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Canals without Gondolas

And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”
-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Being in Venice felt a little strange to me. When I studied abroad in London, I was housed in an area known as Little Venice. Years later, I visited Zhouzhuang in China, which is sometimes known as the Venice of the East. This summer I finally made it to the original.

Watching the gondolas in the Grand Canal

Watching the gondolas in the Grand Canal

I have to admit that Venice is as beautiful as many people before me have said it is. As usual, however, I encountered more than a little scaffolding and reconstruction work. The canals were cleaner than I had heard years ago–I was told Italy has been cleaning up the canals, which certainly makes it more appealing for tourists.grand-canal

No matter how you view the canals of Venice, they’re beautiful. Alright, there are some that aren’t as pleasant to see–graffiti and ill-maintained homes abound in some areas. Still, it is a beautiful city in which the tourists outnumber the residents and the prices are astronomical for those of us on a budget.

Venetian parking lot

Venetian parking lot

I was warned against riding in the gondolas before arriving in Venice–even the Italians think their cheesy and expensive. I didn’t find them cheesy; they’re works of art in the form of a boat. They are ridiculously expensive though. From what I saw, a gondola ride costs 80 euros for a half hour, but you can have multiple people on that gondola. Of course, after the slow and sometimes crowded boat ride through the canals, the gondoliers will also ask for a tip. Even if I was traveling with someone (or three) to split the cost, I probably would’ve said no to the gondolas and just saved my money for a decent meal.

Looks like a traffic jam

Looks like a traffic jam

Have you been in the gondolas of Venice? Was it worth the price? Where else have you been that was ridiculously overpriced?

Seoul Food

This is long overdue. I ate a lot of food in Korea, but it was mostly at home because eating out in Seoul can get a little expensive. I did eat out every weekend so I could try the wonders that Korean cuisine offers.

Delicious Korean barbecue

Delicious Korean barbecue

One of my favorites was Korean barbecue. I went out twice with friends for this because it’s not a meal you can eat alone. Our orders included a nice helping of thick-cut bacon–I mean about four slices of bacon that weigh close to a pound. There’s a variety of marinated bacon you can order and I have no idea what we ordered either time because I only know a few words of Korean. Along with the bacon, we had mushrooms, kimchi, potato, shrimp, and tofu (which tastes better mixed with the grilled kimchi).

We added rice to the mix at one of the Korean barbecues

We added rice to the mix at one of the Korean barbecues

I found it a little unusual that the bacon was cut with scissors while cooking, as were some of the large pieces of kimchi. One of my friends asked if I’d ever seen scissors used during food service. I’m fairly certain I’ve only seen it used to cut masses of noodles stuck together in Vietnam. Whether or not you cut the bacon with scissors doesn’t change the wonderful taste you get to enjoy. And it goes great with beer, soju, or makgeolli.

Ginseng chicken soup

Ginseng chicken soup

One of my first meals with my former coworker was samgyetang (삼계탕), or ginseng chicken soup, in Itaewon before heading to the craft beer bar. The ginseng flavor is light and mixed with a bit of ginger and sweet rice. It took a while before the clay pot stopped boiling so I could taste the soup–might as well order a beer and wait for that bowl to cool off to avoid burning your mouth. There’s a whole small chicken in that bowl, so it’s quit filling before a nice night out with beer. It’s also considered a summer soup because of the ginseng, but I think it’d taste pretty good in the winter as well.

Dumpling and rice cake soup

Dumpling and rice cake soup

Speaking of soups, before visiting the Joseon Royal Tombs I stopped off for some dumpling and rice cake soup. Tteok manduguk (떡 만두국) is two separate soups in a meat (probably pork) broth mixed together. It’s another filling meal. As someone used to dumplings in China, Taiwan, and Japan, the Korean dumplings were a surprise–there were only three in the bowl, and they were huge. Korean dumplings are also the best I’ve ever had. I’m not sure what’s in them, but they have a lot more flavor than anything I’ve had in other Asian countries. I got desperate and bought some frozen dumplings to make in my tiny apartment and even they were awesome.

Fried flounder

Fried flounder

As I visited the local market often, I began to grow curious about the prepared food being sold. One night after work I decided to try the fried flounder, which came is a dipping sauce akin to light soy sauce. This was the same market at which I tried a whole fried chicken after my hike in Bukhansan National Park. It was the best food decision I could’ve made for about $6, but it created horrible temptation for the rest of my stay in Seoul.

Jokbal with a bowl of makgeolli

Jokbal at the market

Because I enjoyed drinking makgeolli, one of my friends suggested I try jokbal (족발), pig trotters cooked with soy sauces and some spices. I tried this at the local market, but it was the one meal I can say I didn’t enjoy at all. I was told that it should’ve come with some slices of meat from the legs, but all I got was bone, cartilage, fat, and skin. I was disappointed and just drank my bottle of makgeolli.

Won't you take me to Toppoki Town?

