Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My life in film...

Imagine… if you will… you’re surrounded by tons of scholars, writers, thinkers, and researchers who are all living in a relatively boring city. What do you do?? How do you find a creative outlet for your energies?? If you’re like us… you throw a Zapruder Party.

You remember Zapruder right? The infamous 8mm color home movie of the Kennedy assassination film that sparks debate and controversy of wing-nuts everywhere. Well, some people here have turned it into pure art.

Here’s how a Zapruder party works. Get about fifty friends together. Break up into groups of five. Hand out video cameras. Give every group a list of strange items and phrases. Now go and make a short film incorporating every item on the list. You have one hour. Get everyone back together and watch each other’s films. Die laughing. Give out awards.

Simple. My group consisted of myself, two people I didn’t know, my friend Phon, and our director… we’ll call him Gallagher. Gallagher considers himself quite the comedy genius and cinema bon vivant (actually, he is quite funny in person… but don’t read his stuff). We had discussed the upcoming party with relish, wanting to best the film he created for the previous party.

(I saw that film. It was killer! Unfortunately, one of the principals of the film demanded that it never be shown outside of his control, so I cannot share it here with you… which is a damn shame.)

The problem with the films that most people create is that they cannot find ways to use the required material with any imagination. They get too literal in wanted to make a complete film, story arcs and all, and not concentrate on the mood or humor of the situation. Also, it’s actually difficult to put so many awkward elements into a coherent scene.

Undaunted, we came up with a plan. What if we base our movie on a genre’ of film that relishes the bizarre… the surreal… the fantastic? What if we made a 1950’s inspired existentialist avant garde’ masterpiece in the vein of Federico Fellini and Giuseppe Rotunno??

Our required list:
Item: a spatula
Profession: a tattooist
Action: someone desperately needing to pee
Body Part: double chin
Movie Quote: “Stardate 2025.9… I never trusted Klingons, and I never will.”
Dirty Mind Thought: “Swallow, or it’s going in your eye.”

Below, I give you the Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Directing winning film of the 2009 Spring Zapruder Party… enjoy!!

Just one more for the road...

Unfortunately... it’s time to take down my winter home. While the weather here is still very nice, the breezes aren’t as cool anymore, and the heat is starting to ratchet up. That means the winter season in Doha is over, and the unbearable wet sauna of summer is looming ahead. My majelis (big tent) is still up near the inland sea, but the permits run out this Saturday. Throngs of Qataris and their servants will be out this weekend for one last hurrah under the sandy skies.

And so will I. I’ll be heading out on Friday for one last cookout, one last drunken singing competition, and one last big-ass bonfire. We’re getting as many of our friends to join us in the revelry… also we need plenty of help breaking the tent down when we’re finished. I’ve being trying to get my buddy Tex out there so we can use his new truck to haul the tent back… but he’s a little skittish… and for good reason.

Last year, Tex borrowed some money from me so he could buy a second car. His wife just had a kid (Lil Tex) and needed the car at home. So Tex found an old beater of a Jeep for cheap… something that would get him around town, and something that he could take out to the desert. And his piece of shit Jeep was perfect for the job.

I took him out one weekend, and showed him how to drive on the sand, what to bring, how to dig yourself out of a hole, and… most importantly… how to navigate the sand dunes. The sand dunes out in the southern desert are huge… massive things the size of ten story buildings. Driving up and down them is a lot of fun, but also dangerous… you have to know what you are doing. The one big rule is that you don’t drive over dunes you don’t know…

Sand dunes have a particular shape. They are shaped like the first hill of a rollercoaster. There is a long, sloping side that follows the direction of the wind. But when the dune gets to a certain size, the pileup of sand caves in on itself, creating a sheer cliff on the lee side of the wind. Since the wind is constant in the desert, all the dunes are shaped the same way, and in the same direction. When you go INTO the desert, you NEVER DRIVE OVER AN UNKNOWN DUNE!! Because once you reach the crest of the dune, it could be a smooth slope down, or a vertical cliff. Coming back OUT of the desert, you can drive over any dune you want, as long as you can get up the dune, you know there will be a long sloped drive on the other side. Got it?!

Tex didn’t. Two weeks after his initial test drive, we get together a large caravan of cars to ride out to the majelis. Tex was weaving around and enjoying the freedom of driving over the massive expanse of the desert floor. He was getting a little careless by driving over small dunes that were “clean”, by way of having no other tire treads in them. Driving on clean sand feels like riding a jet ski on a glassy lake… just smooth.

Tex then decided to go up a slightly larger, untouched dune… violating the “never drive on an unknown dune when going into the desert rule.” He gunned it at the base, and quickly climbed up the shallow dune… only to find a sheer six-foot drop on the other side! The front end of the cheap Jeep came down like the General Lee after jumping a haystack! Both Tex, the Jeep, and his passenger, got their clocks rung! He kept driving for a few minutes, but then stopped short of another dune. We all got out of our cars and inspected the damage. Thankfully, there were only a few bruised ribs to show for human damage… the Jeep though… was another story.

None of the doors fit anymore. We could stick our hands clean through the bent panels. Every structural bend and seam had popped. The driver’s side front wheel was now angled about 15 degrees off straight. Fluid was gushing out from under the car. When he started to drive it, the steering wheel shook like it had palsy.

Tex… had killed the car.

