Archive for June, 2012
Myth busted! Joe & I flew to and from London on Virgin Atlantic, the airline owned by flamboyant rich dude Sir Richard Branson. I had watched a segment on “The Colbert Report” a few weeks back about the special ice cubes depicting Branson’s head that had been developed for Virgin’s Upper Class cabin, or, as Colbert put it, “the glassy hollow eyes of the grinning goat man” looking back at you from the bottom of your drink. For some reason, I was totally fascinated by this story, and kept making reference to it on our flight to Heathrow (I hope it goes without saying that Joe & I were not, in fact, seated in Upper Class). “If only we had paid a few thousand dollars extra, I could totally be drinking a Pimm’s Cup chilled by a Richard Branson ice cube!”
On the flight back to the U.S., Joe offered to sneak into Upper Class to ask the bartender about the ice cubes. (Yes, Upper Class has a real, genuine bar.) I was sure there would be bouncers right behind the curtain, ready to toss out any non-Upper Class person who might deign to cross the threshold, but in fact he was able to approach without being Tasered. The bartender revealed that the Branson ice cubes don’t actually exist, though they are apparently an object of fascination (Joe was the second person that day to inquire about them). I assume they were nothing but a cool marketing gimmick to promote the revamped cabin.
According to its web site, Virgin does have some good deals on Upper Class — if you are willing to travel on certain days, a round trip from SFO to Heathrow can be had for $3100, which is pretty reasonable for a long haul flight in first class. But without Sir Richard’s frozen head cooling your cocktail, is it really worth it?
After an entire month spent traveling, I am almost home — two hours away from Oakland Airport, to be exact. I am flying over the Rocky Mountains on a Southwest plane which offers wifi. This is the first time I’ve used wifi on a Southwest flight; it’s been rolled out a bit sporadically, so is not available on all flights, but if you can get it, it only costs $5, which is a pretty good deal.
Since leaving SFO on May 18, I have spent almost 30 hours flying on airplanes. Regular readers of this blog know that I do not enjoy air travel; I’ve been open about it here, figuring that a lot of people share this anxiety and perhaps talking about it can be helpful. It’s something I’ve grappled with for years, most likely owing to an extremely turbulent flight from London over a decade ago. I mean, I practically grew up on on airplanes, since we flew so frequently to visit my mom’s family in Sweden. I have never let my phobia stop me from flying — when your closest relatives live a couple thousand miles away, there’s really no other alternative — but I was usually miserable or terrified. I constantly envied my globetrotting friends Bill & Toby Gottfried, who are always jetting off to South Africa or Australia or the U.K. When I asked them once how they cope with flying so much, they looked at me rather oddly — after all, a long flight gives you so much delicious free time to catch up on your reading!
So I feel at least a small bit of pride over having gotten through this trip with pretty much no anxiety whatsoever. We just flew through a bad patch of weather, the kind where the pilot comes over the P.A. to ask the flight attendants to take their seats. That’s serious stuff. A flight attendant just yelled at a guy who had gotten up to use the restroom. Ordinarily, I’d be hyperventilating, freaking out, sweating profusely, and grabbing either the arm rest or Joe’s arm (not an option on this flight as he’s staying on the East Coast for a few days). Instead, I’m — well, I’m not going to say calm, but my anxiety level is at a 4 or 5 instead of a 9 or 10. And on the flights to and from Europe, which were essentially turbulence-free, my anxiety level was at a 1 or 2. I even got through a couple of the shorter flights without my prescription anti-anxiety meds and without drinking anything stronger than tea.
How did I get to this point? I was willing to try anything, short of having someone shoot me with a blow dart full of elephant tranquilizer and wheel me onto the aircraft. (I have never dared to take a sleeping pill before flying, even long-distance, fearing that I wouldn’t wake up in case of an emergency, or that being out cold would prevent me from moving my legs, thus leading to deep vein thrombosis. See, I worry about everything.) I’ve seen two different hypnotherapists, tried various prescription pharmaceuticals, ear seeds, alcohol, buying the most intense thrillers and mystery novels I could find, Sudoku, reading numerous books with titles like Flying Without Fear, tapping, and taking online courses taught by pilots. I got to the point where I was generally OK as long as the flight was smooth, but any hint of turbulence made me want to run screaming down the aisle, and my anticipatory anxiety was so overwhelming before I flew to France last November that I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.