Won’t you take me to Toppoki Town?

Another meal I didn’t enjoy too much was toppoki (떡볶이), spicy soft rice cakes, which is really disappointing because I lived just down the street from Toppoki Street. The sauce is a little salty for my taste, but more importantly I didn’t enjoy the consistency of the gluttonous rice. I admit that the reason I don’t enjoy certain foods is more because of texture than flavor.

I had a lot more to eat besides that, but I don’t remember exactly what they were; sometimes I had no idea what I was even ordering at the restaurants. I have to admit that Korean food is some of my favorite in Asia.

What are your favorite Korean dishes? What would you like to try?

Eats and Drinks in Florence

I stayed in a hostel in Florence for a few reasons, the top being that I wanted to save money. I also wanted to meet people. Combining the two meant that I could find people in the hostel to go out for meals and drinks–and I’d still be able to afford those things because I wasn’t spending a fortune on accommodation.

Mercato Centrale

Mercato Centrale

Along the tourist trail in Florence, there isn’t much in the way of food that I would recommend. Most of the restaurants are overpriced and don’t look so appealing (this is a theme around Italy). However, there are a few exceptions.

I met a fellow American tourist at the hostel to go around with for a bit after a day of sightseeing. Our first stop was McDonald’s. Usually I have to be drunk to even consider going there, but in Italy they serve Peroni for one euro. We had to go have a beer at McDonald’s just so we could tell everyone that we had a McBeer.

Peroni and McDonald's

Peroni and McDonald’s

Our next stop was Mercato Centrale, which is a tourist and local destination not far from the train station–and it’s worth visiting (but I advise avoiding the souvenir hawkers outside). My hostel companion thought the market was just the souvenir crap outside; he didn’t realize there was a whole grocery market and hipster food court inside–the food court looked like something that came straight out of Brooklyn. It also gets rather lively and crowded in the evening. Had I stayed in Florence longer, I probably would’ve spent more time at the Mercato–there was also espresso in the downstairs market for less than one euro.

Second floor of Mercato Centrale

Second floor of Mercato Centrale

We started with pizza, which was sold by weight, because it looked good it. The anchovies were delicious. It was some of the best pizza I had in Italy. After that we had some cocktails–I introduced my new friend to the spritz, which is made with Aperol (sometimes Campari or Select), prosecco, and a little tonic. After our first drink, we wandering into the crowd for something larger to eat. I ended up with some fried seafood and vegetables–the seafood was good, but the vegetables were unseasoned and bland.Mercato-Centrale-Pizza

At Birrifico Mostodolce, down the street from the station, I found Italian microbrew. I decided to try the Black Doll stout. It was a decent beer, but like most in Italy it was nothing special. The bar at seemed like a nice place to hang out, but I was there too early to enjoy much (I intended on waking up early for sightseeing anyway). They had other beers, but nothing that appealed to me at the time. I opted for a cheap bottle of wine back at the hostel instead.black-doll-stout

Just before I left Florence, I went in search of lunch prior to hopping on the train for Perugia. I wasn’t overly hungry, so I searched for something light–I was actually hoping for a salad. I managed to find one on the way to the station with my luggage. It was better than any salad I had seen in Italy–it was a smoked duck salad with balsamic vinegar. The thin slices of smoked duck made the meal (I find most salads in Italy rather boring).

Smoked duck salad

Smoked duck salad

I’m sure if I had stayed longer in Florence, I would’ve found plenty more to eat and drink, but I only had two and a half days before I had to head back to my temporary home in Perugia.

Lessons from My Korean Temple Stay

Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.
-Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

I’ve been trying to remain calm and patient while waiting for responses from employers and publishers with whom I’ve pitched stories lately. I’ve come to realize there isn’t much in Tokyo that I still want to see since the last time I was here (or maybe it’s that I’d rather save my money to get out of Tokyo to visit Kyoto next week).

I find myself looking down at my wrist and the prayer beads I strung together at my temple stay at Woljeongsa in Korea. At the time I just needed a break from the city, and staying at a Buddhist temple in a national park sounded like the most relaxing weekend I could have outside Seoul. One of the first lessons the temple taught the guests was to not rush to the destination and spend more time listening than speaking. Now I see these prayer beads as a reminder to remain patient when I get frustrated.

How could I be unhappy with this?

How could I be unhappy with this?

I’m also reminded of the beautiful sunrise and sunset I witnessed during my stay. I can’t be angry when I think about the experiences I’ve had over the last ten months–I’ve seen more of the world than most people, and I should consider myself fortunate.

Ringing the bell at Woljeongsa

Ringing the bell at Woljeongsa

While I await decisions about my future, wherever that may take me, I have to enjoy what I see for the moment. Usually I have more time to plan my moves, but now I have to enter the chaos that is life–sometimes I forget that this is normal.

I should also mention I have entered a photo in one of National Geographic’s Your Shot assignments. You can check it out here.

