Sunday, January 17, 2010

Mediterranean Adventures - Part 4 (Civitavecchia)

We finally had a morning of relaxation in Rome. With our luggage arriving, I was relieved to know that I wasn’t going to be washing my underwear in the sink.
After a breakfast of cappuccino and croissants (it totally felt European but I realize that it actually isn’t all that exotic), we headed over to the train station. I soon found out that dragging luggage over cobblestone streets sucks. I vowed to get better all-terrain bags.
Once at the train station, we found out our platform was the FARTHEST one out. It was seriously a mile walk. We were heading to the port city of Civitavecchia where all the cruise ships dock. We were seated on the train when a big bloated white couple in their 40’s or 50’s walks in. They are shouting at each other because neither is sure this is the right train. Oh yeah, they acted just like the stereotypical obnoxious American tourist. Dana and I were so embarrassed. They started to freak out and scream at each other assuming no one else spoke English. We finally stopped them by admitting we were American too (followed by a lot of angry glances in our direction). We told them to follow us because we were heading to the cruise ships too (well we assumed they were going to Civitavecchia because of a cruise). They went on and on about those filthy Italians and how they missed home back in Florida.
At the port station, you have to walk a couple of blocks to the Michelangelo Castle to catch the cruise ship shuttle bus. We immediately ditched the Florida couple because they started arguing about their luggage (apparently they too realized rolling bags and cobblestones don’t mix).
The cruise ship was amazing. I mean truly AMAZING! I cannot describe how luxurious it was. I wouldn’t doubt that it was the nicest new ship built. I was in absolute awe of it. My single previous cruise experience was awful, but this ship blew the other out of the water. Our room was stylish with a spacious bathroom that was larger than some in New York. The ship had 14.5 floors, five restaurants, two buffets, six hot tubs, and a partridge in a pear tree. They even had a lawn...yeah real GRASS...on a boat! My favorite “show” on the ship was the hot glass show. I seriously caught half a dozen shows. I mean blowing glass was fascinating AND one of the blowers was super fine. Yeah, he was totally my cruise crush. Sigh. Dana can vouch that I totally stalked him on the boat.

The boat had a party as we were pushing off. Mingling with the guests, I figured the median age was around 65. That proved to make things real interesting during the rest of the trip.
The cruise was scheduled to take us around the Mediterranean. I had prepared myself by sampling various Greek, Israeli, Mediterranean dishes. I had figured out what I liked and what I didn’t like (grape leaves). I was so excited to spend the next two plus weeks immersing myself in the culture, food, sights, etc. Imagine my surprise when I found the cruise ship was packed with cheeseburgers, French fries, onion rings, and nachos. The main chef also specialized in classic French dishes as well as steak, fried chicken, and spaghetti. I guess when you cater to American retirees; you cater to their appetites as well. I can’t complain because Dana and I loved to snack on French fries while lounging next to the pool.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Quality coat time

I recently purchased a coat. Well it is more like a sleeping bag than a coat. I think the manufacturer even describes it as a sleeping bag with arms. It is puffy and extends all the way down to my ankles. I know that sounds extreme, but EVERYONE in Chicago has this coat (or a similar version). Seriously, I counted two girls at my CTA stop (in the hood no less) who had this coat. The worst was six in my train car alone. Okay I know, by getting this coat I have officially joined the rest of the sheep herd…but damn it I’ll be a blissfully warm sheep.
Due to Chicago’s 10% sales tax, I looked for this coat while at home in Nebraska over the holidays. Every clothing or outdoor wear store I checked didn’t have the “floor length” version I needed. Yes, needed, not just wanted. I would ask sales clerks if they carried that version and they would give me the most confused look. One even asked me how I would drive in it. Um…I don’t. That was the main difference I noticed between Omaha and Chicago…the walking in the cold factor. In Nebraska, you walk from the parking lot to the entrance. In Chicago, you walk five blocks, wait on the train platform while the wind is blasting you, then you walk another four blocks. The whole ankle length does make me look like a walking marshmallow man, but it is a definite improvement on my quality of life.
Sadly Chicago is currently in a heat wave. We have had temperatures in the 30’s for the last couple of days. I so desperately want to wear my coat that I am actually thinking about stripping down to a swim suit. I’m not the only one, people in town are going nuts with the warmer weather. I saw a girl on the train platform wearing a short skirt, fake ugg boots, and nothing else on her legs. Yeah, no tights, no socks, no pantyhose, etc. NOTHING! I know it is warmer, but it is still nearly freezing out. Surprisingly, I saw this exact same look (nothing but bare legs) on one especially brutal single digit (with negative wind-chill) day. The girl’s legs were pink from the cold and all the people standing around on the platform kept looking at the legs and then looking at the girl to check to see if she was retarded. One cold night, I snapped this picture of a seriously deluded father. His son was bundled up from head to toe (so you know he knew it was really really really cold outside). I wonder if the father thought “okay now that I have bundled up little Johnny, let me throw on some shorts”. I literally chased him down a street trying to capture a photo without alerting him. People in the restaurants lining the street would see me jogging then snap a picture, jog snap, dodge snap. Then they would see what I was photographing and burst out in laughter.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Starting New Years on the right foot