We were able to get it to the tent, and enjoyed the day. He then had to drive it out all the way back to Doha… needing prayer and more than one miracle to get it home. Thank god he had a sense of humor about it… otherwise we would’ve needed to get him drunk.
Several of us camped out overnight, and went looking for the carkiller dune the next morning. We found it, and had to take some photos for prosperity. Although it doesn’t look like much, taking a drop from six feet in a car going 60km/hour could have been tragic. Best part… since Tex took that dune, anyone driving by later would see his tracks and think, “hey… someone drove on that dune, so it must be safe.” Dammit if there weren’t a second set of tracks right next to his… but thankfully, the second near-victim had the sense to hit the brakes and gently coast sideways down the lee side. Tex didn’t drive the Jeep after that. But he was able to sell it, AS IS, to a guy who just needed the frame and engine.

We'll pack everything up, and store it in the backyard until October, when we'll ask for another permit, and set the whole thing back up again. I didn't use the majelis much, but it was great having it there... a beautiful drive to a secluded nook of a dune. Sitting under the stars with a raging bonfire nearby to keep warm, swimming the the clear blue sea. If anyone visits this winter, I'll keep a chair open for you.



Back to the grind...

Finally... back in Doha, and a ton of cool stuff has been goin' on around here lately. Let me catch you up...

At the start of this semester, the university was approached by the Supreme Education Council to start up a special science program for the country’s high schoolers. First off… we need more “Supreme” anythings. I would do anything to pad my resume with a title like “supreme” or “grand vizier” or “the enlightened.”

Any who… we were asked to prepare an in-depth class for a large group of juniors, and teach them mathematics, physics, and chemistry for two weeks… four hours a day. Everyone moaned and groaned about having to teach an additional class for two weeks… until they said that we would be paid HUGE sums of money to perform. Not being a professor, I thought I would be left out of the money pie, but thankfully I asked if anyone would want any chemical or physic demonstrations in class. Well, score a payday for me…

I worked with one of our new professors, a very cool Pitt-to-Houston transplant that I’ll call… #24 (inside joke in case he ever reads this.) #24 is a brilliant researcher and physicist… but is relatively new to teaching. Better yet, his wry, self-depreciating humor comes out best whenever he feels any social awkwardness… which is often thanks to him being a theoretical chemist. We get together and plan the next two weeks out of lectures and demonstrations. Our physics profs didn't want to be bothered by the lectures, so #24 took it upon himself to teach both chemistry and physics, and I would be doing the demonstrations for both classes.

Some of the demonstrations I did… colored flames from metal composition, thunderclap, liquid nitrogen ice cream (best ice cream ever!), projectile ballistics, centrifugal force, Ira Remsen’s nitric acid and copper, and non-Newtonian thixotropic fluids. Awesome stuff…

Things went well, if not a little boring. #24 found himself in front of a crowd of moderately spoiled rich kids, many of whom already knew the subjects, most of whom just did not give a damn. But like a good soldier, he kept going… no matter how many slings and arrows pierced his heart. He threw one kid out of the class about ten times for talking over him. The more the crowd became bored and restless, the more self-loathing #24 threw upon himself.

At one point he was explaining LeChatelier’s Principle, which a reaction will move to relieve any undue stress upon itself. “Think of it like a deer feeder. If you feed deer a fixed amount of food, all the deer will live. But if we cut the food by half, half of the deer will die.”

Stunned silence. The students just stared at him. I was in the back row trying not to piss myself with laughter. I spent many an afternoon just watching him wish he was eating glass instead of teaching this class… time well spent.

I blew the money I was going to get paid on a huge flatscreen HD TV, and a Playstation 3. Three months after teaching, I’m still waiting to get the other 80% of my money. #24 hasn’t been paid at all. I’m pretty sure it’s the gods testing his faith, like Job.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Pork Crusades... Part III

Paris… I spent the day on the train reading and watching the Alps, southern Germany, and central France roll past. I arrived in Paris around 10 p.m. I knew that my train’s final destination was a stop called Gare d’Est, but from there, I did not know my way to my next hostel. I got off the train, and did what any experienced person who’s lost does… I followed the big swath of people. I located a Metro agent, and bought twenty subway passes. I joined the increasingly jostling crowd and plunged into the depths of the underground trains. Soon the smell of the station and of the city just outside became noticeable. The sounds of the people of all races speaking French… made me think about how cool must french kids feel knowing that they grow up speaking the most beautiful language on earth. I found my train, got on, and quickly sped away into the dark tunnels towards Crimee’ in northeast Paris.

Leaving the platform, I rose back up to ground and found myself in a crowded, mixed neighborhood. Crimee’ is in an area known for its ethnic mix of North Africans, Vietnamese, and Indians. Just outside of the metro exit was my first Parisian patisserie… I had to grab a quick croissant to celebrate finally making it into the city. I walked about a kilometer north until I arrived at the newest, and nicest, hostel in Paris, St. Christopher’s. The hostel was huge, seven floors built alongside a Holiday Inn. It rests directly on the water’s edge of the Parisian canals. The first floor is a separate restaurant/café/bar where anyone can enjoy a coffee… not just residents. I checked in for my five-night stay and got settled into my room (top bunk again… dammit!). One quick café and a smoke outside to enjoy the night air, and I was ready to start my adventures again.

Next morning, I enjoyed my obligatory coffee, cornflakes, and mini-baguettes with Nutella and got on my way. I met up in the lobby with a group for… wait for it… the free walking tour! God, I love hostels! Our guide was an American who was teaching English at a college in Paris, a really great guy whose name I cannot remember… so I’ll call him Trey. Trey got everyone together; we introduced ourselves, and took the walk to the Metro station and pulled away for St. Michel station.

