Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Swapping Spring Break Stories

When I got home from my exhaustive trip, I must've slept a 12 hour shift with a break somewhere between dreams. At home, I started typing out my notes from my written journal followed by a short period of unpacking.

Just excited to be home, sleeping in my own bed.

I wrote to Steph about getting some dinner so we could swap Spring Break stories. Feeling confident from being on time for trains, I bet her a shot that I would be on time for dinner. I would've been on time too if I had not spent so much time transferring the hundreds of pictures to my computer.

Sita and Steph met me on State Street and then we walked from place to place, ultimately deciding on Khone's restaurant, the Vientiane Palace. At dinner, it was fun to hear about their adventure down south to Alabama. In return I told them the wacky stuff that happened to me across the pond. Good times.

Before parting, Steph and I dropped by the Red Shed where I made good on the bet.

Activity: 2 | Energy: 3 | Friends: 3

Back Home

The Waste Land
by T. S. Eliot

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Spring Break '05 | Day 12

Early in the morning Shana had to leave for her job. We said our goodbyes and she left. With some final checks of our packed things we left her apartment for the train station. We caught the bus carrying her large, heavy luggage, which I was taking home for her. There was a little confusion on where to catch the SITA bus but we figured it out. We actually missed the first one we saw but the next one came at just a half hour later. As weird as it was, the driver of this peculiar bus was the same man that picked us up at the airport when we first got into Firenze. I guess this was Italy’s way to say goodbye with a familiar face.

At the Firenze airport we ate sandwiches before boarding the plane. The flight to Brussels was not nearly filled and I had a whole row of seats to myself. A boxed lunch was served but being full already, I saved it in my pack.

Once in Brussels the plan was to just play it by ear since neither of us knew what to do in city. We found some large lockers to lock up our stuff. Since it only took coins I sent Dustin out to get change. While I was waiting a couple of gorgeous Lithuanian girls came by in a luggage cart. One was pushing the other while the seated one gestured her arms like an airplane's wings. Their stuff was packed away in the above lockers so I helped them get it down. Leaning in close, I could smell the alcohol off their breath--sounds like they had a good time in Brussels. We chatted a bit before Dustin got back and I wished them a good flight.

After our bags were locked away we made our way to the ticket counter to buy train tickets into the city. The round trip fare was a good price and we made our way to the center. At the central station I decided to flip a coin on which direction to walk. As fortune would shine upon us it led directly to the heart of the city.

I suggested that we eat a place called the Sultan of Kebap where I enjoyed a half-chicken meal with fries for less than 3 euros. We took our food and ate on the steps of a large building nearby. A little walk around took us to a portion they called Chinatown. Once we saw what Brussels had to offer we went back to a Celtic bar that we had seen earlier. The place was called Celtica and they had happy hour all night until midnight.

Seated to some cheap drinks, I made conversation with a girl next to me from Sorrento, Italy who was studying languages in Lille, Belgium. She had been partying all of the last two nights and she told us about a friend of hers that was going to play at a bar somewhere in Brussels. There was some thought about going but we decided to stay where we had cheap drinks. Later in the night another a couple of Finnish girls had sat down next to us. Chatting away I found out that one was visiting a friend working in Brussels. I mostly spoke to Vera from Helsinki and we traded the pictures we had on our digital cameras. She showed me pictures of her apartment with sauna and suggested that I visit in the summer. In conversation she began telling me about studying Muay Thai kickboxing and I recounted my studies in the martial arts. We exchanged email addresses and parted ways.

The plan from here on out was to head back to the station and spend the night at the airport, however, already in a party mood Dustin and I decided to stay out all night and try to catch the early morning train back. As we wondered about we found a few bars that looked happening from the outside. At one bar there was a man handing out chocolate, dressed in a bunny suit. When we decided to go in he asked us about our sexual orientation. Then it struck me, the name of the place was called L’ Homo Erectus so we turned away. Walking about looking for another place, we kept finding ourselves going around in circles and not able to escape this gay district of the city. Giving up, we found a convenience store and bought a bottle of Malibu and Coke and made our way to a place to sit and drink. In a twist of fate we found ourselves in Brussels' Grand Place, a square surrounded by beautiful buildings--the same ones Vera had shown me on her camera only hours before. We found some steps to sit on while we made ourselves some drinks.

It began to rain.

With the rain, people in the square dispersed. A few guys came over and started hitting on Dustin while trading gum for his cigarettes. When another set of guys came by, we felt uncomfortable enough to make our way out of the area. By now it was already very late night. Dustin had to go to the bathroom so we staggered around for a place. As luck would have it, outside the Ibis Hotel--a very nice hotel I might add--a guy was waiting to be let in by the doorman. We went in as he walked in and found the bathroom, one floor down in the basement. The hotel was a classy establishment and the very same goes for the basement level as I found a small nook under the stairs, hidden away by a large vending machine. Rather than spend our night out in the rain, I decided that we should rest here under the stairs. Hidden away, only once in the night did someone actually come downstairs but our shadowy bodies must have eluded him.

By early morning we readied ourselves to leave. In my genius, I decided that we should take the stairs up a few floors and then take the elevator down so to not raise any suspicions. The plan worked perfectly, in fact so perfectly that we could have gone for a free breakfast but instead elected to skip it. The train back to the airport was short and we returned back to the locker area to get our bags. Being at the airport so early meant we had to wait until our terminal opened up for check-in. After we checked in the heavy bags we were put through several security checks and an additional one just for Americans. At the gate I sprawled my body out flat on the floor and slept a few hours. When I awoke from my short slumber, the seats surrounding me filled to capacity with Americans all ready to go home. I too was ready to go.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 2 | Friends: 3

Spring Break '05 | Day 12

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Spring Break '05 | Day 11

A little rough getting up this morning, I had to rush a bit to make it to the Uffizi Galleries. The line had grown longer than yesterday but I was sure that this time I was in line early enough to make the entrance time. After a very long four and a half hour wait I was admitted into the museum. It was definitely worth the effort to catch the works of Masters like Leonardo, Raphael, Botticelli, Titian and more. There was not nearly enough time to see everything so I made sure to hit up mainly the paintings that I wanted to see.

