late-night bus routes in French. We were damn lucky to have spotted the hotel as the bus passed it. We waved our arms like monkeys and squealed, "Ici! Ici! Si´l vous plait! Mon deu! Ici!"
Our second night here, forced though it was, was better. We figured out how to get around on the lovely tram system. It's convenient and fun, except for the one time when it was crowded and hellish. Again, New Yorkers, think of the 6 train at 5:oo on a Friday. Then subtract deodorant. I desperately wanted to disbelieve the cliches about the French. But this tram ride was like twenty minutes in a two-month-old litterbox. We were jammed in next to people who hadn't showered regularly since they were born. The guy who was crushed right up against me had apparently eaten ass for breakfast. The woman behind me appeared to be one desperate gasp away from a claustrophobic panic attack. I had to knock her unconscious to relieve her pain.
I do not, however, want to give the wrong impression. The French are wonderful, friendly, sexy people. Seriously, single men could do no better. Just bring some vapo-rub to block out the smell and go to town. And it's so cute how amused they are at the idiots who can't speak their language. In New York, we just spit at those who can't communicate. Here, they chuckle warmly, pat you on the head and give you a cookie.
I could live here. I really could. And if Kerry doesn't win in November, I believe I just might. That's all from France. With God's will and the help of some friendly Frenchmen, we'll be in Spain tomorrow. Pray for us. 'Cause, if I keep up with these fuck-ups, I very well might be wandering somewhere in Portugal, lost, broke and dumped by a wife who wants someone less...how you say...moronique?
Wednesday, August 04, 2004
Have a Plan
This may be brief, as I'm writing on a truly shitty Hostel Internet Machine, the keyboard of which is apparently not meant for typing.
We are in Paris, the City of Not in English.
We came by way of London, where they get very pissy if you haven't got it entirely figured out how you're getting where you need to go. The passport inspection shrew was not happy that we were in her country with no escape plan. We showed her, though. We left.
We sailed from Dover, home of the White Cliffs with Shit All Over Them. And then we were in France, sounding like retarded children in our attempts at French. People have no patience. Bastards.
I'm off now, in search of a keyboard that causes less pain.
Au revioreye, or however the fuck you say it.