The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Greece, and I'm Dropping Off the Radar

Starting Monday 7/13, I'm moving in temporarily with my grandparents in Galena. They live on Table Rock Lake about 45 minutes south of Springfield, and it is the land of no cell phones or internet. I'll be coming back into Springfield on the weekends, but Monday-Friday I'll be unreachable, unless you have their land line number (or can convince one of my best friends to give it to you). Otherwise, if you email/facebook/text me, expect to not receive a reply until the weekend (note: this should NOT serve as an excuse *not* to email/facebook/text me... you know who you are).

I'm moving down there because my grandparents need more supervision than they currently have. My dad has employed one of their neighbors, who used to be a nurse, to check on them everyday and do some light housework, but it has become apparent that they need someone there 24 hours. Since I haven't been doing anything this summer besides domestic labor for my parents and other grandma (the one who lives in Springfield), I was the obvious choice. I'll be cooking, cleaning, and generally waiting on them hand and foot, at which I've had lots of practice and am quite skilled. I made jokes to my mom that she was relinquishing her slave girl to her elders as tribute. It's all very old testament. Actually, though, my dad will be compensating me for my services, so it's a win-win situation all the way around. The only person not winning is you, dear reader, who will be deprived of my scintillating updates. In light of this, I decided to post the next episode on my European Odyssey: Greece!

So. Where was I? Ah yes...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mom was flying into London on the 22nd of May, so I arrived a few days early to wallow in London and hang with the folks at Astor Museum Inn. I went to a sci-fi/comics superstore and bought the latest compiled volume of the Buffy Season 8 comics, and devoured it in a single sitting. I went for a few lovely walks with Mfundo, which is now in my top 5 favorite things to do in London. We saw Buckingham Palace, which was kinda boring, and Green Park, which was pretty. I saw Jalal and we had a sandwich. In Astor's basement kitchen, one night, a makeshift ping-pong table was assembled and an impromptu tournament coalesced. We didn't have paddles, so we started out using our hands and progressed to kitchen utensils. It was fun.


I met Mom at the airport in the morning. We were both wearing the same color of green! Dorks. We checked in to our super-swank hotel room, just on the other side of the block from Astor's, then went out for lunch, British Museum, and Regent's Park. We mostly walked around.


We almost missed our plane to Athens because the tube line we were supposed to take was closed, so we had to get off at a different stop and hoof it all the way across Hyde Park. Mom wasn't moving very quickly with her ROLLER BAG (which I told her not to bring) so we missed the bus and had to take the next one. By some miracle, we got there just under the wire and were on our way to Athens.

That night, after checking in to our hotel (a few blocks north of Omonia Square... don't recommend it) we went down to the bar hoping to score some food. It was late and they had stopped serving, but we talked to the bartender and he was nice enough to bring us some bread, feta cheese, and olives to go with our bottle of wine. It was absolutely delicious, though I hadn't yet mastered the art of eating a block of feta with only a hunk of bread to use as a utensil, so I we left little crumblies all over the floor. We didn't want to leave a mess when he'd been so nice, so we waited until his back was turned and then reached down to scrape up what we could with our napkins. Dorks.

Sunday, May 24

We went down to the port, on the edge of the city, fairly early. I wasn't sure when the ferries were running that day and I didn't want us to miss it. In retrospect, I really should have checked the timetables and probably bought tickets in advance, but I was so confused about the whole ferry thing that I just wanted to get down there and look at everything for myself. In the end, we got there around lunchtime and our boat wasn't leaving for about 6 hours. It was really hot and there wasn't much to do around the port... hardly any restaurants, either, which I thought was weird. Probably because it was Sunday. There was a huge open-air market selling tons and tons of *crap,* so we wandered through that for a while and I got a hat.

We had a lovely dinner on the ferry, right next to the giant picture windows looking out onto the water. The boat ride was really long, and we arrived on Santorini around midnight. Our host from the hotel, Stelio, picked us up right from the port and drove us to our accommodations on the other side of the island. We fell into bed in our clean and simple room and tried to rest up for the big day ahead.