The Uffizi experience took all day so that by the time I got home, everyone had already left. Shana had left me notes that gave clues to how I could make my way into the apartment. I found notes at the front gate, to the main front door, and finally the apartment itself with a clue to a hidden key. Inside, I was surprised with a large chocolate Easter egg. I called up Shana on her cell phone and met up with them at the Duomo. We sat around there for some time before making our way back, though not before purchasing our bus tickets to the airport. This last full day in Firenze was a day to relax and pack. On the way home, we stopped by a place that served apperativo and we had a peaceful, enjoyable dinner. It was funny that the waitress had thought that she recognized me from the night before even though I had never been in the establishment.

At home Dustin and I packed as we watched Harold and Kumar go to White Castle on Shana’s laptop. When the movie was over, Dustin went to bed. Shana then got up from her sleep to show me some of the work that she’s been doing at school. The designs she did in PhotoShop and 3D Studio were impressive and I critiqued her work. As it grew late, it was time to lay down for my last night in Florence.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 2 | Friends: 2

Spring Break '05 | Day 11

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Spring Break '05 | Day 10

The first to wake up this morning, I got up and made some fresh squeezed orange juice and prepared a simple plate of fruit slices and the Sienese pastries. I washed all the dishes and cleaned the kitchen until I decided to go back to sleep and wait for everyone else to get up. When the day finally began we did a second load of laundry while filling up on a cheese, tomato, and pasta lunch.

By the time I made it to the Uffizi Gallery the line was too long for me to even make the last entrance time. I had lined up for a while to see how the flow would go but finally decided to leave. In the time I spent in line I spoke to a man from Salamanca, Spain and met a few guys from Boston. I gave them some pointers on ice cream selection as well as suggestions for clubs to go out to in Firenze.

I left the line knowing I wouldn’t be able to make the day’s last entrance call so I spent my day exploring the area around the Palazzo Vecchio. Later, I had planned to meet up with Dustin at the Ponte Vecchio. From there we crossed the bridge to the other side of the Arno River and a short walk to Santa Maria del Carmine, the home of the Masaccio mural of the Tribute Money. It’s been said that Michelangelo would spend hours staring at the Master’s work in the small Brancacci Chapel. A small distance away was the Church of Santo Spirito. Walking back around toward the river we stopped back at the Pitti Palace in front of Shana’s design school. While taking a minute to rest there, it strange enough to see the two guys that had sat down next to us at dinner in Rome.

Back at the apartment Shana made us a dinner of fettuccine alfredo and we dined on the balcony with a bottle of chianti. At the end of dinner, a plan had hatched about joining a procession that went about the city for Good Friday. Thinking it would be a long night, we decided against it and wanted to go out for a drink instead. A long walk past the Duomo took us to an tourist hangout called the Fish Pub. It was packed full of foreigners from all over. I found us some seats next to a couple from Liverpool and we discussed some football. Later in the night the two guys, James and Mark, whom I met in line at the Uffizi, show up and we hang out. While talking with Mark we decide to invite a few girls over to our table. Trying out my Italian pickup lines, I found out one of the girls, Tatiana, is from Genoa, Italy. We had a good talk and I bought shots for the crew.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 3 | Friends: 3

Spring Break '05 | Day 10

Friday, March 25, 2005

Spring Break '05 | Day 9

I had planned to leave early for Siena early in the morning. Since Shana did not have to go to work until noon I stuck around for an early spaghetti lunch and started on some laundry. Once I felt ready I strolled to the train station and found the next train out. Regional trains to Siena run at every quarter past the hour and they stop at all points until the final destination.

In Siena I first tried to buy my return tickets at the quick station but none of them would accept credit cards so I went up to the counter where I met a mother and daughter, traveling from Firenze to Siena on vacation, who were from none other than our neighbors in Minnesota.

From the station I set off on foot to the center of town. The path I took ran along the old city walls and with a little help, I found my way to the Palazzo Pubblico. Before entering the palazzo I made a brief stop at the Church of Santa Caterina. Upon entering the square of the palazzo I was impressed by the immense space and presence of the town hall. I spent some time looking around before tackling the Tower of the Palazzo Pubblico, which is said to be the second highest in Italy just slightly below the one in Florence. The climb was rather steep and had taken the breaths of many who had challenged it. From the top I could see the whole city and how all sections of town had come together at this remarkable center.

Getting down was fairly easy with gravity’s help. Leaving the palazzo I made my way over to the white and green marble Cathedral and Duomo of Siena. By now it was already past midday and I quickly explored the area. Before leaving I shopped around the small streets for some traditional Sienese pastries and found a favorite in ricciarelli, which had been made in Siena since the Crusades.

The train ride back was pleasant and I took a short nap. At Empoli Station everyone got off the train so I did as well. I would quickly find out that it was the end of the line for this particular Regional train. Fortunately, there were two trains heading to Firenze from this station, both running late. When the first one came it arrived on another platform so I ran quickly to catch it. In my haste, I made it to the train as the doors were just closing and I was able to jam my way in.

I arrived in Firenze by dinnertime and the plan was to go out for apperativo, a dining experience where one goes for a drink but stays for the food. We went to a place called Ristorante Angeli with a hip ambiance and a happening crowd. Many of the clientele were very good-looking people and some must work as models during the day. With one drink we had access to a delicious array of pasta and seafood. One pasta dish in particular was prepared with octopus and was simply amazing. With such beautiful people it was time again to try out my Italian pick-up lines. A little schmoozing got me the name of the waitress, Amy from Sweden, who was an acquaintance of one of Shana’s friends from school.

