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England Summer Trip 2013 – London (part 1)

This is the continuation of my summer 2013 trip to England that I started writing about in this post. Here are all of the posts. [update: I started writing this post months ago but I keep procrastinating. My goal is to complete this series of posts before the anniversary of the trip.]

London

When we last saw our intrepid traveler is was relaxing comfortably in the Park Lane hotel in London while a summer rainstorm thundered outside. OK, enough attempting to make this post novelized this. I am sincerely sorry that it has taken my lazy butt this long to get back to writing about my trip last August.

The first night

After my afternoon nap during the rainstorm I decided to chill in my hotel room for a while. There was no air conditioner in the suite which I thought was odd but maybe that is common in English hotels. The room was a bit stuff so I started to open the  windows hoping to get a nice breeze and fresh air. I then took some time to reorganize my luggage and photography gear. I also relaxed and surfed through the TV channels. I believe there were about 100 channels where the majority of them represented individual countries around the world. Around eight or so I started to get hungry and I figured I would just try the restaurant attached to the hotel named Citrus. I took a quick shower in the enormous bathroom (I should have taken a picture) and got dressed. When I arrived at what I thought was the entrance to Citrus it looked fairly busy but I was ignored for a good five minutes as I stood there. I caught the waitress’ attention and asked to be seated outside as the weather had cleared up and there looked to be prime people watching from the outdoor seating. The rain had cleared out but the temperature had dropped but I really wanted to enjoy the night air. I was again left alone for a while which I found quite odd. When the waitress finally addressed me I ordered an appetizer and dinner and enjoyed watching all of the people walking along the side-walk. The people seemed to come from all walks of life and culture. Many clusters of people who were probably heading out to a club or pub in the area. I would smile at anyone that made eye contact and most would smile back. I finally got my entrée around 9:30pm and it was good. After I finished eating I again had to wait quite a while for the waitress to bring my check. The temperature had either dropped more or the breeze had become more brisk as I started to get chilled and wanted to go inside. But as I waited a couple of women, I think of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern descent stopped and chatted with me. I had seen them earlier and smiled getting a smile in return. They asked if I wanted to go to a pub with them. I thought for a second and declined as I was tired. I failed to represent the WWGCD (What Would George Clooney Do?) philosophy. I should have taken them up on the offer and seen what the night had in store but I chickened out.

After paying I went back up to my room and was a bit stir crazy and a bit kicking myself for declining the offer to go out. I threw on a fleece and went for a walk along Park Lane. Not that I hadn’t done a ton of walking that day already. Anyway, I made my way all of the way to Piccadilly Circus at which point it was getting pretty late and I decided that the week was going to be long enough and I needed to get some rest. So back to the hotel I went and right to bed just after midnight.

Day #1

I woke up the next morning, after sleeping in a bit, and got my stuff together for a long day of sightseeing. My first stop was a chain named Pret A Manger which to me seems like a cross between Starbucks and Panera Bread. I had a Diet Coke and a chocolate croissant. The Breakfast of Champions! I had researched ahead of time but I consulted my handy-dandy guide-book and determined at least my first stop of the day which was the changing of the cavalry guards at the Horse Guards Parade. It was very difficult to get any “clean” shots of the guards without other tourists and their cameras getting in the way. It was amazing to watch the ceremony that happens twice daily and even more amazing how many people show up to watch the ceremony.

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I then started to meander through St. James Park. An asian girl who seemed very frantic was going to various people asking for help but it was apparent that she didn’t know English and had somehow lost her group. When she came to me I did my good deed for the day and I helped her to the best of my ability. She needed to go to Buckingham Palace and although it was very close I didn’t know exactly how to explain it to her so I pulled out my phone and showed her where we were and where the palace was on the map. She then frantically ran in the general direction of Buckingham Palace. I continued in that general direction taking my time to enjoy this amazing park with its abundance of birds and flowers.

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Buckingham Palace is a rather austere building on its own but with the large sculptures and the famous guards it stands out. There were a ton of tourists loitering around the statues and near the fence keeping the commoners away from the palace. As I was arriving so was the Calvary Guards on their horses. I didn’t realize that I would beat them to the palace but here’s the proof.

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And here are some other photos from the palace.

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After watching the guards march and stomp my stomach told me it was time to leave and grab lunch. I lucked upon a neat little pub that was set below street level called The Old Monk Exchange. I thought it was named The Old Monk but either the name changed or more likely I’m mis-remembering. Anyway, I sat in this small vaulted area which had skylights and it was pretty neat. The food was ok.

After lunch I considered hitting Churchill’s War Room but there was a long line. I then just decided to explore the area. Here’s Westminster Cathedral which is not the same as the Westminster Abbey, the former being Catholic while the latter being Anglican.

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I continued to explore and passed through many little parks such as Grosvenor Gardens where there were many interesting statues including “Alien” by David Breuer-Weil.

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I made my way back to the hotel and cleaned up a little and went to dinner at an Italian place called Spaghetti House which I couldn’t tell if it was a chain restaurant or not but seemed to be staffed by Italians. The food was good but a little expensive. After dinner I walked around a bit more but my feet were killing me so I made my way back to the hotel and to sleep.

day #2

I woke up refreshed and knew that today I was going to hit more sights. First stop was a little convenience store across from the British Museum where I bought a pastry and some water for the day. I ate my breakfast on the lawn in front of the British Museum and then I proceeded inside. All of my humanities classes came flooding back to me as I walked through history.

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This bird caught my attention as it’s the same type of bird that I saw in Kathmandu in 2011.

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Game of Thrones has nothing on this iron throne!

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I think I could easily spend days at this museum. If I was a London resident I would definitely have a membership. It is an amazing museum and I spent way too long in it including lunch which I purchased from the cafe in the atrium.

After a couple of more hours in this wonderful museum I struck out to hit the National Gallery. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. When I got to the National Gallery I had very little time (I think less than an hour) so I flew through the halls trying to absorb as many works as I could. My body was fighting me as my legs and feet were done walking for the day so I had to stop often to rest. Luckily, in galleries there are typically places to sit. I was gently urged to move on as they closed each gallery hall. This is definitely worth another visit. Here are some photos I took after exiting the gallery.

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My feet and legs were killing me so I decided that I might as well get dinner before continuing back to the hotel. I saw a neat Thai place that seemed to be set up with seating meant for people watching which seemed very cool to me. Once I entered Busaba Eathai I realized that I was probably under-dressed for this trendy place but at that point I didn’t care. The food was really good and I found a plug to charge my phone :-) while I ate.

After dinner I choose to walk back to the hotel so that I could explore more but that was probably a bad choice because my feet and legs were already on fire. I had to stop in many squares and parks including Leichester Square, Chinatown, Soho Square, Golden Square, and Neal’s Yard (my mom asked me to visit this one). Finally, I made a hurried dash through Green Park after dark which was a little bit scary as I didn’t know if I was going to be mugged or not (it reminds me of Central Park in Manhattan). It seems like this park is used by couples to have some “time alone” in the big city.

And that ends my second whole day in London. Watch out for part 2 (hopefully sooner than later).

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Diving on the Cayman Aggressor IV

This is the most amazing dive experience I have ever had on the Cayman Aggressor IV. I could write up the whole adventure but the captain of the boat, Captain Alan Roberts, has already done that here. So I will just add my photos and videos here along with commentary.

Arrival

A nice trip over some Caribbean islands

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And here’s my welcoming committee

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My home for the next week

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Leaving the port and enjoying sunset

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Dive Day #1

I didn’t take my camera on the first dive which was the Doc Poulson. It was a little tugboat that was sunk in honor of a dive celebrity of the Caymans.

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The second dive was at Stingray City where we all fed and played with the stingrays.

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Kathy and Mike celebrated their anniversary on the boat.

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The last dive for the day was at Babylon. It was very beautiful although most of my photos didn’t come out.

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The amazing fans shoot out in all directions at Babylon

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Spearing a lion fish.

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After that dive we made the eight hour crossing from Grand Cayman to Little Cayman. We had some visitors during the crossing that were awesome.

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Dive Day #2

The first two dives were at Randy’s Gazebo in Bloody Bay.

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Hiding moray eel

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The rest of the day we spent at the Meadows.

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Here is a sponge at depth covered in brittlestars.

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Here’s the same sponge but with a better flash exposure.

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This is a weird invertebrate named a tiger’s tail.

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We also went on a night dive at this dive site but my photos just didn’t make the cut.

Dive Day #3

The first two dives on this day were at Leah Leah’s Lookout.

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This little gal is called a lettuce nudibranch.

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Amazing camouflage by this very dangerous fish.

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I loved these groupers that hung on to sponges or rocks with their pectoral fins.

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The second dive site for the day was the 3 Fathoms Wall. I skipped the fourth dive as my ears were giving me some trouble.

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Then we took a short crossing over to Cayman Brac in order to do our second night dive on the Captain Keith Tibbetts (aka the Russian Destroyer 356)

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Dive Day #4

The morning dive was also on the Russian Destroyer.

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This is Oscar the Goliath Grouper. He’s probably about five feet long and 80 or so pounds.

