Some kinda wonderful

Here’s a little flashback for fans of humorous Canadian music from the early 1990s:


Often on the weekend I’ll jump in my car
I won’t fill up the tank although I’m going far
And if somebody asks me if I’m going to a bar
I’ll say I’m shopping ‘cross the border in the USA

I don’t go down there to buy my groceries
I respect our farmers and our factories
I don’t believe that “local” means it’s poor in quality
It’s just our goddamn prices are too high

If he stays away for just two days
I’ll get one hundred dollars duty-free
If it adds to more I won’t claim it for
(He won’t declare the products if they’re in his trunk)

Although it is Canada that I call home
I don’t cheer for the Yankees when I’m in the Dome
I didn’t swell with pride during the Desert Storm
It’s just that I don’t want to pay the tax
(It’s just that he’s too cheap to pay the tax)

Yes, it’s just like this, he’s a loyalist
I’ll only shop at malls that fly our flag
(And he’ll tell Bob Rae that he just won’t pay)
Unless I need my unemployment benefits

(Get a job, get a job, get a job)

Now everyone is doing the same thing as me
They’re doing what they can to beat the GST
They’re lining up for miles at the Duty-Free
So I bought a JC Penny’s store in Buffalo
(So everybody come on down to Buffalo)

(Cause if you stay away for just two days)
You’ll get one hundred dollars duty-free
Though it’s not at par it’ll still go far
And it ends up in the pockets of a country man
(It ends up in the pockets of a country man)

Oh, Canada!
–The Arrogant Worms, “The Canadian Crisis Song”

We should, as a nation, celebrate today.

Live rates at 2007.05.30 23:38:16 UTC

1.00 CAD = 0.931553 USD

I drew out $200 USD from the ATM this afternoon and was shocked to discover the exchange rate was this favorable for Canadians. Like, truly, completely shocked. I knew it was good — I don’t live in a cave, after all– but “flabbergast” might be one way to put it when confronted with the receipt in your hand. K. and I worked it out on the way home from the bank: If you live in BC and are visiting Washington this weekend, for instance, you “premium” for buying and spending US dollars is essentially $1 for every $100 you spend. The sales tax difference between here and Washington almost, but not quite, cancels out the cost of changing money. Which is still a whole heap better than paying the friggin’ prices in this province/country. (He cackled, planning on buying cheap gas, booze, and cigars while away this weekend.)

Still, as a keen student of Canadian history, I can’t help but wonder how long it’s going to take before the politicians begin once again to freak out over the high value of the Canadian dollar again, how long it will take Canadians who live in border communities to begin buying basic things across the border again, and how long it will be before someone (most likely Carol Skelton) begins to mutter darkly about cutting down on the ol’ shop n’ smuggle. Again, as though that needed saying.

I’m also eagerly awaiting the first major media complaint about the high dollar affecting our export industry — you know, because a weak dollar actually helps by allowing us to slut away our natural resources more efficiently…

Update: Whoops, too late.

    “We’re devastated by their monetary policy, their tax policy and their terrible trade negotiations,” said Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, which organized the demonstration.

    While Georgetti’s words were met with cheers, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion was booed loudly when he addressed the workers, many of whom take issue with the Liberals’ opposition to anti-scab legislation.

    As protesters rallied outside, members of Parliament from all three opposition parties attacked the Conservative government in the House of Commons for not taking a more active role in saving jobs.

    “The fact is we’re losing 150 jobs in the manufacturing sector every single day,” Layton said, his voice rising as he pointed his finger at Conservatives in the House.

    “And yet we have no action on foreign takeovers, no action on the high dollar, no action on fair trade that would protect Canadian jobs … We’ve got no policy at all.”

Um. Yeah. “Protect Canadian jobs.” I guess that “lowest unemployment levels in 40 years” isn’t really protecting Canadian jobs, is it? (I’m hardly a friend of PC fiscal policy — I took a serious bath last fall on the income trust thing and am disinclined to give them the benefit of the doubt on this stuff — but let’s be real: We do not suck.)

20/20 Hindsight: Memories of Paris

I keep meaning to finish telling stories about Europe 2006 here, and I keep putting it off — probably because the last entry took so long, and because I’ve been kinda busy since then. So I’m going to change things up a bit here, and not be wedded to the concept of chronological storytelling, and instead talk about some stuff that I’ve been thinking about recently.

Lately, it’s been Paris on my mind.

(Narrative and 20 some-odd pictures and a movie follows…)

The reason? This:

Around a dozen Japanese tourists a year need psychological treatment after visiting Paris as the reality of unfriendly locals and scruffy streets clashes with their expectations, a newspaper reported on Sunday. …

“Fragile travelers can lose their bearings. When the idea they have of the country meets the reality of what they discover it can provoke a crisis,” psychologist Herve Benhamou told the paper.

The phenomenon, which the newspaper dubbed “Paris Syndrome”, was first detailed in the psychiatric journal Nervure in 2004.