Map Inaccuracy

“Map-making had never been a precise art on the Discworld. People tended to start off with good intentions and then get so carried away with the spouting whales, monsters, waves and other twiddly bits of cartographic furniture that they often forgot to put the boring mountains and rivers in at all.”
-Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures

I consider myself to be pretty good with geography–I can locate more countries than most people can, though some much smaller nations trip me up on occasion. I love looking at maps (not Google Maps, but actual paper maps), especially older ones. I was fascinated by the huge globes at the Doge’s Palace in Venice, which are a bit faded, making it difficult to locate much.

Please, don't point to your home on the globe

Please, don’t point to your home on the globe

While in Florence for a weekend, one of the hostel guests pointed out the map on the hallway wall (I was completely oblivious to the fact that it even existed). He noted that there were more than a few problems.

So, Afghanistan and Pakistan are one country now?

So, Afghanistan and Pakistan are one country now?

Whoever painted this map on the wall did not use much of a guide. The land masses aren’t quite what you’d expect.

You'd think Europe would be more accurate

You’d think Europe would be more accurate

More importantly, countries are missing or completely wrong. I suppose anyone from outside the UK would agree that the island nation is just London and nothing else (that’s all that remains of the British empire, right?), plus that angle of the island isn’t quite right. North and South America were almost accurate, though slightly misshapen. hostel-map

I would have taken better photos of the map, but it was a difficult angle considering the narrow hallway in which it’s painted.

Returning to Familiar Tokyo

What
has happened
makes

the world.
Live
on the edge,

looking.

-Robert Creeley, “Here”

I started my current journey in Tokyo–I had wanted to visit Japan for a long time, and it was my first opportunity to travel to the country. Now, I find myself back in the Land of the Rising Sun, more specifically back in the same neighborhood in Tokyo.

I was disappointed last time that I didn’t take any trips outside Tokyo–it was nearly impossible to find a room in Kyoto or Osaka for a weekend (autumn is one of the worst times to find weekend accommodation in tourist centers with a lot of outdoor activities). I wanted to return to Japan to at least see more of the country, and to reunite with friends I made.

View from Enoshima, the outskirts of metropolitan Tokyo

View from Enoshima, the outskirts of metropolitan Tokyo

I’ve been asked a few times why I decided on Japan so soon. The real answer to that is the price of airline tickets. When I booked my flight in May from Seoul to Rome for the end of July to attend a wedding and travel a bit, I knew I’d head back to Asia–I had a job that required me to work on Hong Kong time (little did I know that I would no longer have that job before heading back to the continent). I browsed every combination of return ticket–various Italian airports (and a few other European airports) paired with the various airports around East Asia–and Venice to Tokyo came out at $500 cheaper than any other combination of airports.

I may take another walk through Shinjuku Park

I may take another walk through Shinjuku Park

Staying in Tokyo was not a top priority when I booked my flight back at the beginning of May. I figured with the price of the flight, I could even book a budget airline flight elsewhere if I really wanted and I’d still come out ahead. Or I might find an apartment to rent in another city in Japan. As I searched Airbnb, I came up empty for my criteria–I needed a private apartment with internet, a washing machine, and kitchen within a 15-minute walk of public transportation. Well, there were plenty of options that fit that criteria, but not even close to my price range (I wanted to spend less on rent in Japan than I did back in New Jersey).

I had say goodbye to the views of Perugia

I had say goodbye to the views of Perugia

As my departure from Italy approached and my options faded, I took a chance and emailed the woman from whom I rented on my first trip through Tokyo. The apartment was a bit far from central Tokyo, but it was quiet and comfortable. Sure enough, the apartment was available. At least I knew I had a place to live while I searched for a new job and other accommodation.

I won't be working late anymore, so I can enjoy the sunset in Yokohama

I won’t be working late anymore, so I can enjoy the sunset in Yokohama

Familiarity is helpful, but it can also make one lazy. Oh, it’s going to rain today? Better stay inside and do nothing. Or maybe just sleep off the jetlag (I haven’t had jetlag since I left the US last October, so this feeling really sucks right now). Or I could take my sweet time in the morning instead of rushing out to go explore parts of Tokyo I missed last time–those second and third cups of coffee aren’t going to drink themselves.

After so many months of new experiences, however, it is pleasant to see the familiar. Not much has changed in this Tokyo suburb–I noticed a new restaurant that looks interesting with reasonable prices. On my first night back, I headed to a bar I frequented and ran into the Australian expat who took me to a local karaoke bar until 5 in the morning on my last weekend here. Last night I went to the wine bar in which I used to sit for a drink to read after work and found that the waitress remembers me (guess the beard doesn’t change my appearance that much), as did one of the regular customers. All this means I don’t have to go out of my way to be social–I can easily find the people I already know.

Normally I don’t want to return to places because there’s so much more to see in this world, but I’ll accept it this time around. How do you feel about returning to destinations?