The one thing that worked better than any of the others was the hypnosis by the first hypnotherapist I consulted — I was fine after that for a year or so, but I felt that I needed a resource I could draw on more regularly (and more cheaply). After spending a few hours browsing online forums, I found a reference to a two-part audio recording by a British hypnotherapist named Glenn Harrold called “Overcome Your Fear of Flying.” There were a bunch of positive reviews on Amazon.com, and it only cost about $15 (a fraction of what it costs for an appointment with a hypnotherapist). I downloaded the MP3 from Audible onto my iPhone, and listened to it through headphones every single night for the month leading up to our trip. (It’s in two parts, so I alternated parts one and two, as suggested.) I usually listened before bed, so I’d estimate that I heard it all the way to the end no more than a half dozen times. Sometimes I was sound asleep after five minutes, despite the excruciatingly bad background music and Harrold’s heavy South London accent.
When I got on my first flight, from SFO to New York’s JFK, I could hear Harrold’s by-now-familiar voice in my head, telling me to breathe innnn through my nose and ouuuut through my mouth. Everything went well and I was able to enjoy my weekend in New York without panicking over my upcoming flight to Heathrow. I haven’t listened to the recording again since I left home, because I felt that it had become somehow imprinted on my brain after all those repetitions. Still, next time I have to fly, just to be on the safe side, I’ll break it out again at least a couple weeks before I leave.
I do think I fare better on shorter segments — I’d rather change planes on the East Coast than take a 12-hour flight straight through from SFO to London or Paris — but who knows, maybe someday, I’ll fulfill my lifelong dream of visiting Australia and New Zealand. The idea seems more plausible now than it did a month ago. (The flying-there part, anyway. The money part will take a while longer.)
Of course, I’m only human. I waited until I got home to post this update, figuring that if I hit “publish” while we were still in the air, the plane would immediately crash into the Sierras, instantly making this The Most Ironic Blog Post Ever. Happily, the final hour of the flight was smooth and uneventful. It’s good to be home.
Stockholm is a very popular destination for cruise ships. Yesterday, the Costa Fortuna was here, as part of its “Baltic Discovery” cruise — a 7-day journey that hits several Nordic cities, including Copenhagen, Denmark, and Tallinn, Estonia. Downtown Stockholm was filled with charter buses, taking cruisers around to the most popular sites, such as the Vasa Museum and the royal palace. (There are some nice videos on this page, which describe the excursions.)
I know it’s hard to tell from a photo just how massive the ship is. I looked it up online, however, and even this gigantic liner is quite a bit smaller than the Costa Concordia, i.e. the ship that sank off the coast of Italy in January. The Fortuna has a capacity of 2,700 passengers and 1,000 crew members; the Concordia could transport over 3,700 passengers.
Here is the picturesque Stockholm harbor.
I’ve been tempted to try cruising, mainly because the idea of spending the whole vacation in a single room while seeing multiple destinations is enticing. However, the Fortuna’s passengers only got to spend about nine hours here, and while the excursions may promise “the best of Stockholm,” I know that discovering “the best” of any particular place takes many days, weeks, months — even a lifetime. My two weeks here will only scratch the surface, and I’ve been coming to this city regularly my whole life.
You can “visit” a city through a daylong excursion, or even by watching episodes of Rick Steves, but to immerse yourself in the life of a place is a rare luxury.
I’ll get back to my touristy stuff soon, but I must address something that is of great concern to all travelers: laundry.
I recently finished reading Lee Child’s The Affair, the “prequel” to his Jack Reacher series. If you’ve read any of the Reacher books, you know the hero owns a single possession: one of those clip-together travel toothbrushes. When his clothes get dirty or torn (Reacher gets in a lot of fights), he finds a cheap clothing store, buys new stuff to wear, puts it on immediately, and tosses the old stuff in the nearest trash bin.
