A Travellerspoint blog

The Rick Steves Affair (4)

"There is no elevator to success, you have to take the stairs." ~ Zig Ziglar

Forty feet high, two miles long, the ivied tuff Leonine Wall, commissioned by Pope Leo IV in the ninth century to keep out the pillaging Saracen pirates, formed an imposing barrier around Vatican City. Even more imposing, however, was the parade of people, seemingly of comparable length, wrapped around its base as we walked by.

“Is there a big sale on or something?” asked Dad, staring at the spectacle.
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “They don’t look like people who about to get the new iPhone.”

Instead, under the bright interrogation lamp of the Roman sun, the long cortege of miserable, despondent figures resembled inmates on the road to perdition.

“Actually this line for museum,” said Mom.
“Which museum?” we replied in alarmed unison.

Please don’t say Vatican. Please don’t say Vatican.

“The Vatican Museum.”

Oh god.

“How long is the wait, do you know?” said Dad, gulping nervously.
“Two, maybe three hours.”

I could feel hot tears welling up like a spring; this vacation was just becoming too much.

“Sh-should we m-maybe come ba-back another day?” asked Dad trepidatiously. “When the line’s a little sh-shorter?”
“Yes, Mom, I don’t think I can—”
“Look at you two, already trying to chicken running?” Mom sneered. “Did I say we need to waiting with them?”

Instead, Mom charged brazenly ahead towards the start of the queue, impervious to the storm of daggers thrown her way.

“What are you doing?” said Dad, rushing after her. “We can’t cut in line.”
“Yes, Mom, these people will not hesitate to kill if we try—”

Ignoring our protests, Mom did not stop until we reached the museum entrance where she pointed triumphantly at a separated entryway marked Visitors with Reservations.

“Now you see why I spending so much time with Rick?” said Mom, her voice oozing with smugness. “I studying him like ma yi ken gu tou, ant eating bone, reading every word because all the ghosts in the details.”
“Yes Mother, if there was ever a Rick Steves SAT, you’ll no doubt score top marks. Though you might lose a point for improper usage of the idiom. It’s thedevil that’s in the details, not ghosts.”

Mom: DEATH GLARE.

“I kinda feel bad for the people in the other line,” said Dad sympathetically. “Especially in this heat.”
“Yes, they will roasting into crispy Peking duck out there. How they will having energy to walking four more miles?”
“Wait, what’s four miles?”

Founded by Pope Julius II, the Vatican Museum was actually the Vatican Museums, plural—comprised of a smorgasbord of galleries, rooms, apartments, chapels, and palaces—its four hundred and sixty thousand square feet of exhibition space making it one of largest museums in the world. The ticket line, I realized, was just purgatory; all we had achieved by skipping ahead was to put ourselves first in line for hell.

“We don’t have to see everything, do we?” I said. “Four miles is a lot of stuff.”
“Of course we seeing everything. This most important museum,” Mom replied.
“That’s what you said about the Borghese.”
“This most-most important. Borghese guy only cardinal, this Vatican, all popes, even better treasures.”
“Then we will for sure die of exhaustion.”
“We not even starting yet and you already tired?” Mom scolded. “Your Dad and I over fifty years old and we having more energy than you.”
“That’s because you two aren’t actually human, but robots in disguise.”
“No, it because you young people today too weak, cannot chi ku.”

Literally translated as ‘eating hardship’, it’s what Mom and people of her generation likes to have for breakfast along with congee and pickled vegetables while spoiled millennials like myself pay fifteen dollars for an overpriced piece of toast smeared with avocado and a grande ice soy latte with an extra shot of laziness.

“Your father and I, we learning how to chi ku starting from young age,” she began. “Starting six year old, I walking shi li lu, three miles to school, back and forth, back and forth, four times a day. Not like you, big school bus taking you to school just round to corner. Back then, there no buses—”
“—or cars, or wheels, or fire, and dinosaurs still roamed the Earth,” I finished.

Mom: DEATH GLARE.

“Look, I get it. You guys grew up in a different era and therefore are used to tougher conditions. But that’s no reason to make our tour of Italy into a hardship assignment from the State Department.”
“Then never vote for your Mom because that’s all you’ll get with her elected as Secretary of State," Dad laughed.
“Tell me what you want to see. Maybe I can help prioritize.”
“I not know what to see.”
“What do you mean?” I said, confused. “I thought Rick provide a walkthrough for the museum?”
“He did but I not reading that part. You expecting me to be trip planner and tour guide too?”
“Uh, aren’t they the same thing?”
“No, they separate duties. I already cooking the meal, I cannot helping you chew too. If anything, that should be your responsibility, telling us about artworks inside.”
“Me? But I don’t know anything about the Vatican Museum.”
“Do you growing eyes on your head?” Mom asked.

This was a trick question, I could tell.

“It depends,” I replied noncommittally.
“Because if you have, you can using them and reading Rick yourself.”
“When? Now?”
“Why not?”
“Mother, I think it’s a little too late to start reading the guidebook once you’re already inside the museum.”
“It taking you two seconds. Not like me, I not receiving English education. But we bring you to US young, so you studying English from little, and then attending American university.”
“Where I majored in computer engineering, not freaking speed reading.”

But Mom was undeterred. Flicking through Rick, she found the section on the museum, and shoved the book into my arms as the signal to the start of my read-and-talk walkathon:

▲▲▲VATICAN MUSEUMS (MUSEI VATICANI).

Summary: The four miles of displays in this immense museum—from ancient statues to Christian frescoes to modern paintings—culminate in the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo’s glorious Sistine Chapel. This is one of Europe’s top houses of art.

Cost and Hours: €16, €4 online reservation fee, Mon-Sat 9:00-18:00, last entry at 16:00 (though the official closing time is 18:00, the staff starts ushering you out at 17:30).

Reservations: Expect waits of up to two hours to buy tickets. Bypass the long ticket lines by reserving an entry time.

Length of This Tour: When the museum closes or until you expire, whichever comes first.

“So what Rick saying?”
“That we should have bought life-insurance before visiting.”

We began our Vatican Museums tour in the Cortile della Pigna, the courtyard furnished with a thirteen-foot bronze pine cone flanked by twin peacocks. Discovered in the first century BC, the sculpture was once a working fountain near the Pantheon where water flowed from its tiered scales like a champagne tower. Opposite it, near the center of the courtyard, stood a more modern piece by Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro. The sculpture, entitled Sfera con Sfera, captured a riven bronze globe with a fissure, the tear revealing a concentric orb inside—a sphere within a sphere. Replicas of Pomodoro’s work, varying in diameter, could be found around the globe, from Rome to Dublin to Tehran to...Des Moines, Iowa.

Following the crowd, we headed up a set of stairs to the octagonal courtyard where the starter set of sculptures in the papal collection sat framed inside cozy niches: Belvedere Apollo, Belvedere Hermes, Creugas and Damoxenos, Statue of the River God, and the Vatican Museums’ very first acquisition, Laocoön and His Sons. The statue, a seamless fusion of four separate marble pieces, showed sea serpents strangling the priest Laocoon and his sons for being whistleblowers to the Trojan Horse ruse. Unearthed in a vineyard near the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Pope Julius II sent his court artists, Michelangelo and Giuliano da Sangallo to examine the discovery, acquiring the piece upon their joint recommendation. So really, I blame them for creating this vast chamber of torture.

Soldiering on, we traversed up tall flights of stairs, down short ramps, squeezed through narrow corridors and tight corners, going from indoors to outdoors and back inside again in an all-out effort to consume this all-you-can-see buffet.

“Don’t look but I think someone following us,” said Mom suddenly, interrupting our binge-watching with some breaking news.

I perked up reflexively, turning my head around like a periscope.

“What I just say?” she hissed.
“Sorry, sorry. Who’s following us?”
“Asian lady wearing baseball hat and stomach purse. I think she start following us near statue with no arms or legs. What you call that?”
Belvedere Torso, it was an influence for Michelangelo’s David.”
“No, I mean lady. What you call someone following you everywhere?”
“A stalker?”
“Yes. She stalkering us.”
“You sure? She could be just be browsing like us. There’s only really one way through the museum.”
“But every time we slow down, she slow down too. Last times I taking break to bathroom, she follow me inside. Very suspicious she always needing to pee at same time as us.”
“Right now you sound like the crazy stalker, not her.”

But the power of suggestion was enough for me to start noticing our fanny-packed pursuant who circled us like a satellite moon, keeping her distance but always within our orbit. Occasionally, our gazes would cross paths and she would proffer a smile in my direction, as if trying to make contact.

“Okay, I think you’re onto something. Now she’s giving me creeper vibes too.”
“Why you think she following us?”
“Maybe she thinks we’re celebrities and wants a picture,” I joked.
“It all very fish.”
“Very fishy.”

Mom: DEATH GLARE.

“Oy, will you two stop chit-chatting about seafood and pay attention to this room?” Dad chided.

Distracted, we had reached the magnificent Gallery of Tapestries without even realizing. Draperies, each as thick as a carpet, hung all along the walls like murals. Meticulously handcrafted using the finest wool, silk, and threads of silver and gold, the tapestries contained mostly religious themes: from the Barberini workshop in Rome, expert weavers constructed a set depicting the life of Pope VIII while workers from the famed workshop of Pieter van Aelst serialized Raphael’s drawings of the life of Jesus, sliding copies of his cartoons into their looms like a blueprint for precise replication. As we strolled along the gallery, the moving perspective eyes of Raphael’s Jesus in his Resurrection of Christ tapestry followed me across the room, not unlike our stalker.

Ni hao,” said the Asian lady, finally making her approach. “Can you speak Chinese?”
“Uh, yes,” I replied in Mandarin. “Can I help you?”