With dinner over we decided to swing by a bar. On route Shana ran into a man from Kosovo with a USA jacket and he kinda led us to an Irish pub. We didn’t stay long until I wanted to go home and rest. It began to rain that night as if to wash away the passing enjoyment of a week gone by.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 2 | Friends: 1

Spring Break '05 | Day 9

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Spring Break '05 | Day 8

This next morning in Rome started out at a relaxing pace. We took our time getting ready and set out for a breakfast/lunch. Already running low on currency we decided on McDonald’s—I guess it’s a little piece of home. Like home the food fills you up well at the same time making you feel uneasy about what just ate.

The first task for today was to make our way to the great Roman Colosseum that almost all modern day stadiums are based on. There was such a long line there that we elected to just walk around it. Just a short distance over was the Arch of Constantine. While walking up to the old Roman Forum, two young girls engaged me in talking and then tried to rob me. They did a bad job and got nothing from me. By noon, the Forum was already packed with tourists and we did some lounging around before moving on.

Next we decided to check out the Pantheon. On route we took a series of few wrong turns and found ourselves a little lost, however, this gave us a good visit to another part of the city where we got samples of cheese and wines. Once we found the Pantheon I had to take a moment to behold the splendor of such a sight. Inside I paid a visit to Raphael and the Maestro's tomb. The rain from the night before had let rain into the center from the oculus above.

From the Pantheon it was only a short walk to the Spanish Steps, which took its name from the grand set of stairs leading up to the Spanish Embassy. Along with hundreds of other visitors we sat down on the stairs facing the fountain below. Rested, we walked around to find the nearest metro station on route to the Christian Catacombs. The trip would take us on a metro train with a connection on a bus route to just outside the city. In all the time commuting we made it in time for the last tour of the day. At first, we were put in a large group for English speakers until I suggested that we switch to another smaller group that had a well-spoken tour guide. She took us into the dark crevasses of the catacombs and let us explore the paintings on the wall.

Rested, we walked around to find the nearest metro station on route to the catacombs. The trip would take us on a metro train with a connection on a bus route to just outside the city. In all the time commuting we made it in time for the last tour of the day. At first, we were put in a large group for English speakers until I suggested that we switch to another smaller group that had a well-spoken tour guide. She took us into the dark crevasses of the catacombs and let us explore the paintings on the wall.

At the end of our tour, we left the place to find our tour guide leaving as well and as such serendipity would supply us directions to the nearest bus stop back for Rome. The return bus took us all the way back to the train station where we decided our dinner nearby. The place we chose had all types of foods in a glass case but Shana would not let me chose anything from it so instead, we all elected for some pizza. Each of us had our own personal pizza and I chose for myself the tuna pizza. We were seated next to two Americans, one white and the other Asian. There was a mix-up with their food order and the waiter had asked Shana to translate something to them.

Making efficient use of our time we ate quickly and found our train back for Firenze. After a long day behind us, getting home meant for an easy uneventful night. Shana had to work the next morning so I planned on visiting Siena of all of tomorrow.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 3 | Friends: 3

Spring Break '05 | Day 8

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Spring Break '05 | Day 7

Awoken by the early morning hustle and bustle from the outside I felt a chill in the air. I guess we had forgotten to close the window last night and a breeze had cooled the room. I was the first to wake up and notice bug bites running along my arm and some spots on my neck. I showered up quickly as if they could've been some rash reaction to the sheets but they were bites. Shana had them too but not to the same degree.

As everyone got themselves ready for the day I went up to the balcony one story up to check out the spectacular view of the island. We checked in our bags at the hostel and went out to exchange currency at the bank across the street. For this beautiful morning we decided on a good breakfast to start the day. There was a great place nearby just a short walk from the hostel. Shana treated us to fresh squeezed orange juice and some pastries. I picked out a scrumptious Easter cake. As it was a family run store, the grandfather working behind the counter engaged Shana in conversation and suggested a route for us to follow on the island.

At the start of the trail we found a local market store to buy a bottle of water. The path led us up and down small foot roads along the mountain until we reached a viewing area overlooking the Arc Naturale, a towering foundation of rock that had been eroded to form a natural arch of stone. Much like the monkey that I am I climbed up a vertical part of the rock and found a nice little path up to a better view of the island. As we descended down the mountain path a couple of stray dogs started to follow us as guides. At the bottom of the arch was a cave carved by the motions of the sea. Moving on, we found a tile plaque that gave us directions to a beach down a steep path. Shana read the sign to say that it is 300 meters down, or as she erroneously put it about 1.5 miles. The climb down was fairly easy but the ascent back up took a toll on us and sapped a lot of energy. Completing the trail back around we glanced by the house of the famous poet Pablo Neruda. At the end of excursion we came back from whence we started and thanked the man for offering such an outing.

Picking up our bags we took the bus back down the cliffs to the city of Capri. By noon the sun had snuck out from the partly misty morning so we purchased tickets for a boat ride to the famous Blue Grotto. The boat took us to just outside the grotto where we had to pay again for a small personal boat ride through the narrow entrance into the grotto. This being my second time into the mystic cave and it still amazes me. The water inside is enhanced by the striking sunlight from the outside thus creating an aura of blue tranquility on the surface. I sang along to the tune of “O solo mio…” as did the boat rowers.