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We crossed back to Little Cayman and dove on The Great Wall in Bloody Bay. The wall was amazing as it was shear and dropped from about 20 feet below surface to what seemed like infinity (or at least further than light would penetrate). I accidentally slept through the second dive and I’m not blaming anyone in particular but SOMEONE should have woken me up :-)

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This turtle is hugging a sponge. Also, this is a special type of turtle as the Caymans have a facility where they create a hybrid turtle that mixes a hawksbill with a green turtle.

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The last two dives, including a dusk dive, were at the Bus Stop. And the sharks returned.

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The elusive Sailfin Blenny did not want to show me his fin.

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Those who were done diving for the day decided to watch us surface.

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Or maybe they were watching this.

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Dive Day #5

The first two dives of the day were at Nancy’s Cup of Tea including a very early morning (5:30am) dive. It was amazing to see the reef come to life as the sun’s light began to hit the reef.

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My little turtle buddy. He popped out from out of nowhere and came and swam a few circles around me within arm reach and then slowly swam off.

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My dive buddy completely missed it but he found a friendly grouper.

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Our next dive site was Sara’s Set.

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Our final dive location for the day was Donna’s Delight which was the location of our 100 minute challenge. I failed the challenge and I also got myself stung by something growing on a buoy ball. But that’s what I get for being stupid.

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The fish with the spots was brilliant and very active. The spots almost looked like LEDs. I tried many times to get a photo and I don’t think I saw a fish like this anywhere else.

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Here are some of the other 100 minute challenge takers. They all passed but I was close. I think this is Sara.

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This is Magic Mike.

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This is definitely Rob.

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This is Kathy.

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We then made the crossing back to Grand Cayman from Little Cayman. A few of us watched Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World during the crossing which really helped pass the time. No dolphins this time. Here are some of the photos while people passed the time away.

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Here are the women on the boat.

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And the guys (minus Rodel who was driving the boat).

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This is the last dinner on the boat. I was so hungry that I forgot to take a picture of the main course which was just as awesome as the salad and the dessert.

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Dive Day #6

On our last dive day we got two dives, including another very early morning (5:30am) dive, on the Kittiwake wreck. The wreck is very new and so had very little encrustation.

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Parrotfish always look happy to me.

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Here’s four different types of crabs.

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You can almost make out the boat’s name.

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The sun’s rays finally poking into the deep.

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A couple of pictures of me.

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I’m not sure why the anchor is out as the boat isn’t going anywhere.

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Our very last dive was at the Devil’s Grotto which was really cool and had tons of wildlife. There were a ton of tarpon here.

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And another fish trying to blend in.

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My dive buddy David and the tarpon just outside of the grotto.

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We had a nice cocktail ceremony on the sun deck after the Aggressor was back in dock. Afterward we ventured out and ate at a decent Italian restaurant a few blocks away from the boat dock.

Departure

There really was not much going on during the last day in the Caymans. I got up early and said our final goodbyes to the crew. We piled into vans and headed to the airport. My flight wasn’t for something like six hours so I was going to settle into being bored for a day. Most of our group went to the airport restaurant where I had a pretty decent cuban sandwich and free wifi. As we broke up most of the group, because they were on the same flight, went through security. I went to check my bag and found out that I could get on an earlier flight home. I took it and the travel went easily and I got home with no issues about two hours earlier than I had estimated.

This was an awesome trip and I would do it again.

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Grab bag update and other random stuff

Ok, I haven’t written for a bit and there have been many events and what not in my life. Each of these are too small to warrant their own post (in my opinion) but I figured I would write anyway.

General Update

Over the past six months or so I have decided to get my life more organized and work on tasks to improve myself and my home. I have attempted to adopt the 43 folders method to organize my tasks and I’m using Evernote to store everything. Basically, Evernote has become my second brain and keeps everything I need to work on. This has been a slow process and I’m not exactly the best at keeping up with it as I get distracted too easily (more about that later). This has gotten me to the point of doing some stuff around my house like getting my roof replaced and other home improvement tasks. I have also been working on reducing my email and fixing my passwords. I have also been trying to scan all new documents that I might need so that I can toss the paper versions. I strive to keep using this process and getting better at it.

Diving

I’m getting back into scuba diving. I just went on a trip to Boyton Beach, FL with the Orlando Reef Divers for a weekend of diving. The weather was unpredictable and I didn’t end up going diving on Sunday but I got two dives in and had a great time. I got back into the water and I tried out some new gear. This is all in preparation for heading down to Grand Cayman for a week-long of diving which I hope to blog about as well. Here are some pictures from the Boyton Beach trip.

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Running

So I have made a couple of short posts of my previous 5K runs this year. Well here is the one I ran yesterday (5/10/2014) which was the Operation Giveback. Here are my results. But for those too lazy to hit that link I finished the 5K with a time of 39:22.293 with a pace of 12:42 minutes per mile. Yes I walked and ran it. Again I think I had more energy I could have put towards the run but I have a mental block that I need to break through. Anyway, here is the obligatory shirt, bib, and bling photo.

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Work

All is good on that front but I was working on a certification package for the last few months. And by “working” I mean that I was procrastinating and working on it ever now and then. But I used that as an excuse for not getting other personal stuff done including updating this blog. Anyway, I submitted a workaround on the certificate package that’ll give me some more time to work on my full certification package. In other words, I figured out a way to procrastinate more.

Health, Exercise, and Diet

So I have been really good at getting in my 10,000 steps a day in with only a handful of exceptions. With that said I’m going to switch to averaging 70,000 steps a week so that I will do more steps on any particular day but it will allow me to have rest days or just some lee way when I miss my numbers on a particular day. I’ll make this switch at the beginning of June. Also, at the beginning of June I’ll start tracking my food intake. I’ve gained too much weight over the past few years and I need to start dropping pounds. My exercise regime has not accomplished this so I’m going to have to start watching what I eat and tracking it all.

What’s next?

Well, I need to finally write up my trip to England from last year. I’ve been procrastinating a bunch on that front but I will knock those out. I have a couple of projects that I want to complete around the house including a couple of ones that should pay off years down the line.

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England Summer Trip 2013 – Liverpool

It is August 2013 and I have just returned from a long week across the pond. So here is my quick summary of what I did and saw while I was in England. The impetus for me flying over to the United Kingdom was part photography workshops run by Chris Marquardt and part my desire to explore more of what Europe has to offer. I’m approaching 37 and my world traveling has not met the quota I thought it would have hit by now. I didn’t intend this to be a series of posts but it seems that I haven’t given myself enough time to write as much as I wanted to convey in a single post. So, continue to watch my blog for the rest of the posts.

Liverpool

I landed at London Heathrow on August 2nd and proceeded to navigate my various choices of mass transit to transport myself to Liverpool where my first photo workshop was to be held. Heathrow Express to Paddington Station and then on to Euston Station in order to board a Virgin Train to Liverpool’s Lime St. Station. England was quite a bit warmer and sunnier than I expected and it took about an hour on the train before I was done sweating. Anyway, after a couple of hours of train travel I arrived in Liverpool and since the weather was still relatively nice I decided to walk to the Elegant House B&B that I was reserved at. John, the owner/operator, is an extremely friendly man and allowed me to take my room a little earlier than typical. After resting for a bit and taking a shower (which felt wonderful after what felt like a week of traveling) I went to meet others that were part of the workshop at a popular pub at Albert Dock called The Pump House. There I met up with Chris and John Arnold, the host of this workshop, as well as Matt “Ravsitar” Armstead, Mark Carline, Terry Maltman with his wife Linda, and Bob Griffus (I probably misspelled his last name, Sorry Bob). We had a wonderful discussion and I had fish and chips with mushy peas. I was excusably tired and so I called it an early night and walked back to my lodging.

workshop day #1

The first Liverpool workshop day began with me heading downstairs to partake in the second “B” of B&B. John baked a fresh loaf of bread, made a fresh pot of hot tea, and had laid out a nice spread of food stuffs. It was definitely different from what I would expect for a breakfast but I ate it and it was delicious and filling. I was then introduced to Mr. Wendy (the cat) who decided to come down to visit and to watch the birds in the garden. At one point Mr. Wendy sauntered over to where I was sitting and stretched and kneaded his paws against my leg. John told me of a previous tenant that used to feed Mr. Wendy scraps of ham and thus Mr. Wendy tries to receive the same from just about all other guests.

After breakfast I packed up my gear and walked to the Camp & Furnace to begin the workshop. Our room was in the basement and was antechamber to the gallery. It seemed like a dressing room or some such as there was a full wall mirror surrounded in lights. Chris began with the agenda and then gave us our first assignment and kicked us out of the room (basically). When we returned we reviewed the assignment and then Chris proceeded to lecture us on lighting and street photography. I had heard some of this before on my previous Chris Marquardt photo workshop but a refresher is always welcome and there was some content that I either forgot or was brand new. I tried to take notes as I knew that a lot of this knowledge would slip in and out of my head as soon as the workshop was over. Here are some photos around the Camp & Furnace.

Camp & Furnace entrance

Yarn bomb

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yarn_bombing

The furnace with a caravan

Furnace room

Bar/Lounge/Cafe/Eatery

Around 11 we left the Camp & Furnace to journey to a location along the Liverpool Pride march. We took tons of pictures and here are some of my favorites of the ones I took.