I was almost right: she had indeed been stalking for a photo, though not of us. Taiwanese and traveling alone, she was staying in Rome via a voluntourism program and in need of a volunteer herself to take her picture. Kindly, I obliged her with her request where she chose, rather ironically or not, to pose in front of the voyeuristic Jesus tapestry. Alas, as the adage goes: no good deed goes unpunished.

Lesson learned #1: Never engage with your stalker, because once you do, he/she will stick to you like a pair of nylon pantyhose on a hot summer’s day.

In Mississippi.

Having made contact, the Taiwanese lady took my kind gesture as permission to follow us around unabashedly the rest of the way—down the Gallery of Maps with its collection of geographical paintings, through the apartments of Pope Pius V with its store of medieval ceramics, and into the Room of the Immaculate Conception with its ivory and gold bookcase containing the one hundred and ten volume manuscript of the Ineffabilis Deus—requesting a snap at nearly every stop. The parentals suddenly developed a great interest in reading every sign on display, thereby leaving me stuck as her personal cinematographer.

Entering the Stanze, I tried to lose her in the crowd as people jostled one another for a spot to admire the magnificence of the Raphael Rooms. Originally intended as a suite of apartments for Pope Julius II, a young and then relatively unknown Raphael was commissioned to decorate its walls where, starting with the Room of Segnatura, he put together one of the earliest celebrity group selfies, The School of Athens: Plato and Aristotle, in the center, discussing ethics and philosophy as they walked; Euclid, lower right, bent over and inscribing a circle on a slate with a compass; Ptolemy, next to Euclid, his back turned towards the audience, holding aloft a globe in his hand; and Pythagoras, crouched in the left corner, busy scribbling a new theorem into a notebook.

But vexingly, she found me again in the The Room of The Fire in the Borgo. The mural, inspired by a real historical event, showed residents desperately trying to flee from a raging fire in the Borgo neighborhood: climbing over walls, escorting the elderly, handing a baby to safety. I made an instant connection with the work, currently having a shared connection with the subjects and their wanting to escape from a dire situation. Finally, halfway up the steps to the Sistine Chapel, our stalked stepped on my last nerve and drew her last straw when she nearly caused a human pile-up on the staircase with yet another request.

Enough.

Seething, I entered the pope’s private chapel seeing black, both literally and figuratively, as it took my eyes a minute to adjust to the change in lighting. Then, as if by magic, the chapel’s luminous frescoes came into focus. Everyone gasped. Young when he did the ceiling and old when he finished the altar walls, Michelangelo spent four years, twelve hour days, high up on a scaffold, brush in hand, toiling away on the colossal paint job commissioned by Pope Julius II. It was a daunting assignment; Michelangelo had initially wanted to decline, citing he considered himself more of a sculptor than painter, but was rejected, thus making the work all the more impressive.

“Can you take my picture?” said my stalker excitedly, shoving her camera in my direction.

Just the moment I had been waiting for. Fully charged up now, I opened my mouth to deliver a big, emphatic, juicy, super-saiyan no only for a nearby guard to intercede and steal my thunder.

“No fotografia,” he said warningly, pointing to an official sign.
“What? No!” we cried unison.

Having rendered my services useless, our stalker had no choice but to release her tenacious tentacles and slink away quietly into the crowd like a defeated octopus. Left to enjoy the chapel in peace, I craned my neck in order to get a closer look at Michelangelo’s dazzling interpretation of scenes from the Book of Genesis: God, dressed in purple robes, weaving in and out of the different panels of creation—dividing light from darkness, shaping the sun and planets, separating water from earth—in a busy work week creating the universe. Then, in a middle panel, He set about molding the first man in His likeness. It was only then I realized that the iconic image—God imparting the spark of life into Adam through His outstretched finger—was not an individual painting but a small excerpt from the grand fresco.

“I could stay here all day,” I said in awe, reveling in the chapel’s astounding beauty.
“But we can’t, we need to leaving soon,” Mom replied, forever raining on my parade. “For St. Peter. Right now I trying to deciding which exit to take.”
“We have choices?”
“Yes. One exit near entrance, so we have going back to museum start. Other one here, a shortcut—”
“Shortcut, duh. How is that even a decision?”
“Because it reserved for Vatican guides and tour groups only.”
“Oh.”
“But Rick said you can try blending with tour group and sneaking out.”
“Yeah, no. That tip is racist. In case you haven't noticed, we don't exactly blend."
“Not necessary. Blending is about color, we just need to finding right shade.”

And what do you know, we soon found our match in the form of a large Japanese contingent coming through the chapel. Shamelessly employing tactics previously utilized by our stalker, we cozied up to unsuspecting members of the tour group, proffering warm smiles and friendly nods, before attaching ourselves to the group barnacles on a rock. Together we moved en masse like a school of Asian carp, swimming from one end of the chapel to the other so by the time the tour guide signaled it was time to leave, we were indistinguishable from other members of the Japanese camp, enabling us to slip quietly and happily out the back door and straight into St. Peter’s Basilica.

Designed by the top architect firm of Bernini, Bramante, Maderno & Michelangelo LLP, it took workers one hundred and twenty-five years to complete the heavenly construction project: Maderno drawing the facade, Bramante creating the floor plan, Michelangelo engineering the roof, Bernini decorating its interiors. Stepping into nave, our jaws dropped onto the marble floor as the enormity of the space struck us: the vaulted ceiling seemed to be made out of air rather than stone, reaching the heavens as beams of crepuscular rays pierced through the peristyle of windows ringing Michelangelo’s dome. Bramante had laid out the church in the shape of a Greek cross, with Bernini’s bronze baldacchino installed at the crossing as the basilica’s centerpiece. The massive canopy, supported by four towering helical columns set upon giant pedestals, provided the ceremonial covering for the high altar above and marked the sacred resting place of St. Peter’s tomb below.

“It look like old, four-poster bed,” said Mom, christening Bernini’s masterwork of sculpture and architecture a bedframe.

Behind the baldacchino hung another Bernini gem. Oval in shape, the alabaster dove window was set like a jewel above the Chair of St. Peter so when sunlight struck its yellow panes, it would glow like an amulet, bathing the throne below in a sheath of gold. Thoroughly enthralled, we walked around with our cameras in hand, clicking away non-stop as if they were typewriters at the different reliefs of cherubs, saints, emperors, and popes dotted throughout the nave. A bronze statue of St. Peter, portrayed with his right arm raised in the act of blessing, proved to be particularly popular as hordes of tourists lined up to greet him, bowing, taking pictures, and weirdly, touching his foot. A few non-hypochondriac visitors even bent down to give it a quick kiss.

“Why everyone touching his foot?” Mom asked, intrigued.
“Probably for luck,” I replied. “The basilica is named in his honor after all.”

The foot-fetish seemed to be an old habit too; Peter’s right toe was worn thin from centuries of molestation.

“Then I want to touching too. Can you take picture of just me and Peter? I don’t want other people in the photo.”
“I doubt it.”

Like an assembly line, the string of pilgrims approached St. Peter one after another without a moment’s pause in between.

“Just try.”

While Mom waited in line, Dad and I tested all camera angles, trying to find a clean head shot like we were hired snipers but to no avail. When Mom’s turn came, she walked up to Peter, grabbed his right foot per custom, but then placed her other hand on his left appendage as well. Put off by this unexpected change in foot-touching protocol, the lady-in-waiting lurched to a sudden stop, creating a delay in the conveyor belt of worshippers.

Click.

“Got it! Mom, that was genius.”
“Of course I genius. Your mother always smart. But what I do?”
“You grabbed both feet.”
“Didn’t you say it was for good luck?”
“I did.”
“Then of course I grab two. Twice the luck. And look, now other people doing it too.”

Mom, inadvertently, had started a new trend as subsequent visitors began adopting her double-handed grip as well.

“Great Mom, just great. Peter’s gonna become a double amputee now thanks to you.”

Fortunately for the saint, ushers began steering everyone out of the basilica before the new habit could take hold in preparation for evening mass. Cordoning off the nave section by section using red velvet rope, we followed the tide of people as they corralled us like cattle towards the exit.
“Where’s your mother?” said Dad suddenly.
“Isn’t she—” I replied, turning, expecting her to be right on our tail.

She was not.

Panicked, we began scouring the thick crowd for Mom, which, given her red-and-white striped shirt was like playing a live-action game of Where’s Waldo?

“There,” I said, finally spotting a petite woman battling her way upstream against the flow of people like a spawning salmon trying to return to its birthplace.
“What is that woman doing?” said Dad, exasperated. “Keep an eye on her or you’ll be returning home half an orphan.”

I tracked Mom like a hawk until she returned, with camera in tow, looking positively jubilant.

“What were you doing?” I asked, annoyed. “We thought we lost you to God.”
“Look, look,” she said excitedly, pointing at her camera screen, ignoring my question.

It was yet another picture of Bernini’s canopy bed.

“Don’t we already a million pictures of the baldacchino?”
“Not like this. This picture have no other people in it.”
“Wait, did you go all the back just for reshoots?” I said incredulously.
“Yes, everyone leaving, great opportunity to taking clean photos.”
“Okay, you are now officially insane. Let’s go before Benedict comes and throws out personally.”
“That’s actually best exit.”
“How so?”
“We can meeting pope.”

We had one final assignment at St. Peter’s: climbing atop Michelangelo’s dome. The view, per Rick’s enthusiastic recommendation, was allegedly, the finest in Rome. Rounding the corner to the north side of the basilica, we studied the ticket options for getting to the top:

Regular entry: €7. For normal people who pitied their aching feet and would gladly take an elevator up part way.

Non-regular entry: €5. For perverse people who were gluttons for punishment and cheap, preferring to saving a measly €2 in exchange for five hundred extra steps.