Once we returned to port it was time to purchase our return tickets for the ferry back to Naples. Waiting in the slow line made for a pleasant chat with the locals. With some time before we had to board the boat, I slipped my shoes off to walk in the clear waters off the beautiful shore. Prior to boarding I found an internet station to send a few emails out and purchase a sandwich for the return trip. As the boat took off the three of us found a nice seating area with a table to share in the wine, cheese and crackers that we had bought in Naples. Unlike last night’s travel, the sun was out and Dustin and I went to the stern of the ship to catch the sea air.

Back in Naples we made our way from the port to the train station by foot. The plan was to dine to the tune of Naples pizza but not able to find the good stuff, we ordered a quick pizza to go. With little time left we dropped in at small grocery store to buy drinks and snacks for the train. Using the quick station again we purchased tickets and got on the first train leaving for Rome.

On the train Shana and Dustin taught me how to play Egyptian Rat Screw, a card game they played as kids. As the action got intense the loud screams from our compartment raised a concern by the authorities and we were told to keep our voices down for the night train.

In Rome we found an excellent hostel called the beehive which housed a set of apartments that included kitchen access and free access to the internet. There, we dropped off our things and I unloaded my pictures taking advantage of the free computer use. In the suite, I met the girls staying across the way and offered them the snacks I had bought in Naples.

After a few sips of wine we set out for dinner. We found a nice place nearby and while Shana and Dustin ordered the Roman pizza, I elected for paella. From dinner we left for the Trevi Fountain, which was quite a walk from our hostel. Following my lead we got there without getting lost one bit. It was a nice night to be out so we spent a good deal of time sitting and talking in front of the grandiose fountain. As the tradition goes we each tossed coins over our backs to wish for a future return visit to the Eternal City.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 3 | Friends: 3

Spring Break '05 | Day 7

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Spring Break '05 | Day 6

Shana’s cell phone woke us to tune of Fox's the O.C. theme song, California. I was the first to get showered and ready to go as Shana got to know the two girls who were also staying in our room. Ironically, the two were from California and they were exploring Italy out of this home base of Sorrento.

Breakfast was included in the price of our hostel so we went downstairs to partake. It was a simple breakfast of boxed orange juice and a sweet bun. Dissatisfied we went next door for freshly squeezed orange juice and a creamy pastry. Picking up our packs we headed into the lobby to pay our dues and we ran into some more of Shana’s friends from school. Making sure we don’t run into the same mistake from the previous day, we rushed over to the train station for Pompeii to arrive at the ruins early.

Upon entry we had to check in our bags and in the rush forgot to pick up the guided maps. Shana made it clear that she indeed wanted one and of course we got them. Pompeii was fun for the first hour and then it grew tedious. We drew a plan to see the things that interested us the most, which included the House of Venus Marina and the Amphitheater.

Leaving the ruins behind us we hopped the next train back to Naples. By the time we arrived at the station the three of us grew hungry and decided on a quick snack at McDonald’s. From the train station we took a bus out to the port where we are to catch the ferry for the island of Capri. We bought our tickets for the journey and strolled about Naples for some shopping and sightseeing. At the Castle Nuovo of Charles of Anjou, we ran into Shana’s classmates--the very same ones we met in Sorrento, another striking coincidence. Still hanging on to the bag of hard donuts, I fed a few to the stray dogs in street and this one particular dog had followed us around for a bit.

Shana had heard from a recommendation that we must try the Naples coffee so we did followed by an indulgence of ice cream at the Caffe Italmoka, a most delicious choice. Now trying to ditch the bag of donuts, we offered them to a homeless man who did not prefer sweet treats and would not take them. Before leaving for Capri we decided to dine at the Hosteria Toledo, a small family restaurant where I tried the octopus dinner, which I would not recommend for the faint hearted.

Prior to boarding the ferry we stopped in a butcher shop to pick up some wine, cheese and crackers for the ride. Upon boarding the ferry, fatigue had set in as the three of us slept the better part of it.

On the Isle of Capri we dragged our tired bodies to the nearest bus that climbed up the cliffs to the city of Anacapri for the hostel and a late check-in. At the sight of a bed I dropped my things and hit the pillow with a slumbering thud.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 3 | Friends: 3

Spring Break '05 | Day 6

Monday, March 21, 2005

Spring Break '05 | Day 5

With school on break for Shana, she had planned a vacation with us to the southern part of Italy. After a late start we made it to the train station and purchased our tickets at one of the quick stations--which I have mastered by now. The Intercity train stopped in the Roma Termini station for us to make our connecting train to Naples. On the train to the Napoli Centrale station, I broke out the iPod shuffle for some music. Shana took one ear bud as I took the other as we sang along like dorks to each song that came up. LOL!

After a long ride to Naples we bought the local train tickets to Pompeii. Unlike the Trenalitalia lines, this transport was more like a subway tram that went along the side of the southern coast, riding the hills and rolling under the mountain tunnels. At Pompeii we bought another set of tickets before heading into the ruins. At a sideway stop we had lunch at an orange/lemon juice stand with all of us ordering this sandwich of cheese and raw bacon that was preserved in a salty base complemented with herbal leaves. It was a good lunch but by the time we finished and stopped by the ticket counter for the Pompeii ruins, we found the place closed for the day. A quick change of plans got us on the next train to Sorrento.

In the small coastal city of Sorrento we found a good currency exchange before heading into the heart of town. After a short walk, Shana’s heavy bag became a heavy burden and we swapped out for my lighter pack. Further along our stroll she had an inkling to buy this bag of sugar-coated donuts in the shop window. I paid for them and with a first bite we sunk our teeth into a hard pastry and that was the end of that. At some point we made our way around to the hostel in time for check-in and later, happy hour next door in the adjoining bar. Making good use of the time, we got online to book a hostel in Rome. For happy hour we drank more than any of us should before heading out into the town.