To be a normal, non-Reacher-like traveler is to envy Child’s creation, who drifts from town to town, most frequently on Greyhound buses. I suppose it would be theoretically possible for me to emulate him, but alas, I cannot bring myself to re-wear underwear and socks without washing them, and what a hassle it would be to have to constantly find new ones. Other necessities include sunscreen, lip balm, my eye mask and earplugs, Kindle, laptop, adapters, cable, iPhone, a second pair of shoes (for travel, I’m partial to heavy European walking shoes, like those made by Ecco or Rieker), sunglasses, contact lens fluid, deodorant (presumably Reacher only exudes a heavenly man-scent, which enables him to score chicks), a selection of over the counter drugs (you’re out of luck if you need an antihistamine in Sweden and don’t have a prescription), a nail clipper, toothbrush, floss (despite the fact that Reacher does fine without them), and an umbrella. Joe brought a couple pairs of reading glasses. I think Joe and Reacher are about the same age, but somehow Reacher never seems to need assistance to read a diner menu or a Greyhound timetable.
We had been on the road for a week when we got to Bristol, figuring that surely, it would be a piece of cake to find a laundrette (as the Brits say) within walking distance of our hotel. It was not. I wound up borrowing a cup of laundry detergent from fellow Yanks Bill & Toby, and washing a few pairs of socks and some underwear in the bathroom sink.
By the time we arrived in Paris, we were desperate to do some serious clothes-washing. I knew the tiny flat we were renting had a washing machine, because I’d seen it in the photos on the apartment-rental site. The owner explained that the unit was a combination washer/dryer, and showed us how to operate it. It sounded so simple, but as with the French language, there is so much nuance. The first load I threw in took over three hours, and when it finally emerged from the machine, everything was incredibly wrinkled. I gamely tried to iron stuff like pajama bottoms simply because it looked so horrible. Joe found a manual in English online, and I wound up re-washing some of the stuff in an effort to get it to come out a bit neater. No such luck.
I then consulted my sister-in-law, whose own flat has a similar combo unit, for advice. She suggested that I program the machine to wash the clothes, take some out to air-dry, and then do a separate dry-only cycle for the rest of it. Unfortunately, the hellish appliance remained tightly locked after the wash cycle, refusing to allow me access to my clothing. By the time (again, over three hours later) it finally yielded, everything was — you guessed it — wrinkled. But at least some of it was still damp, so it was easier to iron.
If I have to deal with one of these cursed machines again, I think the thing to do is to wash tiny loads — my sis-in-law informed me that the drying capacity of the unit is (rather illogically, in my opinion) half of its washing capacity. I’m too accustomed to throwing a giant basketful of jeans, undies, socks, shirts and what have you in my big old American washer. These Euro-sized units can’t handle our gargantuan American loads.
The apartment in Stockholm has a small washer (pictured at right) in the kitchen, but no dryer. I was so relieved that it wasn’t another combo unit that I was fine with that. There is a drying rack, and everything dried swiftly and relatively wrinkle-free. It’s definitely the most hassle-free clothes-cleaning experience I’ve had so far on this trip. I’d almost rather wash clothes in the sink than use a combo washer/dryer (maybe the EU bureaucrats should ban them!). As much as I like it here, I have to admit that I am sort of looking forward to being able to use to my large capacity American machines once again.
I am très triste to be leaving Paris. On the other hand, maybe when I get to Stockholm, I’ll eat a salad or two. I feel like all I’ve consumed since arriving here a week ago is cheese, wine, bread and pastries. Were it not for my insistence on walking several miles a day between meals, I don’t think any of my pants would still fit.