We had booked a tour that our hosts recommended, and we were really glad we did. It lasted all day and we saw a ton of stuff. I was excited to do a lot of hiking and swimming; I really love exploring things more physically and getting away from cities and towns. Santorini is actually the largest in a group of islands, in a formation called a caldera. Basically, they are volcanic islands with the crater at the center of a partial ring; Santorini is the largest island and forms a part of the ring, that's why it's crescent-shaped. On the tour, we took a boat (pirate-y!) complete with group and guide, to the different islands of the caldera. First we went to the center of the caldera, which has the active crater. That is to say, we hiked up a volcano. And saw smoke coming out of it. And it was awesome. And really hot.

After hiking up a volcano, we went to the edge of another island, where there is a hot spring. Since it was early in the season and the ocean was still pretty cold, it was more of a lukewarm spring. Also, the boat couldn't get really close, so to reach the "spring" area near the shore, you had to jump off the boat into the freezing cold Aegean Sea. I threw myself overboard without hesitation; Mom dipped a toe in and decided to decline. Apparently, the "thing to do" in the hot (lukewarm) spring was rub mud all over yourself. *Supposedly* the mud contains minerals that are good for the skin, but I suspected that's just something the locals say to get tourists to make fools of themselves. What did I do? Why, rub mud all over myself, of course.

After the hot springs it was time for lunch. We went to the next island, Thirassia, and ate at a tiny Mom and Pop place with about 4 things on the menu. Then we walked around and got ice cream, and looked out over the sea.

The last stop was the north-west tip of Santorini island, the village of Ia (or Oia, as it's sometimes spelled). The boat dropped us at the dock, and our guide gave us instructions on where to find the bus which would take us home a few hours later. However, Ia isn't located at the dock. It's located 300 steps above the dock, on top of the island. The choices: walk up, or ride a donkey. Mom and I opted for walking. I was not in the mood to have a smelly animal between my legs. The downside to this (besides the obvious) was that the donkeys used the same steps... and would pass us by... twice. I thought I was clever by finding a sort of shoulder off the path and waiting there while they passed us, but I failed to anticipate the return journey. Upon descending, those donkeys ran down the mountain like hell itself was behind them, and I suppose it was... in the form of their shouting Greek masters.

We barely escaped with our lives, and survived to see the famous Ian (ha!) sunset. We rewarded ourselves by having sangria and cheesecake for dinner. While waiting for the sun to get close to the horizon, we wandered around the town taking photos of everything. I couldn't help it, everything looked like a photo. It really was just as beautiful in real life as it looks in pictures and movies. Most of the architecture is clean white and blue, but every now and then we'd come across a splash of pink flowers or a yellow house. The view from Ia was incredible and we could see across the whole caldera. The ocean spread out beneath us like a silk carpet, and a single boat sent a V-shaped shimmer across the fabric.


After sleeping off our 10-hour tour, we decided to take it slow. We were staying on the opposite side of the island from Ia, in a town called Perissa Beach. We spent the day lounging by the pool, swimming a bit, eating in the waterfront restaurants and sauntering down the beach. Okay, we stumbled down the beach. The beach was made up of volcanic pebbles, which were both burning hot and unsteady to walk on. We got our feet wet and had our fill, but it was definitely beautiful. We didn't do much else; Mom did some shopping, I did some reading. It was a nice compliment to our action-packed expedition the day before.

Wednesday - Thursday

We had a lot of traveling to do. Wednesday we left Santorini for Athens, Thursday we left Athens for Milan. We didn't do much besides run to catch the next plane, train, bus or boat. Oh, but Mom will be upset if I fail to mention her great contribution to our successful passage.... when we were looking for the bus to the airport, she mimed a plane taking off and an old Greek lady pointed across the street. It will go down in history as the most brilliant non-verbal exchange ever, I'm sure.