Clumsily wondering the streets we found our way back to the center of town and a most excellent seafood dinner at the Ristorante da Gigino. It was at this restaurant that Shana met a few guys that wanted to take us around town. After dinner we went back to the hostel to drop off my bag and later to meet up with our new friends, this scooter gang, who would show us around. Shana and I rode on the back of a scooter while Dustin tagged on to another guy’s scooter as we raced up and down the steep hills of the city. After a few swigs of wine near the sea, they took us back to our hostel.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 3 | Friends: 3

Spring Break '05 | Day 5

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Spring Break '05 | Day 4

Adjusting well to the time changes, I woke up refreshed to beautiful sunny Venetian morning. Showered and packed before 10:00a we checked in our bags in the main office after paying for our stay. First thing on the list was to visit the Basilica di San Marco with its golden domes in the Byzantine style. A stroll inside revealed the treasures taken during the crusades and relics of Saint Mark at the altar. Across the way was the St. Mark’s Campinale (bell tower) which was rebuilt in the last century with an elevator to the top. Views of the city were incredible from such a height. Adjoining the Basilica was the Palazzo Ducale. The former Doge’s Palace housed the large works of Tintoretto and Veronese as well as the seat of power in the region of Veneto. It was well worth the student reduced price for entry.

With all the sights that I had planned already out of the way before noon we stopped by a Chinese restaurant for a cheap lunch. Unbeknownst to us, they had tacked on seating fees which costed us a pretty penny for an otherwise cheap lunch. With our stomachs full and our wallets a little lighter we decided to go frugal for the day and went back up to the Rialto Bridge via the Grand Canal by means of the ferry. The beautiful bridge looked even grander in the sunlight and we rested a moment before heading to the train station.

On the return trip to Firenze our train stopped in the Bologna Centrale station to switch another train--this time not jumping the tracks with plenty of time before connecting trains. The train back was a Eurostar class train that was faster and more modern. For a good learning lesson we soon found ourselves pissing off other passengers because the Eurostar had a seat reservation system that guaranteed you a designated seat, unlike the Intercity trains we took to Venice. With a little help we made our way back to have a cookout dinner of burgers and sausages on the balcony.

On this night, Shana and Manolo had decided to take us out despite me already laying down for bed. They had taught me a few phrases to blurt out to people I meet at bars and my first test was to call up Sari and read off one of my newly learned pickup lines. After some laughs, we headed out. With already downing a few drinks at home I wasn’t in the mood to spend a lot of money out. The first place we stopped at was decent place so Dustin was the only one of us drinking as Manolo and I packed our pockets full of the free peanuts--snacks for later. The second bar called the Rotunda was an Irish bar whose clientele were mostly Americans and I had a bit more fun there, trying out the new lines. Without much fanfare, we headed home and a much needed night's sleep.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 3 | Friends: 3

Spring Break '05 | Day 1

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Spring Break '05 | Day 3

I woke up to a sudden shiver as I found myself in a sleeping bag on the balcony on a frigid Florentine morning. I guess I was adamant about sleeping outside the night before and now found myself in a cold dash back inside to warm up. Shana had her last class today before her holiday break today so Dustin and I planned to head up to Venice for a short excursion. As Dustin showered, I walked with Shana to the train station to purchase train tickets. When she headed off to school, I rushed home to shower and then we darted back on a bus to the station with just enough time to catch the train out.

On the train, Dustin was feeling hung over from all the drinking and we found our way to the dining car for a small snack of salami and bread. Coincidentally one of Shana's friends that we met the night before, Yoseph, was in the very same car on his way to his holiday destination. While I read from Shana's Let's Go Italy guidebook, Dustin had puked into a bag and had placed that bag on the floor. As he passed into a tired stupor, his puked slowly dripped onto the floor of the train car and an angry, large Italian man had quickly made us aware of the incident. I made sure we got out of there as quickly as possible. At a point in the trip, we had only a few minutes to change to a connecting train to Venice. At the Venezia Mestre station, we became aware that the train we were supposed to be on was just about to arrive. Along with other foolish Americans we illegally dashed across the tracks to get to the other platform to make it in time to catch the train.

At the Venezia St. Lucia station, I found a quick station ticket terminal to buy return fare for the next day. Heading out of the station, hunger had set in and I bought ice cream on the walk to the hostel. After hours of walking around the city, we found the hostel and dropped off our luggage before heading out to dinner. In one of the restaurants along the canal we found the Ristorante Alla Conchiglia and splurged on a three course meal with dessert. I tried the Venetian pasta dish with scuttlefish followed by a fried calamari serving.

After dinner we walked in the direction St. Mark’s Square and then to the Bridge Accademia to the far end of the city. In the return trip, we made our way to the Rialto Bridge to buy some gifts that had caught my eye earlier. On the way back to the hostel, we dropped by a supermarket to buy some wine and beers. Back at our spacious hostel, I took an hour for sleep and then we headed out again to a drink and sandwich at a local pub.

Once all the shops had begun to close up, we made our way back. To get back into the hostel, there was a key to open the front gate. With little success we tried valiantly to open the blasted gate--the key had fit but would not turn. Later, we were to discover that I was mistakenly using Shana’s apartment key to open the gate. This weird twist of events would lead me to take a break from the failed attempts at entry. While we waited a moment, a group of girls hauling their own luggage had come up to our hostel. They had with them the inn keeper and he had opened the gate for us with his key. In an even stranger of coincidences, these girls were from Wisconsin and more specifically Madison, my home. It became clear to them from my Wisconsin fleece jacket that a bunch of us mid-westerners had good taste in choosing such a great hostel in Venice. In our room, we drank the beer and wine before getting a good night’s rest.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 3 | Friends: 3

Spring Break '05 | Day 3

Friday, March 18, 2005

Spring Break '05 | Day 2

At the Brussels International Airport we had to go through a thorough security check point before allowing us access into the European Union as visitors. Dustin and I found our connecting gate next to a Beer Bar and we sat down to a drink of Hoegaarden, a tasteful Belgium ale. During the short wait we hatched a plan for our meeting with Shana to meet her separately with Dustin tricking her into thinking how he had lost me at the airport.