Yesterday, I had the good fortune of meeting up with my friend Cara Black at a cafe near the Seine. My first “exposure” to Paris was from Cara’s novels, each of which takes place in a different arrondissement (district) of Paris. The first book in her series is Murder in the Marais, which I read several years ago; we’re staying in the Marais, and funnily enough, the apartment we’re renting contains several guidebooks in English — along with a paperback copy of Murder in the Marais. Fortunately, the Marais seems pretty safe, though Joe and I did witness a bunch of wet suit-clad divers and a police boat in the Seine a couple of days ago. Were they searching for a body? We watched for a while, but didn’t see them surface with anything suspicious.
The French Open is in progress, and there’s a big plaza near the Hôtel de Ville (Paris’ City Hall) where people can watch the match on a giant screen, and even test the speed of their serve. The plaza has been covered with temporary orange flooring to resemble the Open’s famous clay court. The day was pretty cloudy and gray so there weren’t a lot of spectators.
The first Sunday of the month is “free admission” day at many Paris museums, so we thought we’d check out the Pompidou Centre. I find the building sort of off-putting, so I’m not sure I would have paid to enter it, but inside, there is a fabulous view once you get to the top floor — and its modern art collection is truly massive. Not quite as impressive as the Tate Modern, but if you enjoy conceptual art, as I do, you will find it worthwhile. I was fascinated by Christian Boltanski’s Les archives de C.B., made up of 646 rusty biscuit tins, allegedly containing “more than 1,200 photos and 800 documents that Boltanski gathered when he cleared his atelier. These tins, in other words, contain records from his entire life as an artist, shielded from view. They are only present in his memory and privacy.” What’s actually in those tins? A bunch of amazing stuff, or are they empty, and the joke’s on us? Who knows? I was also taken by Joseph Beuys’ “Plight,” an installation made up of 43 rolls of felt, a piano, a blackboard and a thermometer. You have to duck under a couple rolls of felt to enter the installation. It’s kind of quiet and cozy in there, a rarity in crowded Paris.
The only thing I would complain about here is the hybrid washer-dryer — yes, you put your dirty clothes in, and several hours later, they allegedly come out clean and dry. Our experience has been that everything comes out super wrinkled. I asked my sister-in-law, whose apartment also contains one of these devices, for guidance and she suggested washing very small loads and removing some items to drip-dry after the end of the wash cycle. Hopefully, the building in Stockholm where we’ll be staying will have a conventional tvättstuga (laundry room) in the basement, with separate washers and dryers, as God intended.
It’s another guest blog by Joe!
Traveling for five weeks is very challenging until you stop moving. Sue & I started our journey with two suitcases, a tote bag (for books and crossword puzzles), and a technology backpack (laptop, iPad, cables, cables, cables). They’re not easy to manage between 2 people, especially 2 people trying to take multiple trains and busses in Europe.
European transit systems tend to concentrate route stops for several lines in one place. Since the cities are relatively small, the only way to do that is vertically. Sue & I have gotten better at hauling ourselves and our materials up and down flights of stairs, escalators, and elevators, but not much better.
We added some luggage weight in Bristol, so making it to the Eurostar that would take us from London to France was that much more complex. We were staying around the corner from the British Museum in London, so we snuck in a couple hours of culture and history before catching a bus to King’s Cross/St. Pancras. Note the slash; there are 2 stations at that stop. The Eurostar leaves from one of them. Guess which one we entered first, suitcases wobbling and shoulders screaming.
Once we got to the right station and boarded the train, the ride under the English Channel was relatively smooth, even including an airplane-style meal & beverage service. We were met at the Gare du Nord by Sue’s brother Jon. He and his wife Kate (whose wedding I was lucky enough to perform on October 2010) volunteered to get us settled into our rented apartment in the 3rd arrondisement, even helping lug the technology bag all the way from the station. We were met by the apartment owner, who took us on a tour of the place, and we were captivated by its cuteness, including the mirror that is also a TV.
After pizza and an excellent night’s sleep (soon to become a trend), we settled in on Tuesday, wandering around the neighborhood and shopping at the wine, cheese, and bread shops. We met Jon that night to see Shellac, featuring his friend Bob Weston. I was nervous going in, but we both enjoyed their show, and will see them the next time they’re in the Bay Area.
