Saturday, December 7, 2013

Anaheim: the happiest place on Earth...

Let me just start off with the facts… I am not a team player.  I’m not talking about working in groups or handling assignments with other people.  I’m talking about being a player on a team… a sports team.  I am, and have always been, a country club kid.

I don’t play many sports, but when I do I’m actually OK at most of them.  As long as none of them have any running involved.  I can’t run. Never could. I actually failed the fourth grade Presidential Physical Fitness Test in the 50-yd dash, shuttle run, and the mile.  My body was not designed to run, as evidenced that I could easily be bested during our school’s annual Field Day by the fat rollie-pollie kid that always smelled of sour milk.  That’s why I swim…

Because you can’t beat me in the water...  No one beats me in the water…

Back to my point, the sports I played were swimming, golfing, or tennis.  I never wanted to play football or baseball, or even thought about playing soccer.  Ugh.  My sports’ teams weren’t really teams at all.  In all of my meets or tournaments, it was always me versus one other competitor.  Yes, technically my wins gave the team points, but no one really gave two shits about the team.  Whether the team won or lost, we were still going out for buffet pizza afterwards.  As a kid, when we were forced to play baseball in gym, I hated the false camaraderie that we were forced to shout, and I never figured out exactly when was the right time to do a solo clap or yell “let’s go, team” and “the play is at second!”

So you can imagine my surprise when I said I would be an alternate for a local expat softball league.  I practiced with the team a few times and showed off my prowess of being able to carry the bat bag from the car to home plate… and that was about it. When the games started I sat on the bench, opened the gate to the dugout with aplomb, all the while trying to fathom why anyone would make softball jerseys so form fitting. I also discovered that when playing on the fields owned by the American School of Doha, the parents in the stands get really offended by the jokes I levied at the other players; something about being respectful around their kids or some other fucking bullshit.  And the volunteer umpires really become dicks, taking their modicum of imaginary power way too seriously.  One umpire told me to stop my jerking-off hand gestures while the other team was batting… what a dick that guy!

So on my only time at bat, I choked up, dug into the batter’s box, lifted my elbow high, and took a mighty swing at the lazily underhanded tossed softball… and promptly allowed it to hit the bat handle and fall straight at my feet.

It’s a hit!  I actually (sorta) hit the ball! I awkwardly dropped the bat, planted my feet and took off at full tilt towards first base.  And that was when I tore the plantar fascia in my left foot.

I got all of two steps before I yelped aloud in pain and began to gallop like a horse gone lame down the baseline. The catcher didn’t even throw the ball. He was too mesmerized by the sight of my floundering before coming to his senses, walked up to me, and tagged me out.

A few hours of excruciating pain later, I had to use my putter as a cane to get me to my car and to the emergency room for some X-rays.  I thought I might of broken that weird hook everyone has on the bottom of your heel, a leftover relic from the time when we all had tails.  Instead, it was a partial tear of my plantar fascia, and I was going to be in pain for a while.

Perfect timing, as in less than a week I was to fly to Anaheim for the spring American Chemical Society conference to man a booth for three days for promoting an organic chemistry conference (POC2012) that I was organizing in Qatar…


I had been organizing this conference for nearly six months, and we had paid handsomely for a booth during the convention in which to heavily promote and advertise the event.  I had already shipped twenty-four boxes of banners, T-shirts, hats, notebooks, mugs, and every known high-end tchotchke with the POC2012 logo imaginable to our hotel.  For a week I hobbled around swearing under my breath with my new aluminum cane and walking boot.  The pain from the tear was bad enough, but the non-stop limping and hunching over was starting to affect my already horrific lower back.  I was hit by a car in college while riding a bike that then decided to run me over, tearing up most of the soft tissue in my lower spine.  A few months later a very nice girl who was belaying me down from a balance beam forty feet in the air fucked up, dropped me, and broke one of my vertebrae.  Since then, Mr. Lumbar and I have had quite a few instances of not getting along.

After two long flights and a shuttle to Anaheim, my back was killing me, and I just wanted to get some rest.  Tex and I would be sharing a room, even though he had left the warm academic tower of Science to dig the ditches of Health and Safety.  Before we even checked in, Tex and I had a bit of a surprise.  The convention center was hosting the California cheerleading championships.  The streets, our lobby, and even the halls were filled with barely post-pubescent girls in short cheerleading skirts showing each other how flexible they were.  Tee hee…

Soon the porters brought up the towers of boxes that filled every nook and cranny we had in the room.  A shuttle took us around the Anaheim that exists just between the convention center and Disneyland.  We tried to get into a few restaurants, but the lines were forever long with screaming children wearing Mickey Mouse ears and dead-eyed parents huddled on benches outside of the Outback Steakhouse.  We had maybe walked ten minutes before my back started to send lightning bolts of pain down my legs.  Instead, we headed back to the hotel and ordered in some late-night Chinese delivery; the one thing we could never get in Doha.

The next morning I awoke to pain I had not felt in quite some years.  I needed to stay in bed, keep ice on my back, and not move for a few days to prevent any more damage.  But instead I asked Tex to carry some boxes for me to the convention center that was right next door to the hotel.  I was able to help put down the table cloth before I couldn’t take the pain anymore.  I had to get back to the room and off my feet.  Just before we got to the exit doors of the convention hall, I felt my back go.  I really… felt it go.

To anyone who has never had a bad back, there is nothing funny about having a bad back.  It’s like stepping on a landmine, because everything hurts and you can’t feel your legs anymore.  I yelled out for Tex to grab me and help me to the ground.  I had never felt my back just go out and die on me this bad before.  Tex was staring at me wide-eyed, without any idea what to do.  I begged him to go to the hotel and ask for a wheelchair, and to please come back to get me.  I knew that if Tex were hit by a bus while crossing the street I would become the phantom living under the convention stairs outside of Hall D.

Tex came back with the wheelchair and a hotel manager, who had to try and hide his elation that I didn’t hurt myself on hotel property.  They were able to get me into the wheelchair with only minimal screaming and crying, and back to the room where there was a lot more screaming and crying as they hoisted me into the bed.

I’m in a foreign city, in what is now a foreign country, in a hotel with a stranger and a co-worker, supposed to be setting up a booth I had been working on for six months… and I cannot move anything below my nipples without tears pouring down my face.


We called my boss who promptly laughed his ass off when he entered the room.  When I told him how bad it was, he quickly backtracked when he realized that he would now have to man the booth.  Tex and some others we knew were pulled away from their commitments to make our show happen, and it did without too many hitches.  We were hoping to be that booth at every convention that gives out the flashing LED pins or really nice leather binders, the booth everyone lines up for and gossips about. I wanted us to be the house that gave out full-sized Snickers on Halloween.

Thankfully for me, I had Tex.  He made sure I had access to the phone to order room service and take-out Chinese food.  He handled all my responsibilities without any quibbles or bitching.  And in return, I made him carry me to the bathroom so I would not shit the bed.

That week in the Anaheim Marriott, the friendship between Tex and I went to some dark places.

In the middle of one night while trying to shift to get more comfortable, I moved my leg too far and it slid off the bed.  Unable to raise my leg back up, I thought I would have the strength to maybe slide the other leg over… and I don’t know what the hell happened next but I ended up falling off the bed.  I called out to Tex to help me, but the ungodly heavy sleeper that he is, he wouldn’t wake up.  I had to stretch out, grab a shoe, and toss it at his face to get him to wake up and save me… nothing but net.

Normally, my back calms down after a night or so.  But in the morning I was in so much pain that I buckled and had the hotel call for an ambulance to take me to an emergency room.  Needing three men to lift me onto a stretcher and be pushed out of the hotel lobby while I covered my face in embarrassment was unbearable.  The doctors gave me some good shit, basically an epidural to manage the pain, and took some X-rays.

Tex rented a car and drove me afterwards to get my prescriptions filled. I felt terrible, with the pain in my spine but more with placing such a burden on Tex.  Thankfully, he got a reprieve.  Loyal readers may not believe this, but guess who showed up to save the day??… [NAME REMOVED]!!