After a brief into to the Metro (how to use, what not to do, don’t be a tourist) we exited into the hub of Paris, St. Michel. Oh God… was it beautiful. The people strolling around bundled up wearing elegant scarves and pea coats. Everyone was drinking a coffee or eating a pastry. Notre Dame was just across the Seine, and the fountain of St. Michel was just out of the Metro station. Now, this tour was five hours long, and contained so many things that there is no way I can put them all in, so I’ll just give the main path. The tour started with hellos and welcomes on the Left Bank, then into the history of St. Michel. From there, a quick walk across the Seine to Notre Dame and the Ile de Cite. Next, Parisian history and politics along the Seine, followed by the Pont Neuf.

By this time, it had started to drizzle, then rain, then heavy sleet. We were all getting quite cold and wet when we reached one of the main reasons I have always wanted to go to Paris… the Louvre. I am a museum whore. I hope one day to retire and become a docent. I love them. Just as we arrived at the Louvre from the east, walking thru the first corridor, the sleet stopped… and the snow began. It was the first snowfall of the year; huge, heavy flakes came down thick in the main square of the Louvre. For someone who loves Paris, the Louvre, and snow… it was a pretty good time for me. By the time we reached the Pyramids, the snow was so thick it caused mini-whiteouts in our pictures.

From there, it was north thru the famous shopping districts and the opera houses. Around 11, we stopped and pulled into a charming deli where I had a cup of mixed cheese soup with the best Province ham and chorizo sandwich ever… I don’t know if it’s the bread or the meat… but damn those sandwiches were good!

After a respite, we walked thru the Tuilleries, glimpsed just a bit of the Eiffel Tower thru the fog, walked across the Concorde, the Grande Palace, and up the Champs-Elysees. At this point, the tour ended, and we thanked Trey with gracious tips, and we headed our separate ways. Trey mentioned that he was giving a night tour of Montmartre that evening, and suggested that we take him up on it. I walked across the bridge near Les Invalides, and stood on Le Pont Alexandre III (the bridge with little golden dudes on it) staring at the Eiffel Tower in the distance, and watching the boats drift along the river. The rain started to come down once again, and I found myself welled up with emotion… almost to the point of tears. I had so wanted to visit Paris for so long. Every time I tried to get there, something stood in my way. But, finally, I was there… and I was loving it.

I took a series of Metro trains back to the hostel. Negotiating the tunnels and the maps is half the fun of any major city in Europe. Wherever I live, I will always vote for light rail or public transport. There is no need for a car in any city in Europe… everything lives and dies by the quick, efficient, and cheap public transports. I had a coffee to warm myself up and changed into some dry socks. I knew I shouldn’t push myself too much the first day, as my legs and feet were already sore from the morning’s walking, but I was really looking forward to the night tour of Montmartre. I found the connecting Metro rail to Blanche station, and took off into the Paris night.

I didn’t know exactly where I was going, so I was taken aback at what was waiting for me at the Metro stop. As I exited into the night, I found myself staring at the Moulin Rouge! I took a ton of pictures, then walked around the sex shops for a while; talking up the near-naked women trying to pull me inside. I met up with Trey and a new group of people, and we started our climb up the Mountain of the Martyr.

Once again… too much to discuss in detail. Needless to say, I saw the artist’s quarter, Au Lapin Agile, the homes of van Gogh, Picasso, and Toulouse-Lautrec. And of course, the stunning Le Basilique du Sacre’ Coeur de Montmartre. While climbing the hill, you don’t even see the basilica until you turn a quick corner, and you find yourself right on top of it… gorgeous. From there, we overlooked all the flickering lights of Paris at night. We then lazed our way down thru the old quarters and back into the Red Light district. I got a huge kick out of seeing the Café de 2 Moulins and the corner grocer from the movie Amelie. If you have not seen this incredibly beautiful movie, stop reading this and go buy it. After viewing it, you will fall in love with Paris, too. It shows Paris as everyone wishes Paris could be… and sometimes, when the light is right… Paris really does become magical.

Trey wanted us to join him for a drink, so we took the Metro back to St. Michel and had a few glasses of the “new red.” By this point, the non-stop climbing up and down the twisting streets, plus the morning tour, plus my fat ass had made my ankles and hips start to swell and strain. I bid everyone goodnight, bought a sugar-and-butter crepe (what love tastes like) and headed back to the hostel.

At this point, I should tell you I had a good night’s sleep after having walking about twenty miles, most of it uphill all day. But no… I had a really good laugh during the night instead. My lower bunk mate, some 20ish emo wannabe (tight fitting black jeans, too big scarf, white belt… you know the type) decided to bring a girl back to the bunk. So instead of resting my wearing joints in slumber, I had to listen to the most awkward, juvenile attempts at sex I had ever heard. Dialogue like “we shouldn’t, I really like you,” and “I want you to respect me for the rest of the week” were some of my favorites. I especially enjoyed the extremely slow (at least ten minutes) unzipping of the jeans, followed by slurping, followed by “I’m sorry, but we really shouldn’t” followed by the quick unzipping of everything, followed by five-minutes of very selfish, frenetic fucking… quickly followed by “I’ll get you a towel.” I do not miss being young anymore.

The following morning, I realized that I had made a big mistake. No, not asking if I could join in on the fun below me… I had pushed myself too hard on my first day. I was hurt… bad. My feet and ankles had streaks of purple and blue in them. My hips were popping funny, and my lower back was dying from sitting up in the bunk reading while the amateur porn stars were getting it on.

So I decided to take it easy, and spend my day inside the Louvre. I got to the Louvre early, and walked straight into the Pyramid. Grabbing the English map, I decided to hit it all… the entire Louvre… in one day. I would start at the top most corner, and work my way across the three buildings, floor by floor.