Guess which option the parentals chose. Just guess.

Laboring up the Stairway to Heaven, another tune in the Led Zeppelin catalog came to mind—In My Time of Dying: thighs throbbing, glutes burning, faces flushed, and my tongue dangling out like an overheated dog’s in summer heat. We had to clamber over two hundred steps just to reach the first level. Wheezing at the base of the dome, I poked back inside the basilica for a breather and to spy on the mass in session. Three elderly priests, with white hair and robes, had bowed their heads into their clasped hands as they led the congregation in prayer. I added a desperate submission of my own.

Dear God, please let me survive this vacation for I promise never to take another if I do.

At the start of the ramp up to the cupola, exactly three hundred and twenty-three steps away, a large sign appeared, warning visitors, in five different languages no less, that from here on out the path becomes a senso unico, a one-way street. So proceed at your own peril for once you start, there would be no turning back. I took a deep breath to prepare myself which was much-needed as the spiraling passageway began narrowing at a claustrophobic pace. Red SOS buttons started appearing along the way, presumably to help tourists struck down by a sudden panic attack. Though I suspect the wait for a rescue team to reach them through this sausage factory would only exacerbate their anxiety.

“Are we close?” said the parentals, huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf. “This part no fun, space too small, like torture.”
“And here I thought you both found pain pleasurable.”
“You having something to say?” Mom demanded.
“Just one word. Elevator.”
“Who pay money to using elevator?”
“Who pays money to climb extra stairs?”
“Everybody who going to gym. This analog StairMaster, same workout.”
“Then I hope you’ve got another hundred sets in you because we’ve still got a ways to go. Now move it. I want to see those high knees, high knees,” I said, yelling like Jilian Michaels. “You’re holding up the line!”

By the time we were nearing the top, we were at the end of our proverbial rope when a literal, hemp one appeared in the stairwell. Grabbing ahold with both hands, we hoisted ourselves through a tiny aperture, collapsing onto the balcony of the cupola like we had just been resuscitated.

Annoyingly, Rick was right about the view.

Devoid of shiny skyscrapers, luxury hotels, and high-rise condos, Rome was a low-lying spread of bell towers, church domes, terracotta rooftops, and apricot-shaded apartments. City code mandated that no building could surpass the height of St. Peter’s dome, so we looked down upon everything: the beautiful private Vatican gardens, the cleft wedge of Colosseum, an anonymous large marble edifice rising like a white stallion in the distance. From atop the cupola, St. Peter’s Square looked more round than square, the curve of its twin arms of pillared colonnades embracing it in a hug. Travertine lines radiated from the base of the square’s medial obelisk, dividing the square into pie-shaped slices. I gazed past the piazza, towards Via della Conciliazione, the expansive boulevard connecting the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo. Caught in the sun, the cylindrical Hadrian's mausoleum glowed like a torch over the shimmering waters of the Tiber.

We stayed until the yolk of sun dipped below the horizon and people began climbing back through the aperture for their descents.

“Is there lift going down?” Mom asked.
Now you want to take the elevator?” I seethed
“Why not? There famous Chinese saying: Shang shan rong yi xia shan nan. Climbing up mountain easy, but going down hard.”
“A proverb clearly invented before elevators.”
“Why you get so angry? I just asking simple question.”
“Because you make no sense. And no, there is no elevator going down, but there is short cut straight to the bottom.”
“Oh? Like at Vatican Museum?”
“Even quicker.”
“How?”
“Jump.”

Mom: DEATH GLARE.

Me: DEATH GLARE.

Two can play this game.

Posted by CuriousCaseOf 16:06 Archived in Italy Tagged france book italy guide europe uk united kingdom family_vacation eurotrip rick_steves Comments (0)

The Rick Steves Affair (3)

"He who goes to bed without eating will regret it throughout the night." - Italian proverb.

“Wake up, wake up.”
“Hmmm? Whattimeisit?” I slurred, still half-asleep.
“Wake up time. Qi lai, qi lai.”

I cracked open a bleary eye and shut it again immediately as the hot, piercing sunlight pouring in through the disrobed windows burned like molten lava.

QI LAI!” Mom screeched, the sharp rise in decibels sending me scrambling out of bed like a spooked cat.

Seriously, who needs a wake up call from the front desk when Mom will just start screaming?

“All right, I’m up, I’m up,” I said huffily, massaging my sore back.
“Go wash now,” Mom ordered. “And quick.”
“Isn’t Dad in there?” I replied, pointing to the closed bathroom door.
“He in shower, sink free.”
“I’ll just give him a minute to finish then.”
“No, no minutes left. We already very late.”
“Mom, will you please relax? Just take a deep breath and repeat after me: We. Are. On. Vacation. Va-ca-tion. Capisci?"
“What you just say?” Mom heaved angrily.
“Okay now you’re breathing a little too deeply...”
“Did you just using bad word?”
“What? Oh, no, capisci means do you understand?”
“Understand what?”
“Never mind. What are we late for exactly?”
“The Borghese Gallery.”
“But our reservation isn’t till like eleven.”
“And what time you think it is now?”

She pointed to the clock on the wall: 10:07 am.

“WHAT?!”

I began digging frantically through my suitcase like an hungry dog looking for a buried bone.

“Why didn’t you wake me up earlier then?” I said accusingly, pulling on a badly wrinkled t-shirt.

Slob will have to be en vogue this season because there was no time for ironing.

“Because we asleep too.”
“What happened to your solar sync?”

At home, the parentals prided themselves on never needing an alarm clock because their circadian rhythms were, allegedly, in perfect calibration with the sun, enabling them to wake up naturally at first light. But you’ll have to take their word for it because I’ve never gotten up early enough to validate those assertions.

“I think our bodies still following American sun.”
“Then you should have set an alarm.”
“We did.”
“And?”
“And we sleeping over it. I think we too tired, going to bed too late last night.”
“Ya think?”

When Mom finally emerged from the bathroom, wearing plastic shower slippers, she resembled Cinderella sans a fairy godmother: no balls, just chores. Normally, Dad, her Prince Charming, would have come to her rescue except he, too, had fallen into Mom’s honeypot trap of limited apparel.

“Your turn,” said Mom wearily, looking completely worn out by all the wringing.

Dad shot her a look of abject misery before heading into the bathroom with his own collection of unmentionables. For a while, there was only silence as, I reckoned, Dad wrestled with Sophie’s choice: get some sleep or go commando tomorrow. In the end, I heard the sink turned on full blast probably so that we couldn’t hear him say bad words.

Entering the bathroom, I kept my eyes firmly on the ground so I wouldn’t see anything that would require therapy later in life. I ran a quick brush through my teeth and hair, splashed some water on my face, and avoided looking at my appearance in the mirror.

“Okay, done. Let’s go, go, go.”

We dashed out of the hotel and down a steep flight of stairs to a busy intersection at the bottom of the hill. Flapping our arms aggressively at the stream of oncoming cars, we flagged down a white cab, piled in, impressing upon the driver an urgency usually reserved for transporting women in labor.

“I run meter, okay?” said the driver.
“YES! Just GO.”

In retrospect, irregardless of our late start, taking a taxi was an astute decision because we would have never found Galleria Borghese otherwise. Buried deep within the Borghese Gardens, the museum was just one of many attractions inside the hundred-acre Central Park of Rome, its sprawling tendrils of paths leading to an assortment of monuments, fountains, archways, and other grand properties. But our driver dropped us right on the doorstep of Villa Borghese, the lavish seventeenth-century mansion built exclusively for the residence of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. A vision in white, the palatial U-shaped villa had two large wings projecting from the sides, and a central portico with a terrace adorned with white Mannerist sculptures. But further admirations of its exteriors would have to wait; we charged inside like three lost bisons, looking around wildly for the rest of our herd.

“There, that must be our group,” said Dad, spotting the tail of a small congregation slipping into the first room.

Time check: 11:07 am.

Melding onto the back of the pack, we let out a collective deep sigh of relief, our first exhales since our hectic second-day opener. Mom passed out tissues so Dad could dab the river of perspiration running down his neck while I used a wad to stem the inkblot of back sweat from expanding further.

Signore, signora,” said a shrill voice, echoing like a rung bell.

Everyone turned.

A sharply dressed gallery staffer was fastly approaching the group, her stilettos clacking rhythmically in time to her brisk footsteps.

Signore, signora,” she repeated, addressing a subset of the population in particular.
“Um, guys, I think she’s talking to us,” I whispered.

The crowd came to the same realization too, parting around us like the Red Sea.

“Can I help you?”
“Help? I don’t think so,” Dad replied. “We’re just here to visit the gallery?”
Si signore, but you need to make a reservation before visiting.”
“Oh, but we did. For eleven o’clock.”
Va bene. May I see your tickets then please?”

Mom retrieved our pre-paid paperwork from her lan bao.

Grazi signora, but this only your reservation receipt. You must use this and exchange it for actual entrance tickets. Please follow me.”

The crowd looked on with interest as we were hauled away like troublemakers to the principal’s office. At the ticket counter, the business-like staffer typed a few deft keystrokes on a computer before a kiosk spit out a stream of colorful tickets, each printed with an image from the Borghese collection.

“Here you are signore, please enjoy your visit. Just remember your exit time is at one o’clock.”
“I’m sorry, but did you just say exit time?” replied Dad, surprised.
Si signore, every reservation is limited to a two-hour window.”
“But we already late, now it almost thirty eleven. Can we leaving little later?” said Mom.
“I’m afraid not signora. We have to limit the number of guests inside the gallery to protect the artwork, and the next group starts at one. I hope you understand.”

Mom, who obviously did not understand, opened her mouth for further arguments against the rule but Dad pulled her back in the interest of diminishing time and returns.