John & Chris seem lost

The streets are calm…for now

He is here to protect

And the parade begins

Putin looks

The colors

Pride!

The march continues

I think we have hit bizarro world

Jesus returns

Not mild mannered at all

There's a storm a brewing

Flamboyance!

Make your own caption

I think you're right!

Dancing while marching must be hard

Percussion time!

Now the whistles

Thumbs up for equality!

What's the crop for?

Right in beat

Lego superman?

Lego Captain America (in Liverpool)

No phone booths nearby

Laura Croft under water!

Even the Riddler takes calls!

We returned after 1 in the afternoon and decided that since almost no one ate while we were out, as we were expected to do, then we grabbed lunch at the Camp & Furnace. I had some sort of burger with beef brisket and ham on it. It was satisfactory. After concluding lunch, we went back into our cave and continued the exercises and lessons including learning how to use grey cards. I was paired up with Jon for some of the exercises and with Matt for the rest. Here are some pictures from the grey card exercises.

Whatcha scratchin'?

OK, look unimpressed!

That is whack!

Be one with the camera!

Natural lighting is good!

We ran over the allotted time a little but everyone was fine with that. I believe that if Chris allowed it we would stay there all day and night absorbing Chris’s photography knowledge. We closed the session for the day by recording an episode of Tips From the Top Floor (this is the episode). I usually hate the sound of my recorded voice but this didn’t sound too bad.

I ended the evening by walking back to the Elegant House and crashing pretty quickly. I skipped dinner but I made sure that I plugged in everything so that it could be charged for the next day. I then fell asleep to the sounds of the occasional auto on the street.

workshop day #2

The next morning I had to be at the workshop an hour earlier therefore I had to get up earlier. This wasn’t a big problem because I went to sleep around 10pm which is way earlier than my typical bedtime. I woke, showered, and went downstairs to the breakfast area. John was his usual charming and friendly self but there was another guest waiting in the entertainment room. We were introduced but for the life of me I can’t remember her name. She was a friend of John’s who was in town for some sort of event. As breakfast was being served a third guest arrived who was a charming lad of twenty something that was in a college choir that was slated to perform at the local cathedral. The three Brits chatted away and I just sat, ate, and listened. I didn’t feel the need to inject myself in their various conversations. Anyway, I realized that I had to get a move on so I excused myself and finished packing. I returned the key to John and said goodbye and then I lugged my bag to the Camp & Furnace.

We continued our lessons in the Camp & Furnace’s gallery room which mostly dealt with portraiture, lighting and “the strobist” setup. I learned some really interesting techniques. We then packed up and walked up to Albert Dock to do some street photography and grab lunch. I was partnered up with Mark and we had a good time walking around the docks taking pictures. Here are some of the pictures that I deemed worthy of sharing.

John relaxing with his tea

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Mark through stairs

Me being artistic

Mark being goofy

Bob and Terry in my frame

ground level

Bee in flight

Billy Fury

Self portrait

Mark and I ate lunch at a decent enough restaurant called Pan Am. I don’t recall being overly impressed with the food but the company was good. Mark and I then continued our journey around Albert Dock and the surrounding buildings (including a stop for ice cream) and then made our way back to the regrouping area. Here are some more photos from the excursion.

The Oh Face

Cleaning up the Pride

Under the Rainbow

Science and Tolerance

cloning Mark

handprints

The wheel

As a group we ventured back to the Camp & Furnace where Chris and John finished with a couple of more lessons. We all said our goodbyes and I helped to clean up a bit before I packed up and trekked to the train station. It had actually rained a bit while we were inside but I was lucky enough to not get rained on until right before I got to the station and then it was only a bit of a sprinkle.

I went to one of the little convenience stores and bought a couple of sodas and some snacks for my trip back and then I hopped on the next train for London. By this point I was pretty tired but I really tried to stay awake for the train ride. The English countryside is pretty nice and I enjoyed seeing it all and how it changed as we got closer to London. When I finally reached Euston Station I had to figure out how to navigate the London Underground (The Tube) in order to get me as close to my hotel as possible. It didn’t help that I was tired from all of the travel and a bunch of walking. But I figured it out as well as figuring out the Oyster Card system. It’s fantastic!

I made my way to the Green Park Station and then I proceeded to my hotel which took me a bit to find as I had no real sense of direction. But luckily with my trusty iPhone I was able to get in the general area and lucked into finding my hotel, The Park Lane. After I checked in I went directly up to my room and fell asleep. It was about 3pm. When I woke up around 6pm or so it was raining pretty hard outside so I decided to just relax in my room for a while.

And that concludes the Liverpool segment of my England trip. One last thing, Chris created a video for the Liverpool event which is here. Stay tuned for my continuing adventure in England as I set out to explore London.

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Why I don’t drink…

Dec. 13th, 2001

“I wager that I can take five shots.”

That’s a strange sensation. Am I rolling…

“Mom get Dad on the phone! I’m fine. What should I do?”

“No sir, I must have swerved around something in the road.”

It’s all a blur…

“Remove your clothes, shower and then stand here for delousing!”

I don’t feel hungry for a hot dog and bread.

“Thank god you arrived when you did!” “I would have been here earlier but they wouldn’t let me get you out before 11”

The rest of my life

So, that event was the conclusion of my drinking career. If you haven’t figured it out I was drinking and driving and I rolled my car into a ditch on the side of the road around 2am. I had to deal with the immediate consequences of that one night for a few years but I guess I have been dealing with the consequences ever since. Luckily, no one was injured including myself. The financial, legal, and emotional toll were great though and I’m very grateful for having wonderful parents and friends to help me through. I had to attend various classes and group meetings and legal proceedings. I’m very lucky that during this period I was able to schedule my work around those requirements. I was able to get a work driver license and I was able to borrow a car from my parents. My car insurance doubled and probably is still higher than it should be. My car was in the shop for about six months and although the body shop did an excellent job my car was never the same. I was never the same.

I told a few close friends and a very few coworkers. I was extremely scared that having anything of this sort associated with me would reflect negatively on me and cause issues within my career. I still hesitate to tell people as I don’t know the reaction people will take. But I guess if you are reading this then you at least know me to some extent. I did a ton of soul-searching about this and many other issues. The result of that is that it’s not worth it to me emotionally, psychologically, socially and especially legally and financially to drink or be involved with any alcohol or drugs that aren’t explicitly meant to make me better. This was an extremely difficult decision mainly during the first year after my accident. I started to realize how almost all social interactions involved alcohol. You should try giving up alcohol for more than a couple of months while doing all of the same social activities that you are used to. The temptation was great and my peers didn’t help much. Fortunately, most of my closest friends weren’t heavy drinkers so I didn’t have it in my face constantly.

After some time and various meetings the appeal diminished to the point where I completely don’t miss it. I still have to deal with the occasional question of “Why not?” or “Do you have a problem?” although most people just ask something like “So you don’t drink now or ever?”. Most of the time this is innocent and polite. I mostly just give short answers without any detail and that typically ends the topic. I have never thought of myself as an alcoholic and I did meet quite a few self-proclaimed alcoholics to compare myself to. I do believe that I have issues that I attempt to minimize when I drank and when I drank I would typically I drink too much. So maybe I do have a problem with alcohol but as long as I stick to my path, which is wide, brightly lit, with great big flashing signs, then I will be all right.

So, now you know. If you want to know any details then I can either answer them in the comments or you can contact me through some other mode.

http://about.me/aaron.martina

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My run in with a moonlighting county sheriff

Today is November 25th, 2011. It’s the day after Thanksgiving and I was traveling from my parents’ home in Fort Myers back to my home in Oviedo. I’m writing this on the 25th in order to get every detail I can into this post. I had left sometime around 9am because I knew I had to be at home in order to do some chores, pack, and then head to the airport. So after just over 3 hours of driving I was starting to get hungry and I decided to stop by the Four Rivers BBQ, 4R, in Winter Park which has absolutely awesome food. The whole ride back to central Florida had been relatively enjoyable. There was backed up traffic near Lake Buena Vista due to the outlet malls and crazy shoppers in the area. I just put them in my rearview mirror and kept on driving. I exited I-4 at Fairbanks and proceeded towards 4R.

I saw my destination and the light was still green but because I had to turn left I had to wait for the oncoming traffic to pass through the light first. As I waited for the traffic to pass I noticed that there was a guy on a motorized scooter running on the sidewalk and we would have intersected paths so I waited for him to pass by as well. I then safely made my left turn. As I entered the side street, Formosa Ave., I observed the parking lot and it was full except for two spots. One directly on the side of the establishment next to the pick-up order spot and one in the back of the establishment that had just been vacated by a pickup truck that was backing up in order to exit the parking lot. There was also a wagon, I think it was a Subaru, that was in the parking area near the empty spot on the side of the building. Seeing the way as clear I put my blinker on and entered the parking area as soon as the truck was clear and I proceeded to park and gather my effects.