Ambitious… yes. Stupid… also, yes. But I had a plan, and I was going to stick to it. I rode the escalator up to the top floor (I think Spanish artists), stepped onto the famed parquet floor and started my exploration. It only took one step for my plan to coming crashing down.

Several weeks earlier, in Dubai, I spent a lot of money on a very expensive pair of Gortex, water-proof, high-traction, Timberland trekking shoes… the perfect shoe for backpacking. Unfortunately, these particular shoes, which had been incredible throughout my trip, sounded like they were strangling puppies as soon as they hit the Louvre’s wooden floors. They squeaked so badly, I honestly thought about taking them off and trying to get by in just socks. Every step I took resonated five rooms in either direction. Lone artists working on their craft by painting the masters had to concentrate with squeak-squeak-squeak-sorry-squeak storm past them. There were entire rooms filled with docents teaching students that came to sudden halts as soon as I entered the room. I was a little more than embarrassed. Thankfully, I found that when I approached the more popular wings of the museum the sound died out under the throng of noise.

The Louvre was amazing, though. Winged Victory at Samothrace. Venus de Milo. The Mona Lisa. All there… all beautiful. An incredible day in a stunning place. I did find myself having to stop and rest, though. My legs and back were really starting to hamper my progress. When my tour of the Louvre was over, I decided to walk thru the Tuilleries again and head to the Eiffel Tower.

The tower was the only place I went where I had to stand in line… it pays to visit in the dead of winter. I paid my fee, and rode the trolley all the way to the top, where I took some great pics of the city. Last year, I did a 2000-piece puzzle of a 360-view from the top the Eiffel Tower. And now, being there in person, it was so cool to look out and know where everything was… to be able to see exactly where I had walked and ate and taken pictures. Very cool.

After the tower, I walked to the Champs-Elysees and checked out the food stalls that were lined up for Christmas. After eating some creamed potatoes with herbs and bacon, I found the nearest Metro, and took myself back to the hostel. It was only around 4p.m., but my legs just couldn’t take much more. Later that night, I met up with some of my tour group members, and got some of the best Vietnamese noodles I ever had just down the road from the hostel. Then, it was a night of cozying up with a book under the blankets while dropping massive doses of aspirin. What can I say…? I’m getting old.

After breakfast, it was the train back to St. Michel, then a morning walk down the Seine to the Musee d’Orsay. This museum is even more beautiful than the Louvre, which is hard to believe… but it is. After spending a few hours there, it was the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, followed by a walk thru Les Halles, then into the Musee National d’art Modern at Centre Georges-Pompidou. I wasn’t a fan of the modern art museum… they seemed to take themselves a little too seriously for modern art. Next up was another Metro trip to Concorde and a long walk all the way up Champs-Elysees. I didn’t realize that damn road was eight kilometers uphill. I was dying inside. Every step made my feet, legs, and back ache just a little more. But I was determined to walk all they way to the Arc de Triumphe.

I was planning on walking up to the top of the Arc… but after seeing it had 147 steps… I thought it would be wiser to save my hips for when I’m in my forties. I headed back to the hostel, picked up some pastries and cigarettes for the night, and spent the evening reading while massaging my ankles.

Quick aside… while I’m typing this, the Bourn Identity is playing on TV, and I’m watching the Paris scenes thinking, “I know where that is!! I’ve been there!!”

After my cornflakes, I planned on spending my last full day in Paris in the countryside. I bought an extended Metro pass, and boarded the regional train to the Chateau de Versailles. After the forty minute train ride, I exited the station to find a heavy snowfall blanketing the Parisian suburb. I walked to the palace and was both amazed and a little dumbfounded. The palace of Versailles is magnificent. It is huge, and beautiful, and an incredible monument to the wealth and exuberance of the former royal houses. But at the same time… it was smaller than I imagined. It was big, yes… but I was expecting big on a modern scale, which it is not. Even stranger was an oversized green balloon flower made of glistening aluminum in the main plaza.

It turns out that the renowned modern artist Jeffrey Koons had an installation of his modern art inside the gothic nobility of Versailles. As I walked thru the rooms with floor to ceiling paintings and tapestries, surrounded by buses of Japanese tourists, to see this old-world European grandeur punctuated with a ceramic statue of Michael Jackson and his chimp, Bubbles… was one of those where-the-hell-am-I moments I have been finding myself lately. The stately gardens were closed due to ice on the steps, and all the ponds were frozen over. I hobbled back to the train station, gasping in pain with each strained step. By this point, I was really hurting.

I took the train back into Paris, and limped thru Montmartre and the Red Light district for an hour or so, followed by an extensive tour of Notre Dame. Next, I went north to the Cite des Sciences et de I’Industrie (Science and Industry Museum) located just beyond my hostel. It was a very nice museum, with great hands-on exhibits, but I just couldn’t get into it the way I normally would. I was just too tired and sore. I had been walking on cobblestones and side-streets for ten days straight, and my body had simply given out. I headed back to the hostel, picking up a ham-and-egg-and-cheese crepe along the way, and read while drinking coffees at a sidewalk café… watching the people go by.

My final morning in Paris, I limped along the canal next to the hostel, and enjoyed my final coffees and crepes. I folded my towel, packed up the full backpack, and set off to the Metro one last time.