Years ago I had promised [NAME REMOVED] that anytime I got injured or hospitalized (which is more common for me than you think), I was to give her a call.  And since I was doing nothing but watching marathons of Storage Wars, why not? She was worried about me, and in an uncommon act of selflessness, flew out from Florida to take over nurse duties from Tex.  As someone who had dated me, she wasn't unnerved by the site of me lying naked and helpless in a hotel bed.

Tex… not so much.

For four more days I languished under heavy pain medication while my friends did their jobs and nursed me like a baby.  After three days of delivery crab Rangoon and General Tso’s chicken, [NAME REMOVED] demanded that I eat something healthier, and tried to order me a salad.  I protested as much as I could until a shout from the hotel hallway came, “Just eat the damn salad!”

The conference was finally over, but our time together wasn’t quite done yet.  As this was Tex’s first trip to California, we were originally going to spend an afternoon in Disneyland and maybe take in a preseason Angels game. I had also booked us a night in the famed Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Blvd, directly across the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theater. But my injury killed the idea of walking along the Walk of Fame for some celebrity spotting, cheap souvenirs, and even cheaper heroine.

Tex got a new rental car specifically for my comfort, a huge Oldsmobile with the front seat in the full recline.  [NAME REMOVED] called the Roosevelt and explained that I had become enfeebled, and got us into a three person room. As part of the deal in coming to California, Tex desperately wanted to try an authentic fish taco at a real California-type place.  We drove into LA and I guided him to the beachfront.  We drove thru Santa Monica and my sister’s old stomping grounds of Manhattan Beach.  I encouraged them to leave me in the car and go walking around for a while so he could experience more of LA than emptying my piss cup.  They found a cool looking place and went in for some take out fish tacos and purple corn chips for us to share.

As we pulled into Hollywood I tried to get Tex excited about seeing the locations from his favorite films and TV shows, but I really think he just wanted to dump me in the room and have some time away from his own personal gimp.  I have to give the Roosevelt some credit, as they were ready with a wheelchair and attendant to get us up into our new, handi-capable, suite.  Dear God… if you ever have the chance, get the handi-capable room!  The suite had a huge tub and an enormous window that overlooked Grauman’s Theater with the Hollywood sign just behind.  I begged Tex to leave me, take his camera, and go exploring as to not have this week be a total waste.  He and [NAME REMOVED] went walking thru Hollywood, finding the names among the stars in the sidewalk, and stumbled upon the filming of the failed television pilot of Wonder Woman. A day after we left they filmed a Top Chef party in the ballroom of our hotel… dammit.

I had an awkward phone call to make; as there was no way I was going to survive the twenty-six hour flight back to Doha.  I needed to go to Texas and ask my folks for help.  Of course they agreed without hesitation, while again I felt horrible for being a burden.  Tex took off for his own family trip, and I thanked him tremendously for all his help.  [NAME REMOVED] got me through the airport security before catching her own flight.  I have to give her credit; there are not many people in this world that would fly out at the drop of a hat to help an ex-boyfriend.  I shouldn’t doubt her… she almost always knows what’s best for me.

Back in Houston I booked some doctor’s appointments, and at the very first one he recoiled that I couldn’t lift up my toes.  “Sorry,” he said, “but I’m not going to touch you without a CAT scan.”  The doctors were able to shove me into a late appointment the next day, my Dad driving me around the city and helping me in and out of the car.  The next day’s news was not promising, as the scan had come back showing that I had completely crushed two of my lumbar sacs, and was going to need surgery if I was ever going to regain feeling and movement back in my feet.


A surgeon’s appointment later, it was decided that I would try two weeks of physical therapy followed up with the surgery.  In yet another awkward phone call, I explained to my boss that I wasn’t going to be back to work for at least a month; maybe more.

Double Fuck.

Two weeks of walking in therapy pools, lifting weights with my toes, and more of the same goofy exercises that previous doctors had prescribed for my back problems. Mom made me spend the days between therapy appointments in the clubhouse pool walking in circles.  This is the best possible way to strengthen a weak spine, but you can’t do it for a few hours with a pool full of visiting grandkids without the residents thinking you’re a child predator.

But the absolute worst was when we needed to go to Wal-Mart, and I had to use a scooter to follow Mom around.  That was the worst sensation in the world.  I kept getting stares from people who probably thought I was just too lazy or fat to walk around the store.  I kept wanting to shout "No! I really did hurt myself! I need this Rascal!" I hated myself that day.

Back with the surgeon, this time I could lift my toes a little, and he was really happy.  He said it was enough movement to not have the surgery, and that I could fly again in a few days.  A few miles more walking in the pool and my back was good enough to get around without the cane or the extra doses of pain pills.  Pretty soon I was back in Doha, just in time to miss the ceremony where I was given the highest award at my university…


This trip sucked!  This trip was the worst few weeks, ever!  I ruined my friends’ plans, became a burden on them and my parents, totally screwed up a major work project, cost everyone time and energy, and all because I played a team sport.  But I cannot thank Tex, [NAME REMOVED], and my parents enough for putting up with me and my rotten back.

And to anyone that needs a softball player, ask me again, and I’ll kick you square in the balls.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Just get on the damn train!: A global adventure with Mom & Dad... Finale: Florence, Rome, and home again...

When Dad and I… were finalizing the details of this grand Asian/European affair, we originally were going to get off the boat, take a train directly to the airport in Rome, and say our goodbyes.  After two weeks of desert safaris, daily bus excursions, and being cramped together in a broom closet, I was pretty sure that we would need to decompress from each other in a bad way.  Thankfully, Dad disagreed.  He asked “Why not spend a few days extra days in Italy?”
Il Duomo...

Well goddamn if I couldn’t find a good reason to say no!  So at the onset, we changed our plans to get off the boat and go do something, somewhere, in Italy for a few days, then head back to Rome for the flights.  That was settled, now… where to go?

I threw out a bunch of names, including Assisi, Modena, and Siena; maybe go back to see the Amalfi Coast up close?  They had taken a long bus tour through Italy years ago so they had more local experience than me.  But again, Dad had the great idea… Florence.  Dad had absolutely fallen in love with the Tuscan outpost during their last visit twenty years prior. Mom… not so much.  She had stepped off the bus and broke her ankle, completely missing a chunk of the tour while she argued with an Italian nurse about why she couldn’t use her American Express card for the X-rays.

I need to point out that we had absolutely no travel plans or itinerary planned out for the next five days.  The previous two weeks was mapped out and timed to perfection (nearly) by me.  This part, we were playing it by ear.  So as the boat neared the Genoa shoreline, I paid a mortgage payment for fifteen minutes of ship-internet time and found a super cheap hotel for the three of us.  We picked up our luggage, took a cab to the train station, and bought three tickets to Florence!

This would have been a great interlude into another wonderful train story, but instead we bummed around the station for two hours drinking café Americanos while waiting for the train to arrive.  I don’t understand how Europeans instinctively know that their train has arrived and where to get on.  I have to get to the station at least an hour before, triple check my ticket against the arrivals board, and know my exact path from where I will be to the correct platform.  It seems that everyone else’s train leaves at four, and they all arrive perfectly at 3:59.  After yet another maddening quick train switch in Pisa (“just get on the goddamn train!”) we pulled into the Firenze Santa Maria Novella station and grabbed a taxi to the hotel. And did I ever luck out…
this guy earned his Euro...

Our hotel was in a tiny little alcove overlooking the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore… aka Il Duomo!  One of the most picturesque and beautiful buildings in all of Italy… and we were exactly eighteen steps from it in the middle of the old city.  The hotel had two other interesting features: a gelato bar directly across the alley, and the world’s smallest elevator!  The elevator could take two Europeans and luggage or me.  I couldn’t get into the elevator without first taking off my shoes and emptying my pockets of any spare change.  We actually had to send me up first, then the luggage, then Dad, followed by Mom, to get to our room. 

Florence is the heart of art and culture in Italy.  Back in the 1400’s, it was the center of European power and influence under the strong arms and deep pockets of the Medici family.  Art and architecture was commissioned and created the greatest masters of all time: Michelangelo, da Vinci, Brunelleschi, and Botticelli.  Most of the structures and marbles created by them still stand throughout the small inner city split on either side of the Arno River. 