I opened my door and began to step out when Deputy First Class (DFC) VanKirk greeted me and immediately asked for my driver license, registration, and insurance. I pulled out my license and handed it to him and asked what I did wrong. He then repeated that he needed my proof of insurance and registration as well as asking me if I had any outstanding tickets or warrants at which point my stress hit the ceiling. As I fumbled for my envelope that holds my insurance and registration I asked again what I did and he stated that I had passed a vehicle on the left side as well as crossing the double yellow lines to do so. My jaw hit the ground. I was left dumbfounded. I was still fumbling with getting out my registration and I handed it to him and put back the envelope and closed my door. He then repeated that he needed my insurance card. I was so flabbergasted that I had totally forgotten so I reopened the door and retrieved the envelope from the seat and gave him the insurance card.

He then told me that I could lock my car and accompany him over to his cruiser which was parked under a tree in the street. I asked him where he was when this was happening and he stated that he was right in front of his car and he saw the whole event and that there was a car waiting right behind his parked cruiser with it’s blinker flashing in order to turn into the parking lot. I kept telling him that I didn’t see that car or it’s flashing blinker. He then flippantly asked me if I had a vision impairment. I was still in shock. I crossed the street with him and he entered his car in order to call in the license and registration. I stood in front of his car on the sidewalk awaiting the result.

While I was standing there two other cars performed the exact same maneuver that I had except for there wasn’t a car to their right other than the police cruiser. I waited about five minutes standing for everyone who was enjoying their lunches could judge me from a distance. About fifty feet further down the sidewalk was a late-middle-aged man with greying hair and mustache that was just standing there watching. There was also a technician or two from Brighthouse or CenturyLink working on the lines or poles that were above the street. I watched as DFC VanKirk communicated on his radio back and wrote up my ticket. He exited his vehicle handed me my documents and then gave me the yellow copy of the ticket after telling me my options. He explained that it was three points and a $164 fine. I was still stunned but I mentioned that while he was in his car two other cars had crossed the double yellow in the same fashion. He told me that they didn’t pass a car on the left while crossing the line.

I was no longer steamed. I became very angry. I had to hold back so much so that I didn’t do anything really stupid like lash out at this cop. I really wanted to call him a liar. I should have tracked down which car I supposedly cut off. Instead I decided to go get something to eat. That was my goal but I was still extremely mad and I yelled a few things out loud. I needed to vent and so I was the dog barking at the night. I started to cross the street but I figured DFC Van Kirk might site me for jaywalking as he had already given me a trumped up ticket and in my fuming state I didn’t want to take the chance so I walked out to the Fairbanks intersection and waited for the crosswalk to light up before crossing to the side with the business.

I then waited my turn, ordered a brisket sandwich, mac & cheese, and grilled corn. I always get a little frustrated at the lack of preparedness that tends to happen to those people in front of me when I’m waiting to order but today my mind was on other things. I paid and went outside to the dining area. I filled my drink and I saw a bunch of employees on the backside of the dining area doing various tasks. I asked one of them if I could please speak with a manager. I had the idea that because DFC Van Kirk was just standing on the other side of the road that he may actually be moonlighting for 4R. I waited about 5 minutes holding my tray of untouched food. When the manager came out, he actually seemed to be the head cook as he was wearing an apron and had just washed his hands, I immediately asked him if DFC Van Kirk was hired by the restaurant and he answered in the affirmative. He was hired to help direct traffic. I then told him that I would never eat at that 4R location as the deputy had given me a ticket based on the messed up parking conditions at that restaurant. I informed him that I had no problems with the food or staff and that the decision was completely based on the fact that I was given a stupid ticket. I could feel myself getting rather emotional, somewhere between frustrated and angry, so I then took my tray of food and stood at the railing, as there were no apparent open seats, and began to eat. I noticed that DFC Van Kirk was standing on the sidewalk in the shade chatting with the grey mustached man.

A couple of minutes later the manager and another gentleman, I’m assuming the real manager, came over and asked me to explain the situation again. I was in the middle of chewing so I couldn’t respond immediately but when I could I recounted what had happened and my vow to not return based on the fact that they had hired an Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy to help direct traffic and he instead took the opportunity to stand around and then give me a ticket. I was starting to get emotional again and I completely lost my appetite. I was on the verge of becoming nauseous. The two managers left me and went to talk to DFC Van Kirk. I took the opportunity to pack up the remainder of my food which was pretty much all of it and as I was filling my drink the two managers returned. They told me that there were always two sides to every story and that the deputy wouldn’t fight the ticket if I were to take it to court. They attempt to console me that even though it was a little bit of a pain that things would be alright. I was already angry and then left in a huff. I regrettably bumped into a few people on the way out and I tried to say sorry to each one of them as I went out to my car.

I opened my car, placed my food on the seat and my phone in a cup holder, buckled my seatbelt and checked to see if I could safely back out. I could only see directly behind me so it would have been really helpful if someone, say a deputy, could have been flagging people to let them know when it was safe to proceed. As I was backing out I could see another SUV pulling out two cars from me so I halted my progress in order to let them have complete access to anywhere they needed to go in the cramped parking lot. I then backed up in the parking lot up to the point where I could then pull forward around a pole such that I could pull out onto Formosa facing forward. I would have backed all of the way out into the street but as I couldn’t see anything besides what was directly behind me and there wasn’t someone directing traffic on Formosa I instead had to maneuver around a really bad obstacle for a parking lot.

As I pulled forward I noticed that DFC VanKirk was still just standing there in the shade talking with the man with the grey mustache. I looked straight at him with disgust and pulled onto Formosa. I immediately turned on my left turn signal and turned onto Fairbanks as the light was green and the way was clear.

Between driving home and the few hours right after the event my emotional state was destroyed. I almost forgot to get gas as I was running on fumes. I could have easily gotten into an accident because my full concentration was not on driving.

Update 11/29/2011 12:00am

A few days ago I wrote a long message to the customer service of 4R and I received a response yesterday asking me to contact the Operations Manager. I’ll give him a call later in the week.

Update 12/2/2011

I spoke with Jeff Palermo, the Operating Partner of 4R, and we talked about the parking situation and the moonlighting police presence. I was really glad that the manager gave me his time and actually listened to me. I explained my grievances and opinions. He was extremely professional and stated that he would look into possibilities for changes to ease the issues that I raised.

Update 2/16/2012

Today was my hearing at the Orange County Courthouse. I was extremely nervous and my stomach was doing somersaults. I arrived a bit early because I wanted to see what the procedure was before I plead my case. I also wanted to see if DFC Van Kirk would show up and fight the ticket. When the bailiff opened the courtroom and all of the law enforcement officers piled in I recognized the officer that gave me my ticket. The bailiff led us in and then we watched a video on the procedures of the traffic hearings. I then sat patiently until it was my turn to go to the podium. When I was called up I made my way up and went through the the procedures, saying my name, answering the questions from the magistrate, etc. DFC Van Kirk was standing next to me and he was asked by the magistrate to explain why I got a ticket. I was then given a chance to ask questions to DFC Van Kirk. At least one of those questions he lied about. Afterwards I was given a chance to plead my case and the magistrate interrupted me and asked some questions of myself and DFC Van Kirk. He then asked if I had anything else to ask or say which I didn’t. He then found that the proof was there but he withheld adjudication. This means that it won’t count against my driving record but I still have to pay for it. I was seated again in order to wait for my paperwork. After receiving my paperwork I exited the room and paid my fine and court costs. DFC Van Kirk had run out of the room as soon as he could.

After leaving the courthouse I decided to revisit the scene of the “crime” to see if my memory of the place and the events were as good as I thought. I was pretty close. I have some more thoughts on this topic but I’ll post an update in the future.

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Italy trip – day 8

This is a continuation of Italy Trip series. Here are the previous posts for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6 and Day 7.

Really early morning
As I mentioned in my last post, I was told by the front desk staff that I needed more time than I had planned for in order to travel to the airport so that I wouldn’t miss my flight. This meant I needed to get up at 5:30am in order to get cleaned up, finish packing, check out of the hotel, go get my car, and pick up my friend at her hotel. I set my phone’s alarm, I scheduled a wake up call from the front desk, and I set the alarm clock by my bed. I guess I was a little bit paranoid. I was able to wake up by just one device and I was able to keep my schedule. While checking out of the hotel I asked if they could call the parking garage so that my car would be ready when I arrived there. The front desk even offered to have someone run and get it for me but then there was some confusion about where it was so I just told them I would get it myself.

Getting the car from parking
I trekked from the hotel with my roller bag and backpack down the streets of Milan. After a few turns I came to the parking garage. I didn’t see anyone attending the parking office. This caused my anxiety level to rise. After a very long minute the attendant arrived driving my car. We exchanged greetings and he went into his office. I handed him my ticket and a credit card. He tried it and it didn’t work. I handed him another card. Fail! And yet another. Fail! Now I was getting really worried. I didn’t have enough euros to cover the bill. This wasn’t helping my anxiety level. Finally, I handed him my check card as a last ditch effort. It worked. The only thing I can think of is that the Italians don’t have the same sort of system or assumptions about payment. Anyway, I wasn’t happy to use that account but it worked and shortly I was on my way.