People told me their experiences with Paris before I left. Some found the people to be rude and snobbish. Some thought it smelled bad and was too crowded. Me… I loved it. Trey gave me some advice, saying “No matter what you are doing, start every sentence with ‘Bon Jour’, and Parisians will treat you warmly.” And he was right! I thought the people were friendly, the street food was incredible, and it smelled a lot better than New Orleans on a good night. I’ve visited a lot of cities, and most of them I can say, “great to visit, but I couldn’t live there.” San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami… all good examples. But Paris… I could definitely live in Paris. Maybe one day, I will.

Found my ICE train to my last stop before leaving Europe… Frankfurt.

Frankfurt… I arrived after dark, and walked about fifty feet out of the Haptbahnhof before finding my hostel. A very tiny place tucked between a chicken house and the “World of Sex.” I checked in, and was told I was in luck, since it was all-u-can-eat-pasta night. Worked for me. I downed a few beers over a book and some dry tortellini, and went to bed. So far, by bunks were all very comfortable and roomy. Some were simply bunk beds, some were like train sleepers with curtains and nightlights. These bunks were leftovers from Alcatraz. Rickety and shaky, every time I tried to move, all the springs rattled. Worst of all was the horrendous metal bar under the mattress. There was no way my lower back could not be draped across it. By far, the worst night’s sleep I had the entire trip.

When I awoke at 5 a.m. to catch my train to the airport, by spine was shattered. From experience, I knew I had slipped at least one disc in my back. It took me ten minutes of arguing with myself to put the backpack on or to just drag it behind me. I left the hostel, cursing under my breath, and took the subway to the airport station. There, I paid for the return of my luggage, enjoyed my last bratwurst, and boarded my eleven-hour flight to Houston.

Europe was, for me, about as great as a trip as you can get. Traveling alone, backpacking for the first time, staying in hostels… it was all one grand adventure! The kind of adventure people my age tend to forget… believing that these experiences can only be achieved by the young turks. I met a ton of great people, and had some wonderful conversations about each other’s lives. I was mesmerized by the architecture and history and providence of it all. I ate some damn fine street food. I saw where Hitler started the Nazi Party and almost vomited in a science museum. I heard Amadeus’ choir and sang “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” to a bus full of strangers. I explored only the tip of Paris. I want more of Europe… and I will be going back soon.

Houston… It was great seeing my parents again! I spent almost three weeks in Houston, visiting with my family and friends. I wanted to do more, but I had to rest the first week to get my spinal cord to realign itself. I want to thank all my sisters who traveled to Houston to see me… that meant a lot. Also, my good friends who came down and let me crash at their place so I could catch up on my Shiner Bock consumption. But a special thanks to Mom and Dad for letting me stay at their place, feeding me six times a day, letting me use their car and phones… and just being really great parents who I miss very much… thanks.

Like I said before… all the pictures of the trip are up at http://s249.photobucket.com/albums/gg223/benji-of-arabia/.

I’ve had a ton of stuff happen to me personally in the last three months, but I couldn’t blog about it until I had at least rehashed my Europe trip. Now that that’s taken care of, hopefully you’ll be reading a lot more of the interesting things going on in Doha. Here’s just a taste:

· I worked for the Supreme Education Council…

· I’m a soon-to-be-published-scientist…

· Buddy Tex demolished his Jeep in the desert…

· I almost won a trivia contest…

· I played a French mime in a silent movie…

I promise to tell you more a little later…

Take care…


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Pork Crusades... Part II

Salzburg… took a late train thru southern Germany and Austria, so I didn’t get to see any of the Alps or the terrain. I arrived at the Haptbahnhauf Salzburg (main train station) and pulled out my trusty roll of maps and searched for my hostel. The train station in Salzburg is located in a suburb outside of the main city. I walked about fifteen minutes thru the night air, which was considerably cooler than in Munich, and found the YoHo Youth Hostel tucked into a small alcove in a quaint side street.

Family owned and run, this hostel was much smaller and cozier than my previous. I put my stuff away (upper bunk… damn) and headed to the bar. To my surprise, there was only two other people in the bar, lazily smoking and drinking a pint while watching a rugby match… a lot different than the frenetic revelry of Munich. I decided to call it a night, and went up to my bunk. There, I met my first roommate of the trip… let’s call him Pierre.

When I was planning my trip, I called this hostel to make sure that I could stay there… since they did advertise themselves as a youth hostel… sometimes they have upper age limits. But YoHo assured me it would be OK for an old-timer like me to crash. Well… Pierre must have been in his late fifties… but he had the body of vintage Iggy Pop!! Not five foot tall, no fat, all muscle, covered head to toe in full body tattoos! He introduced himself in a thick French-Canadian accent, and explained in detail that he had been retired for ten years. He spent half the year backpacking everywhere (every continent, over 160 countries!) and half the year in Canada to keep his health insurance.

I was really impressed… this was someone who I thought was really cool… until he continued to speak. He next talked to me about how he was on new medication, and it made him a very light sleeper… so if I snored, he calmly explained that he would get up and force me to roll over or leave the room. Now… this was strange… but still funny in a crotchety-old-bastard sort of way. Pierre then talked about his loose bladder, and that he always gets up at 4 a.m. to piss in the sink… “No big deal… we all do it.”

Yes. I’ve pissed in a sink. But not when there was an unoccupied, fully functional bathroom just across the hall. Not when my roommates are planning on brushing their teeth in that sink in the morning. Not when I’m going to wash my face in that sink… goddamn Pierre.

The next morning I awoke a little tired from Pierre stirring me during the night… little fucker. After my obligatory cornflakes and Nutella, I signed up for the singular reason for coming to Salzburg… the Official Sound of Music Tour.