The tile and cobblestone streets were filled with beautiful Italian men and women gesturing wildly with their hands as their main form of communication; all wearing sweaters so fashionable I felt slightly ashamed of my Wal-Mart fleece. Any woman older than thirty was decked out in knees high boots and full-length furs. Most were carrying small dogs in totes.  One block down from the hotel around a corner was the Plaza della Repubblica, one of the old squares lined with restaurants with outdoor tables draped in plastic and propane heaters. Everywhere we looked was another regional wine shop, followed by a fashion house next to a museum, followed by another gelato bar.
Florence was going to be our kind of town…

In the mornings we’d walk to the nearest coffee shop in the cold winter air for cafés and whatever glorious warm cinnamon or sugar buns they had steaming fresh in the window. For hours we would just walk down the alleys and roads with absolutely no direction or guide.  Farmer’s markets popped up and we would sample homemade sausage, cheeses, and breads.  I picked up a few jars of local truffle slices in oil.  In Florence you’re never at a loss of things to see or do.  We’d pass by an old church, of which there are about fifty, and walk in to explore.  The grandeur of the edifices does nothing to describe how amazing the art and design of the church interiors, spread sometimes only meters apart.  Around lunch the sun would come out and warm us up enough to unbutton our jackets, so we would search out a restaurant with outdoor seating and always eat the most sumptuous meals; and always accompanied with a bottle of a DOGC chianti classico (DOGC = Denominazioni di Origine Controllata e Garantita – only wines from Tuscany can have this designation.) For dinner we’d look for nicer restaurants where the locals were congregated and order everything we could.  Afterwards, we’d walk off the calories by strolling the dark streets packed with people around ten o’clock, as the Italians all prefer their dinner meals late.  We would almost always finish the day with another glass of wine or a gelato, and walk back to the hotel to crash out completely worn out and deliriously satisfied.
Ponte Vecchio...

About the wine… I have never been a huge wine drinker.  Especially reds, as the tannins make my ankles swell.  But here in this city, sitting outside feeling the warmth radiating from the heaters with the smell of Tuscan air, eating truffle pasta dripping in cream sauce with a loaf of perfect crusty bread… that glass of ethereal red swirling in the glass is almost magical. To savor the taste and aroma, it always seemed to enhance whatever we were dining on, whether it was Dad’s seafood pasta or Mom’s customary lasagna… that wine became something we would look forward to and anticipate instead of wondering if it was too early or too late for a glass. There were times we wouldn’t walk ten minutes after lunch until Dad would see a nice table before deciding that we all needed another glass.  I really thought it would have been the food that we found most satisfying about Florence… but it was definitely the wine.

During our days exploring we hit all the major sites of Florence.  The Ponte Vecchio that spans the Arno with its overhead shops and gold barkers.  The Uffizi Gallery with more impressive art than a lifetime of visiting other museums could prepare you for.  Of course we spent time everyday walking in circles around the Duomo and its sister baptistery, simply amazed at the beauty of how the light captures the intricate dark marble lines and the red roof tiles at all times of the day. 

After a few days the walking started to take its toll, so we paid for a few days of hop-on/hop-off bus service.  The route encircled the city providing history and scenic sites, including taking us to the southern edge of the city and an overlook where the whole expanse of Florence was under us.  It was amazing.  One day we just walked down from the overlook at the Piazzale Galileo through the Boboli Gardens and back across the Ponte Vecchio.  On a Saturday night we found a dark church tucked away that was about to hold a mass.  We attended the service, all spoken in a mix of Latin and Italian, mumbling our way through the prayers, trying to blend in. 

The next day we ventured out and took the bus on a secondary route, one that took us out of the city to the village of Fiesole just north of Florence nestled among the hills. The bus winded up the tree lined roads while we caught glimpses of the red-tiled city below.  We stopped for an hour in the charming little square of Fiesole in the middle of a giant swap-meet.  We browsed the stalls filled with lacework, old Italian vinyl records, brass picture frames, and antique typewriters.  The church bells from the belfry were ringing every fifteen minutes while we savored the country air.  Before we left, the three of us sat at a café and ordered yet another bottle of chianti classico.  We quietly sat and enjoyed our wine, surrounded by this charming village, and without saying a word, acknowledged that we were sharing a moment in time that none of us would forget; the three of us on the hillside, sipping wine on a cold yet sunny afternoon.

There was one other story that came pretty close to being as enjoyable.  We had just toured the Palazzo Vecchio, the incredible palace and tower attached to the Uffizi gallery that dominates the Piazza del Signoria (if you want a long description, read Dan Brown’s Inferno, half the book takes place there.) The entire building is filled with a myriad of artworks and sculptures of every Renaissance artist ever known. During our visit the Damien Hirst “sculpture” For the Love of God was on display.  The titanium human skull covered with $100 million dollars of diamonds was beautiful in its own right, but terribly out of place here in this marbled cathedral of true classical art. For some reason both Hirst and Jeff Koons just love to shove their art (not really theirs, they have people who make it for them) into classically designed buildings… and I fucking hate them for it.  Koons nearly ruined Versailles for me years earlier.

Back to the story… in the Salone dei Cinquecento (“Hall of the Five Hundred”), a magnificent collection of enormous statues line the wall.  The final statue was commissioned by Cosimo De’ Medici for sculptor Vincenzo de’ Rossi, and portrays one of the labors of Hercules.  In the myth, Hercules has just stolen the four man-eating horses owned by King Diomedes, and Diomedes challenges Hercules to wrestle to the death.  This is a statue meant to impose the strength of two brave men, both the sons of gods, in a prolonged battle to the death…

Instead, it looks like two body builders about to sixty-nine each other, while one tugs on the others’ junk.
Hercules & Diomedes...

Mom and Dad stared at the statue. Mom leaned over to Dad whispering in his ear, and they both started to giggle uncontrollably.  Every snort and chuckle reverberated across the hall, like schoolchildren they couldn’t stop.  Tears were streaming down Dad’s cheek as he tried to control himself.  “What’s so damn funny?” I ask, but only to get the cold shoulder from the two of them.  A while later we were drinking some wine in the adjacent square while an impeccably dressed Italian sat next to us drinking his morning cappuccino and reading the paper while wearing leather gloves.  I kept bugging my parents about losing their shit at that statue, and finally Dad relented, saying “Well, everyone in the story is dead now, so I guess it can’t hurt.”  The two of them proceed to tell a story about a drunken wrestling match that took place years earlier in a hunting cabin back in Michigan.  Some of my great uncles and family friends were three sheets to the wind and got into a brutal wrestling match on the floor.  Suddenly, a completely sloshed great aunt of mine jumped onto the pile and grabbed one of the men squarely by the nuts and pulled with all her might!

The story continued as Mom and Dad tried to explain just how out of character the aunt’s actions were, and how much the uncle’s balls hurt afterwards, all in between our non-stop hysterical laughing.  We were all crying and coughing we were laughing so hard!  Suddenly the beautiful Italian man next to us puts down his cappuccino, takes off his sunglasses, and says to us in that sensual Italian accent punctuated with long pauses, “Mi scusi… but I must tell you… that is the funniest story… I have ever heard.”

Mom was red-faced with embarrassment! None of us even thought about anyone else understanding this horrible story of a drunken sack-pulling! The gentleman, let’s call him Giuseppe, spoke to us about his hometown of Florence, what had we seen and where we should go next, and generally extolled how much he loves his city.  Turns out Giuseppe was the scion to a very old leather fashion house on the road overlooking the Arno River.  He invited us to visit his shop while we were in town, gave Mom his card, and excused himself while thanking Mom for the humorous morning… “Addio signora.”  We stopped by the shop later in the day and saw through the window that a belt cost more than my flight home.