Colby Cosh once said that London was a psychological second home to everyone who thinks in English, and while that is unquestionably true, it works the same way if we’re talking about Paris and thinking in French. I spent 17 years of my life learning French, became extremely fluent in it, and still am to a functional degree. Through all those years, steeping in French culture and the language, it was impossible to not concoct some mental image of what Paris is like. Even approaching the subject with an open mind, how can you not have expectations?

What’s really funny is that I don’t really remember the conclusion of the train ride that took us out of Arles and into Paris. I remember boarding the TGV in Arles and being mildly impressed with the duplex configuration (top and bottom). I remember whipping through the various towns on the way to Paris, passing something like four nuclear power plants in the process, and staring out the window. K., as we discovered, gets disturbingly ill on high-speed rail, so I also remember fretting about that. I do not remember the view from outside the train as we pulled into the Gare de Lyon, but I do remember navigating through the station to the Metro, buying our tickets for the subway and boarding Ligne 14 towards Saint-Lazare. I remember closing my eyes for a moment and feeling like I was in Montreal again… and then I realized that I wasn’t in Montreal, I was in Montreal’s bigger, older, more glamorous sister.

Ligne 8 took us from Madeleine to Ecole Militaire, where we ascended from the Metro into the afternoon light in Paris. It was at this point that we met our first (and only) dickhead in France, the guy who runs this place. The lobby itself is very nice, and I have no doubt that the vastly-more-expensive rooms are nice, too. Ours, however, was not: Peeling wallpaper. Threadbare carpet. A toilet with exposed innards (no, really). Not air conditioned. This wasn’t a deal-breaker, and wouldn’t be normally, but we were hot and tired and wanted some way to sleep at night. So we decided that it wasn’t an acceptable option. While K. scoured the neighborhood for other choices, I got into a protracted argument with the aforementioned dickhead. I explained that we found the room unsatisfactory, that there were several problems with it, and we were not interested in staying. Dickhead suggested that perhaps I was letting my wife drive the decision-making, and that if I didn’t really have problems, maybe I should stand up to her. Then he told me I was paying for the room one way or the other.

What I wanted to say was, “Go fuck yourself.” What I said was that I thought we had a disagreement and there wouldn’t be a useful way to resolve this, short of “we’ll take our money and be on our way.” I really wanted to swear at him in French, I really did — it was the first language I learned how to swear in, and, almost without fail, if I get really really angry, I end up muttering at myself in French. But the problem is that while I can do a couple of French dialects, what I really speak, and what I really know, is Quebecois French, and swearing in Quebecois French is very strange, and I don’t encourage it if you want to be taken seriously outside of Quebec. (Briefly, “c’est toute fucké” is perfectly OK with your mom; “mon hostie de Christ en ciboire” is strong enough that you might provoke a riot under some circumstances.) So I couldn’t exactly say, for instance, “va t’en faire bapteme” or something along those lines, because it wouldn’t work; he wouldn’t get it. So I set K. upon him, and in the end we escaped with a $100 bottle of Evian water — our “free” gift upon registration, and one night’s worth of lodging poorer, but only after threatening to call the cops.

Thank gods for the Hotel Prince around the corner on Avenue Bousquet. The proprietess took us in, gave us a nice room, and told us that the guy we’d dealt with was a notorious jerk. That made me feel better. (I managed to confuse her frequently by switching between French and English randomly throughout our dealings over the next few days.)

Before actually going to Paris, the thing that most influenced the way I think about Paris was Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. The “Amelie effect” loomed large in my mind, and I was a little disappointed, arriving in the middle of the afternoon, that I was greeted with a relatively flat, boring light that well-matched the heat of the day. Silly photographer! You should know afternoon light is never very nice. Paris did not disappoint me, in the end.



Eiffel Tower. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.


K. and I kissing underneath the Eiffel Tower. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.
(Note also the Vigipirate guys standing in the upper left.)


Eiffel Tower. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.

We ate our first Paris meal in the Champs de Mars, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. You’ve seen it a thousand times in pictures; you could probably draw a representative sketch of it if you had to. In person, it is truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen. I remember seeing the Tokyo Tower for the first time; it didn’t seem to be very impressive despite looming from the fog. The Eiffel Tower is different. Who knows why; it just is. We ate Chinese take-out in the Champs, unable to tear our eyes off of this giant metal thing.

The lineups were long but I was determined to be up in the tower for sunset, to see Paris by night for the first time from its finest vantage point. Paris did not disappoint me:



Looking east from the Eiffel Tower at dusk. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.


Arc de Triomphe, shortly after being lit. Paris, France. 3 July 2006.

All I could think of was U2’s “City of Blinding Lights.” Look, I know it’s about New York but who cares? (Later, I would be dismayed to see the song used in precisely this context in The Devil Wears Prada, but I was in Paris before I saw the movie, so I claim inspirational rights.) The history and the sense of place was almost overwhelming, far more so than in Venice. I had loved Venice, had hated the idea of leaving Venice; this was something completely different. It wasn’t some tourist destination whose glory days were behind it — this was the living, beating heart of a culture and a country, one of the world’s great cities of history and of the present. How can you not fall in love with a place like that? At the top of the Eiffel Tower, watching the sun set on the city that looms so large in the minds of so many, how can you not love that on some level?