By Thursday evening we were in Milan... and here, dear reader, I leave you on the edge of your seat, biting your nails in anticipation, for the wonders that lie within.... ITALY.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Lady Luck... C'est Moi

Saturday, May 9, 2009

I arrived back at my apartment in Berck without incident. Muriel picked me up from the station and even dropped by her house to give me some food, since I obviously wouldn't have any at my place and the shops were closed on Sundays. The first thing I wanted, though, was one of those cheeseburgers. There was a place on the Esplanade, about 30 meters from my door, called The Spot. One of my students worked there as a cook on the weekends and such, and he made the most excellent cheeseburgers. Now, I'm not always a huge fan of red meat. I usually avoid it. Still, once in a while I crave a cheeseburger, and I'm really picky about it. I don't like all cheeseburgers, it takes a very special sandwich to turn my head.

While Daniel was staying with me, I went on a walk one night while he did internet stuff and generally refused to leave the couch (though he would have to later... I left without my keys and he ended up having to go downstairs to let me in). He had eaten something in the apartment, but at that point I was so sick of my own cooking (rather, what I was able to cook on my tight budget) that I couldn't really stand to eat any more tomato soup or pasta. Consequently, I was horrendously hungry that night. I had never tried any of the burger places on the Esplanade, so after walking the whole length of it a few times I finally settled on the closest one.

It. Was. Amazing. I ate that enormous cheeseburger faster than I'd ever eaten anything in my life, I think. I just inhaled it. What made it so good? Why, I'm glad you asked. I think the thing that really *made* the burger was the sauce. In France a lot of places put an orange sauce on the burgers that they just call "sauce hamburger." Perhaps it is an approximation of McDo's special sauce; I wouldn't know. All I know is that it's orange and it's fabulous. Besides the amazing sauce, this burger had *actual* romaine lettuce, pickles, a generous slice of cheese and most importantly, sautéed onions. It was just incredible. Daniel went to Paris the next day and I think I had one of those burgers every single day until I went to Paris too, about 4 days later.

So where was I? Ah yes, I'd just returned from Barcelona and I was hungry for a cheeseburger. I was afraid they'd be closing, and I got there just under the wire. I got my mountain of deliciousness and my peach iced tea, and I was happy.

The following weekend, Adil and I went to Le Touquet, the rich-people's party town just a few kilometers up the coast. We walked around for a while searching for a decent place to hang out, but the bars were either completely empty or too overcrowded. We passed the casino and I suggested we go in. After my disappointment with the slots in Monaco, I was hoping for some old-fashioned pull-the-lever machines. This time I struck gold. They had tons of 20 centime (20¢) machines, and they accepted real coins. I got 5 euros in 20 centime pieces in a plastic cup and I was off. I played on that 5 euros for more than an hour, I think, while Adil looked longingly at the poker tables. He played texas hold 'em quite often online and knew a lot about the game. I could tell he wanted to play, but it was a minimum of 50 euros to get in the game.

The siren song of possibility finally got the best of him and he joined a table. I watched for a while, then went back to my slots. When I lost it all, I came back to see Adil doing well. He gave me another 3 euros so I could get back in the game, and within a few minutes I had won back the 10 I'd lost. I decided to cash in when I broke even, and went back to watch Adil play. It wasn't long before things got intense. Another guy at the table kept raising against Adil after everyone else had folded. I knew that Adil must have something good, because he never bet unless it was a decent hand. Finally, the other player went all in. This was it for Adil; if he backed down he'd lose enough chips that it would be almost impossible to stay in the game for long, but if he went all in and lost, well.... you get the picture. Adil looked at me. I looked back at him through my fingers. Something told me the other player was bluffing. Maybe it was the way he seemed to try so hard to stare Adil down, or maybe he just didn't look very credible... I don't know. The other spectators were throwing in their two cents. "Il a rien!" several cried (he has nothing!). My instinct told me he should go all in, but I didn't want to be responsible if I was wrong, so I left it to him. He went all in. They showed the cards. Adil's opponent had nothing. Everyone clapped and Adil happily raked in his winnings. The man standing next to me, who'd heard me speaking to Adil in English, said "C'est l'Américaine qui apporte la chance!" (It's the American who brings luck!).