The flight from Brussels to Firenze was fairly short with a nice view of the Alps. A delay in reaching the gate was cause for us to miss the first bus out to the station where we were to meet. Getting on the next available SITA bus we made our way to the train station at Santa Maria Novella. Dustin had gone out first as I snuck around to another entryway within the station. I guess our little ploy made for only a short rouse, nonetheless, it was good to see my friend again.

At the station, Shana took us to a currency exchange and we had converted our dollars to euros. Even though I had read that it was a bad deal to exchange money at the station, I had trusted Shana in knowing what she was doing. Unfortunately for us, she has no need to exchange money in Italy and we lost an early chunk of our money in the process. No bother, I was just glad to be there.

It was a short walk from the station to her apartment. Her residence was located in a small gated complex with a cramped elevator that took us up to the third floor where we would stay for the next week. Sitting down to catch up on friendly matters, I emptied my pack and rested a bit before going out to see the city.

Although Shana had led the way for the short excursion, I had made sure to it to walk by certain landmarks of interest. Walking in the direction of the station, we went by Santa Maria Novella on the way to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore with its magnificent Duomo. After some inquiry, Shana found the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the office that could grant me permission to the sublevel of the church of San Reparata on top of which the current church is built. Alas, the bureaucratic process would hinder such access since they required nothing less than a request by a prominent professor of my school. Across the way was the medieval Baptistery adorned by what Michelangelo had coined the Gates of Paradise. Moving on we came around the corner to the Palazzo Medici, a prototype of sorts for later palaces of Italian Communal power. By the Arno River lay the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge to survive the war and ravages of Firenze's history. A short distance from the river was the grandiose Pitti Palace, right across the street from the Accademia Italiana where Shana continues her studies.

With the sun slowly descending on the horizon, we made our way back home along the Arno River where Shana described these big rats that moved steadily up and down its banks. She was not exaggerating one bit as we came up on one. Here we are, three naive Americans with cameras strut to take no less than 20 pictures each of the wet, disgusting creature.

Satisfied that one of us had caught the monster under the lens, we almost made it home before I decided to treat everyone to ice cream at a gellateria called Slurp. It was the homemade variety and the taste was simply indescribable. Back at Shana's place, we each took shots of lemonciello and wine before committing to a salmon pasta dinner. Shortly after I laid down on the balcony on Shana's exercise mat for a little nap. On our first night in Firenze, they had wanted to take us out for a few drinks and to meet up with Shana's crew from school before everyone had broken up for holiday break.

Again, it was a long walk back to meet up at the Duomo but since we would be arriving late, we headed directly to the Rex Club, a hip local bar where the crew had already begun to assemble. Before entering the bar, we had joined up with Shana's friend Sari from Sweden. Shana's friends from school were all really cool people from all over Europe and even a few from Mexico. Conversing with Sari throughout the night, I had learned that she liked American hip hop, but not the commercial kind--"no 50 cent, no 60 cent." HA! At the end of the night, the crew broke up and I offered to walk Sari home since I didn't understand how a girl like her could make it home alone on the dimly lit streets of Firenze. Common sense directed otherwise that I wouldn't know how to get back myself so we said our goodbyes and left for home.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 1 | Friends: 3

Spring Break '05 | Day 2

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Spring Break '05 | Day 1

I had been up all night finalizing things before my trip. Laundry was done, taxes completed, and my bag was packed to capacity. As I crammed my pack full, I watched Pixar's The Incredibles on DVD. When all was done, my dad drove me downtown to pick up Dustin on the way to the Memorial Union. The Van Galder bus to O'Hare left at its scheduled time and I was on my way to Italy.

The tickets that I had booked with Orbitz left us with little information. I had assumed that our flight left out of Terminal 5 where other international destinations were departing. Instead, we took the tram to Terminal 2, the home of American Airlines. Apparently SN Brussels Airlines which were printed on the tickets were hosted by AA to connect us to the rest of Europe.

The flight was physically tiring as with all long flights but my weary excitement made for an endurable passage. The in-flight dinner and movie was nothing spectacular with a serving of warm chicken pasta and a dish of the Princess Diaries 2 on the small screen. About an American girl who finds herself a newly named Princess of Genoa, the sequel did not have the same surprising cuteness as its predecessor. Nonetheless, it had helped pass the time and soon enough it was time to land in Brussels, Belgium.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 1 | Friends: 1

Spring Break '05 | Day 1

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Early Morning Training

I woke up early Friday morning to attend a Learn@UW training session. The slippery roads were a concern and delayed my commute. When I arrived at DoIT I found Caitlin wondering around looking for the training room so we walked in together, late.

After giving Caitlin a ride home, I returned home for a little sleep. I was not feeling well, perhaps on account of the cold weather or maybe from the eel from the night before. Whatever the case, I was in no condition to be moving about. Not feeling up for anything, I had to cancel my consulting session with Jean in the afternoon and skipped out of Kendo practice. I eventually had to go into work, sick or not. Thankfully, work was slow and I recovered.

At the end of the night, I received a call from Kelly who was throwing a party at her place. David and Jenica were already there along with Metzger. Also, Alice had come down to Madison from Waukesha so I guess I had to go. I had not planned to stay long but as soon as I got there I found myself in the middle of a keg stand, against my ill wishes. Later, Alice and I hatched a plan to tell everyone that I was their older brother Charlie. It was fun while it lasted.