Some things in Paris can be familiar even if you’ve never seen them before:



Rue Cler. Paris, France. 4 July 2006.


Galeries Lafayette. Paris, France. 4 July 2006.


Napoleon’s Tomb. Paris, France. 4 July 2006.

We blasted through Versailles and the Louvre in the space of a single day. Up early, out of the hotel, a quick stop at the neighborhood bakery for croissants and quiche, then the RER C line to Versailles and a six-hour romp through the palace grounds. Back into town, a shower, a snack, and a late evening at the Louvre. It’s open late on Wednesdays. I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer size of both places — at the opulence of the palace, of the historical significance of the museum. (Sofia doesn’t really do Versailles justice in Marie Antoinette, though it is interesting to be in many of the same rooms.) K. and I were both pretty thoroughly museumed out by the time we made it to the Louvre, so we headed straight for the Italian wing.

Watching tourists in the Louvre can be quite funny. They all want to see La Gioconda, so they race like crazy past four other Leonardo paintings, all of them less famous than the mysterious woman. We had a Leonardo exhibit in Victoria a few years back and they brought a replica of La Gioconda to town, and I have to say that the real one is a little underwhelming. It’s tough to admire the painting; it was in temporary quarters when we were there, and behind its bulletproof glass and its layers of security personnel, and surrounded by people, it’s tough to give it the reflection that you think it deserves. Creepily, her eyes do follow you around the room, but that’s about the end of it for me. I much preferred The Virgin and Child with St. Anne if I had to pick a Leonardo painting.

Still, some fun things exist in the Louvre, including the non-Gummi Venus di Milo, and an homage to ancient Greek baseball:



Hercules Killing the Hydra. Louvre, Paris. 5 July 2006.

And there are some truly infuriating things, too:



Grrrr! Louvre, Paris. 5 July 2006.

That night, we walked through the Tuileries towards Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Elysses. We’d planned to stroll up the Champs and find dinner, but we were distracted by some strange happenings:



Paris Civil Protection units on Place de la Concorde. 5 July 2006.

Oh, yes, that’s right — it was Match Night. France was playing Portugal in the World Cup, and, if they won, they’d be heading to the finals. We found a small bar/cafe a few blocks up from the Champs and ate dinner while France held its breath.



Pandemonium ensues. The Champs-Elysses explodes with people celebrating.



Champs-Elysses, Paris, France. 5 July 2006.

The mood was ebullient. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. We walked down to the Seine and back towards the Pont de l’Alma, the bridge leading back to l’Avenue Bousquet and our beds. I was grabbed by ecstatic strangers and hugged; I had nonsensical shouting episodes with random football fans overcome by joy at this semi-final win. About six blocks from the Champs, I was approached by a young man in a leather jacket.

“Il y’a du monde sur le Champs?”
“Il y’a tout le monde sur le Champs!”
“Awesome.”



This is what I remember about Paris: A city that more than lived up to my expectations. A city that was suddenly simple to be in. A city like no other, and yet like all others; a place I’d never been before that was already familiar to me by the time I arrived. (London was like this, too.) A place to fall in love, and to fall in love with. It was, quite possibly, the highlight of the trip for me.

Weeks later, I was in Dublin, riding the bus from the airport into the center of town. K. and I were sharing the top deck of the bus with a pair of American girls from Washington, DC, who were talking about future destinations. They were idly trashing Paris and France, despite never having been there. One said she didn’t really understand why she’d ever want to go to Paris, given that it was so expensive and people were so rude — why, she could just go to New York if she wanted to put up with that, and New York had better shopping besides. I could have slugged her — both for the unfounded slur and the horribly incorrect perception. And then I relaxed. Paris has been slighted many times before, by people better than her, and if she can convince other idiots that it’s an expensive, rude place to be, so much the better.

Now, to be fair, I’m absolutely certain I had a much easier time of it in Paris, and in France generally, because I speak fluent French. I suspect that my opinion of the place would have been much different had I only spoken English; that’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. And yet, at the same time, I run into Anglophones all the time who went to Paris without speaking a word of French (my mom, for one), and who went on to have perfectly great times without any rude encounters, which makes me think that it’s an attitudinal thing. As it stands, I got one rude encounter with a guy who was basically a jerk to everyone, and that was it for obnoxious French stereotypes.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming of Paris more and more. When I drift off at night, more often than not, I’m dreaming of somewhere different — the Big Island, Turkey, Wales, Italy, Japan. But I keep coming back to Paris, wanting to revisit the warm glow the city left in my mind. It takes a special place to do that.

Okay, what the heck happened?

I was gone for ten days. I went from this:



Science World, Vancouver, BC. 10 January, 2007.

To this:



Kahalu’u-Keauhou, HI. 18 January, 2007.