On our last day in Florence, Dad bought some bottles of DOCG for the road, and we walked north to the Galleria dell’Accademia to stand in line to visit the most famous statue in all the world… Michelangelo’s David. The line was pretty long but only took half an hour to get moving.  Once inside, Michelangelo’s unfinished works surrounded us; large blocks of marble that appeared to have bodies struggling to free themselves from the rock.  The statue, located under a large pergola, is much more impressive in person than in pictures.  The sinews and muscle definition is absolutely amazing, you’d swear if they colored the flesh he could walk off the pedestal.  But I’m not sure why they demand no pictures… it is the most famous statue in the world! Everyone knows what it looks like! Who cares if someone shares a picture with me standing in the foreground!  Plus, an exact replica of the statue stands in its original position at the Palazzo Vecchio.

Later we walked to the train station to book our train to Rome.  The trip was slightly sad, as we all knew this would be our final train ride together.  We had one last day and night in Rome to enjoy before they left for home on their early morning flight.  We had learned from our last visit to bypass the metro system and just pay for the damn cab.  It may not have been worth it, as our cabbie could not find our hotel.  We circled the same city blocks over and over until he finally got out of the cab and went to ask directions.  When we did arrive, the hotel manager came out and with a regretful tone told me that a pipe had burst and flooded a floor of the hotel, and that they were going to upgrade us to a nicer hotel just down the road.
I cannot remember what was so damn funny...

Instead of getting another taxi, the porter just picked up Mom and Dad’s bags and started walking down the street.  We followed for about fifteen minutes until we finally reached our new hotel… directly across from the Trevi Fountain!  The one major site we never got to see, and we were across the street!  We spent the morning walking around to the Piazza Colonna and the home of the Prime Minister, basically just trying to get lost in the maze of winding streets.  In the afternoon, I booked us on a tour of the four major papal basilicas of Rome: St. Peter's, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.  All of them were beautiful in their own way, with intricate marble floors and naves of gold and azure blue.  Rows of columns and ornate tabernacles shone with the last bit of light from the late afternoon sun.  In one, pilgrims were climbing marble steps on their knees.  The guide showed us the four papal doors that can only be opened by the pope during Jubilee Years.  To cross thru the doors is to gain a papal indulgence for your sins.  Even more amazing was all the religious history and dogma knowledge that Dad knew about these places.  I had never even heard of most of them, but Dad knew exactly where St. Paul was buried, why one was called Saint Mary Major, could even describe the differences between major and minor basilicas better than the guide.  

As night fell, the temperature dropped and we warmed up with a few glasses of red from the café’s lining the roadsides.  We ate our last of the Italian lasagna (“it’s different”) and gnocchi, and spent the night basking in the artificial glow of the Fountain.

Our coins tossed over our shoulders in the hopes of returning to Rome one day, we packed up our suitcases and prepared for the morning.  We had to wake up pre-dawn to get Mom and Dad to the airport.  To ease them back, I had hired a private taxi to take them all the way, bypassing the Roma train.  We said our goodbyes outside the hotel entrance, and they drove away into the cold morning.
I was really worried about this trip, terrified actually.  I had never traveled alone with my parents as an adult.  I was afraid that we wouldn’t have anything to say, or get on each other's nerves. I was afraid I would be impatient with them, or that all of my plans would crumble around us.  And dear God, what if my kitchen floors weren’t clean enough?

Instead, I got the most wonderful, interesting, funny, and beautiful trips I could have imagined.  I loved traveling with my parents!  My father and I were able to talk history and religion, logic and politic surrounded by the works and remains of the cultures that created these things.  And I think Dad was, for the most part, pretty happy with my advanced planning and how I was able to keep us on our tight budget.

But it was the time with Mom that I came to really appreciate. My sisters have always shared that special bond with her that I, as a son, never fully shares.  We’ve always had a good relationship, but as I grew older I became closer to my Dad, as most sons are want to do. But I was able to share with her my experiences in the Middle East and show her my appreciation for art and architecture.  She finally understood my wanderlust and my yearnings for budget adventures.  After losing her close friend when she arrived, I was really afraid that Mom would never get to enjoy our little adventure.  But she did with strength, grace, and humor. 

And I discovered that if your mom doesn’t smile very well in photos, the trick is to tickle her really hard…

But Mom said it best with a simple comment, “We became friends on this trip.” And she was right.  On this trip she wasn’t my mother who I was trying to impress or get her approval… she was my favorite travel buddy.

It’s sad for me that I’ll never get to travel with Mom and Dad again in this way.  The teasing of the oddball passengers from Mom, the ribbing from Dad regarding my ridiculous scheduling, watching them both delight in the glasses of wine at sundown… I will miss our time together so much.  But hopefully, in the near and far future, Mom and I can relive some of our experiences in our own travels together.  I know Dad would have wanted us to continue our exploring, and have a glass of red at the end of the day.

Mom & Dad...

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Just get on the damn train!: A global adventure with Mom & Dad... Part III: Israel, Cyprus, Crete, & Pompeii...

We pulled into Ashdod... the incredibly busy shipping port of Israel.  This was the major selling point of the tour to everyone.  Mom really wanted to see the pyramids, but as we all know, Egyptians can’t get their shit together (trust me… my office mate is Egyptian and every day I fight the urge to strangle him with his own arrogance.)  But Israel was something that our family as Catholics, and especially my father as a seminarian, felt a connection due to years of Sunday masses and CCD classes next to the church.  We had listened to the stories and knew the Biblical history; but to show up and see them in person was incredibly exciting for everyone onboard.
old city of Jerusalem...

Except me… I was scared shitless.  As most of you know, I live in Qatar, a Wahhabist Muslim nation.  And the Muslim people don’t have the greatest relationship with the Israeli’s.  Something about one family stole another’s goat way back when, or one tribe threw a shoe at the other… no one really knows why anymore.  My passport is covered with work visas and exit permits all written in Arabic.  According to Qatar, going to Israel is possible grounds for my work and entry visas to be cancelled upon arrival back home.  So I was a little wary of getting off the boat.

The steward assured me that I could request a paper visa so that no stamp showed up in my passport.  We waited for over an hour in the theatre until our color was called and headed to the front of the ship instead of out onto the buses.  This time, we had to give our passports by hand to the customs officials for inspection.  I handed my passport to the inspector, she saw my work visa, stared me down, then stamped a bookmark as my one-day, completely temporary, no permanent record entry visa into Israel.

On top of my flop sweat, we had another problem. It was a Sunday, and there was nothing in the ship’s daily newspaper about any masses held on board.  I went to ask Gopher and was sternly told, “There are no church services on board.”

Oh shit.  Oh holy shit.  There’s no mass on board and I’m with my parents.  This is not good.  My father has never, I repeat, never, missed a mass.  And here we were, pulling into the spiritual heart of our religion, and Dad doesn’t have a mass to attend.  Needless to say, the news did not go over well with Dad.  I argued that going to visit Israel was as close to a pilgrimage as you could possibly get; so maybe it could count? Dad countered that if we drove past a mass, he was getting off the bus.

As the buses pulled out of Ashdod, we were quick to notice two things.  One, everyone was armed.  As all Israeli’s are required to serve in the military, there were throngs of soldiers everywhere carrying assault rifles.  But they weren’t performing drills or KP duty, they were getting onto buses, pushing shopping carts full of groceries, and pumping gas; all while armed to the teeth while fighter jets buzzed overhead every two minutes.

the Wailing Wall...
The second thing was that Israel was beautiful!  The hour long drive to Jerusalem was filled with rolling green hillsides and orchards brimming with Jaffa oranges.  I was expecting the dry rocky outcroppings I had seen from Jordan staring across the Dead Sea.  As we approached the city, the fields of green died away and the meandering streets of Jerusalem pulled us in.  At a photo stop overlooking the city, we gazed upon the towering walls and terraces of the ancient city.  The old city stands like a castle surrounded with a dry moat.  The Dome of the Rock, the golden topped mosque stands above the city like a beacon welcoming you in.  It’s only then you realize that everyone in this country would celebrate for a year if the mosque that desecrates their holy city was blown off the face of the Earth.

Our guide was fantastic, telling us a wonderful summary of the city, the walls, and the creation of the Jewish state.  When he asked where everyone was from, I had to do my part and yell out “Qatar!”  A quick ugly glance my way later he continued to regale us.