I am getting restless and have decided to take up another form of exercise since my knee has limited my triathlon endeavors. A coworker actually inspired me. He was signing up for yoga at our mutual gym and I thought “hey yoga, that sounds interesting…it sure worked for Madonna”. I went to my first class (not my first yoga class, but my first one at our gym) on New Year’s Eve. We didn’t do any crazy moves, but I did find out that I had been doing all the moves wrong. Her slight corrections made me shake and feel pulling from areas I didn’t know I had. At one point, she took an exercise ball and sat on me. She was all “breathe in the relaxation and breathe out the pressure”. I couldn’t argue with her since she totally was collapsing my lungs.
The New Years Eve evening was celebrated at a bowling alley. Okay that sounds dull, but it is one of the old school places where people (not machines) set the pins for you. If you put a tip in the ball and roll it down the gutter, the man will knock down all the pins. The place is in the southport neighborhood which is the hip late 20’s early 30’s area in town. OE and I met up with his friends for a NYE drink package bar party. His friend Susie had a cast on her arm from a previous mishap. At the beginning of the night, she warned us all that we couldn’t write on it because she had to wear it to work before it was scheduled to be removed. Of course as the night progress and the booze flowed freely, a sharpie magically appeared. Later I saw her sporting several penises on her cast (one even peeing on her elbow). Wha waaaan. Everyone was hilarious and I was told in detail about the most unfortunate date ever.
In the morning, I could hardly move and was sore all over. At first I was like worst hangover EVER! After I realized my head didn’t ache and that I couldn’t move my arms above my shoulders, I knew it was the yoga and not the booze. It was so bad that getting out of bed actually involved rolling and falling.


I am at a lost as to where to begin. I guess introductions would be the best place to start. I’m going to call him Overly Enthusiastic (or OE) for short. He got this nickname due to a million little things that I am going to keep just for me, but mostly because he seems so excited to date me. At first I was like “why is he so thrilled to be on a date with me…I mean a Victoria’s Secret model would warrant this level of enthusiasm, but hey it is just me. I’ve never felt more adored.
We met at a Halloween party (I’m telling you, that Vicki the Robot Small Wonder costume was a total hit). He wore a fake beard and carried a baby. The funny thing is that he said it was easier to find a baby doll than a good fake beard in boystown (the gay neighborhood in Chicago for those of you out of town).
His friend scored us lower box seats at a Bulls game. Yeah, big pimping. Surprisingly in all the years I’ve lived in Chicago, not once have I ever gone to a Bulls game. Well these amazing seats were one hell of a way to start. Sure the Bulls lost but during the half time show, a Chinese woman threw bowls on to her head while balancing on a unicycle (now that was a show). I loved the inflatable bull blimp that buzzed around during time outs.
On a different date, I took him to run errands with me on Michigan Ave. Actually I had to pick something up at the American Girl’s Store. Essentially it is the Mecca for little girls. I wanted to pick up a swim suit and a “pretty” dress for the daughters of my friend. Now this store is full of thousands of “pretty” dresses, so it wasn’t easy picking out the best of the best (or frilly). We stood around each display debating the pros and cons of each little pink party dress. “Well this one has hearts on it…well this one has a tulle underskirt…well this one has sparkles”. You get the idea. At one point we were separated and he immediately ran back over to join me with the comment “I can’t walk around without you…I end up looking like some creepy pedophile”. Ah ha ha.
There have been plenty of adventures that put a smirk on my face when I think of them. I look forward to writing more about OE in my posts.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Fashion is forever