And back again. And on my return, I discover:

  • there are giant potholes in virtually every street in Victoria, including some large enough to swallow a tire on my Acura,
  • that the Chinese smacked a satellite in sun-synchronous orbit,
  • that Stephane Dion said something excruciatingly dumb,
  • that it is, in fact, still cold here,
  • that work is still, in fact, fucked up,
  • that I’m looking hard for reasons why I don’t just chuck it all, move to Kona, and become a SCUBA instructor.

And then I realize the answer to the last question is probably something along the lines of, “Because you’re not legally entitled to work in the United States, doofus.” (Spare the comments about illegal immigrants, ok?) And the answers to the others.. well, they’re not really questions, so they don’t need answers. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that I want to be back on the beach, where everything seemed simpler and less irritating.

Random Europe photo #1

Below the cut because it was screwing up my formatting…



Banks of the Rhone. Arles, France.

I really promise I’ll get around to (a) finished the Europe stories and (b) putting pictures from Europe and Japan on-line Real Soon Now. Of course, I’ve been promising that for a couple of years now, so…

Oooh! I wanna play too!

Meme time! “List the towns or cities where you spent at least a night away from home during 2006. Mark with a star if you had multiple non-consecutive stays.” This ought to be interesting.

* Coquitlam, BC
* Vancouver, BC
Phoenix, AZ
Seattle, WA
Edmonton, AB
* Calgary, AB
Toronto, ON
* London, United Kingdom
Istanbul, Turkey
Vienna, Austria
Salzburg, more or less, Austria (not by choice)
Venice, Italy
Rome, Italy
Riomaggiore, Italy
Arles, France
Paris, France
Swansea, Wales
Dublin, Ireland

A good year for travel, overall. Better than 2004. Way better than 2005 (aka “the year of living dangerously”). It’s funny because I went through Google Earth last night and marked every place on the planet I’ve been to. I’m a fairly well-traveled guy, but the exercise made me sort of depressed. “Maaaan! I’ve got all kinds of ground to cover!” Round-the-world ticket, here I come! (Thanks, FlyerTalk punks, for putting that idea in my head. Jerks.)

Great Marcellus Wallace moments in travel

The luau is the image most people have when they think about a great Hawaiian party. Me, not so much — I’ve done the luau thing, and I think I’d rather go find some local people, drink some beer, eat some poke, and party hearty in their backyard (while dodging the coconuts falling from above — true story). That having been said, there’s something weirdly fun about settling down for a night of more or less unrestricted heavy drinking while eating food that includes a pig that spent most of the day underground. And the luau is more or less a mandatory experience for anyone visiting Hawaii for the first time.

So I went looking into a couple of different options for luau on the Kona coast, and there are sever–yikes! $82.90?! Jesus.

A conspiracy theorist might argue there is collusion.
An economist may argue that there simply isn’t enough competition.
A politician may think that this needs to be regulated.
An entrepreneur may see an opportunity (“Uncle Donny’s Diz-Count Luau and Oil Change”).

Morbo’s good friend Dr. Hazmat, meanwhile, will probably shut up and pay. Then party hearty. I better get damn good and drunk.

This must be some new concept of manliness

From a list of nerdy gift ideas:

Garmin Street Pilot C340
(Real men use real he-man navigational systems)
$440
Available from Amazon

To hell with that. Real men use sextants.

I used to get into this argument a lot with people — sailors and pilots, mostly — who seemed to think that traditional navigation methods, like maps and compasses and dead reckoning, were obsolete in the world of the Global Positioning System. My argument was always that while GPS might be nice, in theory, it is still a technology that may fail, and, the way most human luck runs, it probably will fail at precisely the moment when you need it to work.

The news that the United States Naval Academy stopped teaching celestial navigation a few years back nearly brought tears to my eyes. There’s something elemental about celestial fixes that is good for the soul — yeah, ok, the DGPS was more accurate than I ever was with a sextant, but in the middle of the Pacific, what difference does a nautical mile make? I always felt like I was communing with the intellectual spirits of generations of mariners. Granted, I have a romantic streak in me about a mile wide, but still, there are practical reasons why these skills are important. It worked for Columbus; it can work for you, too.

(Also, I have absolutely no patience for people who use in-car GPS navigation. Jesus, get a frakking map! Learn how to read it! The damn GPS doesn’t know anything about local road conditions anyway, which is why your brain is an infinitely more useful tool than a $440 GPS unit.)

Waterfront property at low tide

Now with ultra-cool updates at the bottom!

So I managed to set off the explosives detector at CYEG this afternoon on my way home. It was, to say the least, a humiliating experience, enhanced only by the frustration that I was late for my flight. Why my bag was randomly chosen to be explosive-residue-tested is a bit of a mystery; my laptop, the usual suspect for this kind of thing, wasn’t in there at all, and when they swabbed the bag I didn’t think anything of it. I mean, I use a totally different bag to carry my Semtex around.

Apparently, though, when the explosive detector is activated, you get to get super-duper screened. Which involves a physical search of everything you’re bringing with you. And a physical search of yourself, which is sufficiently thorough that I think someone owes me breakfast. And, as with everything involving the government, there’s paperwork to fill out. Name. Address. Birthday. Occupation. It goes on and on. I asked what was going to happen to the form. “Oh, nothing,” the guy said a little too nonchalantly for my tastes. Yeah, right. And if you believe that one…

So I totally won’t be shocked that I’m now tagged and will get nailed every time I go to get on a flight from hereon in.