Look! More Ruins in Pompeii

Remember when I said that all the ruins in Rome start to look the same? Well, the same can be said about Pompeii.

On the advice of my friend from grad school, I told my parents that we should find a tour of Pompeii. It would be more organized and we’d get to see the Herculaneum on a full-day tour. Then we discovered that the full-day tours are only available twice a week, neither day was one that we were in Sorrento. We settled on the the half-day tour to just see Pompeii.pompeii

We figured it was worth the price just to avoid riding the Circumvesuviana again. Even the Italians believe this train is a piece of shit. It took almost an hour and a half from Naples to Sorrento along 30 stops on this privately-run train that was probably constructed by Mussolini and still uses the same cars with no air conditioning. The New York City subway looked better in the early 1980s. Yes, I got spoiled by the amazing trains in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea.

Instead of watching the wasteland pass by on the Circumvesuviana, we saw the coastline from the comfort of a tour bus. Our guide was friendly and humorous–he even made a point of telling us to not buy any souvenirs other than books. I didn’t bother buying anything, unless you count the free map at the entrance.

Mt. Vesuvius in the distance

Mt. Vesuvius in the distance

The portion of Pompeii that is open to tourists is large and only accounts for a small part of what was once a thriving city. Due to a lack of funds and local interest, the rest of Pompeii remains unearthed, but there have been promises made that sometime in the future excavations will resume (probably when the Circumvesuviana is replaced by something more modern like a donkey cart).

Pompeii Forum

Pompeii Forum

Most of Pompeii is streets lined with what used to be shops and homes that are all more or less in the same state of ruin. There are few, if any, identifying features remaining in any of them. “And this here is a what used to be some sort of business. Over here is the same thing. Etc.” The first one was nice, the second was curious because it was so similar, and then it turned to boredom. That is, until we arrived at the brothel.

Yup, it's a sidewalk penis

Yup, it’s a sidewalk penis

Our guide pointed out the slightly visible ancient Roman penis in the sidewalk that pointed visitors in the direction of the brothel district, which today is the most intact portion of the ruins of Pompeii. It’s such a popular destination that every tour stops there and has to wait for the tour ahead to move along before entering.

That might not be moss growing on the brothel bed

That might not be moss growing on the brothel bed

In Pompeii’s red light district, visitors can see the original stone bed used by prostitutes that still retains its crabs and syphilis (Mt. Vesuvius must have had a part in the preservation). Inside the brothel are frescoes that depict which sexual act was performed in each room (they had to cater to the illiterates among the population).

This looks like an interesting room for a break

This looks like an interesting room for a break

Throughout the hot day we encountered many more historic ruins that pretty much looked the same. A few of the temples and the amphitheater stood out, as did the forum. Aside from the brothel, the public bath was also fairly well preserved, proving that the Romans had their priorities in safeguarding particular aspects of society from certain destruction.

The Tribunal was still in decent shape

The Tribunal was still in decent shape

The roads still have large stones that served as crosswalks so residents wouldn’t have to walk through the sewer that was the street. These same stones had gaps that allowed carts to freely maneuver through the waste. I suppose because the people only bathed once every few months, the stench from their roads/sewers wasn’t noticeable.

One of the narrower streets

One of the narrower streets

I knew Pompeii was a thriving trade center in ancient Rome, but did know just how large the city was. I also didn’t know that prior to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the sea was right next to the city (it’s now miles away). Fortunately, with the clear weather, it’s easy to still see the volcano that buried the city almost 2,000 years ago.

Toward the end of the tour, we passed the gated section of Pompeii that houses artifacts, including the preserved bodies that most of us have seen in history books or National Geographic. With exhaustion from the intense sun setting in and the crowds gathered around, I only took a brief glance at what I thought would be better displayed. I had incorrectly thought that the artifacts and preserved residents would be displayed throughout the ruins of Pompeii. It’s not the first time I’ve been wrong, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

All jokes aside, Pompeii was an impressive half day out of Sorrento. It would’ve been better with a full-day tour though.

Have you visited Pompeii? Have you ever seen a more impressive prostitution district?

Crowded Religious Tourism at the Vatican

Just about everyone that visits Rome heads to the Vatican for a day (for the more religious tourists, it might be a few trips). There’s art and architecture there for those who aren’t religious, and that’s what I went to see with my parents. For the non-religious, there’s also the experience of visiting the world’s smallest country, but there is no immigration checkpoint unless you count the security lines to enter St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican museum.

Welcome to the Vatican

Welcome to the Vatican

My father thought ahead and reserved timed tickets for the Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel (no tickets are necessary for St. Peter’s Basilica). By the time we arrived at the enormous fortification walls of the Vatican around 10 in the morning, the line for those without reserved tickets was almost a mile long–stretching out in the summer sun toward the subway station. We discovered that our timed tickets were meaningless–we could’ve arrived earlier or later without standing on the painfully-long line. Of course, as soon as we entered the Vatican, we had to stand on line to exchange the reserved tickets for regular tickets and then on another line for security.