Before I continue, I have to ask that you indulge me as we climb aboard the way-back machine to the early 80’s in Richmond, Texas.  It was there where my first memories of a Catholic rite of passage were created:  attending the Friday night Stations of the Cross during Lent.  Our priest, Father xxxxx, was not known for his creative approaches to church doctrine.  The sermons could knock you out cold due to sheer boredom, as my sisters can attest to dragging more than one comatose sibling down the aisle to the rectory.

But there was something about his Stations of the Cross.  Around the church was the customary fourteen plagues telling the fourteen stories of the crucifixion of Jesus.  We would pick up the worn little booklets with the prayers and hymns for each station, and get ready for an hour of the continuous kneeling, standing, sitting regiment.  Over the weeks and years we attended, Father xxxx’s mini-homilies for each station never changed, not by a word.  Amazingly, each was hauntingly beautiful as he discussed the grove of olive trees where it all began, walking the path of the Via Dolorosa, the meaning of Golgotha, how Simon of Cyrene was pulled from the crowd and made to carry the cross, and the pain Jesus must have felt, starved and naked, beaten until he fell three times.  He always discussed the statue The Pieta for one station, as Mary held her son in her arms… I now know where my father gained his admiration.  Each station was a location pinned to Jerusalem…
one of the Stations on the Via Dolorosa...

And there we found ourselves, in the grove of ancient olive trees just outside the city walls.  The trees, dated to over 2,000 years old, were gnarled and twisted, and under armed guard.  It was here where our guide told us about the thousands of graves that covered the small valley between us and the city walls; all awaiting their rising up once the second coming occurs.  He then proceeded to tell us that the second coming cannot occur since Muslims dug their graves right in the way of where the Lord is supposed to walk; and therefore it was the Muslims fault why he hasn’t come yet.  Heads were nodding in agreement around us… it took everything I had to stop from giggling. I guessed correctly that a visit to the Dome of the Rock wasn’t in the cards.

Two security checks, two metal detectors, and a full body search later, and we were inside the city walls.  Almost immediately we came upon the Wailing Wall.  The most important site in all of Judaism, throngs of locals and tourists were taking pictures of the men praying with foreheads pressed firmly against the stones.  Women were not allowed to get close unless they walked to a special area on a footbridge, and most of the ladies on our tour declined.  Dad and I stopped by an open table and picked up our guest yamakas.  Mom took advantage to comment that me and Dad’s matching bald spots made us look like we were already wearing skullcaps… pretty obvious joke, but funny nonetheless.

For one of the most holy sites in the world, the wall was fairly “unholy” looking.  There was no pomp or circumstance, no ushers asking you to not use any flash photography or velvet ropes curtailing what you couldn’t touch.  Instead there were junky white plastic lawn chairs that you pick up from Wal-Mart for ten bucks a set scattered throughout.  Men were putting on their shawls, wrapping cords around their arms, and adjusting the little black boxes full of prayers tied to their foreheads.  A group of little Orthodox school kids, all with their heads shaved and long curly sideburns, were washing their hands as their chaperone yelled at them to hurry up.  Religious or not, it’s hard not to approach the wall without feeling small compared to all the men bobbling back and forth, chanting their heartfelt prayers under their breath.  Dad and I each took a moment to pray, and stuffed our folded prayers written on the ship stationary into any crevice we could find.  I don’t know if the prayer slip works like blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, but I’ll tell you mine anyway.  I prayed that Mom and Dad would have wonderful time with me, and a safe return home.  Turns out it worked…

Meandering through the narrow alleys and tunnels of Jerusalem, we were amazed by the people we were running into.  Orthodox Jews followed by priests followed by Muslims in thobes followed by Latin American nuns followed by Russian orthodox monks; all mixing in and around with the people who were just trying to buy some bread and get to work on time.  The group stopped walking to stare at a tile street name buried into a stone wall, “Via Dolorosa.”  We were about to walk the Stations of the Cross.

As we climbed the steps of the Via Dolorosa, doorways were pointed out where in Latin and Israeli you could make out the words Station III, Station IV, Station V, and so on.  A group of Poles were carrying a large wooden cross and singing songs at each station.  We had to gingerly make our way around Brazilian nuns “walking” on their knees up the steps.  Mom and I were astonished to see the actual spots where all those scenes we had imagined in front of us; even though most had nothing special to see.  You pass by Station VII and the barkers from the storefronts are trying to convince you to buy old postcard sets, splinter-filled rosary beads, or frankincense shampoo “from the holy land!”

Dad was quiet and solemn most of the time.  I could see his lips moving as he said little prayers at each station.  I finally figured out that he was singing the Stabat Mater, the tiny hymns sung at the end of each station that he knew from memory…  “bruised, derided, cursed, defiled… she beheld her tender child… all with bloody scourges rent…”

At the end of the road was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The non-descript entrance hid the ominous interior where the final Stations were held.  In this dark space, the walls blackened by years of incense and candle smoke, was where Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried.  Lanterns in the Russian Orthodox and Armenian styles were hung everywhere, as the candle light glistened off of the gold and silver reliefs that covered the walls.  Up some stairs we came to the final Stations and watched as people earnestly prayed upon the stone slab where Jesus’ body was washed with oil and prepared for burial.

Just outside of this area the church opened up into a gorgeous array of stonework, frescos, and tiled marble. It was here where we saw the Aedicule that contained the Holy Sepulcher itself.  Dad took a moment to himself as I watched the various priests staring the tourists down.  Fun fact, the church is run by four factions of the Catholics: the Eastern Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, the Greek Orthodox, and the Roman Catholics.  All of which despise each other!  Every few years the priests in charge take offense at one of the other sects, for instance, leaving a door open or sweeping the floor out of turn, and the priests will beat the shit out of each other!  The churches purposely station young and strong priests willing to fight there… amazing!  There’s a ladder from the 1700’s that hasn’t been moved because it would upset the status quo that no religious order can make changes without the approval of the other orders… totally insane.

the grotto to the birthplace of Jesus...
We left Jerusalem thru the Jaffa Gate, boarded the buses, and headed to the next part of the tour, Palestine and Bethlehem.  The massive wall separating the two countries was imposing, just as the extra security sweep thru the bus and all the passengers.  Once through, you could immediately tell that the prosperity of Israel did not extend to Palestine.  The homes were in rough shape, the roads were crumbling, and the little towns we crossed were definitively in a class below those just beyond the wall.  We stopped at a tourist house where we met our Muslim guide for a massive group lunch of hummus, fish and tabouli… pretty standard fare for me.

In Bethlehem, we walked up the hill to the Church of the Nativity, the site of Jesus’ birth.  At first glance, there’s really nothing much to see.  It is just a big, bland church from the outside with the exception of the door only being three feet tall.  The guide explained how it was to keep horses out and to make the priests bow in penitence.  I’m pretty sure it was made so the crowds could get a laugh as I had to crawl on all fours to get through.

underground city in Cyprus...
The interior of the church was interesting as they worked to restore frescos buried under centuries of plaster on the walls while we walked on planks to protect the tile floor underfoot.  The complex is actually three separate churches, none of which are very remarkable.  But we followed the crowds to a long queue and waited our turn to see the actual birthplace.  Tucked away under the altar, we had to funnel down into a grotto, shoving and elbowing our way into another very tiny door.  In the dark room we saw what we came to see… a tiny semi-circular alcove that looked more like a fireplace than anything special.  Inside it was coated in marble with a silver star inlaid into the ground.

And that was it… a little bit of a letdown after Jerusalem, but still interesting.  I ran to the gift shop to buy postcards and get them ready to mail before the bus took off.  Dad went exploring and found that one of the churches in the complex, an incredibly plain affair that would not look out of place in Tucson, was just about to start the communion wafers.  I told Dad we might have just enough time to join in so he wouldn’t have to miss mass, but he turned to me and Mom and said, “I’m pretty sure God will forgive me considering what I’ve experienced today.”

And with that, Dad missed mass… and didn’t regret it for a moment.