Let me preface this. For those of you that don’t know, several of my older sisters (all four) used to make me watch that damn movie everyday for years. We would each have parts that we had to learn and sing aloud to the film. Mine… Hansel, Friedrich, the Captain, and the Mother Superior (pre-puberty… I could hit those notes on “Climb Every Mountain”). So during my informative, character building years, I involuntarily spent waaay too much time singing “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” and practicing the jumping steps at the end of “Do-Re-Mi.” I know every song, every spoken word, every horse jump in the gazebo, and every one of the favorite things. I feel it is my duty, if not what I was put on this Earth for, to go on this damn tour to rub it in the face of my sisters…

I paid my 42 Euros (ouch!) and hitch a ride on the double-decker tour bus. We met up at a church near the old city to meet with other tour groups. I was standing around waiting for the tour to start when a dapper older woman approached me and hollered, “Are you an Aggie?!” I was flabbergasted until I noticed that I was wearing my Aggie class ring (’98 Whoop!), and answered that I was, indeed, an Aggie. This blue-haired lady let out a screech of joy and yelled out “Evelyn!! You’ll never believe it!! I found one of your Aggies!” Turns out Evelyn was the woman’s Aggie daughter, (Class of ’89) who was touring Austria with her husband and twin girls. So here we were… two Aggies, neither of whom live in the U.S. (she lives in England), who found each other in Austria on the Official Sound of Music Tour, discussing our rancid football team…

The tour began with a scenic drive thru Salzburg, telling the actual story of the Von Trapp’s. I won’t retell it, but if want to real story… go on the tour. We drove to Monk’s Mountain (the hill she sings “Sound of Music” on) overlooking the city. From there, we headed to the palace with the terrace and the lake, saw the gazebo, jumped on the steps, and walked thru the tree-lined driveway to the front of the other palace. The whole way, the soundtrack to the film was playing on the bus with people belting out the songs under their breath… not wanting to admit that everyone else on the bus was wanting to sings the songs aloud too.

The bus then traveled thru the hills and salzkammergut (lake districts). As we climbed into the mountains, it started to gently snow, covering the pastures and little villages in white and green. The towns we passed were incredibly charming, but all the same. Every building was as cute as a button, all huddled around one small church and lots of barns on the outskirts.

We parked a few times to take pictures of all the scenic overlooks, lakes, and ski chalets. The bus stopped in a town called Mondsee (Moonlake). Here we walked thru a little town dotted with tiny houses, each a different shade of pastel. We were walking towards the mustard yellow church when the tower bells rung… then each of us knew where we were… this was the wedding church in the movie. Indeed, when I turned the corner, there it was. The inside was, of course, beautiful… but after a while, every church tends to look the same.

The Christmas markets were open, so I ate some brats with sauerkraut and creamed potatoes. I walked around the town a little more, looking at the huge cliff faces of the Alps that surround the village. We soon boarded the bus again and headed back to the Salzburg. From the dropoff spot, I pulled out the map, and made my way for Salzburg’s greatest known site… the Castle Hohensalzburg.

I traipsed down thru the city’s pedestrian ways to the River Salzach and crossed the footbridge. From there I entered the narrow, twisting pathways of the Old Town… filled with people cramming into shops and picking up bits of sausage and nuts from the myriad of vendors lining the courtyards. In the old town there are six churches, and this is an area barely bigger than a large shopping mall! I strolled thru the area, checking out the people, the horse drawn carts, and the beautiful public artworks until I made it to the massive castle nestled at the top of a mesa adjacent to the city. I paid my seven Euro and got in line for the trolley that take up directly up the mountain… sideways. It’s like an elevator that is cockeyed about fifteen degrees.

Once you reach the top, the views over Salzburg were amazing. First off, this was a fortress that actively defended the city from raiders, both over land and water, for hundreds of years. You can see exactly where the cannons are aimed, and why this was such an important, and imposing, fortress. You also realize that Salzburg is tiny… really tiny. It’s not much bigger than my hold haunt of Pflugerville. It kills me that these cities that everyone knows, everyone has heard about… are really, really, tiny. I guess I lived in Houston for too long… I expect everything to be at least thirty-five miles away.

After the fortress tour, I walked down the wet, muddy, and absolutely unsafe near vertical declining pathway back into the city. It had started to rain, and the path got really slick… several people fell on their ass and slid down the road twenty feet or so until they hit the build-in speed bumps. It was around three in the afternoon, and the church bells started to ring. But since there are six churches in the old town, one church went off, rang their chimes, and then the next church started up. There were church bells ringing until 3:15… that’s gotta get annoying real quick.

At the foot of the largest cathedral, there was a choir singing Christmas hymns in German. Turns out, they were hooked up to a speaker system throughout the Old Town. So every corner you turned, you kept thinking there was another choir, but it was the same group singing Mozart in the town of his birth.

I spent another hour or so walking around the city, and headed back to my hostel. When I arrived, the hostel was no longer a sleepy little townhouse. It was packed to the gills with 17 to 24-year-olds blaring music, getting drunk, and even playing full contact rugby in the halls. My hostel had been invaded by Australians.

This entire trip it seemed that everyone I met was Australian… to the point where I started to wonder if there were any people left in Australia. It was explained to me that since there is nothing surrounding Australia, that most students take extended holiday trips at the end of high school or during college using one of several major tour groups. I was lucky enough to fall right in the middle of one of the groups.