“Why you not arguing?” said Mom angrily. “We for sure not have enough time for this museum. Rick give this gallery three triangles.”
“Triangles?” I chortled. “I think you mean stars?”

Mom: DEATH GLARE.

“What?”
“How bad you think my English is? That I not know different between stars and triangles?”
“First of all, it’s difference not different, and second of all, ratings are usually indicated by five pointed shapes called stars.”

Unsheathing Rick like a sword from her lan bao, Mom flipped through the pages aggressively until she found the section on the Borghese Gallery.

Kan, kan,” she said, shoving the guidebook close to my face. “What shape you see?”

▲▲▲

Okay, triangles it is.

“Okay fine, but what does three mean? Average?”
“No, it mean best, must-see. This one of most important museums in Rome.”
“But didn’t you also say it was a private collection?” said Dad. “Maybe an hour and a half is enough. I mean how much art can one person own?”

Apparently the answer is a lot when you’re an artistically-inclined and wealthy Cardinal whose uncle also happens to be the all-powerful Pope Paul V. Thanks to a vast fortune accrued through papal fees and taxes, Cardinal Scipione became a generous patron of the arts, decorating every corner of his grand home with the fines pieces of the past and his day. He monopolized a young Bernini, employing him as his personal interior decorator to spiff up Villa Borghese with a number of his earliest sculptures. Then, leveraging his uncle’s power and nepotism, Scipione ‘acquired’ numerous works by Titian, a roomful of Raphaels, and the single largest personal collection of Caravaggios. One could have easily spent ninety minutes on these works alone.

But in doing some quick mental math, we calculated that we had about eighteen seconds per artwork if we wanted to get through the entire gallery on time. Thus, with both our blood pressures and adrenaline levels, both which had only just abated, shooting up again, we ran around the gallery like war-time doctors working in the casualties ward, trying to round on each patient quickly to gather just the vitals and make some crude assessments:

1. Antonio Canova’s Venus Victrix: A statue of a fat woman reclined on a futon with a piece of drapery strategically placed over her nether regions to protect her modesty. Alas, the attempt was nullified by the full frontal display of her amply-sized bosoms.

2. Bernini’s David: A more rugged take on the more famous pretty-boy version by Michelangelo. Evincing an expression of constipated concentration—knitted brows, pursed lips, scrunched face—this David had contorted his body into a motion of energy moments before the release of his slingshot, not unlike the discus thrower. Mom, wisely, did not request a repeat pose.

3. Statues of Apollo and Daphne and Rape of Proserpina: Two young maidens, Daphne and Proserpina, who could have used a #MeToo movement a millennia ago as they tried to ward off the unwanted advances of two male gods. Seriously, Mount Olympus management is in dire need of some serious sexual harassment training because no means no.

But not all patients were so easily diagnosed. In the Room of Silenus, we were stumped by a complex case, a mixed canvas—part still-life and part portraiture—of a subject holding a basket ladened with fruits: rosy apples, speckled pears, blushing peaches, browning figs, ruby pomegranates, and shiny marbles of grapes that looked so realistic that one felt inclined to pick it off the painting.

“Pretty sure it’s another Caravaggio,” I said, starting to recognize his style.
“No wonder it ugly then,” Mom replied. “Why he only liking dark colors? It makes girl looking bad.”
“Girl? No, it’s a boy.”
“What boy look like that? Red lips, big eyes, skin like Snow White.”

Leaning in, we examined other physical attributes for clues of the subject’s sex.

“What about the thick neck? And the muscular shoulders?” I countered. “What girl has that kind of body?”
“A strong and healthy one”

Unable to reach a consensus, I consulted the patient chart beside the painting for final diagnosis:

Caravaggio. c1593-1595. Oil on canvas. Boy with a Basket of Fruit.

“There you go, case closed.”
“I still think it girl.”

While this gender debate could have gone on indefinitely, our shot clock on the piece had expired, the buzzer forcing us to step away and move upstairs to the pinacoteca. Lavishly decorated with frescoes, the picture gallery was filled with sixteenth and seventeenth century compositions representing various schools of art: Florentine, Ferrarese, Venetian, Brescian. As we went around the rooms, from painting to painting, Mom seemed to grow increasingly agitated with each passing canvas, glancing around inattentively.

“Mom, you okay? You look kind of stressed.”
“How much time we having left?”
“About twenty minutes, why?”
“Have we seeing all the important pieces?”
“I’m not sure. But I can check.”

Unfolding the museum brochure, I did a quick scan through the highlighted call-outs.

“I think so. All the Bernini statues and early Caravaggios were on the first floor, along with the decorative frescoes by Marchetti. The only piece I don’t think we’ve come across yet is this painting of a blonde girl holding a sheep. But it should be in one of these upcoming rooms.”
“In that case, I meeting you guys downstairs, near ticket counter.”
“Wait a minute, where are you—?

But she was gone.

As it turned out, the blonde was Raphael’s Young Woman with a Unicorn, not sheep; I had missed the needle-thin horn protruding from the animal’s head. Painted just after Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, many believed Raphael was heavily influenced by Leonardo’s masterpiece—the same half-portrait size, folded hands, angled pose—the picture functioning as a High Renaissance Tinder profile as portraitures of such nature were commonly used in advertisement of a young woman’s various marriageable qualities: good looks, virtuous nature, even her virginity—it was believed only an unspoiled maiden could trap a unicorn between her arms. My sincerest apologies for besmirching the lady’s good name.

Completing our last rounds in the Room of Psyche, Dad and I checked off four more Titians—Sacred and Profane Love, St. Dominic, Christ at the Column, and Venus Blindfolding Cupid—before returning downstairs to find Mom waiting for us on a bench

“Hey, why did you run off like that? You totally missed a famous painting by Raphael.”
“I had some unfinished business to taking care of,” Mom replied vaguely.
“Unfinished business? What are you, the mafia? What kind of business?”
Aiyah, business means business, okay?” Mom hissed, before giving a surreptitious nod towards an overhead sign pointing in the direction of le toilette.
“Oh.”

Let’s just say due to extenuating circumstances, we had cut short the duration of certain activities this morning.

“Is business all done now?” I said, regretting my question almost immediately.
“Not all. Someone knocking on my door in middle, and disturbing my mood so things not go as smoothly, so might need to continue later,” replied Mom, always liable to providing one detail too many.
“Okay, I really didn’t need to know that. Shall we go?”
“One minute. I want to getting something from gift shop.”

This was a startling request as the parentals generally observed abstinence when it came to souvenirs, especially ones from expensive museum shops. Tailing Mom curiously, I watched as she selected a book entitled 10 Masterpieces Galleria Borghese off the shelves, filled with proper explanations of the works by art historians. I think Mom was afraid if any friends or family asked that our cliffs notes descriptions might come across a tad crude, if not downright offensive.

Stepping out into the afternoon sunshine, the verdant lawns of the Borghese Gardens were dotted with colorful picnic blankets and happy families lazing about in pockets of shade, relaxing, eating, playing games. I desperately wanted to get adopted so I could have a lie-down; our whirlwind tour of the gallery had left me feeling rather light-headed.

“So where to next?” asked Dad.
“Back to Rome center first. Then we going to Trevi fountain, Piazza Navona, Field of Flowers,” said Mom, rattling on like a runaway train.
“Any chance we get to eat today?” I interrupted.

It was only at mention of food that the parentals remembered we hadn’t had a proper meal yet all day. In fact, our only sustenance so far had been an apple each, devoured hastily on the cab ride over. On second thought, my lightheadedness might be brought on by low blood sugar.

“Fine, we can eating some lunch first before we continue,” Mom acquiesced.
“In that case, can we please try some Italian food today?”

Despite having been in Rome for a day and a half already, we had yet to sample any local cuisine, unless you count lunch at a McDonald’s Italia near the Spanish Steps. Furnished with space-age chairs and futuristic tables, the Italian version of Mickey D’s was positively out of this world compared to its American counterpart. Sitting inside a half-enclosed capsule booth like we were aboard a spaceship, we ordered burgers native to the local McDonad’s which tasted positively gourmet in comparison. Then, for dinner, the parentals insisted upon having comfort food.

And by comfort I mean Asian.

“We’ve flown all this way to Italy and all you want to eat is wonton soup?” I said, exasperated.
“Not necessary wonton, egg drop also okay,” Mom replied.
“C’mon guys, trying foreign foods is a key part of travel. Who knows? You might even like it, especially since Italy has a long history of gastronomy.”
“Isn’t that what your Uncle got last time he traveling to Sichuan? He eating some Chongqing hotpot and end up with loose poo-poo all night.”
“That was gastroenteritis. Gastronomy is the art of cooking and eating good local food.”
“Exactly. He trying local food and see what happened?”
“Mother, we’re in Italy so I must eat some Italian food.”
“Not tonight. Tonight I need some food my stomach already knows.”

Ugh.

“What about you?” I said, turning towards Dad, hoping for some reinforcements
“Actually, I’m in the same boat as your mother tonight,” replied Dad sheepishly.
“Of course you are. That’s because you guys are the co-captains of the USS Lame. Well, good luck finding a Chinese restaurant in Rome,” I declared, laying down the gauntlet.

Before catching the bus back from the Pantheon, we made a quick stop at a grocery store so Mom could stock up on fruits because she has the constitution of an eighteenth century sailor that requires a constant supply of vitamin C or would otherwise suffer from scurvy. Picking out a load of apples and oranges, we put our haul in a plastic bag and lined up to check out. At the register, however, the cashier put us on verbal blast, showering us with a torrent of incomprehensible Italian whilst pointing animatedly towards the back of the store.

“What’s happening?” said Dad, alarmed.
“I don’t know. We must have done something wrong.”