The punch line is that my bag tested positive for nitroglycerine residue. Which is, in hindsight, totally not unexpected, since it has been home to several bottles of nitro spray that at one point or another have found their way into my pockets and then into my bag. (Don’t look at me like that — I’m not stealing the damn drug. It’s just that it’s frequently easier to shove them in a pants pocket rather than keep fishing for one at the bedside or whatever, and besides, we’ve now gone to single-patient use sprays so that once you use one on one patient, it’s fininshed.) Whether one discharged, or leaked, or whatevered in my bag, it somehow got NTG molecules all over the place, and that’s what the detector picked up. The guy said this happens all the time but I’m not so sure, and in any event I’m not even remotely certain how I could go about getting the NTG residue off my bag so this doesn’t happen in the future. NTG spray has a pretty distinctive smell. All I can smell in my bag is consumer electronics, so it must have been some minute amount somewhere.

The worst part of it all is that I can’t even make snide jokes about the total uselessness of the air travel security theatre, since spotting passengers with explosives is, uh, kind of what you want the security theatre to be doing. Must.. find.. useless government joke.. in here.. somewhere..

Some time after I posted this, Bruce Schneier happened upon it and posted an excerpt on his blahg. There were a few things that came up in the comments to his post that I wanted to address, so I’ve re-posted my own follow-up here.

First of all, please understand that my post was not intended as a commentary on air travel security. I have a personal habit of having horrible things happen to me when I travel, and posted the story to my LiveJournal mostly as a means to amuse my friends; the tone of voice behind the story is one of weary resignation, not frustration or anger. (Though I’ll note that had I known Bruce would repost it here, I might have been more eloquent and thoughtful.)

Second, as mpd and the anonymous poster above me have noted, this was not a false positive result. The detector correctly detected (and identified) the nitroglycerine residue on my bag, and it functioned exactly as expected. The screening personnel also functioned exactly as expected: They investigated the source of the alarm, asked me reasonable questions to determine why the alarm condition occurred, and, having been satisfied that I did not represent a threat to air safety, allowed me to board my flight. The alarm condition was thus valid (I had nitroglycerine molecules on me), but irrelevant to the overall goal of preserving the safety of the flying public (I’m not a terrorist, so who cares if I have nitroglycerine residue on me?).

Third, keep in mind this was at a Canadian airport. CATSA isn’t a whole lot better than the TSA, but it is marginally less stupid, and the margin seems to make a difference.

The anonymous poster’s comments regarding medical diagnostics are particularly astute and I think the comparisons are very valid: If you spot a suspicious lump on ultrasound, you naturally biopsy it. When the biopsy comes back benign, we don’t turn around and say the ultrasound was a waste of time — we say that the diagnostic process worked more or less as expected.

For a variety of reasons, though, it feels as though there was some kind of failure here, although it’s difficult to figure out exactly where the failure occurred and what should have been done differently. It’s tough to argue that we shouldn’t be checking for explosives, it’s tough to argue that we shouldn’t additionally screen people found to have explosive residues on their personal effects, and it’s tough to say that we shouldn’t document instances where residues were found but posed no threat. It may be that we need to take situations like this in stride and recognize that they will happen, and design the system in such a way that these situations do not escalate into something bigger than they need to be. Viewed in that light, I think The System worked fairly well overall (though I would have preferred that it worked on someone else).

My biggest concern about the whole incident is what happens to the report that was filed as a result of the positive explosives test; not being one to have much faith in the government, I’m not at all convinced that “nothing” is going to happen to the document. Insofar as there are other risks here, I think the biggest one is the personal shock that may come from being suddenly yanked out of line and subjected to a more intensive screening process.

As to some specific comments…

Thomas: “The question is whether or not this system the best we can do for the cost (money/convenience/liberty).” I agree. After having had about a week to think about it, I’ve come to the tough-to-swallow conclusion that it is the best we can do for the relative costs. The whole thing seems excessive but on further reflection, as I said, it’s tough to argue against any one aspect of it. It pains my libertarian soul to say this, but this may be about as good as we’re going to get.

One final risk comes to mind: Because this event was related to airport security, and because we’re used to thinking of airport security as being mostly useless, we run the risk of writing off those procedures which actually do result in a net increase in safety to the traveling public.

11 hours of travel for 40 hours of bliss, part I

(The first in a series of tales relating to what I did on my European vacation after I stopped having reliable and/or cheap Internet access. Today’s adventures: Getting to Provence.)

We left our hideaway in Riomaggiore at 09:00 intent on catching a 09:50 train to La Spiezia. From there we would head to Genova, where we’d change trains and go to Nice, change trains again, and go to Avignon, where we’d get on a bus and go to Arles. Staring a very full day of travel in the face, it was with some consternation that Trenitalia chose that moment to announce our train would be delayed by 40 minutes. I looked at my watch, looked at the timetable posted next to the tracks, looked at our onward reservations. It was going to be close.