Later I went downstairs and ate my schnitzel with noodles (really) and started to drink with the young ones. I ended up having a blast! I found myself caught listening to all the gossip and cliques that start and form whenever a group of people hang around each other enough. One guy was sleeping with two different girls. One girl was giving out free boob touches for drinking cash. One of the guides had “pleasured” an under-aged highschooler. I just sat back and enjoyed the show. At this point, I needed to do some laundry, and ended up hanging out in the basement with a gaggle of young girls who got a huge kick out of flirting with the new, old guy. After finishing my laundry, and about a dozen beers or so, I carried my stuff (and a passed out 17-year-old) up the stairs and put everything where it belonged. And no… that passed-out-girl didn’t belong in my room…

The next morning the skies cleared, and I spent the dawn lazily walking thru the city once again; picking up a fresh butter and honey crepe along the way. But not before I realized that I had a ton of tissues and an extra pillow shoved under my head when I awoke. Pierre had obviously not liked my snoring and tried to remedy the situation while I slept off my beers. I sat in the bar and watched The Sound of Music, picking out the sites where I had been and now easily recognized. I packed up the bag, filled to the brim with somewhat clean clothes, and strolled thru the city until I reached the train station. I quickly boarded and found my first class seat… this time it was inside a private compartment! That was nice since this was going to be a long train ride to my next port of call.

I split my Europe trip into two parts, and I had reached the halfway point. As most of you know, I am neither that young nor that physical fit anymore. Five days of non-stop walking while carrying a backpack was starting to take its toll. My feet, hips, and back were in need of a good rest. So today, I would enjoy my nine-hour bullet train ride (at 284 km/hour), rest the feet and back, savor some very delicious train food, and watch the everchanging European landscape race past my window until I arrived at my next destination… Paris.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

About damn time I blog again...

Damn… it has been a looong time since I wrote last. Sorry for that. After spending a month abroad then coming back home to a time consuming job has left me a little free time. Also, I bought a HUGE TV and Playstation 3… so my valuable downtime when I should be writing and losing weight is now associated with eating Pringles while driving over hookers in Grand Theft Auto IV. My bad.

So, it’s about time I get everyone caught up in the daily Doha grind. I guess I have to go back to December and give the details of my first trip to Europe, gracefully entitled… “The Pork Crusade.”

December 2008… The semester finally finished up. The students were prepping for finals, and I was lugging lasers from one building to another; setting up the new research lab where I’m working part-time. Everything was coming to an end, and I needed a little adventure. Dubai was great, but after India, I needed another really big experience.

So I prepped and fretted over my first solo vacation to Europe for about a month. I was able to save up a few vacation days, and was able to take an entire month off. I was going to spend the whole month traveling abroad, but I realized that my Mom would probably beat me to death if I didn’t get to the states to visit. When I was planning my trip, I kept asking people for their opinions, ideas, and travel tips. Turns out everyone was startled to learn that I had never traveled to Europe. And that is a little weird… my first truly overseas trip (Cancun doesn’t count) was to Doha. I had to assure people that I was, in fact, very well traveled… at least in the U.S. Seriously, I’ve been just about everywhere in the states. But my lack of worldly sophistication wasn’t entirely my fault! On four separate occasions I planned for a trip to Paris and London… twice my travel buddy bailed on me, and twice I bought the tickets! But just before the trips, doctors had to ruin them by telling me I needed surgery on one body part or another… goddamn doctors…

So, on December 3rd, I ignored the quacks and flew to Frankfurt, Germany.

Frankfurt… I walked around for a while, stowing my luggage full of gifts for the family at the airport. I was going the one bag route, carrying only my Rick Steves’ Convertible Carryon backpack. Walking outside, I felt something entirely foreign to me… not so much the language or the people… but the cold, gray sky. To see a non-dusty bright sky followed by icy cold wind was thrilling! I love the advertisements in Germany… I saw one in the airport of a fully naked woman, breasts exposed, painted to look like a tiger crouched over two pale babies, that somehow was trying to sell me a Tag Hauer watch.
Following everyone’s advice, I got out of Frankfurt as soon as possible. My friend Alaska convinced me to book my Eurorail tickets early, so all I had to do was find the train station inside the airport. Once there, I found my train to Munich and jumped aboard. At this point I came upon my first serious challenge… I didn’t know where to sit. Each car was labeled, and each seat has a little glowing sign that read something in German. The train was mostly full with people who seemed to know exactly what they were doing… no fair. I sat down, and meekly asked the gentleman across from me if the seat was taken, and he explained the whole “reserved seating” signs above the seats. I was OK for a while until the next stop, when someone came and wanted her reserved seat. So, I spent the three hour train trip people watching the Germans and jumping from seat to seat between stops.

(Later, I found out I had purchased a first class ticket, and was in the wrong car. I had an extra-wide reserved seat with dedicated steward and a hot meal waiting for me about fifteen cars over… oops.)

Munich… The train skipped thru the night and pulled into Munich at night. The European train stations are such a throwback to things that you’ve seen in movies and television. Huge semi-domes with thirty trains pulling in and out non-stop, and exactly on time! I followed the massive throng of people onto the concourse was taken aback by the sights and smells. Tons of food booths filled to the brim with sausages and beer… yeah! I walked outside, had a smoke in the cold night air, and followed my map to my first bed of the night… Wombat’s City Hostel.

Ok, I know this looks bad. Here I am, a moderately successful grown man who chose to backpack thru Europe and is staying in hostels. I never got to travel like a young man should when I was a young man… I decided to start work three days after graduating college. Maybe I’m coming a little late to the party… but screw it… it’s my trip, and I can afford a nice hotel if I want to!