Wednesday, we finally made it to the Louvre. Sue’s been regretting not having gone when we were here in October, so Jon & Kate (who have a museum membership) took us on a “bring a friend for free” night. As she mentioned, we saw the Mona Lisa surrounded by picture-takers, the Venus De Milo (also surrounded by picture takers), and Napoleon III’s Apartment, a ridiculously over-decorated set of rooms commissioned by the emperor himself and currently featuring equally gaudy modern art by Wim Delvoye. We accidentally stumbled into a preview for the Delvoye exhibit, so we got to witness the heavily tattooed artist sitting with his back to the crowd in one of the 19th century chairs.
Sue & I were both disappointed that the Scandinavian rooms had no Swedes, but were taken aback by the breadth and scale of the Rubens’ Marie di Medici series. So much detailed work on such large canvasses! The Louvre is like that – so much art it’s hard not be overwhelmed quickly. We never saw the Egyptian or Greek sections, yet we left exhausted. Dinner & dessert at Les Fines Gueles rejuvenated us for our walk home.
Thursday was sunny, so we walked to and through the Jardin de Luxembourg, just one of the many beautiful and well-maintained parks in Paris. If you aren’t surrounded by streets going every which way in no predictable fashion, you’re staring at a green plot of land tended for maximum peace and relaxation.
I spent Friday catching up on work and those crossword puzzles I mentioned. I’m really enjoying having an actual vacation, where I do nothing for hours and feel no guilt about that.
Note from Sue: I went to Les Invalides and saw Napoleon’s tomb (an enormous coffin under a sky-high dome), as well as many, many suits of armor. We also enjoyed some macarons from Laduree, and I was happy to note that the famous shop has opened a branch in Stockholm. Maybe I can try every flavor before we head home!
Saturday, Sue went to the Conciergerie, a museum that was a castle for many centuries before being turned into a prison during the French Revolution, which seems, the more I learn about it, like a necessary event that turned into a nasty bit of business rather quickly. Lesson: don’t repress masses. They get angry about that.
Sue, Jon & I reconvened at the CiteCine in Bercy. We passed the Bercy Theatre, site of the first of several Kanye West/Jay-Z concerts (Kate & Jon have tickets to one later this month), at 3:30 PM, and people were already lining up to get general-admission places on the floor. I’m guessing they played their traditional encore of “N*****s In Paris” especially well tonight.
Sue saw MOONRISE KINGDOM, the latest Wes Anderson film. Jon & I saw PROMETHEUS, the alleged ALIEN prequel. Spoiler alert (skip to next paragraph to avoid): it is an ALIEN prequel – an overlong, underplotted ALIEN prequel. None of the characters are interesting. The special effects are good, and the 3-D works well, but there’s not really a movie under them.
Yet another delicious dinner and a brisk walk home – time to weigh in. I’ve gained about 5 pounds on the trip so far, but Sue’s stayed even, most likely because she’s been walking about 6-8 miles a day while I stay home now & then.
This trip to Paris is much more relaxing than the first, because we’re sleeping well and exercising more. The day lasts so long. The cafes are jammed with people eating (expensive – 15 Euros!) hamburgers as we walk home in 65-degree weather at 10:30 PM. We’d better enjoy it while we can. The forecast for next week in Stockholm is rain, rain, rain.
Sorry for the lack of blogging, but I’ve been busy tromping around Paris (I walked almost nine miles yesterday!). Here is a photo of people taking photos of the Mona Lisa:
Incidentally, I really enjoyed the Louvre. It reminded me a bit of Muir Woods, by which I mean, once you get past the boardwalk area, which is mobbed with people, you practically have the place to yourself. Sure, you’ve gotta see the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, but then you can move on — my highest recommendation goes to the amazing Marie de’ Medici cycle by Rubens.
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- Joe on My Advice to NBC
- Janet Appel on A Reader’s Voyage
- vallery feldman on A Reader’s Voyage
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