Confused, the parentals replied with the universal body language for I-don’t-know, flopping their wrists and shrugging their shoulders. In turn, the cashier responded with physical gestures of her own, tapping her forehead vigorously with her index and middle fingers.

“What that mean?” said Mom, looking at me for translation.
“I'm guessing she's either getting a headache or calling us stupid."

The parentals resumed their flopping and shrugging more actively to indicate our continued incomprehension while the cashier added hand flares to her repertoire, throwing her fingers up in the air in response to our persisting stupidity. Stuck at an impasse, I glanced back nervously at the line of shoppers growing longer and more impatient by the minute.

“Do you need some help?” asked an Asian-Italian man in line, catching my eye.
“Oh yes, please.”

Stepping out of place, he walked over exchanged a few words and head nods with the cashier.

“She’s says you have to weigh the fruits first, and get a price sticker from the electronic scale. She can’t check you out without a sticker.”

Got it. Tapping = Sticker.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” said the parentals gratefully. “Say, you wouldn’t also happen to know any good Chinese restaurants nearby, would you?”

“I guess we could trying some pizza today,” said Mom. “It about the only lao wai food we actually like.”

On the rare occasion that the parentals got tired of cooking—because let’s be honest, they would never tire of eating Chinese food—we would order a large, pan-crust pizza from Pizza Hut with the following toppings: Italian sausage, pineapples, and jalapenos. This unique combination has been an unwavering choice for the parentals; once they find what they like, they stick with it.

For life.

Passing a pizzeria en route to Piazza Navona, we stepped inside the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant filled with neighborhood charm: small tables, checkered tablecloths, an Italian flag whipping gaily in the wind. Choosing a corner table, we opened the menus dropped off by a swift waiter, our expectations for the meal sky high given its authenticity and our current levels of starvation.

“So how do we pick the toppings?” asked Dad, flipping through the pages.
“Actually these are artisanal pizzas so the toppings are already chosen for you.”
“You mean we can’t get our usual combo?” said Mom, looking disappointed.
“Afraid not. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Who knows? You might find a new combination you like more.”

The parentals perused the menus disbelievingly, reading each description intensely as if they were preparing for an exam.

“We can’t tell what’s good,” they said after a period of study. “Why don’t you pick for us? You more experienced with ordering now anyway.”

This was true. Due to the traveling nature of my job, one of its side effects was having to eat out every meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night room service when an all-nighter is required to complete a partner-assigned proposal. As a consequence, after six months or so, many people in my line of work transmute into foodies. Character traits include: composing weekly restaurant lists, becoming Yelp Elite, starting a food (porn) blog, using newfangled terminology such as “flavor profile” and “acidity”, and putting on the inevitable consulting fifty (lbs).

“Sure, I can order. But give me some general guidelines so I know where to start.”

Naturally, Mom said she wanted something with vegetables while Dad requested something filling. So I chose accordingly: a vegetarian pizza for Mom and the works for Dad—ham, olives, artichokes, mushrooms, and a boiled egg to top everything off. Personally, I decided to go outside of the pizza box and ordered a penne all’arrabbiata instead, the tube shaped pasta bathed in a spicy tomato sauce and garnished with a sprig of basil.

From our seats, we watched as the cooks made our artisanal pizzas live, standing in front of an open-flame like glassblowers, their faces gleaming with perspiration as they loaded the dough into the wood-burning ovens with giant paddles. At nearly eight hundred degrees, each pizza took only ninety seconds to cook, so we didn’t have to wait long before our waiter swung by again, dropping off our orders with a buon appetito.

“What is this?” said Mom, studying the tangled mass of greens on her plate like a scientist trying to identify a new plant species.
“That’s your vegetarian pizza.”
“But it not even cooked.”

Technically, it was half-cooked: the dough, steaming hot and charred at the edges, was topped with a mountain of fresh arugula and raw Roma tomatoes.

“You said you wanted veggies.”
“Not like this. This like someone dumping a salad on some dough, and you know I never eating salad.”

According to Mom, the consumption of salads is akin to a cow chewing on grass, and the making of one not really cooking either. Instead, it is viewed on par with doing an art project: you take some colorful source materials (i.e. green lettuce, yellow corn, red tomatoes, purple onions) and an adhesive (i.e. salad dressing), mix them together, and voila, a collage of vegetables.

“I can’t eat this, I change with your father,” said Mom, swapping plates in one fell swoop.
“Hey! At least let me try a bite.”

Grabbing a knife, she tried to cut Dad a slice but the pizza, sensing Mom wasn’t its rightful owner, showed great resistance in being separated.

“What this pizza made of? Why so hard to cut?”
“It might be the cheese,” I said, pointing at the pockets of hot mozzarella bubbling away like geothermal pools.

Adjusting her technique, Mom held off the cheese’s impressive self-healing powers just long enough to secure Dad a morsel. Then, picking up a slice for herself, she lifted the pizza to her mouth only for the thermal pools to converge and form a runoff, the entire top layer slopping down onto her plate like a mudslide, splattering sauce and toppings everywhere.

“How are your noodles?” said Mom, suddenly eyeing my pasta with great interest.
“No!”

Posted by CuriousCaseOf 16:32 Comments (0)

The Rick Steves Affair (2)

"Look after your laundry, and your soul will look after itself." ~ W. Somerset Maugham

Our deployment overseas began at precisely 1700 hours. Arriving at the airport, we found our assigned Alitalia flight taking us to the front lines painted, fittingly, a shade of army green. Because of my frequent flier status, I was allowed to board the airplane first. Normally, I would breeze down the jetway along with my fellow medallion holders, carrying a simple carry-on and slim laptop bag, looking polished and efficient like the seasoned business traveler I had become.

But today?

Not so much.

Today, I resembled a draft ox towing a heavy plow, the wheels of my suitcase sinking deeply into the long strip of dirt rug. One look and it was obvious my carry-on had exceeded all limits, weight withal. Tugging at the handles, the screws rattled threateningly as I tried to heave it discreetly over to the gate. But like a pregnant woman, there was no hiding the bump as the ticket agent gave me and my corpulent companion a chilling sidelong glance.

“Mr. Ren?” he said, scanning my boarding pass.

Uh oh.

Busted.

“Yes?” I squeaked.
“Welcome aboard.”

Phew.

“That’s the bag you’re taking to Europe?” I said in surprise as I watched Mom ready her things, her piles of sartorial nominees lying like dark puddles on the floor.
“Yes, my lan bao.”
“But isn’t that your farmer’s market bag?”
“Yes, so?”
“So it’s not really a travel bag.”
“Actually my lan bao perfect bag for travel. It big, flexible, you can put anything in it: water bottle, guidebook, snacks, extra clothes—”
“—fruits and vegetables.”
“No vegetables, but we for sure buying some fruits on the road. Though that not why I choosing it. I choose it because it has most important travel feature.”
“Which is?”
“Machine washable. Traveling actually very dirty, germs everywhere, bus, plane, ground. So you need bag you can easily washing after trip.”
“But it looks like a blue sack. Don’t you want to bring something...I don’t know...a little more fashionable?”
“What for? All those fancy ladies with their designer handbags only looking for trouble. Rick said there lots of pocket pickers in Italy.”
“It’s pickpockets.”

Mom: DEATH GLARE.

Considered Mom’s signature look, the facial expression is a smooth blend of “how dare you”, “I hate you”, and “don’t you ever do that again” which she has finely tuned over the years, bringing it out for special occasions, but especially when Dad or I do any of the following:

1. Correct her English: As you’ve probably already noticed, Mom’s lingual sense, unlike her directional one, can sometimes go south. She has, at times, a tendency to mix up her words, mangle pronunciations, and/or invent her own original idioms. And she loves it when you point out her lexical mistakes. Not.

2. Identify logic errors: An engineer by trade, Mom is used to making sound logic boards and arguments. But even the best designed systems sometimes have a bug or two in the (brain) circuitry. Except Mom does not being told she has cooties and has to do some debugging.

3. Fail to obey her instructions: Although Dad and I have been house-trained to heed Mom’s every command—Dad since marriage and me since birth—even the best Pavlovian conditioning requires a friendly reminder at times. Hence the look.

4. Whenever she likes: A category for situations not elsewhere classified.

“Which bags you bringing?”
“My backpack and camera bag.”
“What about suitcase? You cannot having three bags on airplane.”
“Checked luggage doesn’t count against you.”
“But we not checking any luggage.”
“We’re not?” I said, confused. “But how will we store our big suitcase? They’re not going to fit in the overhead compartments.”
“Who say anything about big suitcase? Everyone using carry-on only.”
“Um, you do know that our Eurotrip is for three weeks, and not days, right?”
“And do you know how many times we need to changing plane, train, bus this trip?”
“No, not exactly—”
“Too many. No way we can dragging big suitcase up car, down boat. No, everyone must traveling light as possible.”
“But how will we have enough clothes? My carry-on can fit one week’s worth at the most.”
“Easy. You just cut down on useless items.”
“Such as?”
“Socks and underwear.”
Excuse me? Those are essentials. How many pairs are you cutting them down to exactly?”
“Three.”

My jaw dropped.

Three pairs?”
“Actually, it including pair you wearing, so really, two.”
“How does that even work?”
“Simple. One pair wear, one pair change, and one pair spare.”
“Spare?”
“In case accident or change pair not dry.”
“So you mean we’d have to do laundry like every day?”
“Yes.”
“Okay moneybags, laundry service at hotels is not cheap and my points can’t be redeemed for free washes.”
“Who say anything about laundry service? You just washing in sink.”
“By hand?” I said, horrified. “But we’re supposed to be on vacation.”
“You can always staying home and using washing machine if you want.”