The hostel was right by the train station, and I checked in for the night. Wombat’s was nothing like the hostels I was expecting. I always imagined them as dank, super-cheap, holes-in-the-wall that were just good enough to not get raped while you sleep. This place was better than some really nice places I’ve stayed. They had a quiet area inside full of cots and hammocks for reading and relaxing, a private bar, and really hot girls walking around… I loved it. The room was sparse, just six bunk beds and a single chair, but who cares! It wasn’t like I had a great chance of getting laid being the oldest and fattest guy in the place.

I left and walked around Munich for an hour or so, just people watching, trying to figure out the street signs. Turns out that everyone who lives in Munich smokes all the time, everywhere they go. Also, everyone looks great and wears scarves. I had bought a scarf online before I left… in fact; I bought all my winter clothes online before I left. Not much heavy winter coat selection in Arabia. I went into a small restaurant across from the hostel, and ordered a ham pizza with a very large Bavarian beer. God they both tasted so good. I went back to the bar, had a few drinks, chatted up some people, and hit the bunks.

The next morning, I had my complimentary breakfast of cornflakes, coffee, and bread with Nutella. This is the breakfast of choice of all hostels. I ate more cornflakes and Nutella in two weeks than I had in the previous thirty-two years of my life.

I signed up for Wombat’s free four-hour walking tour of Munich. Most hostels have free (or cheap) tours in every city. I joined the group, met up with Ozzie (the only black Bavarian tour guide in Germany) and left for the walk. We took our time and toured the old town of Munich. Ozzie explained the sights, history, and smells of Munich really well. We toured all the major churches, saw the famous glockenspiel at noon, and headed over to a beer garden for lunch. I asked Ozzie what he would recommend for someone who has gone without pork for almost a year… he suggested a slow roasted pork shoulder sandwich with mustard and beer. I ordered this masterpiece of culinary delights and dived in. It was breathtaking… there’s no way I can explain how good a juicy piece of pork tastes when you have been denied its love for so long.

Everyone on the tour was backpacking thru Europe at one stage or another. Backpackers have a particular custom when meeting new people… everyone asks the same questions: Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going? People start sharing their details and sights, horror stories are told, and you begin building a rapport with these strangers that have the same desire as you… so see and experience new places, things, and people. Very cool.

We saw the Hofbrauhaus, and got a detailed history of the Nazi Party and Hitler. At one point, we were in a beautiful round-a-bout when an old lady ran over a traffic cone and it got stuck under her car. I ran over and pulled it out from her wheel well, and was cheered as a conquering hero by my group. Odd, considering that was exactly how Hitler got started.

At the end of the tour, Ozzie asked for tips (free tour, remember?) and suggested some other places to go see. I joined up with some young Australian engineers, and started off to walk to the Parliament. At this point… it started to rain. Not a sprinkle, but a full on downpour in just above freezing temperatures. My cohorts started to duck under cover… while I just stared up at the sky and enjoyed the refreshing drops on my face. When you haven’t seen rain in 11 months… you realize how much you miss the feel of it.

Afterwards, I went back to the hostel to dry out a little, and went out again to sample the old town at night. The Kriskindnachtlmarket (Christmas night markets) were open at night, so the old town was filled to the brim with Bavarians. The markets are large booths that are absolutely filled to the brim with handmade Christmas ornaments, gifts, and toys. Anything from hand-blown glass trees to wooden toys… all backlit by the huge Christmas tree outside of the Glockenspiel. The smell of the place was amazing! Everywhere you turned there was roasted pork and deep red bratwursts, hard candies, chocolates, pastries, and… swear to God… roasting chestnuts in fifty different flavors!! Wafting thru the delicious odor of food was the smell of Ghuwein… a hot mulled wine. Now, when I say mulled, I’m talking about lots of spices… and several shots of scotch in a very tiny little glass. I bought one but couldn’t drink it. I’ve never had anything so strong in my life! But I paid for another glass because I wanted to keep the handmade glasses they came in (a little mug and a boot for mom).

Later, at the hostel, I went to the bar and met up with some of my tour group members. I also met some very friendly Serbian girls. Needless to say… nothing happened. But I did party hard into the night… dancing on the tables, drinking and smoking waaay too much. The locals say that you can’t get hung over on their beer because it is so pure… bullshit. I felt about one cigarette or one beer away from death the next morning. I went outside to try a fight off the hangover with the bitterly cold air… no luck.

I walked for about two hours until I reached the largest science and technology museum in Europe. I found a little spot in the chemistry section that had a discreet bench tucked behind a collage of the atom, and I sat. I sat without moving, turning, or opening my eyes. This was me, in Europe, trying desperately to not vomit in a museum. After about two hours, I raised my head, and went through the fascinating exhibits on bridges, water mills, and food agriculture (no, really, very fascinating)! That night, I walked back through the night markets, and climbed a few church spires. The bar… not for me tonight, thank you.

I did have to go shopping. Turns out, I made a very common backpackers mistake… I forgot my towel. Depending on the hostel, they may or may not give you linen, food, or restrooms. But none offer towels. I found a supermarket and went in search of a towel. But the only things I could find were 50Euro bathing sets with robes and slippers. Thankfully I searched the discount bin and found a nine Euro beauty… an American flag towel. It was so gauche’ I just had to have it.

My last day I just walked around the city, eating everything and enjoyed a book in a beer garden. I packed up my bag, checked out, walked to the train station, ate a bag of pommes frites with mayonnaise, and boarding my train (this time, the right car and seat!) to Salzburg, Austria.
Next up... The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Ben...

By the way... all the pictures on up... http://s249.photobucket.com/albums/gg223/benji-of-arabia/