Before Christmas, I attended an ugly holiday sweater party. Sorry, no pictures (I got a little intoxicated). I pulled out my trusty sweater that is beyond horrible. It has shoulder pads, sequins, and plays music. There is a giant snowman on the front and it says “HO HO HO” where the “O”s are the circles of the snowman. I know, it is the shit. Sadly it used to be my mother’s (and I remember her proudly wearing it around in the late 80’s early 90’s). Now not everyone is fortunate to have a mother with such awesome fashion sense, so a friend and I went to Ragstock to pick him up a sweater. I guess ugly holiday sweater parties are really taking off because the place probably had over a thousand delightfully awful sweaters. There were traditional sweaters, screen printed sweatshirts (with collars), cardigans, vests, and ties.

At the party, there was no shortage of awesome sweaters. There was even a guy in a Santa suit. My favorite sweater though was a prime example of 80’s Cosby-era sweater. What truly made it special were the additions the guy made to it. He pinned on pictures to the sweater to make it even uglier. The pictures included: Rocky Dennis (from that 80’s movie the Mask with Cher), a 70’s style woman’s crotch area, a toilet full of poop (yes, POOP), and Sandra Oh. What I find funny (or extremely cruel) is that he equated Sandra Oh’s looks to poop. Ouch.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

I'll be waving my hand...watching you drown (hey I didn't write it)

I recently indulged in my favorite guilty pleasure…90’s alternative rock. Yeah bands I would sing along with on the radio while cruising main street in High School. One of my favorites was Our Lady Peace (go ahead roll your eyes, I still think they are awesome). My friend Big Mike and I have an inside joke about jamming on Starseed and sneaking it into the playlists at parties. When he found out they were playing a semi-secret after show at Cubby Bear, he immediately picked up tickets. Apparently Our Lady Peace was playing at the House of Blues earlier that night and promised to stop by Cubby Bear for a quick set. Ten dollars to see them at a bar that held maybe 100 people…best investment ever! Unfortunately they didn’t go on until midnight which is waaaaay beyond my normal weekday bedtime. Thankfully the entire crowd was composed of like minded people who also listened to OLP in high school/college. Yep, the medium age was somewhere around 31 or 32, so there wasn’t any crowding, shoving, or annoying douche bags hitting on anything with a pulse.

Surprisingly the late hour didn’t slow the rockers down (I mean they must be 50 or something) and I fed off their energy. It has been several years, so I was surprised the lyrics came back to me while listening to their hits. I seriously was shouting out at the top of my lungs during the chorus of Clumsy. They played all of their hits (why change what isn’t broken right) like Innocent, Superman’s Dead, Somewhere Out There, Not Enough, Is Anybody Home, and of course Starseed (my favorite). I was the tiniest bit miffed because they didn’t play Starseed until the very end which was at 2am. Still it was more awesome live than I could imagine.

Here are pictures for your enjoyment (oh I have a whole slew of these since I was like four people away from the stage). We originally were in front, but I made my friends move to the side because the bass was turned up so high that I was suffering from irregular heartbeats (from the percussion impacts). Yeah I’m getting that old. Although I am currently listening to their music on youtube and don’t regret a second of it. Sigh.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Mediterranean Adventures - Part 3 (Rome)

I started out the second day in Rome on the wrong foot. I went downstairs prior to 8am to call the airline (for our luggage that vanished into thin air). On my way back, I couldn’t seem to open the door for the corridor leading to all of the rooms on our floor. At first I thought maybe I had the wrong floor since there were personal apartments as well as hotel rooms on each floor (it was an old apartment building that you could tell the hotel just bought out any of the available rooms). In my morning haze stupor, I wandered up and down the five floors double checking my sanity (we were on the 3rd floor right?). Finally when I was convinced I had the right floor, I tried the door again and it wouldn’t budge. I went back to the concierge to get the key, and sure enough he was NOWHERE to be found (like he hid in a closet to avoid me since we were the annoying American girls who kept bothering him to call the damn airline). I started to pound on the locked 100lb solid wood door… and I continued to pound for 10 minutes straight! Right when I was about to start kicking (both my hands hurt from the pounding), a bleary eyed British guy opened the door (while only in his boxers) from the inside. Apparently between the hours of midnight and 10am, they bank vault lock the door to protect guests. I embarrassingly apologized as he shuffled back to his room (crazy Yank woman).