Back on board the boat we fell into what became our routine.  Mom and I would wake up super early and walk to the rear deck to smoke after fiddling with the self-serve coffee machine that never worked.  Next would be the mad dash to the breakfast buffet complete with the copper-haired throwing elbows in the omelet line.  After this was the walk around the ship to find any available chairs in a smoking section where we would order our daily round of anything we wanted since we paid handsomely for the drinks inclusion package.  Dad would sometimes splurge and order the non-inclusive drink of the day… which came back to bite him when he tried the chocolate martini. Mom and I would hit the casino when they opened, which was never the same time or days on end depending on the local maritime law. Later we would dress for dinner and join the second seating with our missing tablemates, and our Portuguese waiter would delight us in the meal options and just for good measure, would bring me two or even three of the entrees to sample.  Finally, we would order all the desserts available, binge on the last of the red wine, try to gamble some more, change out the orange peels in our shoes, wash our socks and undies in the sink, and pass out cold while praying the neighbors wouldn’t complain about Dad’s snoring.

eating gelato after stealing my umbrella...
The next excursion was to Cyprus, the Greek island half occupied by Turkey, or as our guide liked to call them, “The Turks!!”  We went through customs in Limassol where the bus, this time filled with Danes, drove amid undulating hillsides to the city of Nicosia to visit a very old and very cramped Greek Orthodox church that was so exciting and memorable, I can’t find it on Wikipedia.  After that we headed to the coastal town of Paphos, known as the birthplace of Aphrodite.  Overlooking a bluff, the guide pointed out the exact rock that rose from the depths carrying the goddess of love and beauty.  It would have been more memorable if they weren’t talking about a figure from mythology. If Bea Arthur had risen from the sea on that rock, I probably would have taken a picture.

We did visit the Roman theatres, the Greek mosaic floors, the Byzantine fortress, and the underground catacombs where the influential apostles Barnabas and Saul of Tsarses visited.  You remember Barnabas and Saul of Tsarses, right? They traveled around the Med preaching about Jesus during the day, and at night solved crimes; unmasking greedy businessmen scaring away customers from the old amusement park.  The only thing really memorable about Cyprus was that Mom and I got into an argument over who got the umbrella when it started to rain (even though I was the one who had brought it!) that devolved into a hair pulling match.  Mom, who claims her hands are so weak that she can’t carry her luggage, somehow found the strength to get a death grip on the few short, wispy strands I have left.  She won, and then gloated by making me buy her a gelato and not sharing.

The next stop was to Crete, and the cities of Heraklion and Knossos.  Heraklion was uneventful save for the winery we stopped at to try all the local vines and the grappa.  I’m pretty sure we bought a few bottles, but I can’t remember getting on the boat with them… or really much from this excursion.  Next was a long drive through the scenic mountains of Cyprus to Knossos, Europe’s oldest city.  This Bronze Age marvel nestled up in the mountains is a tiny town with archeological ruins that simply baffle you with the size and scale of city.  It became less impressive when the guide explained that this was the exact site where Hercules wrestled the Minotaur; a creature that walked the Earth three thousand years ago.  There is only so many “oh for fuck’s sake” I can take on any given day.

best part of Crete...
We walked through the alleyways of the town, us three always at the back of the pack stopping for swigs of wine and more gelato.  The tour ended in a large restaurant decorated like a nursing home cafeteria where we dined on fried dough balls, creamy cheeses, grape leaves, and more grappa.  Unbeknownst to Mom, I kept pouring my grappa into her shot glass, insisting that she had to finish or it would be rude to the hosts.  Dancers in traditional spangled outfits covered in tassels came out and danced for us for a few minutes.  I always like these little demonstrations of the old customs and traditions, as it helps make you feel less like a stranger in a foreign land… as long as they know when to get off the stage.  The pairs of dancers just kept going song after song like they were getting paid by the twirl.  At some point you want to have a conversation or keep eating, but you feel obliged to keep your eyes focused on them at all times.  You’d hate for them to go home after the show feeling that they didn’t give their all since they couldn’t keep the attention of the chunky American in the back of the room. I gave up and downed more grappa.

We had a full day of really rough seas, making the indoor chairs a hot commodity.  That night Dad surprised us by having me make a reservation at the private dining room on the ship.  No ready-made entrees for us, we were having five-star a la carte French cuisine.  I put on my grey suit with my brown shoes (Dad did not approve) and we sat in the candlelit room picking out the finest red wine that wasn’t part of our drinks inclusion.  We had a wonderful five course meal with multiple bottles of wine.  For the appetizer we ordered the escargot, my first attempt at eating snails.  Dad downed them like oysters, floating globs of grey meat drowning in pools of butter and garlic.  Lord, were they good! We passed through the Strait of Messina, staring down the night lights of Sicily just off the port railing.

Our final excursion was to Naples for a full day tour of Pompeii.  The trip was made more exciting as we were deluged with rain, walking ankle deep in water just to get on the bus with the Germans again.  At Pompeii, we met up with a fantastic guide who gave us probably the best tour of the entire trip.  The city is magnificent in its scale and technology.  Paved streets perfectly aligned, multistory buildings with running water and plumbing, fancy villas with indoor pools, ancient ovens and flour mills that would still work perfectly today.  The scale of it is unbelievable; you can’t see the ends of the roads as they go on for miles.
Curiously, both Dad and I discovered the cocks carved into the roadways before the guide even acknowledged them.  “The penises point in the direction to the brothel,” the guide chuckled.  The brothel is, and probably was even in 79 AD, the highlight of the tour.  Inside were paintings above each room depicting a particular sex act.  Want a hand job, just head to the hand job room.  Everyone was quietly giggling to themselves when Dad, a man not known for his volume control, suddenly exclaimed “Look Cory, there’s one we haven’t tried yet!”  The packed crowds had a hearty laugh while I lamented that I had eaten two helpings of snails the night before.

Mt. Etna with a dirty camera lens...
Pompeii is also somber as you are taken past the plaster casts of the people who had died there in agony as their bodies were choked and smothered with burning ash.  Mothers holding children and men curled up in agony remind you that this was a major city that was suddenly, and painfully, extinguished. The bus ride back to Naples was solemn and quiet, but the clouds finally parted and gave us all a quick glimpse of Mt. Etna still foreboding on the horizon.

The last night during dinner the waiters did a special entertainment routine involving lots of flambé and musical interludes.  It was a fitting sendoff, but I’m sure it was designed to keep you distracted from the final bill that was quietly slipped under the door before you got back to the room. We packed up our still-not-dry socks while I calculated how much more my credit card could handle from all the tips we were required to leave.  In the morning we pulled back into Genoa on a clear but bitterly cold and windy day, said our goodbyes to our purser and the rest of the crew, ready for our final leg of the trip back in Italy.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Just get on the damn train!: A global adventure with Mom & Dad... Part II: Italy, the Vatican, France, Malta, & Greece...

Sorry it’s taken so long... but I sliced the tip of my finger off, followed by a family reunion, and followed by my being lazy. 

Vatican City
Anyhow, back to the tale.  Mom, Dad, and I boarded our flight to Rome, landing early in the morning.  At the airport I expertly figured out how to buy the train tickets into the city even with Mom questioning my logic, and we made it into Roma Termini.  Now from here, to both save money and give my parents the local "backpackery" feel of the city, I decided that we would take the metro instead of getting the perfectly reasonable taxis parked just outside the station door.  Turns out… worst mistake of the trip.  I have to explain though… it wasn’t entirely my fault.  It was Mom’s.