Not as crowded outside

Not as crowded outside

We followed the signs and walked around the rooms full of art. The Vatican museum can be described as an artistic history of Christian art. There’s also some pre-Christianity Roman artwork that I found more interesting because it provided a bit of a change. Of course, there’s also a large section of Egyptian artifacts, some of which are quite interesting but not as impressive as the Egyptian exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.vatican-mosaic-floor

As the day wore on, we walked more quickly through the rooms of paintings (religious art gets repetitive). We stopped every now and then for the more famous works of art, or the more interesting works. I found one work that looks like it includes Bill Murray, proving his immortal brilliance. I was also surprised to find a portrait of what was supposed to be a saint, but looked like the Incredible Hulk (or maybe just Lou Ferrigno without the green body paint). I originally thought it was a painting of Samson, but I was wrong.

Is that Bill Murray on the right?

Is that Bill Murray on the right?

After hours of walking through the hallways full of art and feeling fatigued just before lunchtime, we came to the Sistine Chapel. I was finally able to see Michelangelo’s magnificent painting. It’s beautiful, and much larger than I had imagined from reading about it in art books years ago–I always thought the central image of God and Adam was larger than the other portions, but I was incorrect. The atmosphere in the Sistine Chapel, however, was disappointing.

That's one badass saint

That’s one badass saint

The Sistine Chapel is the one place in the Vatican in which visitors are not allowed to take photos, even without a flash. There are still some people who don’t follow that rule and run the risk of getting scolded by security. The chapel is also crowded to the point that it’s not easy to navigate from one end to the other–and with everyone staring up at the ceiling, it’s more likely that you’ll bump into more than a few other tourists. Security constantly reminds visitors to be quiet, which they aren’t, and to take in your view quickly and leave before it gets more crowded.

Michelangelo wasn't the only one to paint the Vatican walls

Michelangelo wasn’t the only one to paint the Vatican walls

We exited the chapel and walked into the Vatican cafeteria for lunch. A decent salad with a bottle of water was 9 euros, which is less expensive than I had expected. It wasn’t easy to find an open seat, but we managed to find a few people getting up to leave as we entered. We rested just enough to regain energy to walk back out through the city walls and around to St. Peter’s Basilica. By the time we exited the Vatican museum, the line to get in was even longer and the heat grew more oppressive (really, don’t go to the Vatican museum without an advance ticket unless you arrive the minute it opens in the morning).

Constantly looking up at the ceiling of the museum

Constantly looking up at the ceiling of the museum

I could’ve done without much of the artwork in the Vatican museum, and would’ve been satisfied with only visiting the Sistine Chapel, assuming a smaller crowd and a bit more time to appreciate Michelangelo’s work. To visit such a site that I’ve longed to see only to be disappointed by the atmosphere, made the day more exhausting–the excitement was nearly sucked out.

 Have you ever longed to visit someplace only to be disappointed, not by the site itself but by the actual experience?

Colossal Colosseum Tour

Oh, the hours I’ve spent inside the Coliseum
Dodging lions and wastin’ time
-Bob Dlyan, When I Paint My Masterpiece

I got more views of scaffolding at the Colosseum

I got more views of scaffolding at the Colosseum

On the last full day in Rome, my parents and I set out fairly early to tour the Colosseum. We had purchased our tickets the day before at the Roman Forum–the tickets are valid for 48 hours to enter each site once. Despite not having to wait in the excruciatingly long line in the summer sun to buy tickets, it still took a bit of time to get into the Colosseum. Had we known, we might have tried to get there an hour earlier to avoid such a crowd.

Welcome to the Colosseum, please wait in line to be fed to the lions and hippos

Welcome to the Colosseum, please wait in line to be fed to the lions and hippos

We had walked past the Colosseum numerous times because it wasn’t far from the hotel. I took plenty of photos of it at different times of day, usually when we were most exhausted from walking around Rome. It’s an impressive structure from the outside, but it elicits more of a sense of awe upon entering.

The Colosseum is pretty big

The Colosseum is pretty big

The Colosseum is enormous, thus the Latin root. It is the inspiration for modern stadiums–the similarities in the design are everywhere, from the the seating to the entrances and exits. Contemporary stadium architects are still utilizing the design of a building that’s almost 2,000 years old.

colosseum-int

How many gladiators died in that basement before fighting for their lives?

