Monday, August 24, 2015

Coming Back ...

I left off before in a pretty low spot. Living in California again was not a terrific situation for a number of reasons, and it's hard to think about the fun times of the past when you aren't having fun times in the present.

Now things have changed: Morgan got a year-long position at the University of Padova, which means we packed up our lives into a few suitcases again and flew off around the world. We have an apartment here now, and we have our dog here with us as well. We've been here since the beginning of May, and I am finally feeling a little settled.
The view from our balcony
But before I get anywhere near talking about what life is like now that we're living in Italy, I want to revisit some of the old stories that I never told. It's been a ridiculously long time since we went to Naples (2 years, nearly!), but as I've finally been processing more and more of the photos, I realized that I want to explain some of them more than a blurb on Flickr or Facebook really can. I guess I'm just a sucker for telling stories.

So, my first foray into southern Italy. I remember coming out of the subway station and being a little overwhelmed at how it was going to be possible to cross the street - we were facing onto a small traffic circle, which sounds like it shouldn't be much of a problem, but it was really essentially circular mayhem. Scooters, taxis, regular cars, all creating multiple lanes and swerving around each other with no discernable pattern. We managed to get across, but it was a good glimpse at what it would be like the rest of the time. We arrived at night so I didn't get to see much right away, but in the morning I set out to explore.

This is Naples
First off, standing outside the hotel, I looked up ... and up ... and up. Naples is a hilly city, and it seems like the buildings are just stuck everywhere to the hills. They seem almost like they must be flat - how can so many of them fit one behind the other? It's a crazy quilt of colors. Then I headed down toward the water, the Gulf of Naples.
This is Vesuvius
Vesuvius is really omnipresent. It seems like every time you turn around, it's there, with a slightly different aspect presented to you. You wouldn't think that a mountain which isn't really all that tall or all that close would dominate the landscape the way it does. But it does, and it seems to have moods all its own.

On this first day, the weather was really changeable. Sometimes the sun would beat down and it would become quite warm, then the sky would be full of giant, fast-moving clouds, then it would turn dark and rain would move through. But that also traveled fast.
The leading edge of rain blowing through
Forty-five minutes later
 As a result, I saw a lot of people buying cheap umbrellas at the metro stations and later, a lot of abandoned umbrellas laying on the sidewalks. This is one thing about Naples, and I'm not going to sugarcoat it - it's dirty. Discarded umbrellas, bags of trash piled high, paper and all kinds of other garbage are just part of the landscape. And let's just say there doesn't seem to be a culture of picking up after your dog. But you quickly get used to watching where you step and don't think about it much, or at least I didn't. Naples is full of contradictions, and you can see many different faces of it just by keeping your eyes open and wandering. More on that later!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

On Hiatus

I mean, I have been on hiatus already. But I'm making it official now.

I know I didn't even get through the end of our time in Europe. I didn't post pictures from Padova and Venice the second time around, Vicenza, Verona, Pompeii, Naples, December in Gent.

Here's the truth: thinking about it kind of depresses me.

We've been in California since coming back from Belgium, and it's not been my favorite thing in the world. Seven months in an area of the state that is, politely speaking, not where I would choose to be.

So, in spite of having interesting stories to tell about November and December, I just don't feel like I can do it. In spite of Naples being one of the most awesome places I've visited, I don't really want to go through the photos or think about it too deeply right now.

Hopefully circumstances will change and I'll be able to feel more positive about it in the near future. In the meantime, though, I kept feeling like it was hanging over me because I hate leaving things just open-ended like I did here.

If you miss me, you can visit my art blog, which I restarted on Blogger. I previously had one on Typepad, but that was a dying venue, so I just jumped ship.

Looking forward to a time when I will want to post about those last months. Till then, take care.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Third One's a Charm

I started this blog to talk about Morgan's and my wedding, and beyond that, our life together. And that's what it's been about, although in the last year you might not have realized that, since it's mostly been about travel (which is what was happening in our life together, after all!). But this post is going to be about the other stuff again, since we just had our 3rd anniversary on March 5.