Adil played a few more hands, mostly just because it's rude to get up after you've just won a big pot. The table decided by consensus to play a last hand. The pot wasn't huge and he won when everyone else folded, but he had to show us his cards anyway... it was a full house.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Paris is Dirty, You're a Racist

(If the title doesn't make sense to you, go watch "L'auberge Espagnole." Right now.)

Wednesday, May 6, late night

When we last left our heroes, they were in search of salsa (the dance) and much merriment following an exhilarating victory for FC Barcelona over Chelsea. Stephen, Gabrielle, Meaghan, Daniel and I set out in hopes of finding some Barcelona night life.The city was pretty vibrant, even though it was around midnight, and as we headed for the towers on the beach (where we'd been told we'd find good clubs) we met people on wheels chanting "Barça Barça!" and encouraging us to do the same. Unfortunately, the night didn't really live up to expectations. We had a hard time finding a decent club, and I'm pretty sure it was because we had no idea where to look. *I* wanted an authentic hole-in-the-wall bar where the locals went for some poorly lit but thoroughly enjoyable cramped and sweaty salsa. What we found was... pretty much emptiness. After walking the several kilometers from the hostel to the beach (it was too late for the metro), we found the overpriced and uncomfortably swanky clubs mostly empty, save one which was full of idiots (mostly tourists, I think) dancing to an exceptionally bad DJ.

We gave up around 2:30 am, I think, and decided to head back to the hostel together. It was about a 45 minute walk, and the entire distance was crawling with Cerveza men. The Cerveza men are basically guys who walk around EVERYWHERE with cans of beer and sometimes bottled water, calling out "cerveza beer" like the most faithful of broken records. Some of them have coolers with a variety of drinks and some semblance of legitimacy, but most of them are just carrying around a warm six pack, dangling from their fingers by the flimsy bird-killing rings, trying to charge you double or triple what they paid for it at the supermarket. I can't really believe anyone buys stuff from them, but hey, Barcelona is a young party city full of young party tourists. There must be enough vapid Cancun rejects roaming the streets in order for their labor (of standing around) to pay off. Whatever. I just ignored them and was glad they weren't trying to rob us (wait for it) but Daniel would get progressively more annoyed each time one of them started to step in front of our path.

I should mention at this point that we had been using the same street, Carrer Sant Pau, to go back and forth between our hostel and La Rambla, the main drag in town. Since we navigated almost everywhere else by using La Rambla, we ended up walking down Sant Pau almost anytime we went anywhere on foot rather than taking the metro. It wasn't until we'd been up and down Sant Pau several times that I started noticed that every time we passed a certain corner, there seemed to be women standing around... in shorts and high heels.... doing nothing... but texting.... it wasn't until I saw a police car there that I finally gave up my benefit of the doubt and admitted that we'd found (at least a little niche of) Barcelona's red light district. Still, the area didn't feel particularly unsafe in the daytime. I'm sure it wasn't really that bad at night either, because after all we were still in central Barcelona, and as a rule the center of European cities tends to be pretty free of violent crime, if not of petty thievery.