If it weren’t for the blazing sun, I would’ve enjoyed just staring at the ruins within the walls. I could’ve watched the throngs of tourists gaze upon the history that epitomizes Rome as a tourist destination

Bas-relief at the Colosseum

Bas-relief at the Colosseum

My mom convinced me to download some of the free mp3s from Rick Steves to add some guidance to our self-guided tour of Rome (I also used some of the mp3s for Florence). I read through the text, which only half downloaded for some reason, and then handed the audio portion to my mom. She was shocked by the commentary about the depravity of Roman society–the numbers of people and animals killed during the entertainment. I was just surprised they didn’t fill in the time between killings with orgies, but I assume that came at night after witnessing all the gore and feasting upon the dead animals. I suppose the concession stands had an endless supply of meat to roast and serve throughout the events.colosseum-entrance

If we could have entered the lower level of the Colosseum, we would have stayed longer. Unfortunately, that area is only accessible on a guided tour–a fact we did not know before arriving. The basement area would have been interesting (and more shaded)–I could have seen the cells in which the gladiators were held before they entered the arena.colosseum-b&w

Have you been to the Colosseum? Did you get a cheesy photo with the plastic armor-clad gladiators?

Meeting Michelangelo’s David

“Is it a masterpiece or just some guy with his pants down?”
-Kent Brockman

That line from The Simpsons wasn’t what I was thinking while waiting in line at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. I was looking forward to seeing Michelangelo’s masterpiece. After waking up early and getting in a rather short line as soon as the Uffizi Gallery opened at 8:15, I decided to head back toward my hostel to check out the line at Accademia. It was also not too long–I waited in the shade for 40 minutes. It would have been shorter, but advance tickets take precedence to those schmucks who just wander up to the museum to pay their 11 euros.

The first view of David among the crowd

The first view of David among the crowd

David is an incredible work of art, especially after learning that the marble was considered inferior quality at the time and Michelangelo was the only artist who wanted the job. The statue also doesn’t show his age after standing outside for more than 200 years.

Someone give that guy some pants

Someone give that guy some pants

David is the centerpiece of the gallery, which doesn’t house much else. The hallway leading up to the statue is lined with Michelangelo’s “Prisoners,” the unfinished sculptures that were supposed to be housed at Il Duomo di Firenze with David atop the dome. The prisoners are in different stages of development and provide viewers an image of men trying to escape from the stone (though that was not Michelangelo’s intention; he just wasn’t able to finish them all).

One of Michelangelo's Prisoners

One of Michelangelo’s Prisoners

After years of studying art before heading off to college, I was excited to see so much art in Florence. There are details that are missed in books. As a friend had mentioned before my trip, the most impressive feature of David is his hands. She was correct. David’s hands are huge, and they have more detail than I realized. While the sculpture is beautifully smooth, Michelangelo added pulsing veins on his right hand–the veins are even present in the neck. It stands out among the smooth marble.

The details of David's hand

The details of David’s hand

While David’s hands are his most impressive feature, Italian tourism likes to focus on another feature. At every turn, the vendors sell close-up postcards of his penis (even one with sunglasses on it). Hey, you can even buy shorts with his penis superimposed over an Italian flag. They’re obsessed with it. If I was going to open a cafe in Florence, I’d probably call it David’s Doodle (shut up, Flanders) and serve plenty of suggestive-shaped food. If you decide to steal this idea, please just give me credit.

Beyond the Scaffolding of Travel

It’s just my luck. Good grief, if Charlie Brown traveled the world, this would probably happen to him at every turn. Maybe I’m caught in an extended Seinfeld episode set outside New York (I did recently drink a beer called Costanza).

Sometimes I feel like I’m touring construction sites rather than beautiful historic sites.

Just about every time I visit a major tourist destination that I’ve wanted to see for years, it’s undergoing renovations of some sort. I understand the need for restoring artwork and preventing ancient buildings from becoming ruins, but I always seem to time my visits to coincide with such restoration work.

Quite a spectacle to see at the Forbidden City

Quite a spectacle to see at the Forbidden City

When I visited the Forbidden City in Beijing, most of it was shrouded in scaffolding in preparations for the 2008 Olympics. The Hall of Supreme Harmony was even replaced by a picture; it was a rather disappointing sight. Rather than photograph the buildings or artifacts, I focused on the crowds and the scaffolding.

Isn't the Forbidden City amazing?

Isn’t the Forbidden City amazing?

I had hoped that that would be the end of my adventures in renovations, but it wasn’t even close. In Bangkok, I witness the restoration of paintings at the Grand Palace. Watching people work at restoring historical paintings was more interesting than it sounds.

 

Touching up the murals at Wat Phra Kaeo, Bangkok

Touching up the murals at Wat Phra Kaeo, Bangkok

At Angkor Wat, many of the temples were being restored–or, in some cases, saved from encroaching nature. Much of the restoration at Angkor Wat is recent and made possible by international foundations–I was surprised to learn that much of the work was supervised by organizations from China and India.

 

Welcome to Angkor Wat. Please, use the side door

Welcome to Angkor Wat. Please, use the side door

The restoration efforts are most noticeable at Ta Prohm–many walls have had to be reinforced and braced as the trees that have grown into said walls are forcing the ancient bricks to separate and crumble. While it may ruin a few photo opportunities at the temples, the efforts to preserve what remains is commendable. It would be interesting to see the temples as they were first constructed, but it wouldn’t be such an amazing experience as it is now–it would be like witnessing the newly reconstructed Great Wall of China at Badaling versus the ruined preserved section at Simatai.