We headed out to find saline solution for Dana’s contacts. She couldn’t bring it in her carry-on suitcase because the manufacturers have yet to produce a 3oz bottle. Of course the majority of our stuff (clothing and general hygiene) was in the lost checked bag, or as we started to refer to is as “the other bag”. Don’t worry, I have an umbrella…in the other bag. Where is my toothpaste, I know, in the other bag. Yeah that phrase soon became our crutch.

You may have heard about the European universal vacation time as the month of August. We arrived August 28 and figured since it was towards the end of the month, the Romans would be back in town. So wrong. Everything functional like grocery stores or drug stores were closed. Plus it was a Sunday so that made matters worse. We passed two pharmacies (both closed) before stopping in the train station (Stazione Termini) which houses an array of shops. The station was a maze, so we went into Foot Locker to get directions. Unfortunately, no one in Foot Locker spoke English… what next, they only speak Italian at Famous Dave’s BBQ or The Gap. Later we stopped at the Best Western Hotel thinking the concierge could help. She gave us a look like we were white trash because it turns out, the Best Western is a 4 star hotel…WTF. When did Italy turn into bizzaro world?

We finally stumbled into a pharmacy that had saline solution (in bulk…like always). There was also a grocery store inside the station that I was able to pop into and grab a snack. The old woman in front of me in line bought some groceries including a carton of eggs. Well she literally took one step away from the cashier and accidently dropped her eggs. They smashed open on the ground and after a moment of stunned silence the old woman looked at the cashier and motioned to the broken eggs. I don’t speak Italian, but I think the cashier’s response was something along the line of “sucks for you…next”.

We made a quick stop in an internet café and we found out Italian keyboards are NOT the same as American. Sure the letters are the same, but the outlying keys like return, semi-colon, shift, etc. are not. We didn’t have enough time to write and then go back and correct the messages, so Dana wrote “don’t worry, I’m not retarded…just typing on an Italian keyboard”. I for one couldn’t find the apostrophe so my messages came out all proper with no contractions.

The day was still relatively young and we had another full day of sightseeing planned for us. Unfortunately we found out the hard way that a 24hr subway pass actually means “yeah there are 24hrs in a day, so you can use this pass for one day…starting at 12:01 and ending at midnight”. No worries we still go our 4-euros worth out of it.

First stop was the Vatican. We took in St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican Swiss Guards in their silly uniforms. Luckily we had “modest” clothing and were able to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. Some tourists in hot pants and tank tops were denied. I guess God isn’t interested in your cleavage. We viewed Michelangelo’s Pieta, Bernini’s Baldacchino (alter), and the gorgeous church interior. Eventually we found the entrance to the crypt were all of the past Popes were buried (including Peter). Unfortunately cameras were banned, as well as stopping in line, although some Chinese men broke all the rules with their damn cell phones.

In a side chapel, Dana and I decided it was only fitting that we say a prayer. Dana prayed for her family, I prayed for our luggage. Seriously, I asked for divine intervention in order to get my shampoo.

We walked around the walled city and into the Vatican museum entrance. First there was no line (absolutely none) which seemed strange because A) it was the Vatican and B) it was a Sunday (of all days to go see a church…THE church). We walked right in and right past the ticket booth. No one was manning the ticket booth, so Dana and I just walked by. Actually we did the nervous panic of “are we really going to sneak into the Vatican without paying…I mean God will know”. A guard (funny uniform, tee hee) suddenly stopped us and I thought the gig was up. Turns out, Dana just needed to put on her cardigan…for modesty reasons…because the paintings would be offended with her tank top. Another tourist later told us that the last Sunday of the month is always free (yeah, we totally didn’t know that but at least it was exciting to think we cheated the church out of our admission).

I hardly remember much of the Vatican museum because we spent the majority of our time in a giant line leading towards the Sistine Chapel. Note, the Vatican isn’t air conditioned and EVERYONE wants to go see the Sistine Chapel. We were packed like cattle in one giant three-four person wide line that snaked in an out of galleries. Oh God the heat, the smell, the sweat. A woman actually fainted while we were walking. Eventually we made it into the Sistine Chapel, which of course didn’t allow any pictures…or talking…or standing still. The hall was full of guards whose one job was to “shush” as loud as possible every ten seconds. Seriously, there was more shushing than actual whispers, which sadly was not the experience I had hoped to take away from the landmark place.