So. We turned off of La Rambla into Carrer Sant Pau, which is really pretty much a long alley, and were thankfully free of the Cerveza Men. Unfortunately, before we got to Parallel, the main road at the end of Sant Pau and just a few steps away from our hostel, we made some new friends. A group of teenaged boys appeared and started harassing Stephen. Daniel and I had been walking a few paces behind Stephen, Gabby, and Meaghan, and we watched for a moment to see if things would get serious. We didn't want to react too strongly and end up escalating things, because at the moment it was only one or two of the kids who were doing anything, and they were both pretty skinny. Touch one skinny kid, though, and you can bet the whole group would come out with guns blazing (thankfully, in Europe this phrase is almost always metaphorical). Stephen and the girls started to get (understandably) freaked out as one of the kids kept trying to trip Stephen, so Daniel stepped in and took on one of the wiley kids, mostly by staring him down and not looking scared, but also by eventually twisting his arm a little. For my part, I stayed close to the others and starting running through my meager self-defense moves. We were approaching Parallel, so we walked quickly into the open, well-lit space of the intersection and our new friends fell away. We were all very glad to get back to the hostel, I think. I was slightly shaken up by the incident at the time, but really only out of anticipation that it might turn into something worse. It's easy to get spooked by strangers in an alley at 3 am, but there's a difference between dangerous thugs and mischievous kids, and fortunately we had an encounter with the latter.


We slept in (surprise), and after a fruitless trip to the train station (for future arrangements) headed for the beach. We didn't stay too long, but I think I got evenly cooked on both sides. There were plenty of Cerveza Men there annoying Daniel, but there were also ladies walking around calling out "Insalata di Fruita!" which sounded *delicious.* I think I didn't have any money or I would have bought one. After laying in the sun for a while, I dipped one toe in the water and decided that was adventurous enough. We went back to the hostel and had yet another Boxmaster while waiting for the evening's free meal. We made more friends at the meal, two French girls and an American cousin. The French girls and I chatted mostly in French with Stephen (though his Canadian accent soon became the topic of discussion) and the American and Daniel had their own conversation in English. We all talked together, switching back and forth between languages and conversation partners for hours, until Totti's dad finally begged us to go to bed because our talking downstairs was too loud. It was one of those amazing hostel evenings where people from different countries and points of view sit down and talk about culture and politics and traveling and language. Evenings like that are easily my favorite part of traveling, hands down. A good hostel can teach you more about global culture than any book or college class ever could.


We finally felt compelled to see some more sights, so we walked to Sagrada Familia, the famously unfinished Gaudi cathedral. It's still a work in progress, and while I find Gaudi and his Seussical designs charming, Daniel tends to mock them at every opportunity. Personally, I don't see how Gaudi's whimsical sweeping lines are that different from the Art Deco Parisian metro stops that Daniel professes to love so much, but that's a debate for another day.

After Sagrada Familia, we had a tapas-esque lunch, then headed down to the beachfront to go to a shopping complex and... you guessed it... see Star Trek. It was awesome.

After the movie, we took the metro to Olympic Park, reliving the sci-fi amazingness all the way. The main entrance to the park was blocked off for an event, so we surreptitiously followed some other tourists, from across the street and half a block down, all the while pretending we were secret agents tailing them undercover.... yeah, our geekiness knows no bounds, but it was *highly* amusing. I don't know what I was expecting, but I wasn't that impressed by Olympic Park. The views were nice, but I'd seen a view from Parc Güell. I didn't even really get a climbing level workout in, because it had outdoor escalators everywhere (which, admittedly, I was happy about at the time).

Eventually we made our way back to the hostel, then ventured out for some pizza a few blocks away. We spent the night in, watching videos on Daniel's computer before we decided to go to bed. He had an early flight the next morning to Italy, and my flight to Paris was in the afternoon. It was our last night together, and I was wilting a little. I don't think I slept at all that night, because besides the fact that I was sad we were going our separate ways, I was nervous about going to the airport and such the next day, because that's what I do. Also, the room was about a thousand degrees that night, because for some reason the balcony door (our only source of ventilation) was closed.


In the morning I went downstairs with Daniel to say goodbye, then trudged back upstairs and curled up dejectedly. I tried to snatch a couple of hours' sleep before I had to get up and check out. I made it to the airport without incident and almost two hours too early (as usual). I was soon on my way back to Paris, then Berck and my tiny apartment. When I finally got there, I was relieved and grateful for my bed, but still unsatisfied. My slightly extended stay in Barcelona hadn't been long enough.