 

This is not how I imagined Ta Prohm

This is not how I imagined Ta Prohm

The trend continued as I arrived in Rome. A fellow traveler at my hotel told me to not bother visiting the Trevi Fountain because it was closed for renovation. My parents and I wandered past it anyway without intending to. It’s beautiful behind plexiglass, but it loses its allure without the water.

 

The Trevi Fountain in all its glory

The Trevi Fountain in all its glory

And then there’s the the Baptistery in Florence, one of the city’s oldest buildings and supposedly one of the most beautiful (after the Duomo). It was completely shrouded in scaffolding, but that didn’t stop people from paying to go inside. I decided I had had enough of seeing renovated history after paying to see scaffolding inside the Medici Chapel.

 

Check out all that beautiful scaffolding in the Medici Chapel

Check out all that beautiful scaffolding in the Medici Chapel

I should just give in to fate and expect that my travels will forever be obscured. Someday I’ll be pleasantly surprised to encounter an untouched relic.

Is there a recurring theme to your travels that’s beyond your control that leads to disappointment? Or does it at least lead to an amusing anecdote?

The Onward Self

“Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”
-Oscar Wilde

I had wanted to write about my adventures here in Italy–the inspiring art of Florence, the historic streets of Assisi, the delicious gelato that keeps tempting me. Today, however, is not a day for such posts. Today is more for self-reflection in the face of adversity on the road.

Would be nice to have time to enjoy more of this

Would be nice to have time to enjoy more of this

Yesterday I awoke at 2 in the morning to start my usual shift and was greeted by a message from my boss, insisting on a phone call. This is highly unusual, but not entirely out of the ordinary. I won’t go into details, but I’m now out of work. And stuck in this little town in Italy until the end of the month, at which time I already have a flight booked back to Tokyo. This certainly isn’t the ideal situation I had been hoping to encounter while traversing the globe.

Maybe it’s appropriate that I’m reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

I suppose I won’t be indulging so much in local microbrews for 4 euros. I can also cut out the temptation of all that cheese and gelato.

You mean I CAN'T eat all the gelato now?

You mean I CAN’T eat all the gelato now?

Now comes the next step–the choices and decisions that lay ahead.

Despite my family’s desire to have me back home, I’m determined to continue with this journey in one way or another. I had planned a full year abroad, and wanted to extend it–I was searching for somewhere to be a semi-permanent base rather than hopping around every couple months. It appears that might be easier to manage now.

Life in Taipei is pretty good

Life in Taipei is pretty good

I found cities in which I would like live in Asia–I found comfort in Taipei and Tokyo, and even in Seoul (though it took a little longer to grow on me). Unfortunately, it’s too late to apply for teaching positions at universities as the semester is about to begin, if it hasn’t already, which leaves me with more corporate options through which to sift. I’ve already begun applying for positions and hope to find something suits me.

There is one other option in Cambodia that I have been contemplating. I’ve started helping a non-profit with social media management, and I was interested in heading there to volunteer around my previous schedule. Now that I have much more time, I can volunteer with the organization full time–the only problem being that I wouldn’t get paid anything for six to twelve months.

Maybe this will be my life

Maybe this will be my life

This leads to the option that I could raise money via Kickstarter or some other crowdfunding website. I certainly wouldn’t need much to cover expenses in Cambodia, and I could even donate any excess funds raised to the organization, but I’m still unsure if it’s the path I want to pursue–I’ve never been good at asking for money. There’s also the possibility that I could find enough freelance work to offset the financial burden.

What do my readers think? Should I find a corporate career outside the US or start fundraising to help children in Cambodia?

Italy and the Death of Diet

Can I just live in the cheese section of the grocery store?

Can I just live in the cheese section of the grocery store?

Perhaps this title is a bit hyperbolic; however, it fits my feelings about staying in Italy for a little over a month. More than anywhere else I’ve been, the temptation to gorge on foods that are generally unhealthy in such quantities is ever-present here.

After two months of losing weight in Korea (not to mention a bit of an effort at the end of my stay in Taiwan), I’ve come to Italy to face the temptation of all the foods that the country has to offer. Fortunately, with the high cost of eating out and my odd work hours, I’m forced to at least eat breakfast and lunch in my apartment, and I have managed to find healthy foods to cook in the limited space I have.

I knew I’d be tempted by the cheeses and cured meats that are so prevalent in Italy. I cut down on cheese for over six months before heading out on this adventure, and Asia lacks cheese, which means another nine months without that deliciousness.

That's all for me, right?

That’s all for me, right?

Italy is also home to some wonderful gelato. Some of what I had in Rome was good, but nothing exceptional–or at least good enough for me to want more all the time. I mostly wanted it because it’s hot walking around in late July and August. I was quite happy having a refreshing mojito gelato while walking around Florence two weeks ago. The other gelato I had the next day was overly sweet.