We have had some amazing times in the last year (the last three years, as well, but I'm going to just focus on this particular one for now), and I think we've appreciated every one of them. It was just under a year ago that we found out we were moving to Belgium for six months, and went through a flurry of activity, selling or packing all of our possessions. Then were off, and life was full of new things. Finally, at the beginning of this year, we found ourselves back in California. I admit, that all sounds pretty exciting. And it was.

But we've also had some seriously challenging times.The time before the job in Gent came through was tough. We were both pretty thoroughly sick of Denver, and things were financially difficult. Traveling to another continent with what will fit into suitcases and trying to make a home in another country is hard. That romantic ideal I mentioned above, of life being full of new things, is fun until you just want to shop at a grocery store where you understand what you're looking at. You just want to know where to get a decent meal, which bakery is open on Sundays, why places seem to close on a whim. You want to know which street to take without consulting a map every five minutes. Every minor thing becomes a decision that has to be made by someone.

It's easy to take that sort of stress out on the only other person you know, and the only other one who speaks your language natively - your spouse. Although we both got frustrated and tired of things at times, I think we managed it very well, keeping in mind that we were both in the same situation and on the same team. ("Team We Are So Confused," often.) I've heard it said that taking a road trip with someone is a great test of your ability to work together, live together in confined spaces, be around each other for 24 hours a day, etc. Well, moving internationally is like the extreme sport edition of that.

All of which doesn't mean it was constantly difficult; obviously we eventually started knowing where things were, how to use the bus and tram system, how to decipher signs in Dutch. And we did a good amount of traveling in other places in Europe where we had to learn things all over again. But we were better at the process then, too. I don't want to give short shrift to the good times; I just think it's important to acknowledge the tough ones.

That was in Luxembourg. It had been raining off and on all day, and we were lost. Or wait, I think when we took that picture, we weren't yet lost. But we were about to be! We ended up seeing more of Luxembourg than we would have otherwise. But hey, that's how life is, right?  Happy accidents!

The point here is really this: it's been 3 years, and we're a better team than ever. Ups and downs have taught us a lot about ourselves. We've found the ways that work for us. They might not work for anyone else, they might not be what other people think we should do, but one of the best things about marriage is knowing that one other person, the most important person, really gets you. And if you've got that, what more do you really need?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas, Belgian Style

Time out on the other posts to interject a seasonally-themed one!

One huge difference between Europe and the US in the lead-up to Christmas is that instead of having malls full of decorations, European cities have Christmas markets. A bunch of wooden stalls pop up in the center of the city, along with rides and probably an ice-skating rink. We had hoped to get out of Belgium to see another one (the Germans are supposed to have amazing Christmas markets), but it didn't end up happening. Nevertheless, we managed to see the markets in Bruges and Brussels in addition to the one here in Gent.

On the Korenmarkt

"Auto-awesomed" by Google. Thanks, Google!
That's Gent, done up in holiday splendor. Our market is kind of a small affair, spread out between three different squares. It's pretty easy to navigate, although having the ice rink in the middle of it makes it a little less convenient than it could be. It's nice, though, with a good mix of stalls selling stuff and stalls selling food and drink. We sampled some of the Cornish potatoes (potatoes, cheese, cream and bacon) and drunken sailors (prawns fried in some sort of vodka batter).

I love how it looks like the wheel almost doesn't fit.
Christmas market season seemed like a good time for a second pass at Bruges. It is definitely improved by the market - although there are a lot of tourists, it feels like there's some reason for them to be there. Also, it's definitely scenic.

It's hard to maintain outdoor ice rinks when the weather is hovering around 10C/50F, I imagine. Gent's had the texture of a snow cone, and the one in Bruges seemed to be equally suited to ice skating or using it as a waterslide. But it's certainly photogenic.