In true Italian style, 40 minutes became 50. 50 became 60. An hour became 1:15. I couldn’t fathom what the problem was, but by the time the train was announced as being 1:15 late I’d already formulated a plan. Our original trip from La Spiezia to Genova actually involved backtracking. Why not catch the train direct from Riomaggiore to Genova and get there ahead of the originally scheduled time? Works for me. Problem: Genova has two train stations. The train from Riomaggiore arrived at Genova Brignole. The train to Nice left from Genova Principe. The one Trenitalia guy I managed to pin down mumbled something about it being not-so-complex to get from Brignole to Principe and, in hindsight, he was right. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, and I resolved to deal with the problem once we got to Genova rather than worry about it en route.

It’s a good thing, too, because the milk run train between La Spiezia and Genova gave me a lot of time to worry. Stopping at more or less every town on the route, I saw a lot more of the Italian countryside than I would have had we roared through on an express. Crammed into second class seats, I got a better sense of what travel in Italy is like for Italians — I didn’t, for a moment, think my first-class Eurostar Italia seats from Venice were representative. We chugged along the coastline, saw a lot of vineyards, a lot of farmland, and a few interesting towns that might be worth coming back to if the gorgeous beaches we saw were any indication. (Deserted at 10:30 in the morning on what would become a scorchingly hot day — who’d’ve thought?)

Arriving in Genova we hoisted our packs and made our way through the warrens of Brignole. I queued at the information office to get directions to Principe and was told to hop on a train at another platform. You know me, though — I’m not one to do something easy if I can do something hard, and, after consulting the schedule posted in the lobby, wasn’t fully convinced the Trenitalia guy had told me the right track number or the right train. It might well be one stop up the line (it was), but I’ve got all kinds of plans here, and I’d rather not see them screwed up by a language barrier. Anywhere but Italy I wouldn’t have cared. But transport in Italy had proven to be a very hit-or-miss affair, and I wasn’t terribly interested in pressing my luck.

So K. and I took a taxi across town. Brignole is out on the edge; Principe is closer to the old part of the city. I won’t pretend I saw anything interesting or terribly informative but it was nice to turn what would have otherwise been a layover stop into a short sightseeing adventure. Once at Principe we tried to get some lunch or at least provisions for the train, an effort that would end in failure. I queued at one of the cafes for a sandwich and was bumped by an older Italian who seemed to think I was standing with cash in my hand for the sheer fun of standing in lines, and got irate when I had the temerity to suggest that maybe it was my turn. I shrugged — it was something I’d gotten used to in Italy and I knew it wasn’t worth arguing further about.

Eventually our train to Nice pulled up to the platform. Although we had a first class railpass (mandatory) K. and I didn’t seem to get really good use out of it: We’d been shoved into second class on the trip to Venice, managed first class seats to Rome, and got first class seats into the Cinque Terre (but were surprised by the austerity of the accomodations). On the way to Nice we were to be stuck in second class too, owing to a lack of first class space, and I’m starting to see the wisdom of reserving trains well in advance because it prevents you from coming into contact with the kinds of people who have second class railpasses.

Before I get into that, a word about taking European trains. Kids, listen up. Do not carry big, hard-sided suitcases. Especially do not carry big hard-sided suitcases that are wider than the aisle of the train. It doesn’t work. Bad things happen. People behind you get cranky. Small children get trapped. Also, if you’re on the train, move your luggage out of the corridor and for god’s sake don’t sit on the little fold-out seats in the corridor when people are trying to get on! I ended up having to lift several bags over an intransigent fellow (no, not the same one) who absolutely refused to budge from his fold-down seat until we accidentally smacked him in the head with a small, soft-sided bag. I squeezed my way through the crush of humanity and found our assigned seats, then threw our bags up onto the overhead luggage racks.

All right, I thought. Maybe we’ll have the compartment to ourselves. Hah. Dream on. Two girls whose suitcases I had lifted soon joined us, followed by two guys of around the same age. And herein is the thing about second class railpass holders:

They’re kids.

Specifically, they’re non-European kids. More specifically, they’re American kids, either college students or kids fresh out of college. And so I spent six hours on the way to Nice in a compartment on a train with two sorority girls and two frat boys who were intent on doing everything they could to confirm every stereotype you ever had about southern California frat kids.