Driving to airport
I headed directly to my friend’s hotel. I didn’t even need to use the GPS to get there. I guess I was becoming a local. I was about 15 minutes late and she was waiting in the lobby. We loaded her luggage and left, we plugged the airport into the GPS and headed on our way.

At the airport
We arrived at Malpensa International Airport, piled out of the rental car, and trekked to the terminal. We had arrived with PLENTY of time. So all of my paranoia and anxiety were for not. We were on different airlines so we decided to split and check in and then regroup for breakfast. The line at Delta was relatively short and I was able to check in with little fuss.
I met back up with my friend and we headed to the food court. It was Sunday just before 8am and almost everything was closed. I was surprised that an international airport that was full of people didn’t have a single breakfast place open. Anyway the bar was open.
The bar had coffee and a limited selection of breakfast items. We had a couple of brioches, cappuccinos, and a rather large bowl of chopped fruit.

last Italian breakfast

last Italian breakfast


The brioche and fruit were surprisingly good but the cafe (even though it looked good) was not that good.
We sat and enjoyed (as much as we could) the breakfast while we remembered our time over the past week. Then we parted ways as I needed to make my way to my plane. I still had about an hour and a half but I didn’t want any troubles.

Duty free
After getting through the security line, which by the way was a lot like our security lines five years ago, I proceeded to my gate. Interestingly in order to get to the gate you are forced to walk through the duty free shops. I thought it was interesting. Other than pictures and some brochures I really didn’t have any souvenirs so I decided to buy a soccer jersey for a local team. It ended up being more expensive than I expected but I guess that’s what happens when you buy items at the airport.

Europe departure
The trip out of Europe was pretty uneventful. I was in the aisle in the middle section of the airplane. Unlike my flight into Italy the in-flight entertainment center actually worked! So I spent the majority of the long flight watching movies. I saw the “A-Team“, “Clash of the Titans“, “Cop Out” and “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time“. I think I saw some more but I can’t remember which ones right now.
About halfway through the flight I started to smell some flatulence. Not mine I must say because mine smells like roses. No this is the kind of gas that could melt paint off the walls. Someone around me was emitting the most ghastly smells and it was making my eyes what. The guy next to me must have smelled it too but he didn’t confess to being it’s origin. No matter what I did the smell didn’t dissipate. I just had to suffer.

Customs at JFK
After arriving at JFK the first stop is passport control. Considering how much international travel goes this airport I would have figured that they would be better at getting people through the line. Anyway, I knew that I had to wait for my bag in order to go through customs so although I was anxious I wasn’t going crazy. Yet!
I finally get to the front of the line and I hand over my passport and what not. The man is not that happy but he scans it, scans me, scans it and hands it back.
I then proceed to the baggage claim to wait for my bag. I keep looking at the clock and the baggage isn’t arriving. My layover time isn’t really long but I don’t like cutting it close.
Another 15-20 minutes later and my bag is finally in my hand. I went to the customs line which was also not efficiently managed. There were only two lines with something like 30 people in each. Finally another person opened a third line and I made a mad dash over to it. I ended up being the 3rd or 4th in line. I had nothing to declare and I wasn’t chosen for screening so I continued on out the security.
First stop was the baggage re-checkin. The man took my bag and told me my gate. He also told me which security checkpoint I should go to. I know JFK alright so I didn’t take his advice and I went to another terminal. As I arrived at the lines it seemed like I had made the correct choice. I had about 20 minutes before boarding would start so I was in good shape. I was a little out of breathe because I had hoofed it some distance but over all I was doing well.
Then the travel craziness started. The line didn’t move. I could see people going through the two security screening areas but the line I was in (non-VIP) did not seem to budge an inch. Now I was starting to worry. The time just seemed to slip away. Ten minutes went by and I had moved about 5 positions. There were still about 30 people in front of me. This was not good. Ten more minutes went by once again a small move in the line. The plane would be boarding. I got the attention of a security person and mentioned that my flight was going to leave without me. She said she’ll get back to me. I was getting extremely anxious and frustrated. There was a lady next to me in line that I saw was on the same flight. So to defuse my emotions I said hi as I could tell that she was going through the same situation as me. Finally security agent made an announcement for a flight that was 5 minutes before mine. I took the opportunity and went to the head of the line and beckoned the woman I met to follow. This of course only got us to the point before the x-ray machines and metal detectors but it was an improvement.
I’m not sure what was wrong with the world that day but the people in line were the slowest people to ever get through security. Another ten minutes had passed and I had pretty much resigned myself to being late and catching the next flight out.
When I finally was able to get through the screening I rushed to my gate which wasn’t too far from the security checkpoint. I noticed a big group of people around my gate walking the other way which could mean either the flight just got into my gate OR…
They changed the gate! I turned around and started heading toward my new gate. I saw the woman I skipped the line with and I flagged her to follow and told her that the gate had changed. Of course the gate was in the other concourse which was a brisk 5 minute walk.
Now we are about 15 minutes from the scheduled departure time but when I arrived at the gate there were just a whole bunch of people milling around and no one in authority informing anyone of anything. I tried to find someone who would know what was going on but they were either too busy to talk to me or else they didn’t know anything.
The departure time came and there was finally an announcement that the flight was delayed. Well DUH! And here I was getting all frantic trying to get to a flight that was delayed. I’m so used to this type of thing that when they gave out a new departure time I knew that it was too optimistic and that would be delayed as well.

My Good Deed for the day
About that time an airport representative wheeled an elderly lady up to the gate area. The old lady was definitely confused and not having a good day. Apparently she had been stuck in the airport all day and no one was really helping her. As I overheard her talking with the airport representative I really felt for her. Apparently she needed a wheel chair to get onto and off of the airplane but no one had arranged one. The representative said that she needed to talk to gate agent and then the representative left. Remember how I said it was difficult for me to get a gate agent’s help, well it was even more difficult for this elderly lady. So I stepped in. I walked over to a group of flight attendants and stated that the elderly lady needed assistance and that no one was paying any attention to her. Finally, one nice flight attendant went over and talked with the elderly lady and helped get everything straightened out. I have actually paraphrased this telling as there was a lot more but it’s already gone on too long. Right before they started to call us to board the plane I looked over at the elderly lady and she was napping in a chair. I went over and gently woke her up so that she didn’t miss her flight. I also said by to the woman that I went through security with.

What’s that noise?
I finally got onto the plane and got situated. This last leg I was going to be very tired and I might even sleep a bit. The plane took off later than the agent had declared (I was right) but the trip home was smooth and uneventful as all flights should be. As we were in the air I kept hearing this strange noise. It sounding like a loud slow clapping. I tried to ignore it but it would sneak into my consciousness and disrupt my thoughts. I looked around and finally spotted the culprit. A lady (maybe not the best description) was chomping loudly on gum. I mean very loudly. She was sitting at least three rows behind me and off to the side. I wanted to say something but I was drained from the day and so I just increased the volume on my iPod.

Re-acclimation
The rest of the flight was normal. The sun was falling in the sky when we landed and I snapped this photo of myself as I was riding the tram from the gates to the terminal.

the haggard traveler

the haggard traveler

Conclusion
Italy is a wonderful country. I am going to have to visit it more often and hopefully I will have more time to spend sight seeing and enjoying the enormous amount of culture it has to offer.

On a personal note: It has taken me three months to write out my adventures of 8 days. I need to be better at this journaling.

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Italy trip – day 7

This is a continuation of Italy Trip series. Here are the previous posts for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, and Day 6.

Starting the day with cappuccino (cappuccio locally)
I awoke the next day ready to venture through the city of Milan. My friends and I had decided to meet at my hotel and then head around town. When they arrived we all decided that the first order of business was to visit a local cafe and enjoy a cappuccio. We found a cafe about a 100 yards from my hotel and we sat down and ordered. The cappuccio was really good. We pulled out the map and the guide book and discussed our plans for the day. The first main stop would be Il Duomo.

The journey to Il Duomo
We decided to take the most direct path which was down Buenos Aires which took us all of the way to the center of Milan. As we walked along this boulevard I took pictures of interesting buildings.

door along Buenos Aires

door along Buenos Aires

Cool little building

Cool little building

seminary

seminary

Church entrance

Church entrance

Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II

Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II

Cool monument/fountain

Cool monument/fountain

As we got closer to Il Duomo the buildings started to become more commercialized and touristy. Lot’s of clothing oriented shops for both high fashion and not. Once we arrived at Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II the area changed to only pedestrian and bicycle traffic only but the number of people increased significantly. Also at this point we could start to see the spires that adorn the top of the Duomo. We continued toward the Piazza del Duomo passing by a living statue.

living statue 1

living statue 1

Just as we encroached on the edge of the piazza the sky decided it would open up and start to drizzle. Then the drizzle changed into a drenching rain just as we had time to duck under the overhang above an outdoor shopping mall. Of course everyone else that was in the piazza also decided to cram into this wonderful and partially dry area. So my friends and I had a short pow-wow and decided that we would explore this “mall” until the rain let up.
On a side note, as soon as the rain started there were a ton of people trying to sell umbrellas. This totally reminded me of Disney when it starts to rain. Not knowing whether we would be dealing with rain all day I purchased one of these very cheap umbrellas. It cost me 5 euros (approx $7).

rain starts in the piazza

rain starts in the piazza

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Galleria mural 1

Galleria mural 1

Galleria mural 2

Galleria mural 2

Galleria atrium

Galleria atrium

Galleria mural 3

Galleria mural 3

This place was gorgeous! This was one of the most amazing malls I had been in. We walked toward the center where there was some construction going on and as a group decided that we should probably get something to eat at one of the restaurants/cafes that were in the galleria. We chose Gabbiano which resided at the end of one of halls from the center. The food was good and we watched as the small birds would dive from any purchases that they had found in the wall to the ground to snatch a crumb and then flutter back up to the wall. The food was good and my two friends also enjoyed a gelato which was like a little celebration in an over-sized martini glass.