Once we emerged, we searched for the Vatican post office which is known to have some of the best mail service in all of Europe. As an excellent souvenir, Dana and I both sent ourselves post cards. I talked about the smell and sweat of the Sistine Chapel. Dana was chipper writing something like “nothing like being homeless and finding out your boyfriend was cheating on you with a hooker and then the airline looses your bags. Awesome year, I think I’ll start drinking”. Trust me, it is a long story.

Lunch was a tiny café near the Vatican along Via Borgo Angelico. At first the hostess tried to seat us at a table with an Italian family that didn’t speak any English. We were able to convince her to seat us at a two person table (yeah, crazy that two girls wouldn’t want to join a family for lunch) where we dined on spaghetti and lasagna.

Fans of the movie ‘Angels and Demons’ will recognize our next landmark, the Castel Saint Angelo. This old fortress used to protect Vatican City and house the mistresses and bastard children of the more unscrupulous popes. The Castel housed the crypt for the ancient emperors of Rome. Rafael designed the angel that used to be on top of the dome (now it is in the castle courtyard). The maze of staircases and corridors had us running in circles but eventually we reached the top and were rewarded with an awesome view of Rome and the Vatican.

We crossed the Angel Bridge (Ponte Sant’ Angelo) and got lost in west Rome.

One wrong turn took us to Campo de Flori which was recommended by my tour book, so it was a happy surprise. Like many of the open air plazas, this one was devoid of diners because of the lack of natives.

Next was the Piazza Navona which used to be the site of chariot races. It also is home to the Four Rivers Fountain. The four figures represent the four major rivers at the time, the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube, and the della Plata. The figure of the Nile is shrouded because at the time they didn’t know where the origin was.

All this walking took its toll on Dana’s feet. She developed a blister and we stopped to pick up a band aid. Apparently in Italy, you don’t buy pre-cut bandages. They come as a two foot long roll that you cut to fit your size. I got a gelato while she tried to tear and eventually bite the bandage. The gelato vender took pity on her and gave her some scissors.

Our path took a detour into the St. Louis de Francias church where Caravaggio painted one of the side chapels.

The next stop was the awe inspiring Pantheon. Being an architecture nerd (well and history nerd, and science nerd) I adore this building. I doubt any of the pictures I took really captured the sheer size and wonder of the building. Raphael is entombed here.

On our journey, we shopped for souvenirs. I found a Ferrari t-shirt for my niece that cracked me up. See the Romans are obsessed with Ferrari. Seriously, everyone had a Ferrari shirt, hat, jacket, pants, etc. They are also obsessed with the penis. Okay, pictures of the penis were EVERYWHERE. Most were pictures of The David’s penis on a pair of boxer shorts. They had penises on clothing, magnets, calendars, and my favorite, the apron.

After a rest (since we walked across all of freaking Rome), we headed out to dinner at an authentic place off of Viale del Policlinico near Porta Pia. We knew it was authentic because the patrons were locals and the staff didn’t speak English. Actually first we passed several places that we thought were restaurants (because they were packed with people on a Sunday night), but they were actually bars in the midst of happy hour…at 9pm! We started with a cheese plate that was only 3 Euros but could have fed an army. It was piles of the excellent aged cheese that had the most amazing texture. When the old man waiter came by to take it away, we had barely made a dent in it. I tried to convey to him that the cheese was amazing but too much for two girls to eat…although he probably thought I was pregnant because of all the smiles and belly pats. The meal was so good and soooo cheap. I think cheese, entrées, dessert, and wine for two added up to a total of 37 euros.

We were truly off the beaten path because we were so lost. Our hotel was near the Turkish embassy which was under constant guard of Italian soldiers. In fact, we chatted with those soldiers earlier in the day on our quest to find a pharmacy. Therefore, I was excited to see a couple of men in fatigues armed with automatic weapons. Unfortunately they were not guarding the Turkish embassy…it was the Russian one. Sure enough, the two men (mid 20’s and beyond buff…truly Italian stallions) were more than willing to give us directions. One literally was like [turns to other soldier] “here, take this… [gigantic AK-47 ish gun] …so I can hold the map”.

I wondered if those embassies really needed the security. I'm sure all of the soldiers were eager to head over to our location in the city. Check out this classy place right next to our hotel.