The best gelato in Perugia

The best gelato in Perugia

That was until I discovered this little gelato shop in Perugia. I hate how businesses throw around “artisan,” but here it means something. This shop even makes its own gelato bars dipped in chocolate (the Nutella and coconut was wonderful) and gelato sandwiches. This shop is also much cheaper than the 5 or 6 euros some shops tried to charge in Florence–I only have to pay 2.50 euros for a medium cup. This is reason enough to visit Perugia.

I have no idea what to get

I have no idea what to get

Of course, it’s obvious that this is a university town when another gelato shop advertises cannabis-flavored gelato. Somehow I doubt it tastes good, but I may give it a try anyway.

Should I try it?

Should I try it?

Where have you been that offered too much culinary temptation to resist?

Pirates of the Tyrrhenian Sea

Welcome to our pirate ship

Welcome to our pirate ship

It wasn’t as cheesy as Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and no one broke out in song or even spoke in pirate tones. Everyone did walk the rather short plank without much coercion though. And being Italy, we had no rum.

Every now and then I get a treat while I travel. I have to thank my family for this one (particularly my parents for helping me afford the vacation). And yes, I do get to take vacations from traveling because my mode of travel involves a lot of actual work during the week.

While in Capri for a wedding, the party organized a pirate ship cruise in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Apparently, I arrived a day too late for the yacht that sailed around Capri the previous day. But a pirate ship is so much cooler than a yacht.

View from the ship

View from the ship

I originally expected this to be a cruise around Capri until shortly after lunch–we had to meet for dinner at 6:30, and everyone on the pirate ship was going. The day lasted much longer. There were plenty of stops for us to jump off into the Tyrrhenian Sea for a swim. Without the sails up, the deck was rather hot, so the water felt a lot better.tyrrhenian-sea

We also cooled off with plenty of white wine, prosecco, and I drank enough water to clear out all the sea salt from my nose. I know, it’s not very pirate-like to drink prosecco, but we were Italian pirates for a day, and Italy doesn’t have any rum. We were also served plenty of pasta and seafood to stuff a walrus, which wasn’t such a great idea because that was pretty much what we were served for dinner in greater quantities.capri

As part of our cruise, we decided to take a quick tour of the Blue Grotto–quick because that’s all the time you’re given. It’s the biggest tourist draw in Capri aside from all the luxury shopping that can make anyone feel poor.

Ready to board the row boats for the Blue Grotto

Ready to board the row boats for the Blue Grotto

The Blue Grotto is beautiful, but you only get about five minutes inside the small cave with about half a dozen other row boats. It costs 13 euros per person to go in, but that doesn’t include a tip for the rowers–supposedly they make nothing from the entrance fee. The rowers got angry at the tips we gave and there was a lengthy argument–we weren’t told what an acceptable tip was. We were willing to give a few more euros to shut them up, but there was too much pride on their side to bother. We just sailed away instead.

Inside the Blue Grotto

Inside the Blue Grotto

Aside from sunburn, which hurt like hell with my backpack a few days later on the way to Perugia, the day was great. The coast around Capri is picturesque, and it was interesting to see how the 1% likes to travel on yachts (boat garages on the ship with multiple boats and jet skis, or how about a helicopter?).capri-sea

Have you been to Capri or the Blue Grotto? How did you enjoy it?

Walking Through History in Rome

The Roman Forum from the Temple of Saturn

The Roman Forum from the Temple of Saturn

History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. – Winston Churchill

It’s difficult to turn a corner in Rome without bumping into history. Of course, most of that history is just unrecognizable ruins, but it’s still noticeable.

After a few days of wandering around Rome’s confusing winding streets in search of the more popular historic sites, travelers encounter so many ruins that they all melt into a single memory. I have dozens of photos from around the city that I can’t identify as more than “some interesting Roman ruins.”

The Forum through Septimius Severus Arch

The Forum through Septimius Severus Arch

As I walked in the late-July heat of the intense sun through the Roman Forum in search of angles for interesting photos as well as a respite in the shade, I realized how impressive this must have looked when it was built.

Temple of Saturn

Temple of Saturn

There is a lot of beauty in the ruins at the Forum, but aside from a few select parts, most of it just blends together as nothing recognizable without a label.Roman-Forum2 Unlike some of the other major tourist stops in Rome, the Forum doesn’t feel so crowded because it is more spread out. If it wasn’t for the intense heat of summer, it would be a great place to sit and contemplate the history for a few hours, but the late-July heat definitely limits that experience.

The Hippodrome of Domitian

The Hippodrome of Domitian

I had to thank Jupiter, or whichever Roman deity is responsible, for the life-saving public fountains within the Forum grounds. Filling up water bottles with cold water made the walk through much more tolerable. Without the fountains, it probably would’ve been a much shorter walk through Roman history.

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