Disregarding Mom’s minimalist stylistic choice as a bout of insanity, I proceeded to cram every nook and cranny of my suitcase with as many pairs of socks and underwear I could fit, hence resulting in a bag stuffed to the brim like a Thanksgiving Day turkey—all in an effort to travel “light”. Maneuvering the bag down the aisle, I discovered a newfound appreciation for its all-wheel drive capabilities, having to turn the suitcase sideways to get through. When I reached my row, I was heartened to see I wasn’t the only one struggling with so much personal baggage. My seatmate, too, was trying to cajole a bursting REI backpack into the overhead bin; he had to slam the lid hard a few times before it would shut properly.

“I swear these compartments get smaller and smaller every time you fly,” he said breathlessly, extending out a hand for a handshake.
“You can say that again,” I replied, squeezing his hand and then into my pushchair of an aisle seat. You backpacking across Europe?”
“Yep.”
“How many countries?”
“Three. Italy, Austria, and Germany. How about yourself?”
“Family vacation.”

I made proper introductions when the parentals showed up a little later, helping them with their bags which, despite the notable reduction in undergarments, did not feel any lighter than mine. Just as soon as I had finished stowing away their luggage like a footman in training, Mom made a request for her lan bao.

“What do you need?”
“A snack.”
“Now?”
“Yes, now best time to eat, when plane not moving. Otherwise if you eating when plane in fly mode, you might getting sick air.”
“You mean air sick.”

Mom: DEATH GLARE.

Handing Mom her sack, she began digging through its commodious main compartment before fishing out a Ziploc of assorted, pre-washed cucumbers. Despite our best efforts, we weren’t able to finish all of the produce so Mom packed the rest, bringing them aboard as a peanut-free alternative.

Looks like her lan bao was the right choice of accessories after all.

“Want one?” she said, waving a stick at me like a twirler at a beauty pageant.
“Uh, no, I’m good.”
Chi yi ge, I give you best one.”

Before I could protest, she passed over a thick one like a relay baton, the mutant Costco breed threatening to burst out of its skin like The Hulk.

“How about you?” said Mom, brandishing another baton animatedly at my seatmate. “You wanting one too?”

Beholding the phallic snack in my hand with equal measures of amusement and bemusement, he politely but firmly declined Mom’s generous offer; we didn’t talk much after that.

Soon a flight attendant came strolling down the aisle, checking for fastened seatbelts.

“Oh my,” she said, doing a double-take upon approach. “That’s, um, quite the cucumber you’ve got there.”
“Oh, yes, uh, well, we were told there’s free alcohol on international flights so we brought along some fresh ingredients to make cocktails.”

She laughed but I was only half-kidding; this trip would be intolerable without the stimulus of a drink.

At 0700 hours the next morning, we made our landing at the Aeroporto Internazionale di Roma–Fiumicino "Leonardo da Vinci" in Rome. After the long, overnight flight, most of the passengers, myself included, looked worse for wear: matted hair, bloodshot eyes, brain a daze. But Mom, rising fresh as a daisy, bounded off the airplane like an overcharged energizer bunny, ready for action.

“First ren wu,” she said authoritatively, reading off the tasks in her field notes. “Finding terminal three.”
“What’s in terminal three?”
“The T.I.”
“Seriously? Months of cavorting with Rick and you still need help from Tourist Information?”
“Not help, documents.”

After all, one cannot conquer Rome without a map and a Roma Pass. Offering discounts to all the major attractions in the city, the pass also doubled as a metrocard for free rides aboard Rome’s vast public transport network of buses, metros, and rail. We procured the necessary intelligence papers and exited the airport terminal to the taxi stand where Dad and I made motions to load our bags into the first car in line.

“Hold on,” said Mom, putting out a hand. “Driver, how much to Rome center?”
“Hard to say, it different depending on where in city,” replied the driver. “But I run meter, so you not worry signora.”
Bu xing,” Mom muttered under her breath, giving us an imperceptible shake of her head. “This one a hei che.”

We immediately rolled our luggage away, leaving the driver curbside, looking stunned.

“How did you know that was a corrupt taxi?” I asked, impressed.
“Because he said he need to running meter.”
“Isn’t that how taxis usually work?”
“Not when it one fixed price to city center.”
“Who told you that? Rick?”
“Of course. He so smart, knows everything, including all the tricks. That why I asking driver how much on purpose,” said Mom, starting to gush. “Rick not just great guide but also great—”
“All right, we got it,” said Dad, interrupting before she overflowed. “Let’s get back to the task at hand and find another car.”

For our second attempt, we stood back with our bags and let Mom interrogate the driver first before taking any action. The man didn’t speak much English but when he signaled a four and a zero with his fingers, Mom nodded her approval to get in. As our taxi sped away from the airport on the autostrada, I took in my first glimpses of Rome: a smattering of industrial buildings here, patches of pastoral farmland land there, and gorgeous Italian pines everywhere. With thick, branchless trunks, the native Mediterranean trees soared skywards like rockets before erupting in a crown of dense foliage, their parasol of leaves providing everyone with some much-needed shade. I gazed dreamily out of the window, the beautiful scenery whizzing by, my mouth starting to water at the sweet thought of all the gelato I would soon be able to sample. Alas, my candied reverie did not last long, as a sudden cacophony of angry honks turned my attentions away from confectionery to personal safety.

Like plumes of theatrical smoke set to open a circus show, our arrival in Roma Centrale was announced by billowing clouds of car exhaust as we dived headlong into the first group number at Cirque du Automobili, currently on tour. Every motorist seemed to be performing the same daredevil, death-defying act: one hand on the steering wheel, the other making various gestures of a vulgar nature, while swerving in and out of the lanes like a trapeze artist with the more experienced performers dangling a cigarette between their teeth for added difficulty. Requiring audience participation, I held onto the overhead handles inside the car for dear life.

Moving on to the second act, our driver cut through the chaos and shot up an impossibly narrow lane made even more narrow by a row of parked cars on the side. Cringing, I shut my eyes, feeling certain I would soon hear the crush of broken glass and smashed plastic. But an inch’s an inch, and we somehow managed to skim past the file of side mirrors by millimeters since Italians preferred usage of the metric system. The taxi whirled up a hill, circling around and around like a carousel without stop.

“I think driver lost,” said Mom, looking concerned.
“How can you tell? You’ve never been here before.”
“No, but we’ve been past this street before.”

Per usual, Mom was right. Our driver took one more lap around the familiar-looking block before stalling the vehicle in the middle of the road. Muttering to himself, he opened the glove compartment and pulled out a map, which is never a good sign coming from any driver, but least of all a cab driving one.

“Dad, what’s this place you booked? Is it a motel?”

Leave it to him to pick a place so obscure that even a local cabbie can’t find.

“No, it’s not a motel,” replied Dad indignantly. “Just because I don’t have points doesn’t mean I picked somewhere cheap, okay?”
“You usually do,” I said quietly.

As the family CFO, Dad had a habit of cutting costs whenever and wherever possible. But sometimes affordability comes at a price. Like accessibility.

“Excuse me, the hotel I chose is quite reputable, all good reviews online.”
“Reputable? You make it sound like it’s a brothel. What’s the place called?”
“Residence Vatican Suites.”
“We’re staying in a suite?”

Maybe I was too quick to judge.

“Yes,” replied Dad smugly. “Very good location too. Website said it’s only a five minute walk to Vatican City.”
“Vatican...pope…house…,” Mom muttered, suddenly looking inspired. “Do you know current pope name?”
“I think it’s Benedict,” I replied. “Why?”

Without answering, Mom turned to our driver and began to shout: “Pope Benedict, our hotel is near the house of Pope Benedict. You know him? Benedict? Benedict?", alarming our driver.

We quickly quelled this unexpected religious uprising.

But it seemed Lord’s assistant’s name was not taken in vain because soon after Mom's wild calls for Benediction, our driver put down his map, did a U-turn, and unwound the taxi a few notches downhill before pulling into a new side street. Slowing the car to a stop in front of a formidable wrought-iron gate, I peered out at the entry that suggested less hotel and more maximum security prison, wondering if we had been brought to a mental institution for evaluation instead. Fortunately, the red banners flapping on the side of the building said albergo, and not ospedale psichiatrico. Apologizing to our driver with a gracious tip, we pushed open the heavy gate, dragging our luggage across the cobblestoned courtyard. At check-in, a friendly receptionist offered us a warm welcome to the hotel and Rome, taking down our passport information before handing over a pair of heavy-set keys.

Bounding spiritedly towards our room, I unlocked the door to our accommodations in eager anticipation. Alas, it seemed my enthusiasm had been misplaced. The term ‘suite’ had, it appeared, been applied rather loosely by hotel management. There were, if we wanted to get technical with the word, all the amenities one normally associated with a suite: kitchen, living room, bathroom, and through a closed door, a separate bedroom. But in practicality, the limited dimensions of said amenities meant one needed the dexterity of a contortionist to put them to use.

“Where’s my bed?” I said, looking around worriedly.

Dad pointed to a plank of wood squeezed against the wall that I had mistaken for a bench.

So much for being reputable.

I shot Dad a reproachful look which he feigned unacknowledgement, averting his gaze towards the ground. But with the powerful tides of jetlag crashing over me, I would have slept on the floor if I had to. Kicking off my shoes, I stretched my toes in preparation for my compulsory balance beam routine.

“What you doing?” asked Mom.
“What does it look like?”
“No napping! Get up, we going.”
“But we just got here, aren’t we going to rest for a bit?”
“No, we didn’t come to Italy for sleeping. Vacation start now.”

Vacation.

Right.

That’s one word for it.

Let the Rome mission begin.