Gelato

Gelato

I gave a short lesson on camera features and techniques as we sat around waiting out the rain and watched the people. A well dressed lady that was between middle-aged and elderly (I don’t know the correct adjective) sat at a nearby table with her miniature poodle. She kept feeding it her food and also getting mad at it when it begged for more.

Outside Il Duomo
So we finished up and paid the bill just as the rain was letting up. This was our signal to hurry up and make our way to Il Duomo. The crowds in the Galleria had thinned. As we exited the Galleria it was almost as the clouds broke away and the sun shone through. Well, not really. It was still overcast but now the piazza was filled with people. I took this opportunity to take some pictures of Il Duomo.

Il Duomo

Il Duomo

Il Duomo 2

Il Duomo 2

Il Duomo 3

Il Duomo 3

Il Duomo 4

Il Duomo 4

Scams
As with any popular public location anywhere in the world there will be some bad apples. In the Piazza del Duomo there were quite a few foreigners (non-natives to Italy) that were going up to people that were definitely “tourists”. There were two scams that I saw although I couldn’t figure them out exactly. The first, and the only one really tried on me, was as I was walking along one of these non-Italian guys grabbed my hand and forced bird feed into it and then raised it up above my head. Within seconds a squadron of pigeons, aka flying rats, attacked the seeds in my hand. The guy then asked for my camera so that he could take a picture of me with the birds. I said No. The birds finished and then flew away. At that point the guy said give me five euros. I said no. Remember he had forced the seed into my hand. He demanded money again and at that point I walked away.
Another scam that I couldn’t figure out were many people were trying to hand out “free” bracelets. These were the small braided knot bracelets that many of us made when we were in middle school. I always declined the free bracelet but I was really curious about how that scam might work. Do they offer to put it on your wrist and while you are preoccupied does someone else pick your pockets? Do they say that the bracelet was free but putting it on costs five euros. Do they use the bracelets to flag “marks” for other scams? If anyone knows please put it in the comments or contact me because inquiring minds want to know!
One of my friends did succumb to the bird feed scam but I guess that’s why there are so many con artists out there.

Inside Il Duomo
We had been separated during the whole scam period and so I searched for my friends. We found each other and we decided to go into the cathedral. There was a short line to enter the church with security personnel checking bags. There were signs stating the procedures while inside the cathedral including photography. I mis-read the signs thinking that I would not be able to take photos while inside. But once we were inside it was apparent that photos are allowed just as long as there aren’t services. I took many photos but here are some of the more stunning photos.

stained glass 1

stained glass 1

stained glass 2

stained glass 2

christ in a box

christ in a box

stained glass 4

stained glass 4

We walked around the inside of Il Duomo for a while, marveling at the beauty and grandeur of this building and its art. This next photo is my favorite and I shot this from my hip.

my favorite photo

my favorite photo

We left the church and started on the path to the next destination. Here are some parting shots.

Il Duomo from the side

Il Duomo from the side

alley near the Duomo

alley near the Duomo

By the way, there are some military/police types in this photo that looked very serious. That’s why this photo is from way down the alley.

Around Milan
The first place we wanted to check out was Palazzo Reale which was located right next to the Duomo. As we walked to it we saw signs stating that it was closed for renovation. So on to the next location which was an odd church that supposedly had some really dark and strange sculptures. But due to my general lack of knowledge of the area and poor map reading skills we couldn’t find that church. We did find Università degli Studi di Milano where I took the following picture.

Castello Sforzesco
Our next stop is Castello Sforzesco. This was the castle for the Sforza. Leonardo da Vinci designed many of the armaments of this castle.

Castello Sforzesco 1

Castello Sforzesco 1

Castello Sforzesco 2

Castello Sforzesco 2

Castello Sforzesco 3

Castello Sforzesco 3

There was another living statue at the entrance to the castle. Although maybe this was someone associated with the museum to show period clothing.

living statue 2

living statue 2

At the far side of the castle was what I assume is the living quarters for whoever resided in the castle throughout time.

inside Castello Sforzesco

inside Castello Sforzesco

Cafe and crepe
Our next stop was going to be a botanical garden but we couldn’t find the entrance. Once again my failure in determining the correct path to the destination. So we were off to following location which was an art museum that housed all of the art that Napoleon had accrued during his expansions throughout Europe. As we walked there it was threatening to rain again. Also my compatriots were pleading that we stop and rest and get something to eat. So we stopped at a little cafe called El Beverin. I think it was supposed to be a German beer bar but everything on the menu seemed the same as other cafes that we had been in. Oh well. I wasn’t hungry but one of my friends ordered a crepe which I believe I had a bite of. Who can resist a crepe?
While we were inside the rain poured outside. So we were content on chilling indoors for a while longer. When the rain finally let up we paid our bill and headed on to the next destination.

Napoleon art collection
We made it to the art museum and walked around the courtyard taking photos. Here are some of the statues.

statue 1

statue 1

statue 2

statue 2

statue 3

statue 3

statue 4

statue 4

statue 5

statue 5

We found the entrance to the actual art museum portion but then we all decided that we could skip it.

Too tired to continue
As we exited the museum we discussed where we should head next. I was out voted and we decided to head back to the hotels. The quickest route seemed to be to go through the local park and on the far side split up and go to our respective hotels. We did this with minimal fuss and I think we were all wore out from a long day of walking around. We made plans to meet up for dinner after relaxing for a while.

R&R or Resting and Rain
Once I made it back to the hotel I completely flopped on the bed. As I rested the rain came again and this time it really poured down hard. I was so tired from the walking and all of the walking the night before. I tried to watch tv but there wasn’t anything on. I looked out the window on Milan in the rain but the bed kept calling me back.
The time passed. I got cleaned up and headed over to my friends’ hotel. Once again they wanted to try something other than Italian and I had recalled an Argentinian restaurant just a block or so away that we had passed by at some point. So off we went.

El Paso de los Toros
We arrived at the restaurant and to me it looked like the place was being overrun by a pirate party. Well OK there was one table with like 8-10 people dressed in pirate-like garb. The host led us to a table in the back room and sat us. I think he was our waiter too but my memory is failing me. Anyway, our waiter arrived and gave us “English” menus. We ordered drinks and one of my friends ordered a glass of red wine. Here again I may be getting the details a little wrong but the story still works. When the waiter returned with the drinks he had brought white wine for her. We attempted to explain that there was a problem and he left and when he returned he brought an opened bottle of white wine. At this point I had to break out my limited Spanish skills as apparently communicating in English wasn’t working and I hoped that in this Argentinian restaurant that this waiter would understand Spanish. He got the gist and in a huff he left and returned with a glass of red wine.
Other than the wine mix-up the food was good. I had a grilled steak, churrasco, as that is by far a Latin American delicacy especially when presented with chimichurri. Yum!

And of course more gelato
After dinner we decided that we would get some gelato. On the previous night’s excursions around Milan we had located a few different gelaterias and one in particular was very busy so we surmised that this must be the “good” one of the lot. So when making the decision it was clear which one we wanted to try and we made a beeline for it.
Again on this night it was busy and we waited in line which gave us some time to try to decipher the menu. It’s difficult enough that the ingredients are in Italian but there is also a whole other language associated to gelato flavors. Sort of like the crazy language spoken at Starbucks. Well, I decided on the “house” flavor which from what I could determine was just a mixture of the leftovers of other flavors. But it was good!
From there we decided that we should be turning in because we were all very tired and we had to get up early to get to the airport. We parted ways and I returned to my hotel.

Paranoia
When I entered the hotel I asked the front desk clerks how early I would have to leave to get to the airport in time for a 10:45am flight. They were adamant that I be at the airport no less than two hours beforehand. Therefore I would have to checkout and what not around 6-6:30. Ugh! I had a clerk call my friend’s hotel so that I could share the news that we would have to get up extra early the next day. Then off to bed.

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Italy trip – day 6

This is a continuation of Italy Trip series. Here are the previous posts for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, and Day 5.

Sleeping in
The is the first day since landing in Italy that we have been able to sleep in. For me this meant that instead of getting up at 7am (1am EST) I got up at about 9am. Ah, the small joys in life. I quickly got some breakfast before the hotel restaurant closed and I set out on the day.