I specifically told my parents that they needed to pack light.  This was made difficult by the fact that they were arriving to the warm winters of Qatar and traveling to the bitter cold of Europe; plus we had to pack fancy clothes for the cruise.  But I insisted that they only bring one piece of luggage since we would be traveling around the entire time.  Dad packed a sensible large rolling suitcase, while Mom brought garbage luggage.  I’m not saying her bag looked or even smelled like garbage, I’m saying Dad got it for her by stealing it from someone’s actual roadside garbage.  “Look at this… can you believe people here throw out perfectly good suitcases?” I can hear him saying to Mom as he gave her the worst piece of luggage in the world.  This was an old style hard-case with tiny wheels along the long, narrow base with a pull strap.  The moment it started to move it would instantly fall onto its side and you ended up dragging it down hallways like a child throwing a tantrum in the Kmart.  It was more unstable than my sisters on roller skates on Christmas Eve.

on the Vatican tour
So of course we get on the packed rush-hour metro dragging our luggage behind.  Unbeknownst to me, the metro stop where we needed to change trains was not the clean and well-designed systems of Paris or Stockholm… it was under construction without any escalators or elevators.  We were forced to scramble up and down fifteen flights of stairs trying to carry two fifty-pound cases while I had all my gear in my backpack.  The whole time I had to remind Mom that this was just part of the fun of local travel.

We finally got off the metro, and I may have gotten us a little lost trying to find our hotel.  We finally found the old hotel and shoved ourselves into the very tiny room with one bed and a couch.  The bags were piled into a corner, and we walked the three blocks into Vatican City.

Vatican City really does take your breath away.  The circle of statues overlooking the square, the monolith towering above, and St. Peter’s is truly godlike in its beauty.  The line into the cathedral was so long it literally started in another country.  Mom and Dad had both visited the Vatican before, so this was nothing terribly special for them.  Dad pointed out the papal apartment and the chimney where the smoke is released, and bemusing only himself, could identify the different priestly sects by their garbs or design of the crucifixes around their necks. We walked along the sloping walls to the side entrance to pick up the museum tickets I had purchased online the day before. We started the self-guided tour and were amazed by what we saw.  The art, statues, frescos, tapestries, paintings, gold and jewelry, papal garments… all were on display with every room more fascinating than the next.  You think you can’t see any more gorgeous articles then you step into the map room, or the hallway with the frescos on the ceiling… jeez.  We entered the narrow doorway into the Sistine Chapel.  Absolutely packed with a murmuring crowd of people, the guards were shouting in four languages “No talking! No photo!” all the while over booming speakers was another stern voice exclaiming the same thing.  Between the speaker feedback, the carbinieri, the whirr of camera shutters, and the hum of people whispering, it was difficult to take in the absolute splendor of The Creation of Adam overhead.
St. Peter's

We exited through the gift shop (this is a museum, of course) and Dad picked up a few items for people back at his hospital with the courteous exchange, “Ben, buy this for me.”  At the start of the trip, Dad came up with a solution to the difficult issues of exchange rates and having the correct currency during a trip covering multiple countries; I was to pay for everything.  And I mean everything.  Dad didn’t even carry his wallet on the trip.  If he or Mom wanted a coffee or a snack, he would just order things and say “get this for me.”  Rosaries from the Vatican?  “I’ll take two.”  The man was in heaven knowing that he was completely set free from the burden of having to deal with any of the details.  I considered it my little gift to him.  My only minor win was that if he needed to use the public bathrooms, only I had the Euros to pay for the toilet paper. 

After an alfresco pizza and a bottle of red along the Vatican wall, we headed back to St. Peter’s and jumped onboard another hop-on/hop-off tour bus.  We encircled the entire city while I kept having flashbacks to every Roman history documentary I had ever seen.  The aqueducts, fountains, ruins, statues, Tiber River, baths and obelisks were simply too much to take in during one go-around.  I remember watching David Macaulay’s PBS special on building the city of Rome ( over and over; so everywhere looked vaguely familiar.  We kept jumping on and off at various sites.  While I knew a lot of the history, Dad was pretty amazing filling in the gaps with religious knowledge.  Every statue of a saint came with a backstory and a description of why Moses had horns.  We walked around the Coliseum and gawked at the tourists taking pictures with actors dressed as Roman centurions. Mom made me buy an apron with a picture of Michelangelo’s David’s dick on it.  I didn’t know for whom, and I didn’t ask.

Dad dousing harmless Italians...
From the Piazza Venezia, we walked around looking for the Pantheon; the Agrippa temple built to celebrate all the gods of Rome.  Before we got there, Mom had to pee, so we ducked into a café to use the restroom and I ordered us “tre café Americano.”  The proprietor didn’t want to bother to make us our espressos with water, the closest equivalent to black coffee you can get in Europe.  Instead, we got three perfectly normal cappuccinos.  Dad stared quizzing at the foam perched atop his cup.  “What the hell is this shit?”  “It’s coffee,” I said, “just drink it.”  He took two sips, winced, and tossed the cup in the trash.  So much for blending in with the locals.

At the Pantheon I explained the history of the building, the changing thickness of the concrete to support the open oculus, and showed how they saved weight on the dome by adding in the square indentions.  You have to love the engineering of this building to still be standing from 140 AD, and to still be the largest unsupported concrete dome in the world.  Dad, using his own bit of engineering prowess, went to use the drinking fountain outside of the pergola.  He realized that if he closed off the water pouring from the decorative duck’s mouth that the water pouring into the cistern would shoot up so he could get a drink.  Instead, Dad sealed off the hole, and shot a stream of water ten feet away, nailing a guy in the back of the head and all over his suede jacket.  Turning red with embarrassment, Dad pulled out his hankie and started to dry the completely befuddled and soaking man.  Mom and I, along with half the square, were pissing our pants with laughter while trying to keep the camera steady.

The sun was fading as we headed back to the Vatican.  The line into St. Peter’s was mercifully short, so we joined the queue.  Right when we entered a mass was finishing.  A choir of deep baritones was singing the last of a psalm in Latin… Dad of course knew the words.  St. Peter’s is, without any shade of doubt, the most beautiful church in the world.  I’ve seen hundreds all around Europe, ancient ones of grandeur and grace… but nothing compares to St. Peter’s.  We spent an hour just walking around staring at the walls.  Dad maneuvered me over to Michelangelo’s Pietá.  Dad was shaken, and visible moved by its beauty.  He choked out sentences about pain and agony being made into God’s beauty, but he couldn’t really express the amazement this statue brought to him.

the Vatican at sunset...
My feet and back were killing me from carrying the luggage and walking on all the marble, so I had to get back to the apartment for a rest.  For dinner we ate what would become our signature meals in Italy.  Me ordering the local specialty pasta; in this case it was salty gnocchi.  Dad, the large bowl of seafood pasta with clams, shrimps, and whole lobsters.  And Mom, who would always order the lasagna, said it tasted, “different.”

After a sunrise stroll around St. Peter’s, we took a cab back to the termini where I bought our train tickets to Genoa.  It was here where, once again, the three of us together could not deal with the commonplace European occurrence of traveling by train.  Mom was sure I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in a train station, and kept trying to ask anyone wearing a red jacket where our train was.  It was difficult, but I finally managed to explain to her that not everyone who wears a red jacket is an employee of the train service; they’re just European. 

Smurfette & Gumby...
When it was time to board our train, we had yet another snafu.  Mom had problems lifting her suitcase up into the train, so it was up to me and Dad to get the bags up into the narrow train car door.  This resulted in heated exchanges where we were yelling at each other over who needed to get into the train, and who needed the throw the bags in.  No matter what train, no matter the destination, this argument always occurred and always finished with me yelling, “JUST GET ON THE GODDAMN TRAIN!!”

We did have an absolutely lovely all-day train ride up through the Italian countryside, past the seaside towns of Cinque Terre, and pulled into the northern city of Genoa where we would catch the cruise.  Arriving in Genoa the weather had dipped thirty degrees with storms approaching; making the already dark alleys very seedy.  Our cab skirted down narrow streets and thankfully only clipped a few people before finding our hotel right off the waterfront.  We walked around for a while ignoring the barkers and trying to catch glimpses of the prostitutes further up the sloping alleyways.  We ate a three course seafood meal with lots of wine before quickly falling asleep.

she had the gall to quote Marilyn Monroe...
The morning in Genoa was bitter cold and drizzling rain.  We had six hours to kill before the cruise departed, so we just started walking around the area.  It turns out the Genoa has some absolutely beautiful sights tucked away.  We found a gorgeous striped church around the corner and attended Sunday mass in Italian.  The rain started to come down hard so Mom and Dad pulled out their plastic ponchos. I know they’re an essential travel item, but I just can’t make myself into looking like such a dork.  I was walking around with Gumby and Smurfette.  When a gust of wind inflated Mom’s poncho, she had the gall to quote Marilyn Monroe, even though she looked like a blueberry.  But then they were dry, and I was soaked to the bone. 