The first target on Mom’s hit list was the Museo Nazionale Romano. Housed inside Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, a gorgeous nineteenth century Neo-Renaissance sandstone palace, the National Museum of Rome showcased Roman culture from the Age of the Republic through Late Antiquity across its four floors. Starting on the ground floor, we circled an elegant glass hallway and came face-to-face with a number of important figures from history—Socrates, Julius and Augustus Caesar, Alexander the Great—each marble bust a masterwork of expression and character. Then, heading up to the first floor, we weaved through a hall of statues from the Late Roman Republic to Early Imperial, many of the Roman sculptures actually imitations of Greek originals: Aphrodite of Menophantos, a replica of the Greek goddess of love in the Venus pudica pose; Tiber Apollo, a marble copy of the Greek Sun-god, the original mottled with water stains after being dredged up from the river Tiber; Hermes Ludovisi, a slick representation of the messenger god, inferred from a Hellenistic bronze original, as a beardless youth. So it was only natural that when we came across the Lancellotti Discobolus, the famous statue of the discus thrower, that we would attempt a re-creation of our own.

“You get it yet?” asked Mom, straining to maintain her balance and mimicry of the athlete’s swivel power launch position.
“Almost, almost,” I said placatingly, the giant camera lens of the DSLR whirling like a small fan under the difficult museum lighting, unable to focus.
Kuai dian, you slower than a Chinese bride getting on her sedan chair.”

Pressing down harder on the button, the camera finally let out an audible, relieving ka-cha.

“Why your camera taking so long?” said Mom crossly. “It broken?”
“No, it’s not broken. But I was using manual mode so I’ve got to make sure all the settings were right: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc.”
“You think you professional photographer now just because you buying fancy camera?”
“Uh, no. But I’m also not going to treat it like a point-and-shoot and just use auto-mode. It would defeat the purpose of buying a DSLR.”
“No one caring what mode you use, only care end result. How I look?”

I flipped the camera to gallery mode: Mom looked like she was throwing a disc all right.

A herniated disc.

“Okay, your camera definitely broken.”
“What? How?”
“Because it making me look bad.”

In the next gallery, a bronze sculpture caught my eye. Speckled with rust, it stood out in contrast to the other marble statues and white walls, the young man, wearing a crown of berries and holding a pine cone tipped spear, looking poised and regal with his erect posture. I got up close to study the strategic application of precious metals in highlight of certain facial features—copper made for a great lip gloss—and to read the name of the work:

Dionysus, God of Wine. 117—138 CE. Bronze.

Clearly the universe is trying to send a sign.

Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery, though I’m a tad unsure about the required nudity.

With our first strike successfully under our belts, Mom mobilized the troops to a bigger and more populous target, namely, Piazza del Popolo. Lying within the northern gate of the Aurelian Walls, People’s Square was marked by the Porta del Popolo, where, high above the arched entryway, a plaque read: May your entry be happy and propitious, 1655. I think the jury’s still out on that bold proclamation. Heading towards the center of the expansive square, we stood at the foot of the Flaminio Obelisk, once belonging to Ramesses II, the most powerful pharaoh of the New Kingdom. The monument, originally intended for the Temple of Re in Heliopolis, was taken and brought back to Rome by Emperor Augustus and eventually moved to the square as part of an urban renewal project ordained by the pope. Lowering myself to a squat position within the confines of the needle-sized shadow, I tried to find some reprieve from the strokes of heat and drowsiness washing over me while we awaited further instructions from the Generalissimo.

“Okay, according to Rick, we should taking middle road, Via del Corso,” said Mom, surveying her notes and the trident of branching streets ahead of us. “For la dolce vita, or what he call, the Sweet Life stroll through history Rome to Capitoline Hill.”
“How long is it?” Dad asked, “Maybe we should take a break first, it’s getting kind of hot.”
“No breaks, we rest later. And don’t worry, Rick said stroll is not too long.”

Except one should never trust cheaters because they are also, undoubtedly, great liars as the prescribed walk was neither short nor sweet. Instead, Dad and I were forced to trek, for miles and miles, under the glare of the fierce noonday sun in a state of increasing hunger, thirst, and severe sleep-deprivation. In fact, given the conditions, not too long ago this walk would have been deemed a death march by the International Criminal Court, and the responsible parties tried for war crimes.

Like those in times of need, I turned to a sacred place for help. Up a short flight of stairs, we entered Santa Maria del Popolo through a studded wooden door framed by shallow pilasters where, belying its plain facade, was an opulent church-museum with travertine columns, stones cornices, stucco angels, coats of arms, and reliefs of kneeling saints. Taking a seat on the pews, I buried my head into folded hands, giving passersby the appearance that I was in prayer. And they would be right:

Psalm 3:5–6 I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.

Dark, cool, and quiet, the Roman Catholic church, I realized, was the perfect institution for a life-saving power nap. Needing much life support, I repeated the prayer inside Santa Maria dei Miracoli, and again in Santa Maria in Montesanto. Luckily, Mom was too preoccupied with opulent church decors to notice my bouts of narcolepsy.

“Look at these marble statues, so smooth like a baby’s bottom,” she said excitedly, copping a feel. “But the faces no good, all depressed and down. Why they all so sad looking?”
“Probably because they’re tomb decorations,” replied Dad, reading the descriptions. “I don’t think they’re supposed to be happy about being dead.”

A series of lavishly embellished capellas, chapels, ran along the church’s nave, the decorations paid for by cardinals, bishops, bankers, jurists, and other wealthy patrons hoping to get a table in heaven with their financial generosity. Poking inside the shadowy, oblong Cerasi Chapel near the transept, we paused to study its handsome offerings.

“I like this painting,” said Mom, pointing to the altarpiece adorned by Carracci’s Assumption of the Virgin. “Colors bright, and flying lady look very elegant.”
“Flying lady? Mom, that’s the Virgin Mary, not some Renaissance Superwoman, rising towards the heavens at the end of her earthly life.”
“I not care who she is, but she better than these two ugly paintings on the sides. Whoever paying for them not worth. Artist no good, and cheap, whole painting using just one color: black.”
“Um, you do know those are Caravaggios, right?”

Nevertheless, having whetted her spiritual appetite with the Santa Maria trio, Mom’s hunger luxurious Roman cathedrals became insatiable as she proceeded to drag us inside every church she could find, going from portal to portal like we were bar-hopping. We even behaved like the usual suspects at a bar crawl: Mom, the party girl, getting more and more intoxicated with each stopover while Dad, the sideliner, grew glummer and glummer as he waited on the sidelines for the party to end. As for me, well someone has to play the drunkard passed out at the counter at the end of the night, no?

But thanks to my flash recharges, I regained enough battery life to power back on for the glitziest segment of Via del Corso. Lined from Alfieri to Zara’s with fashion retailers, the crowded shopping street, populated with tourists and locals alike, was the perfect spot to practice my street photography skills: sun-kissed shutters of an apartment window folded back like sleepy butterfly wings; a neon-green cross glowing faintly over the entrance to the local farmacia; a white-aproned waiter chalking up the pizzeria’s sidewalk sign with today’s specials; a violinist busking for change with a rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; a row of parked Vespas perfectly aligned for a naughty game of scooter dominos—each snapshot a slice of quotidian Rome.

Slogging through the rest of Via del Corso, I thought, foolishly, that we had come to the end of our torment only for Mom to announce she had filed for an extension on torture by tacking on a detour to Piazza dell Rotonda. The square was centered by a striking fountain surmounted by the red-brown Macuteo Obelisk on a plinth, the quartet of stone-carved dolphins at its base sprouting water into the jade-green pool. We circled the fountain’s basin to the grand portico in the back where sixteen Corinthian columns, each as tall and thick as a sequoia tree, stood in support of an enormous pediment. A Latin inscription ran across the entablature—M. AGRIPPA L.F. COS TERTIUM FECIT—Made by Agrippa.

Entering the building through a pair of huge bronze doors, my mind caved in as we found ourselves inside a cavernous rotunda. As tall as it was wide, the perfectly spherical chamber left me feeling like I had suddenly been shrunk to the size of an ant. My eyes, not knowing where to start, darted everywhere, staring up first at the crowning dome with its honeycomb of sunken panels, and then down at the floor, a mosaic of beautiful geometric marble inlays. Then, walking to the center of the room, I stopped beneath the apex, my gaze sucked upwards by the perfect circle of sky. Sheathes of afternoon light cascaded down the oculus like a waterfall, illuminating an ocean of floating dust particles. I stood quietly, bathed in the warm sunlight, entranced, finally comprehending why millions from around the world flock to see the Pantheon. It was truly a temple worthy of all (Pan) the gods (Thieon).

I turned towards the parentals, to see how they were taking in this magical moment. They, too, seemed to have been touched by the godly aura of the place, receiving special attentions from one divinity in particular—Hypnos: Mom was standing, but barely, teetering dangerously as she tried to fight against the waves of crashing slumber. Meanwhile, Dad had given up on the fight; finding purchase against a wall, his eyes fluttered closed as he slept upright like a horse.

Is it still sightseeing when your oculus can’t stay open anymore?

“Feeling sleepy now?” I inquired smugly.
“Little bit,” Mom replied, drawing a big yawn to a close. “But it not matter, we done for today.”
“You sure? There’s still some daylight left, I think we can squeeze in another attraction if we hurried.”
“No. We cannot seeing everything in one day.”
“But I thought that was our goal: see everything or die trying,” I said sarcastically.
“I’m already dying,” said Dad, snapping awake. “So let’s go before one of you has to carry me home.”

Putting our Roma Pass to good use, we said goodbye to the Pantheon and hopped on a local bus to Piazza San Pietro. Normally a tourist haven, St. Peter’s Square was largely empty as dusk approached, with only a sprinkling of tourists lingering by the Maderno fountain.