Driving to Malpensa
The first order of business for the day was to deal with the rental car situation. This would require me to drive to the Malpensa Airport in order to return my rental car and get it swapped for another. This is about a 40 minute drive on a very fast highway which I didn’t want to traverse with a donut spare tire which aren’t rated for either high speeds or long distances. So I decided to take the non-highway route. I plugged in the airport as the destination into my GPS and told it not to take the highway. The trip took about 50 minutes and I got to see a lot more of the Italian countryside. The only frustrating part was when I cam up behind a dump-truck that was going about 10 kilometers per hour below the posted limit. I wasn’t in a hurry so I just enjoyed the drive.
When I arrived at the airport and the rental car return spot I had to go through the whole story again. Then I had to fill out some paper work and I was given another car. It was relatively painless and I was on my way within fifteen minutes. On the way back to the hotel I don’t think I even used my GPS until I got into Varese.
Once I got back to the hotel I packed my things and checked out. I left my luggage with the bellhop. One of my coworkers who was going to join me as a tourist today also checked out of his room and checked his luggage with the bellhop.

Trip to Sacro Monte
My coworker and I decided that we were going to check out Sacro Monte while our other coworkers were stuck at the office for the day. So after driving about an hour and a half I was prepping to drive some more to visit what is considered a very beautiful church in the area. My coworker and I hopped into my car and I punched in Sacro Monte into GPS. There was one entry so I selected it and off we went.

Do not trust the GPS
About 20 minutes into the trip we both knew something was wrong. The GPS said we were going in the right direction as we headed back towards the airport. I just figured that there must be a really indirect route to get to the destination. The GPS took us down another highway that cut back north west and we figured what the heck and the journey continued.

Sacro Monte di Varese Varallo

Sacro Monte di Varallo

Sacro Monte di Varallo

After about an hour of driving on highways and in very quaint little villages we started to climb a mountain outside of the town of Varallo. Following signs to “Sacro Monte” we finally made it to the entrance to the hallowed grounds. The basilica and the almost 50 chapels/shrines all contain sculptures and artwork some of which dates back to 1500. These grounds were used by pilgrims during the periods of the crusades when traveling through Turkey to get to Jerusalem would be too dangerous. We spent a bunch of time going from chapel to chapel on the way to the basilica. Besides a maintenance crew there was only one other small group of people.

Peter

Peter

Overlook of Varallo

Overlook of Varallo

Creepy soldier

Creepy soldier

Italian lizards

Italian lizards

Fancy ironwork

Fancy ironwork

One of the chapels

One of the chapels

Another picture of a chapel

Another picture of a chapel

A really big chapel

A really big chapel

We made it to the doors of the basilica but it looked like the church was locked up. I took some pictures of the doors (should have gotten more).

The basilica (from afar)

The basilica (from afar)

basilica door

basilica door

Basilica up close

Basilica up close

Door panel 1

Door panel 1

Door panel 2

Door panel 2

Door panel 3

Door panel 3

Door panel 4

Door panel 4

Door archway

Door archway

Then I went to push the front door open and just as I did a priest opened the door. It startled me a little bit. I asked him if it would be OK if we entered and took pictures. He said it was ok. We meandered around the pews and took pictures of the various alcoves and alters. It was very impressive.

After leaving the basilica I stopped at the gift shop and then we continued walking around looking at chapels. After having our fill we decided it was time to grab something to eat.

last supper

last supper

Pannini in Italy
At the entrance to the grounds was a small building that was part snack shop part tourist gift shop. We decided that we might as well get something there as we would have no idea where to go when we got down to the bottom of the mountain. There was an elderly Italian couple that managed the stand and it took them a bit to realize that we were sitting and waiting to be served (I’m not being pompous as they had no difficulty serving another family that showed up after us). I don’t think they were trying to be rude. I just don’t think they realized that we were wanting to get food. Finally the elderly man took our drink order, 2 agua frizzantes, but his partner decided to give those to the other family. Anyway, after some minutes I decided to attempt to order food and drink from inside the stand but he decided to have us sit and take our order. I saw on the menu a prosciutto pannini and quickly decided that is what I wanted. I guess my idea of a pannini and the true pannini are two different things. What arrived on the plate in front of me was some (not many) slices of prosciutto placed on a rather large roll. No cheese. Not grilled/pressed. Just sliced ham on bread. The bread was good although a touch dry and just not enough prosciutto. Now I know for the next time I’m in Italy.
After our late lunch we drove back to the hotel which took another hour or more. We got back to the hotel and very shortly afterward our other coworkers that had to go into the office arrived. It was almost perfect timing. After saying good bye to some of my coworkers I and two of my coworkers retrieved our luggage and piled everything into my car.

Driving to Milan
Then we were off to Milan. Again I was driving as we three headed into the big city. The highway was an easy drive with mild traffic even for a Friday evening. As we got closer to the city the traffic became denser but flowed smoothly. About a quarter of a mile from our destination, where my coworkers’ hotel was, the traffic was bad. We also had to stop at various intersections that really didn’t have a clear indication of who had the right of way. Let’s just say I got honked at a few times. The GPS deposited us directly in front of their hotel and they got out. We made plans to meet at my hotel in a couple of hours in order to get some food and maybe hit some night life.

Parking in Milan
After dropping them off I headed towards my hotel which was about a half mile away. But due to all of the one way streets and traffic it took me a bit to get there. Once I arrived at the entrance to my hotel there was no place to park out front. I saw a sign for city parking so I followed the signs and they kept leading me deeper into the local neighborhoods and away from my hotel. Once I actually found the underground parking structure I was pretty much done. I talked with the parking attendant and we agreed on 25 euros a night for two nights. Like I said I was done and didn’t care. I grabbed my stuff and the valet ticket and hoofed it back to the hotel. I did make sure to mark the parking garage in my GPS before going anywhere as I basically was lost.

The beautiful hotel, people, everything
I got back to the hotel, Sheraton Diana Majestic, rather quickly and entered the lobby that although was rather small was very beautiful. There were tons of very well dressed people walking in and out of the hotel. Many of them looked like models in designer clothing. There were also people checking in that looked like models in their comfort clothes, aka sweats and big sunglasses. I only chose this hotel because I had SPG points and it was in the middle of Milan. I am so glad that I chose this hotel.
I checked in and headed up to my room. The room was a bit small but I guess that is typical for European hotels. The bed was extremely comfortable and the bathroom was huge. Both rooms were decorated impressively and my window overlooked the garden.

View in Milan

View in Milan

Where are my friends and friendly Italians
So when we made plans I had mistakenly left it up to my friends as to when they wanted to show up. I had also mistakenly assumed that it would be rather soon after I dropped them off. I waited in my room for an hour or so. Watched some tv. Then I went downstairs and walked around the hotel a little bit. Then I started to get worried. I asked the concierge to call their hotel but they weren’t there. I went back up to my room thinking that they were on their way. Another 20 or so minutes later and they still hadn’t arrived so I headed back downstairs and sat in the waiting area that was just off of the lobby. This allowed me to view out through the windows to watch the people on the street while also watching the beautiful people walking through the lobby. I sat and read in my Milan guidebook and waited. I was really worried, and hungry, and I had no idea where my friends were.
Finally, after about another 5-10 minutes they showed up outside the hotel so I went out to greet them. Apparently they got a little lost on the way from their hotel. Oh well. We started to discuss where we wanted to eat. They had decided on their walk over that they didn’t want to eat Italian as we had plenty of that throughout the week. While we were talking I kept noticing that a really attractive woman was edging over towards us. She then blatantly interrupted our discussion in order to help us. Apparently she was somewhat familiar with the area and she helped us decide where to eat. In the middle of giving us directions to a local sushi restaurant her friends arrived, an attractive couple, and she greeted them with hugs and kisses as Italians are wont to do and then continued to help us. She was very nice and I probably should have asked her and her friends to join us. I guess I was just stunned.

Sushi and miso
The friendly Italian’s directions were ok and we were able to find the restaurant, Ristorante Shun, after a little hunting around some of the side streets off of the main drag, Buenos Aires. It was a Friday night and the place was packed. When we entered the host asked for our reservation. Since we didn’t have one he stated that it would probably be about 15 minutes before a table was open. We ended up getting a table in about five minutes.
We sat and the host took our drink orders and handed us English menus. And by English menus I mean they attempted to translate the items and got most of them. After a while our waitress arrived and didn’t speak any English. We were able to point to the items that we wanted and the order was placed. I realized that I wanted some miso soup so I tried to get a hold of the waitress. We couldn’t get her so I got the attention of another waiter and attempted to explain that I would like some miso soup. You must understand that all of the employees of this Japanese restaurant were of some sort of Asian descent. But no matter how I pronounced it or pantomimed a bowl I could not convey to this guy what I wanted. He ended up pulling over another person and final a third, the host and apparently the one most familiar with English, and I was able to get my soup. The soup was good and worth the hassle.
Our sushi arrived very quickly which is not what I expected based on my experiences in other sushi establishments. The sushi was really good even if we weren’t totally sure what was in some of the rolls. The “Mario Roll” was really good and was always followed up by a comment in the really bad Luigi imitation “Hey Mario!”. After we finished dinner, I had another interesting attempt at conveying to the waitress that I had added miso to the bill but I think they had already added it when I got my check. Anyway, we paid and left the establishment content with our bellies full of fish.