We took the hop-on/hop-off bus for the tour around the city, and even with the tarps down we had a great time exploring the palazzos and castles.  The Piazza de Ferrari was a stunningly beautiful square, and we climbed the towers of the Porta Soprana of the ancient city walls.  Walking along the promenade in the pouring rain, occasionally popping into a storefront for some stone oven pizza with a bottle of red, we had an amazing time in Genoa.  As the afternoon approached, we grabbed our luggage and took a cab to the boat.  And somehow, once again, I was mistaken about the time.  We were some of the last people to arrive for the cruise check-in, and stood in line for almost two hours.  At this point, my back and feet were shot to hell. 

But we finally made it onboard the Louis Majesty.  This being my first cruise, I was amazed at the size of the ship! Mom and Dad exchanged glances at each other at what would be the smallest boat they had ever been on in their thirty years of cruising.  Louis Cruises is a small cruise line, and doesn’t have the splashy amenities or luxuries of a Costa or Princess.  We were also on the same boat that exactly one year earlier, on the exact same route, had struck a rogue wave that killed two people.  Mom loved the YouTube video.
the ship...

But I thought it was pretty nice… until I saw the room the three of us would have to share.  It made me jealous of my first college dorm.  Dad decided to take the top bunk, for some reason he was nervous about me sleeping four feet above him.  We did our safety drills, Mom explained who our purser was, made fun of me slamming into the walls as I gathered my sea legs, and found where we would meet up on the smoking deck next to the casino and bar.  God bless the fact that we paid for the all-inclusive drinks package.  Mom and I drank a little too much that first night, and Dad got pissy at the really wonderful all-you-can-gorge dinner.  We went our separate ways and crashed out a little nauseous from the movement.  I’m glad to say that our arguments that night were the only ones we had the entire trip.  Normally my sisters and I cannot be together more than three days without at least some hair pulling.

a little chilly in Marseilles...
In the morning, we hunted for chairs and enjoyed the large breakfast buffet of omelets, breads, sausages, and lots of smoked fish… Dad was loving that.  We spent the morning just exploring the ship and checking out all the features; of which there weren’t really very many.  Mom and Dad were used to huge fancy cruises where you have to run from place to place to get in all the activities… think Kathy Lee with Gopher and special guest star, Charo.  This cruise was definitely not that.  This was a whole bunch of very old people who liked to sit quietly next to a window with a pipe and a cocktail. The sheer amount of old woman with fake copper-colored hair made Dad uneasy. 

We docked into our first stop, Marseilles, France.  Following the excursion rules, we went to the ballroom, got our colored stickers, and waited for an hour.  When they finally called our color, we knew we were in for a treat.  How do you plan excursions for 1,200 passengers that speak twenty different languages? The French boarded their buses, next the Chinese, the Japanese, the Spanish, etc.  The English speakers boarded the bus filled with the Germans.  On the entire ship, there were six English speakers: us three, a very old couple from central Texas, and one lady from Dallas.  Six people who speak English, all from Texas.

Valetta, Malta
The bus spun us around the scenic city of Marseilles; the guide talking endlessly in German while throwing out tidbits of knowledge in English like “deez iz church” five minutes after we had already passed der church.  We got off the bus to climb the steps to the highest point in Marseilles, the Notre-Dame de la Garde; a gorgeous basilica that overlooks the entire city.  It was a very sunny day, but it was also about 35 degrees outside with fifty mile-per-hour winds.  While I was trying to take a picture, one old guy turned the corner around the basilica, got blasted with a really strong gust of wind, and got knocked down on his ass.  From this vantage we could also see the islands including the Château d’if, the fortress prison from The Count of Monte Cristo.

After dinner we went to the evening entertainment show… or at least we think it was entertainment.  Dear God it was horrible!  A goofy pregame pitting teams to pop balloons with their ass (which just makes my skin crawl), followed by two hours of covers with really bad dancing and costumes.  The Solid Gold Dancers would have been more entertaining… the Soul Train line would have been awesome! They all wore sequins and pastels, and at one point came out in pink and sliver chaps… that was our cue.  We woke up Dad (really… he fell asleep) and hit the casino.

the Blue Grotto of Malta...
The next day was at sea, so we went to a trivia game, read books, drank wine, took naps, and enjoyed the sun for the hour it was out.  We dressed in our formal wear for the captain’s dinner, and enjoyed cocktails and canapés while Stubing introduced the crew… yawn.  We had much more fun people watching!  There were the screaming Thai women in a group that all wore leisure suits, the Italian that only wore a black leather pants/vest/fringed jacket the entire trip, the old Asian guy with the tall he/she companion (never did find out), and the two beautiful dykes who liked to finger each other in the saltwater pool.  I had to keep my eye on those two.  It was made even better that our table mates never showed up again.  Wonder why?

that is stolen fruit!!!
In the morning we docked into Valetta, Malta, and boarded the now French speaking bus with the other three Americans.  Malta is a tiny island with a beautiful grand harbor and tons of maritime history.  We were escorted to all the port cities and tiny fishing villages, blue grottos and series of caves worn out over huge cliffs overlooking the Med.  There were little farms everywhere full of citrus trees and olive groves where we sampled disgusting prickly pear liqueur.  We rode on to Mdina and Rabat.  If you’ve ever watched Game of Thrones, these are the filming locations of King’s Landing.  That evening all the drinking and smoking caught up to me as I started to feel sick during dinner and had to puke up all that prickly pear. 

We awoke to a freezing cold downpour with dark clouds overhead… perfect weather for an excursion to Olympia, Greece.  Our bus took us through a tiny village where we met our guide, who just happened to look exactly like my Uncle Tony… except that our guide mainly spoke Slovenian.  He kept speaking Slovenian for a hour while the rest of the tours walked around, so we ditched the tour.  Olympia looks exactly like it does when you watch the lighting of the Olympic torch every two years.  Just a bunch of ruins and columns, but the stadium is pretty cool.  Afterwards we stopped into a town where mom stole a bunch of orange and lemons from people’s yards while we tried tzatziki and boxed wine.  From there we strolled through the old town near the ship and had the local delicacy of hotdogs and Bahama mamas for lunch.  We couldn’t eat the fruit that mom stole as it was so sour it made you gag; of course Dad loved them.  Instead we shoved the peels into our shoes at night to help with the stink of rotting feet.
it was a little cool in Mycenae...

The rain died down the next day, but it was still ungodly cold and windy for our trip to Mycenae, capitol city of the Bronze Age Mycenaean empire.  We entered the famed Lions Gate and clambered up the wind swept hillside.  The cold bit into our faces, but the landscape was really stunning.  Afterwards was a small museum where they showed off the golden funeral mask of Agamemnon. Our guide showed us the tombs and tunnels where Jason slew the Minotaur… although I could have sworn that was fictional. The last part was a visit to a huge Roman amphitheater in Epirus.  A famous French singer was on the cruise, and she stood in the middle of the stage and sang an opera for a few minutes, allowing everyone to be amazed at the acoustics of this 4,000 year old structure, punctuated with a round applause.  Mom followed her up with Eddie Blazonczyk’s “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie…”

A side note to all these damn bus trips.  At every stop, I had two tasks: I needed to buy myself a tacky shot glass for my collection, and I had to buy, write, and send postcards to all my sisters.  This second feat almost always involved me holding up a bus or frantically scribbling “wish you were here in…” on the bus while scanning for a post box.  At the end of the trip I tallied up over $70 in cards and postage… hope the girls enjoyed it.

A full day at sea and we were finally blessed with warm, sunny skies.  The deck chairs were untied and everyone nabbed their spots.  We broke out the books and headphones, and spent the entire day getting sunburned next to leathery old Europeans.  A poker tournament at night where I came in third was not a bad way to finish the day.  We crashed early since our next stop would be a biggie for everyone… Israel.