This gave rise to several funny comments:

  • They complained about the inability to get a “good” breakfast in Italy. This struck me as odd; I’d had perfectly fine breakfasts for the entire time I’d been there. Then I realized they were talking about American breakfasts and the grease content they wanted. I didn’t understand why that was important until…
  • … they began recounting their myriad drinking adventures. I guess the modern thing to do if you’re a college student is to come to Europe and drink your way across the continent — a kind of EU version of Spirit of the West’s “Home For A Rest,” as narrated by people not nearly as charming as John Mann. I don’t understand this. I’m not much of a drinker anymore, and I certainly drank more on this trip than I have in recent months (or years, for that matter), but I’d think you’d come to Europe to, you know, see Europe — not Europe’s bars. But I’m weird that way.
  • One of the girls then began to complain about — yeah, get this — Italy’s (I can barely type the words) lousy food. “All I’ve had since I’ve been here is pizza and pasta!” she moaned. “It’s soooo boring!” I wanted to reach over and smack her. She was craving burgers and eggs and fries. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Later she mentioned she’d spent something like a month in Tuscany and I became even more disbelieving — how on earth can you spend a month in Tuscany and eat nothing but pizza and pasta? Are you trying to be an idiot? Are you working overtime at not finding other food? Other than the foccacia bread in Riomaggiore I don’t think I ate the same thing twice my entire time in Italy, and I’m including the time I made pasta twice in Rome. How can you complain about lousy food in Italy? The mind boggles.
  • K. then asked the kids about the Greek system. I played along under the guise that I was a stupid Canadian with no knowledge of fraternities and sororities. The kids started talking about the advantages of joining one, about how it had never occurred to them to not join one, blah blah blah, and then they got kind of defensive about it. “It’s not elitist,” one of them said. “It just lets you pick your friends. We have to let you in to the sorority, and if my friends don’t want to hang out with you, I probably don’t want to hang out with you, either.” (I paraphrase, but K. will back me up that this is a reasonably accurate transcription of the conversation.) There was a pregnant pause while the kid considered what she’d just said. “Well, I guess it could be kind of elitist.” K. shot me a smug look. I rolled my eyes, plugged my headphones in, and buried my face in A Brief History of Nearly Everything.

All in all, it was a sensorily taxing trip. The kids wouldn’t shut up about anything. I heard about “donor” stands (I swear, this is how they pronounced it) in Prague and stupid hostel stunts. I learned about the different kinds of clubs in various parts of Europe. Every few minutes one of them would point out the window and ask whether we were in France yet. (We weren’t.) This got really trying after about the third attempt:

Them: “We’re in France now, see? Pizze! That’s not Italian!”
Me: “We’re still in Italy.”
Them: “How do you know?”
Me: “Pizze is the plural of pizza.”

I had no idea whether this was true, and still don’t, but I’m betting they didn’t, either. What I was really going on was the fact there was a big sign on the rail right-of-way that said “Ferrovie dello Stato.” I didn’t tell them that.

Somewhere along the line we spent an inordinate amount of time in Ventimiglia. (“Are we in France now?” “NO.” “How do you know?” ““Ventimiglia” isn’t a French word.” “How do you know?” “Um.. I speak French?” “[blank stare]”) What we were doing there, I couldn’t tell you. But the air conditioning powered off (this was a common theme during the trip, actually) and we didn’t go anywhere, so we sat and baked in the train yard. I’m guessing we were waiting for an engine or something, but maybe it was the Trenitalia mandated delay so that everyone could miss any connections they had in Nice. The announcements didn’t explain much, though for a change they were in a language I could actually understand rather than just guess at. (The fact that they were in French did not do much to help me convince my travelmates that we were not, in fact, in France.)

Eventually we started moving again, and the kids turned to talk about their future travel plans. They discussed night trains. K. and I sighed, thinking about our Austrian adventure. “I heard,” one of the girls said, “that there are gassings in Eastern Europe so they can rob you.” Her friend nodded sagely. “We met someone who had it happen to them.” The guys nodded too. “Yup.” I couldn’t bring myself to argue, but maybe I should have.

This is one of those urban legends that seems kind of scary and a little too precise but falls apart when you think about it rationally. And maybe the reason it falls apart for me is because of what I do — I don’t know. But let’s break this down for a minute. The legend says that in some parts of Europe, sleeper trains are gassed with some kind of knock-out agent so that occupants can be robbed with greater ease. Inevitably there’s advice offered, like making sure your window stays open, to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

There’s one problem with this legend: There ain’t no such thing as knockout gas. Oh, sure, there are inhaled anesthetics — simple things like diethyl ether, and complex things like sevoflurane or desflurane — and the Russians seem to have used some kind of aerosolized fentanyl derivative during the Moscow theatre hostage crisis to knock the terrorists out. But here’s the thing about those gases: They’re all heavier than air. It’s impossible to get a constant concentration across an entire compartment, vertically, without pressurizing the thing. And here’s the other thing about anesthetic agents or high-dose narcotics — they all cause respiratory depression. (Ether also has the benefit of igniting, as I’m sure you all know.) Roughly 120 people died of respiratory depression during the hostage rescue in Moscow, and that was with people who presumably knew what they were doing.

So in order for the legend to hold up, we have to have criminals with an agent that’s great at knocking people out at low doses, does not cause respiratory depression or airway compromise, mixes equally with air, isn’t flammable, and is easily transportable. (Most inhalational anesthetics need to be vaporized by heating before you can inhale them.) With me so far? I would submit that, if such an agent did exist, the robbery teams would get richer selling it to Sandoz, Merck, or Hoffman-La Roche than they would robbing people, because it would be the world’s greatest anesthetic agent and anesthetists everywhere would be lining up to use it.