Leaving the party early as I had planned, I dropped by the Great Dane to meet up with James and Sita for Christina's birthday celebration. After the quick appearance, I dropped David off and headed home.

At home, I was greeted with a large cardboard box from Dell. Yippie! My new Dell W1900 LCD TV had arrived. In no shape to set it all up, I went to bed tired.

Activity: 2 | Energy: 1 | Friends: 3

Dell W1900 LCD TV

"I saw Eternity the other night Like a great Ring of pure and endless light."
-Henry Vaughan

Weekly Horoscope: 03-13-2005

This week has a number of glitches, which could all be turned into "Aha!" moments, Fei, if you really want to make some changes in your life. You may not feel in the best of moods on Monday, when the Sun squares Pluto. What you really need to do is take a step back and try and see things in a different perspective. Someone such as a boss or superior may suggest a plan that you absolutely do not agree with. Instead of holding on to your resentful feelings, let them go and try to say what is really on your mind. It could be the turning point you have been waiting for. Yet, on Friday there could be a few jealous moments as Venus squares Pluto. Perhaps there is some competition at work or with a client, and you don't seem to be coming out of it as well as you had hoped. It is not worth worrying about - it will soon pass, but don't get too sulky and spoil your image in the meantime. On Saturday Mercury turns retrograde in the career sector of your chart, which is going to cause some chaos in the weeks ahead. But this is also the best time to clear out all sorts of clutter from your life - both mental and physical. Don't dismiss any romantic or adventurous notions when Venus trines Saturn early this week, just because you don't feel in the mood - they are worth attempting.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Eel Meal

I did not accomplish much on Wednesday.
Officially a self-declared day off for Fei.

Then tonight I had gone into work for only a short time before meeting Stephanie at Ginza of Tokyo on Madison's west side. To much to Steph's surprise I was on time and had reserved a tea room. She had played it safe and ordered the Chicken Teriyaki and Tempura while I dared the Unaju, a dish of Eel with Eel Sauce on a Bed of Rice. When the meals were ready, my dinner was the only one that came in a covered box.

It's been far too long since we've last gone out and I miss her company. I am glad that we had found a time to catch up on things and drink and dine. And even though the year had not started out the way we had intended, I know enough to look forward to the future and of Spring. For it is there that all good things bloom.

It is already mid-March and I leave for Italy next week. I had wished that Steph could have come on this trip. Dear friend, you will be missed.

After dinner, we dropped by the Old Town Pub on Gammon Road where we were suppose to meet for Christina's birthday get together. Christina, James, and Sita arrived some time later for some drinks and the occasional random toast. In conversation, I brought up the topic Of Mice and Men and how Sita's hair had curls like sausauges...haha!

Activity: 2 | Energy: 2 | Friends: 3

The Year of the Yao

Wuzhen: China's Venice

I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Music for Winter's End

Monday turned out to be a very long day. I had stayed up most of the morning to catch up on reading for class and then finishing up on a short paper. In class, I had nearly fallen asleep until discussion began. In odd fashion, I felt newly awakened and participated deeply in our topic of French Gothic architecture in Medieval Italy, driven by a subconscious knowledge of the subject.

A short nap was desperately needed before going into Kendo practice. Unfortunately, the nap caught me a bit behind and even a little groggy. During practice, Mark gave us the paperwork and details for the 17th Annual Cleveland Kendo Tournament for the weekend of April 16th. Looking ahead in my schedule, that leaves me this week of practice and another 2 weeks after returning from Italy before I leave again for Cleveland. Furthermore, somewhere in all that craziness my first rough draft of the term research paper is due.

Leaving practice, I had to shower quickly before heading into work. I'm scheduled to work many more hours this week since I'll be out most of next week. The plan is for me to leave next Wednesday evening and arrive in Florence Thursday afternoon. I have still much to do including my taxes, buying a good backpack for the trip, and some last hanging out with my friends before I go.

I had to work again tonight but as it turns out the call volume was low enough for me to duck out early to attend the East High Concert Band's Music for Winter's End concert. My sister plays the oboe and she has taken my place as the second in the family to play that instrument for East High, under the direction of Dr. Scott Eckel. In fact, he had surprised her earlier in the day when he gave her a new oboe after practice. This is the last of their performances before heading down to Orlando to compete in the All American Music Festival.

I remember my band trip in high school. The long road trip down wasn't particularly enjoyable except for the brief stop in Memphis and my first visit to a White Castle. In Orlando, I especially remember our dinner at King Henry's Feast where knights battled each other throughout the meal. At some point in the night, I got on the stage to participate in a kid's storytelling--I was the biggest kid (and still a kid at heart). After this particular dinner, Sam had tried to engage me in a fight because of some jealousy thing, perhaps spurred on by my hanging out with Beth (who for the record, doesn't even like him). I had my black belt test later that year to think of and fighting meant getting sent home. It was also this weekend that I remember Claire challenging me to a game of tennis at the hotel and later that night, Kepera and I snuck out from the supervision of our chaperones for some late night coffee nearby.

This trip was also my first time to the Atlantic Ocean. After a storm had passed the waves coming into the shore were massive, nonetheless, I found myself swimming out so far that I could barely see land. The only other person who had swam so far out was Claire (swim team) so I had no concern but rather enjoyed riding the swells coming back in. I had the most incredible time on this band trip and I'm sure Diana will too.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 2 | Friends: 2

Madison East High School

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Warm Weather Awards

The cold weather has begun to let up and it was warm enough to go running after work Saturday night. For not running in months, I barely made 2.5 miles and that's with about 60 seconds of walking to catch my breath. By the end of this summer, I'm hoping to get up to 3.5 to 4.0 miles or enough for a 5k.