Ethnic Neighborhoods
We had to go back to my friends’ hotel because one of my friends wanted to freshen up and possibly change before going out again. Me and my other friend waited in the lobby as the third went up to her room. About ten minutes passed and we decided to call up to her room to see how much longer. We didn’t get an answer. Figuring that she was out of reach of the phone we gave her some more time. After about another five minutes we called again still got no answer. Now we were starting to get worried. I went up to knock on her door to see if all was alright and it became apparent that it wasn’t so I went back downstairs. My friend in the lobby and I decided that instead of waiting for some indeterminate amount of time that we would go for a walk and get some gelato. We left a message with the desk clerk and left the hotel.
As we walked from the hotel we noticed that almost all of local restaurants and bars were African of some sort. Quite a few were Ethiopian. There were always a small group of people outside of each establishment and it was interesting to me that there were ethnic neighborhoods in Italy. I had read that there were quite a few residents or transplants of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern descent but I guess it didn’t hit me until we were walking through these streets.
We found a gelato place on a corner and ordered some. It was good but not as good as the gelato from the previous night. I don’t recall what flavor I had so I guess it wasn’t memorable. Probably some sort of chocolate.
After finishing we decided to walk a while as it didn’t take that much time to find and consume the gelato. We walked back to Buenos Aires and walked a good five blocks in each direction.

Corso Buenos Aires

Corso Buenos Aires


To me it seemed a lot like one of the main thoroughfares in New York City such as Broadway but my friend, who grew up and lives near NYC, thought it was more like 5th Avenue or some other street known for shopping.
Anyway, we had figured that we should head back and check on our friend.

It’s raining men…
On our way back through the ethnic neighborhoods, this time we ventured into the Chinese area, we came to an intersection that seemed to be having a huge gathering. It was almost like a street party. As we got closer it seemed like there were a lot of men. In fact, out of the probably 200+ people in this intersection I think I saw only one woman. Apparently we found an Italian sausage party. We hurried past the throng and on to the hotel.

And the walking continues…
Once we reached my friends’ hotel we were notified by the desk clerk that my female friend had indeed come down looking for us so we called her room. She came down shortly afterward. Earlier in the day she had made plans with an Italian coworker to meet up at a Milanese bar that was close to our hotels. With a local map in hand and some shaky instructions from the hotel desk clerk we set out again (by the way it’s well after midnight at this point) in order to find this bar. We headed up a street that seemed to be the banking district. Had a short conversation with a lost American student just outside of the Central Transportation Station.

Stazione Centrale

Stazione Centrale


Then we took some smaller streets to get to the street where the “bar” was supposed to be. On a side note, we were attempting to contact our Italian coworker throughout the night to get any specifics/logistics about the meet up locations. We failed to make contact and therefore we were utterly in the wrong location. So many things converged to get us at the wrong location but we were done. We all decided that the night was done.

Too much walking
Using my better than average (I was going to say super or keen or amazing but then I would be lying) map reading skills I plotted us a faster course back to their hotel and off we went. As we were walking it seemed like we were going into maybe a not so great part of town and this was probably the reason the desk clerk gave us the directions that he did. There were literally red lights along one fence. Then we saw an amazingly beautiful woman in a very tight red dress and tall heels (with an collapsed umbrella) on the side of the road. We will never know if she was a lady of the night or just a model waiting for someone to take a picture. I should have volunteered to take a photo. We scurried along and the rest of the walk to their hotel was uneventful and actually rather quick compared to the walk that got us out in Timbuktu.
I split from my friends just short of their hotel and walked down another street. I saw the “block party” and continued to the next block. Eventually, I made it back to my hotel with aching feet and no desire to do anything but go to bed.

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Italy trip – day 5

This is a continuation of Italy Trip series. Here are the previous posts for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, and Day 4.

Finishing up with work
This was the final day of work in the office. We had a couple of short meetings and spent the rest of the day tying up loose ends. It was a real pleasure to work with the people in that office.

Getting my tire fixed
So as I noted on day 3 I had popped a tire and I needed to get it repaired. I was too busy with work to handle it on day 4 but since we were wrapping up the work for the week I had some time to deal with this situation. I also had access to a very helpful Italian coworker and I contacted the rental car agency to figure out how to solve this situation. My feeble attempt at describing the situation to the representative didn’t work so I handed my coworker the phone. He spoke Italian very quickly only saying my name one or two times so I’m pretty sure he wasn’t berating me. He hung up and let me know the results. Basically I had two choices. The first was to return the car to a local rental car agency shop and get a replacement car for the duration of the trip. The second option was to ride around on the spare tire until returning the car. As I was planning to possibly visit neighboring cities I really didn’t want to try my luck on a donut tire. So I choose the first option and in the late afternoon I found the closest rental car agency location, which was in Varese, and I took my car there. I talked with the agent, who was extremely helpful, and she explained that she couldn’t trade in my car because she didn’t have any automatics. But she told me that the mechanic where they get tire replacements was just a block away. She contacted them and gave me directions and I drove over to the tire shop.
The first thing that caught my attention was that the entrance to the shop was a single door wide enough for a single car and it was flush with the street. Luckily no one was attempting to leave when I pulled into the shop. The second amazing thing was that the interior of this shop was immaculate. One of the attendants directed me into a spot for my car. I popped the hatchback and pulled the tire out and he took it off to perform tests. I already knew it was a goner. The manager came out and between Italian, broken English, and some pantomime he was able to describe that it was dead and I would need a new tire. Then we proceeded to communicate about what to do. He informed me that the new car that I had had a new type of tire that he doesn’t carry yet and he wouldn’t have in stock for at least three days. This wouldn’t work for me as I was heading to Milan the following day. He called the agent that I had spoken to just before coming to the shop and repeated the same details. He then handed me the phone and she told me the same thing which was fine. She then told me that I could take it back to the airport as they would be able to swap out the cars. I agreed that that would be my choice and she set everything up for me to pick up a replacement in the morning. I thanked the manager for his help, packed the dead tire back into my car, and I headed back to the office (because I was some coworkers’ ride). Don’t you love an hour and half of chasing your tail with nothing to show for it?

Walking around Varese
I returned to the office just in time to finish a couple of small things up and then everyone was ready to leave for the day. I said goodbye to the people that I wouldn’t be seeing, packed up my laptop, and we headed out the door and back to the hotel. We all decided that we would do something easy this night and one of my coworkers that had been working in this town for many months suggested that we go to downtown Varese and have dinner. I suggested that we walk because it would be good for us and it wasn’t that far away and I didn’t want to risk driving my rental car any more than I had to. It was a beautiful walk and we all chatted and laughed as we walked about two kilometers (just over a mile). As we walked I started to see locations that had become landmarks as we had driven around town like restaurants that we ate at or intersections that we stopped at every day. I was starting to feel like I was getting accustomed to this town.

Pizza
As the four of us walked around town we were told, by my coworker, that there were two many pizzerias in the area. One had an extremely unique style of pizza that was like paper thin and the other was just regular pizza but was really good. We all chose the latter as we wanted the best experience that Italy had to offer. We passed by the paper thin pizza place and it was about half full but we continued on to the other place which was over full. Apparently if you wanted patio seating you had to have a reservation but we didn’t care where we sat as long as we got some tasty pizza. The inside of the restaurant was small and very packed. The only place for us to stand was in the walk way next to the cash register and coffee bar (almost all food related establishments have one of these). The waitresses buzzed by us continuously as we were always in the way. If this were the US it would have been a fire hazard. The good thing was that I saw a ton of different pizzas go by so I was starting to get an idea of what I wanted.
We had to wait about 10-15 minutes before being seated but that didn’t matter too much for us. We then had to wait about another 5-10 minutes before a waitress got our drinks and gave us menus. I thought I had a clue of what I wanted until I saw the menu. There must have been at least 50 different types of pizzas each with slightly different ingredients that weren’t (or poorly) translated into English. I ended up choosing a very delicious pizza with mozzarella, artichokes, mushrooms and ham.

mmmm pizza

mmmm pizza


The waitress was using a wireless device, like a Palm Pilot, to place the order as we told her. One of my coworkers was attempting to order beer to go with his meal and each beer he mentioned she would search in her device and respond that it was not available. It became comical. Finally he basically said you choose for me and she recommended one, checked it on her device, and left us. About a minute or two later she came back saying that that beer was also not available but she brought a substitute. It was funny but I guess you had to be there. That same coworker order a pizza with buffalo mozzarella which is basically a baseball sized ball of fresh mozzarella that is plopped onto a pizza. I tried some of it and the mozzarella was really good. My pizza was great. I’m going to have to see if some local pizzerias will add artichokes.

Gelato
After the pizza we walked around town a little bit longer but we were all wanting dessert. We made a beeline for a local gelato establishment to indulge our sweet tooth. I had a stracciatella gelato. My best estimate was that it was a standard cream with bits of chocolate. Yummy!

Stracciatella gelato

Stracciatella gelato


A couple of my coworkers got crepes with nutella and banana which I tried and was good. But not as good as the gelato. The ladies behind the counter were closing up so we got the hint and finished quickly and headed out the doors and back onto the streets. We hoofed it back to the hotel and went our separate ways as we were all very content with the food and exercise of the night.

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