Bruges had a lot more lights, and more carnival games for the kids. They didn't have a ferris wheel, though. I think it would actually be a pretty cool place to see from a ferris wheel - they should find a place for one next year! Morgan and I sampled some crostillons/oliebollen (which we'd had for the first time at the festival in Liège).

Having had time to reflect on it, I've come to the conclusion that my main problem with Bruges is that I've been living in Gent. If you're visiting from out of the country, or probably from other places in Belgium like Brussels or Wallonia, I bet Bruges is not a disappointment at all. But when you already live somewhere that looks pretty much like it, it just doesn't have much to offer. (Aside from a bigger Christmas market.)

Santa is a terrible influence.

The final market we visited was in Brussels. They won for the most confusing layout, hands down. They managed to scatter a little bit of it everywhere, trailing from the Grand Place/Grote Markt to the Place Sainte-Catherine. And in spite of Santa's encouragement, Brussels is the only market where we didn't have any glühwein!

One thing that made the visit to Brussels completely worth it is the light show they put on in the Grand Place. I figured it would be some sort of blinky-lights affair, but boy was I wrong. They light up the buildings all around the square and change the colors in time to the music. To the right is a still of one of the buildings mid-show. It was pretty spectacular, and surprisingly un-crowded. Last time we were in Brussels, the Grand Place was a nightmare. Although, as it turns out, I could have used more people there to serve as a windbreak. It hasn't been all that cold here this December, but the wind has been a killer!

In addition to that, Brussels had two really awesome steampunk carousels. I'd never seen anything like them. According to their website, they're from France and if you check out the site, they also have a giant walking mechanical elephant you can ride on. I wish that had been at the market!

Like bugs? How about giant bugs?

Stag beetle is just one of the rather odd choices to ride on. There was also a mole (visible by the horns of the beetle), a flying horse (on the right) with a bird above it and to the right. On both of those, you had levers to operate the wings. One of the carousels also had a hot-air balloon where the balloon part was a blowfish. The smaller carousel had a rocket ship that rose and fell, and at the top of its path, it actually went through a hole in the roof to look out from above. Super imaginative and cool.

And then maybe some of it is really meant to induce nightmares.

The seat is there behind his head. He lowers himself down to the level of the manhole and then raises himself back up. And I guess that to avoid ending on a totally weird note, I should add some other nice photos to the end of this post!

 Merry Christmas to everyone out there, and best wishes for the New Year - I'll see you stateside!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Can You Find Luxembourg on a map?

I could, even before coming to Belgium, probably mostly thanks to studying for Jeopardy. The only things I really knew about it, though, were:

1. It's tiny.
2. The capital is also called Luxembourg.
3. It's tiny - on The Amazing Race one season, the contestants had a task of bicycling across the country (the addition of this fact makes #3 slightly different from #1. Also, without it, I probably wouldn't have had a #3.).

But as it turned out, our landlady here in Gent (I'll just call her "T.") is originally from Luxembourg. And she was interested in going to visit her family over the long weekend at the first of November (All Saint's Day is a holiday). She has had some recent trouble with one of her arms, so driving is not that easy for her; would we be willing to drive her to Luxembourg? Then she would stay with her family, and we could have the car to go sightseeing on our own.

That's a great deal, obviously, and we said "definitely!"

And that's how I ended up driving in Europe for the first time. It was ... interesting, considering I didn't understand all the signs or know offhand what a reasonable speed in kilometers per hour is on any given type of road. But in general, driving is driving, and we made it there without mishap. We met our landlady's brother and some family friends, and went out with T. and her brother ("F.").

We had dinner at the hotel where we were staying, and it was amazing. I had steak tartare, which I've been interested in, but never had occasion to order before. The waiter was very patient with me when he came to make it at the table and I didn't really know what I would want him to put into it. With my requests to leave the capers out, and make it spicy but not really spicy, he got it perfectly to my taste. I somehow didn't take any photos of dinner, but I guess something that is essentially a raw hamburger isn't going to look too appealing anyway.

To make up for that, here's a look at breakfast.