Today, I took a call from an old friend, Kristie, whom I haven't heard from in quite some time. She's having a slight problem logging into secure websites with Internet Explorer. Blah!

The weather was simply incredible today so I elected to skip Kendo practice and hang out with my sister. She dragged me to an informational meeting for her summer basketball league. In return, I made her go watch shopping with me as I am in need of a more mature timepiece.

Strawberries were on sale once again at Copp's Food Center where we dropped by after the mall. There, I picked up ingredients for my famous Chilli Rotini to serve at dinner along with servings of FeiShakes.

In other news, Prof. Murray, the prominent Asian Art Historian at the University of Wisconsin, was awarded a DoIT Adaptation Award for Spring 2005 which will provide assistance for her project using ConceptTutor in Art History 307 (Early Chinese Art from Antiquity to the 10th Century), offered next Fall.

Activity: 3 | Energy: 2 | Friends: 1


Weekly Horoscope: 03-06-2005

Relationships may be just a bit sticky at the start of this week, Fei, as Mars moves to oppose Saturn in your sign. You might find that you have a number of objections to ideas and suggestions that your partner comes up with. You don't feel like budging an inch, but they are keen to get ahead. A sense of frustration could set in, but be assured it is only temporary. At least you will both get to understand what it is you want, and find a way to compromise. Your house of travel and new horizons is also emphasized at this time, which is going to put you in the mood for a zany adventure. If you are planning a short vacation it could be a lot of fun, so go for it. On top of this there is a New Moon in Pisces on Thursday, meaning it is a good time for any sort of foreign travel whether for business or pleasure. Take the trip within two weeks and it should bring some very exciting opportunities your way. Mercury in Aries is enabling you to speak up with regard to career issues. Take this opportunity if you need to do some research into new projects. Presentations work well too.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Party at the Church

Since watching the Great Gatsby on DVD, I've decided to read the novel again. This time around I appreciate it more since I'm not doing it for school and it's simply for pleasurable reading. Work was incredibly slow due to the warming weather outside. We ordered from Mediterranean Cafe since I felt guilty about the night before.

After work, I stopped by the old Church on Hamiltion Street. It's no longer a church nor does it serve such functions. It has since been renovated into a large residence where both Brock and Hlavenka live. Last night, they were throwing a ninja, nurses, astronauts, and cowboys party. I made an appearance in normal attire since I was just leaving work. At some point, there were girls fighting boys with styrofoam swords. I had a drink with the guys from work, Brock, Ryan, Hlavenka, and Welcome before heading home.

Here's an interesting link for the FEI World Cup. Alas, not a chicken wings contest. :(

It's again pretty slow at work tonight and I get some time to read.
I love my iPod shuffle. Steve Jobs agrees.

Activity: 1 | Energy: 2 | Friends: 1

Steve Jobs with iPod shuffle

In 1976, a 21-year-old Steve Jobs launched Apple Computer in the family garage. Nine years later, after an internal power struggle at the computer maker, Jobs was stripped of his duties and ousted from Apple, but he returned to run Apple as interim CEO in 1996 when the company was struggling. Under Jobs, the company's sales have soared with the introduction of products like the iMac PC and iPod personal music player. Apple sold 4.5 million iPods in 2004.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

A Cheating Reality

Late last night, Diana and I stopped by the nearby Blockbuster to rent The Great Gatsby so that we could get some ideas for her paper and also since I needed a refresher, not having read the book in no less than 6 years.

The guy there said that he had a copy on VHS and I had to think about if I even had a VHS player. I don't. In the days of DivX and mp3, anything less than DVD was antiquated technology. Fortunately for us, they also had a copy on DVD.

This version of the film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow turned out to be pretty good. The screenplay was adapted by Francis Ford Coppola and the directing captured a roaring 1920's quite well. I got caught up in the tragic love story and it rehashed my fond memories of reading the book in high school.

This morning, I woke up from a dream that felt as if it lingered into reality. I don't quite remember what the dream was but my whole day seemed to have been caught up in this weird dreamy state. Even as I drove into work I felt the the artificialness of a bright, warm yellow sun and the ease of which I dodged around traffic to get to work slightly late but on time on FeiTime.

At work, I was sent out early to pick up food for the team. We decided on ordering from Chipotle instead of our normal routine of Mediterranean Cafe. Oddly, as I had left the restaurant with my orders, I came by the girl that works at the Mediterranean Cafe and we nodded in acknowledgement. I know her from all the times I had picked up orders in the past but on this night, I felt as if I had just cheated on her. She's one of those people that go about your normal life and traverses the line between what one might call an acquaintance and a complete stranger. Tonight, it felt much more like the later. By the time I made it back to work with our dinners, the dream effect had finally worn off and it was right back to the daily grind.

Activity: 1 | Energy: 2 | Friends: 1

The Great Gatsby

the final lines of the novel, The Great Gatsby

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning--
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Benefits of Kirikaeshi

It was quite a relief to pass the AUSKF Kendo Shinsa (promotional examination) and receive my rank of ikkyu. In Detroit I had only gone through the portion of the exam that tested appearance, etiquette, jikeiko (combat practice), and kata. The Sensei's gave us our final task, a short written exam, to take home and complete. The question was just one simple inquiry:

Explain the benefits of Kirikaeshi.

I will have to turn in my response to Mark at practice tomorrow. I found the book Kendo: the definitive guide by Hiroshi Ozawa a great resource in writing my answer.

In the past, I had assisted in adding to and editing articles for the open source, free internet encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Since there was no article on the term kirikaeshi, I decided to contribute my written examination as an article. It's far from perfect and there's so much more I can write on the subject but I'm too tired right now and have lots of reading to catch up on for school.

Activity: 2 | Energy: 2 | Friends: 1

Wikipedia article: kirikaeshi