The legend is bunk from its very premise but it took me an embarassingly long time to realize that. Once I did I started thinking about how it was that people might believe it was true, and it dawned on me that it’s just not that hard to rob a person who’s asleep.

Anyway, after disgorging the girls in Monaco, we made it to Nice. Late. Duh. It was oppressively hot. (Shocking, I know.) K. and I had toyed with the idea of staying in Nice if we would get to Arles too late, but she decided on the ride in that perhaps we weren’t physically attractive enough to spend the night on the French Riviera. We made our way to the (air conditioned!) SNCF office where I made arrangements for us to take another regional train to Arles; we’d get in around 21:45, and that seemed OK.

The first class accomodations on the SNCF train to Arles were — how to put this — heavenly. We had a six-person compartment to ourselves. The air conditioning, while not nuclear powered, was excellent. We could stretch out, relax, put our feet up, read.. well, maybe not read, because the lighting in the car was sporadic and we seemed to go through a lot of tunnels. I never understood how it came to pass that the A/C would stay on, but the compartment lights wouldn’t. Eventually, after a nearly four hour trip through the Bouches-du-Rhone (including a trip past the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion), we arrived in Arles as the sun was going down.

Now, bear in mind that I had made our reservations in Arles over the net. Normally this isn’t a problem, but I’d used a consolidation Web site and booked at a hotel I couldn’t actually find in Google. I had directions, but they were vague. I had planned on taking a taxi from the station to the hotel, but couldn’t find one around the station. A phone number was displayed, but I had no phone card, and payphones in France apparently don’t take coins anymore. The bar down the street tried their best to help, but couldn’t find any taxis anywhere. “It’s match night,” the guy said to me, and I realized that in fact it was match night — France was playing Brazil, and everybody was watching. So, having found no taxis, and no buses, and having convinced myself the best way to get to the hotel was to follow the Rhone until I came to the Trinquetaille bridge, cross it, and then find the Rue Noguier, K. and I set out amongst the bugs along the stinky banks of the Rhone.

Along the way we passed through Arles’ deserted streets — everyone was inside. I stopped, briefly, at what I was pretty sure was the place where Van Gogh painted “Starry Night,” but wouldn’t commit to saying so. Eventually, after what turned out to be an easy fifteen minute walk (even with the packs), we walked up to the front door of the Hotel Porte de Camargue, where we met Patricia who was startled at our appearance.

“Who are you?” she wanted to know. I told her. She got a panicked look on her face. “But I thought you already came!” It turned out that there was another Asian guy staying at the hotel that night, and he’d come late as well, and she’d never bothered to ask him for identification.. oh, hilarity ensued. We had a good laugh over the whole thing. K., meanwhile, was standing in the corner agog — although she’d known for some time that I spoke fluent French, she’d never actually seen me do it, seen me make jokes, and so the disconnect was highly, uh, disconnecting.

The hotel, by the way, is fabulous. It’s this tiny place on the other side of the river from all the tourist stuff, and that means it’s incredibly quiet. Yes, it’s a ten minute walk to the major sights, but who cares? It’s well-appointed, and the rooms are air conditioned, and it’s reasonably cheap. We cranked on the A/C and fell almost instantly asleep.

My last conscious thought was, “I’m glad to be in France.” And I was.

Journal spackling

Obviously I’m home now. And obviously there were some, uh, gaps in the journal the past few weeks. That’s because once we left the Cinque Terre, my ability to find an Internet connection — and my ability to find time to do stuff with that connection — began to follow a decay curve that was only really arrested when I got to Dublin and discovered my hostel had free (free!) Internet access. Of course, I was only in Dublin for 35 hours, so..

Anyway, the upshot of this is that I’ll be posting some anecdotes about Provence, Paris, London, Wales and Dublin over the next couple of days. You might even get pictures, depending on how motivated I become!

Speaking of Dublin, I had a very weird experience about 15 minutes ago. While waiting for my soup to warm up I was watching the communal television here at Our Lady of Perpetual Profit, and I came across a Rick Steves episode on KCTS. I find the goober kind of irritating in the way I find earnest people typically irritating, but I stopped because the background looked familiar. Sure enough, there he was, wandering down O’Connell street, babbling about Kilmainham Gaol, and drinking Guinness in the Gravity Bar. And I thought to myself, “Man, this guy is still irritating.” Then I thought, “Hey, wait a minute. I’ve been there.

It’s a weird sensation. Flying home yesterday there was a moment when I looked at the moving map display (best. aviation. passenger. invention. ever.) and saw Rome, London, Madrid, Paris, and Algeris all identified. And suddenly these places aren’t just points on a map — they’re places I’ve known and, in some cases, loved quite dearly. It’s not a new sensation, because I get that feeling when I see stuff from places I’ve been in Japan — one of the backpackers magazines in Dublin had a guy posing in the gardens around the Imperial Palace in a spot that’s almost exactly identical to a picture I took two years ago — but it was much stronger, and I don’t know what to make of that.

Maybe it just means I need to travel more so the whole world can feel that way. It’s pretty cool.