Luxembourgers know how to start the day. (At hotels, anyway.)
 The next day, F. took us on a tour of some highlights of Luxembourg. We first looked at some of the sights of Esch-sur-Alzette, which is where we were staying. It's the second-largest city (or town, I guess - it has 27,000 people) in Luxembourg. It also used to be a center for steel production. Apparently, steel is still big business in the country, after recovering from over-production in the '70s. Nevertheless, there is only one steel processing plant still working in Esch, and it's scheduled to close soon.

The revamping of this industrial area involves a mall, big concert hall, and buildings for the University of Luxembourg. There was a lot of construction going on, all with a very modern feel. I didn't manage to take a picture of those, although the buildings were very interesting.

Then we headed into Luxembourg City.

It's a city that's set up on terrain that gives it a very odd layout. Because of the cliffs, this location has been used many times as a spot for fortifications, starting somewhere around the 10th century. The photo above was taken from the main downtown area of the city, looking over the parts that are below. It's hard to effectively capture the way the city is set on multiple levels, but I might have some additional pictures to post to give you a better idea of it.

The Luxembourgish saying on this window is "Mir wölle bleiwe wat mir sin," and it translates to "We want to remain what we are." It's the national motto, and refers to the fact that they have been taken over by and beholden to the countries around them many times, but they want to be independent. It's a sort of Luxembourgish "We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take this anymore!" (That's from the movie Network, in case you haven't seen it.)

And now, a statue!

This one is in the Place Guillaume II, and coincidentally, the guy on the horse is Guillaume II ... better known as William II of the Netherlands, who was also the Grand Duke of Luxembourg. In Luxembourgish, they call the square "Knuedler," which means "knot." I'm a little unclear on why that is, though, because it's not a particularly knotty intersection of streets or anything. But there you have it.

We also went to the Philharmonie Luxembourg, partially because it's an interesting building and partially because you can get a nice view of the city from its location in the Kirchberg area, which is up on a plateau. The area is full of very modern buildings, and has the European Court of Justice and European Investment Bank, among other EU facilities.

It looks a little like an air filter to me, I have to admit.
F. told us that the wind blowing between the hollow columns originally made a lot of noise, and they had to go back and partially fill them with water or sand or something. I can't find any reference to that online, so you can take it with a grain of salt. It's an amusing idea, if nothing else.

I wasn't able to get any really terrific shots of the view (someone went and built a hotel blocking the best of it ... the nerve!), but I'll post one I took anyway.

It's like standing in between two worlds - below is about a century or so behind the area above, which is a world of metal and glass.

That's plenty for now. More to come soon!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Last of Italy (For Now)

I'm just going to throw together some odds and ends from Italy for this post. I took a lot of photos while we were there (go figure), and some of them just didn't fit into the previous posts, but I still want to share them.

So, here are some of those photos. The one above and the two below capture some of what I loved about the feeling on the streets in Padua. Sometimes you would find yourself on quiet stretches where you wouldn't see another soul for blocks, and your steps would echo through the arcaded sidewalks. Other times, it was all groups of people having loud conversations and motorcycles zipping past. Both situations have their charm.

Then there were the architectural details. Like everyone else who visits Italy, I was drawn to the colors of the buildings, the shapes of the windows and doors. I don't know that I managed to capture it in any meaningful way, but I had to try.



I am still adding photos to my Flickr sets for Padua and Venice, so if you want to see even more, check over there (Venice and Padua). I really enjoyed our week there, and it was interesting to go somewhere so different from the places we had been before (Belgium, Netherlands, Germany - even France, since we only got into French Flanders). And that wraps up Italy for now.

Next time, I'll be posting about Luxembourg, a country that is so small it makes Belgium feel immense.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Venice, the Original

I was thinking about how I've heard "Venice of the North" applied to so many cities that it sort of loses its meaning: Amsterdam, Bruges, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm. There's got to be more to Venice than just having canals, right?

Since Venice is only about 40 minutes by slow train from Padua, I figured I'd make a day trip there. It would be ridiculous to be so close and not even see the city, although I had to go alone since Morgan was busy working. When you step out of the train station, you're already in another world. The Grand Canal is just steps in front of you, and you're faced with the first of many green-topped domes you'll see.
I wandered in the same general direction as the throngs of tourists. I didn't have a plan, or a map. My goal was just to walk around and see what I could manage to see.

As you can see, it's not too hard to
follow the tourists.
The streets were lined with souvenir stands - t-shirts, hats, Venetian carnival masks, Murano glass, magnets, whatever your little heart could desire to take home as a reminder. It's sort of hard to believe that they can all survive crowded on top of each other like that, but I guess the moral of the story is that Venice has enough tourism dollars to go around. I was surprised to see that it doesn't rank in the top 20 most-visited cities worldwide (according to Business Insider), but that's got to be a blessing, considering how much real estate many of those cities have in comparison to Venice.

Periodically you'll see signs on the corners of buildings that direct you toward the Piazza San Marco and/or the Rialto, so I broke away from the crowd and started meandering along small streets and crossing smaller bridges. I had been warned that it's easy to get lost or stuck in dead ends, but I didn't have much of a purpose in mind except "eventually end up at Piazza San Marco," so I figured it wasn't that big of a deal.
Plus, it was relaxing and quiet once you got away from the major crowds. Just Venetians going on about their daily business - people passing on bridges and stopping to talk, a woman asking what time it was and exclaiming over how much she was running late. In these parts of the city, it felt like a small town.

I thought I remembered something about cats in Venice, but I only saw one.

After doing some searching online, it appears that the cats were rounded up some years ago and deported to another island. There are still some hanging around, but not many.

It's strange to walk around and realize after a while that foot traffic is all there is. Obviously no cars, but also no bicycles. The only things with wheels were the dollies the delivery men were using (with frequent "attenzione!"s as they came up behind you). I found my way to Piazza San Marco and was back in the thick of the tourist crowd.
The church in the center, some of it on the left covered in scaffolding.
The Doge's Palace is on the right.
I thought about going into the Basilica, but there was already a long line across the square, and there was no shade whatsoever. I was hot, and tired, and just didn't feel like dealing with it. So instead, I took pictures of the outside and contemplated what to do.
I was clear on what I couldn't do.
I walked down to the shore of the lagoon to check out the tide situation. I had no idea what the deal was with flooding, just that it sometimes happened. I asked one of the souvenir vendors about it. "Not today!" he said. I looked at the portable walkways out around the square, and he said, "They're just getting ready. But it won't happen until October or November. Don't worry!" Of course, I'd been more hopeful than worried, but now at least I knew.

I took a photo of the infamous Bridge of Sighs, and decided to check if the line for the basilica had improved. It hadn't; instead, it had gotten longer. So I definitely checked that off my list for the day and decided to push on to other parts of the city. After much trekking, I found myself on another island at what seemed to be the edge of the world.

You're gonna have to make this one bigger to really see it.
Don't be lazy - click it!
I visited the basilica there (Santa Maria della Salute) and rested for a while just listening to the water lap against the concrete. Of course, most of the lapping was caused by the incessant boat traffic going by, so that impacted the relaxation effect a little! Eventually I had to rouse myself to head back to the train station to go back to Padua. The shadows were starting to get long.

So I said goodbye to Venice with a photo out the window of the train as we prepared to cross the bridge back to the mainland.
It's been so hard keeping from adding even more pictures than I've already put into this post, but if you're looking for more, I'm working to upload the rest to my Venice Flickr set. I haven't got them all there yet by any stretch of the imagination, but give me a few days and check back because there will be more. And the night shot that's there is from my second trip to Venice, not this one (what? I've already been back?! Indeed, I have.).

The next post will probably be a sort of general wrap-up of whatever loose ends I have regarding Italy (in other words, an excuse to post photos I didn't find a place for yet). Or, you never know, it might be something else entirely. Watch this space.