“Quick, let’s getting picture in front of St. Peter church,” said Mom, suddenly appearing re-energized. “This golden chance, there no people there.”
“You just said we were done for the day,” I admonished. “No, let’s do pictures tomorrow, we’re coming back anyway.”
“Who know what happen tomorrow? Tomorrow might raining, or square filling with people, or helicopter falling from sky into piazza...”
“I think you’ve been reading too much Dan Brown.”

But per usual, my wishes were not Mom’s command as she forged ahead gallantly towards St. Peter’s Basilica while Dad and I trudged behind her like two sulky teenagers sentenced to summer school, our sullen expressions mirroring the ring of solemn-looking saints scowling down upon us from the pillars. Up close, we found the basilica actually roped off, with a sea of gray plastic chairs laid out before it in neat rows like at an outdoor concert.

“One quick photo and we can go."
“Yeah right,” I snorted.

Having partaken in many photographic expeditions with the parentals, I’ve come to know that a) it’s never quick because b) it’s never just one. Instead, they enjoyed turning every photo-op in a combinatorics math word problem:

Q: You and your parents are on holiday. Your mother wants to take a picture with an attraction. How many photos do you need to take in order to accommodate every combination of people possible?

Take out your scratch paper kids.

A: Six. Me solo; Mom solo; Dad solo; Dad and I; Mom and I; Mom and Dad.

And you wonder why Asians are good at math.

“Would you like one with all three of you?” asked a couple of nearby tourists who had stood in amused witness of our rotational program for pictures.
“Sure,” said Mom happily. “It only combination we missing.”

Make that seven if you have tripod/third-party assistance.

Our friendly photographers turned out to be American compatriots, a Catholic mother-daughter duo from Rhode Island who were on a weeklong pilgrimage to Rome.

“We came specifically to see the pope,” said the mother. “Were you guys able to attend his general audience this morning?”
“Sadly no. We just arrived today,” I answered. “Is that what all the chairs are for?”
“Yes, in the summer the pope likes holding his papal audience outdoors to give more pilgrims a chance to see him and to receive his apostolic blessings.”
“But it not Sunday,” said Mom, frowning. “I thought pope only working on Sundays.”
“You’re thinking of Sunday Mass,” smiled the daughter. “But the pope actually works everyday.”
“But you can see the pope again this weekend,” said the mother. “The pope will be speaking from his apartment for the Sunday Angelus at noon. We plan to come again, you’re most welcome to join us.”
“Unfortunately we’re leaving for Florence on Saturday.”
“Oh that’s a shame, truly.”

Sensing we were leaving Rome bereft of an all-important Roman experience, the mother-daughter duo did some quick thinking, accosting a passing priest-in-training on his way home from divinity school, to help remedy the situation. Wearing a clerical collar, black shirt and pants, and a dangling pectoral cross, they coerced him into taking another round of photographs with us, increasing our tally to ten. Afterwards, they engaged the priest and us in an extended discussion about the trainee priest’s current studies, his personal philosophy on religion, and the universal meaning of God. By the time we had completed our crash course in theology, all of Rome’s street lamps had flickered on. Even the pope was getting ready for bed, the lit windows of the papal apartment an indication that his Holiness had already transitioned to his night chambers. Delirious from exhaustion, we staggered back to the hotel, our eyes red, skin sallow, bodies limp, looking like a family of refugees returning home from a warzone.

We took turns using the bathroom. Mom went in first while I tried hard not to pass out on my bed. But despite waiting for an eternity, Mom showed no signs she was nearing the end of her occupation as the tap ran continuously like a stream.

“ARE YOU DONE YET?” I bellowed impatiently through the closed door.
“Almost, almost.”
“Seriously, what’s going on in there? You usually never take this long at home.”
“I have to washing my socks and underwear, remember?”

For the love of God.

Posted by CuriousCaseOf 19:11 Archived in Italy Tagged france book italy guide europe uk united kingdom family_vacation eurotrip rick_steves Comments (0)

The Rick Steves Affair (1)

All happy family vacations are alike; each unhappy family vacation is unhappy in its own way

It all began when I discovered my mother in bed with a man who was not my father. For a household about to embark on a family vacation, it was not exactly the most auspicious of starts to proceedings, if I do say so myself. Admittedly, looking back, we should have known as all the classic signs of an affair were there: abnormal behavior, changes in appearance, growing emotional distance. For example, the house which Mom had formerly maintained with the meticulous propriety of an English butler was suddenly left in disarray: laundry piling, dishes stacking, and the kitchen floors, which were previously mopped with medical regularity, becoming glazed with a film of grime, forcing Dad and I to dance the quickstep over the sticky tar pit or risked losing a slipper. Dark shadows also appeared around Mom’s eyes, as if she were trying on a new haggard, smokey-eye look. Then, on that fateful night of discovery, we sat down for a family dinner more somber than a funeral, the frostiness between the parentals so palpable that I thought it would start snowing in the room.

But having just returned from a work trip to California, I was too exhausted from my day job to start another evening shift moonlighting as the family therapist. Instead, I went off to bed, hoping to grab some shut-eye. But despite turning off the lights, I found myself lying awake for hours, tossing and turning restlessly, unable to fall asleep. Finally, I glanced over at my alarm clock, squinting at the dimmed display:

12:13 AM CST.

The body might still be running on Pacific Standard Time.

Groping for my glasses, I got up to go downstairs to make myself a cup of chamomile tea. Stepping out onto the landing, however, I immediately noticed a pool of light leaking onto the carpet from the guest bedroom. Who could be in there at this hour? Worried, I armed myself with a tennis racket just in case, and tiptoed across the hallway. Outside, pressing an ear against the door, I listened for sounds to a home invasion: no wild ransacking but I did detect the soft rustlings of skin against bedsheets. I twisted the handle lightly and opened the door. On the bed, in a semi-state of undress, was a female figure sprawled languidly across the mattress as if she were posing for a life drawing class. She remained oblivious of my intrusion, her eyes fixed firmly upon the lover clutched between her arms.

“Mom?”
AIYAH!” she cried, hastily pulling up on the comforter in a cover-up of her exposed body and beau. “You nearly scaring to dead. Why you coming in like burglar? Making no sound.”
“Because I thought you were the burglar,” I said, lowering my racket. “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you asleep in your room?”
“I not sleepy yet,” she replied rather shiftily.
“It’s past midnight.”
“But I not feeling that tired.”
“Okay, but that still doesn’t explain why you’re in the guest room.”
“Oh you know, I just needed some MySpace,” she said nonchalantly.
“MySpace? Do you mean personal space? Are you and Dad having a fight?”
“No,” she said quickly.

Too quickly.

“You sure?”
“Your father saying something to you?”
“No.”
“Oh. Then why you think we fighting?”
“Because dinner was as cheerful as a memorial service and now I find you holed up here.”
“We technically not fighting, just not talking at this time,” said Mom stiffly.”
“So it’s a Cold War?”
“Maybe.”
“In that case, are you the Soviets or Americans?”
“What?”
“Just so I know which side you’re on.”
“There only one side, my side.”
“Okay, what did you do?”
“Nothing!”
“I doubt that if you’re sleeping here.”

There was no reply.

“So are you going to tell me what happened?” I probed. “Or would you rather I ask Dad instead in the morning?”

Mom paused. I could see the scale inside her head tipping back and forth as she weighed her options. Eventually, the wily public relations guru decided it was better to maintain narrative control of the story by telling her side first.

“Fine, I staying in guest room because your father kicking me out from master. He complaining I disturbing his sleep, so he make me leaving. But actually he the one disturbing me, when he start snoring.”
“Why would Dad be complaining if he’s already asleep?”
“Because he waking up again and saying he cannot sleeping properly with my lights on.”
“He has a point. Why do you need your lamp on anyway?”
“Because night time is only time I having with Rick.”
“That’s why you’re up so late?” I said in surprise. “And who the heck calls him Rick?”
“Isn’t that his name? What else I should calling him?”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Only a month, I still needing—”
“A month? Okay, you need to stop this affair right now and patch things up with Dad before it’s too late.”
“Affair? What affair?” replied Mom, astonished. “Why you using this bad word?”
“Because you’re literally sleeping with the man. Isn’t that him under the covers?”

Reaching over, I pulled out a copy of Rick Steves’s Best of Europe guidebook from under the duvet. As expected, it was, by the look of things, not their first assignation in bed: corners bent, pages marked, Rick’s formerly glossy face looking rather lackluster, having lost much of its original sheen following their presumably rough tumbles together.

“Is Rick the reason you’ve been neglecting your household duties and Dad?”
“You know how much time it taking to planning a trip?”
“No, but I know you will have to make time for a divorce if you keep this up.”
“Hmmph, maybe divorce good thing. It means I can finding new husband in Europe.”
“Mother, this is a family holiday, not Eat, Pray, Love.”

In fact, the originating reason for our European getaway was actually to celebrate a couple of major familial milestones: receiving our American citizenships and my graduating from college. Entrusted with brand new, navy-blue passports and the freedom to travel whenever, we were packed and ready to breeze through customs with nothing to declare but fun. Dad, in particular, seemed especially pleased with my personal achievements, his unbridled joy nearly moving me to tears, that is, until I uncovered the real cause behind his felicity.

“Dad, you look so much happier these days. Is it because of my graduation?”
“Of course son. I’m delighted that you’re done with school because it means I can finally stop making quarterly charitable donations to your university.”
“Gee thanks. My college education isn’t a charity case I’ll have you know.”
“What would call it then?”

I racked my brain for a more appropriate term.

“Uh...it-it’s...a-an...investment, yes, that’s it! And you, good sir, are my angel investor.”
“Angel investor? What are you? A startup?”
“Well, I’m just starting up.”
“And going nowhere considering that you still live at home.”

Ouch.

“Technically, I’m only home on the weekends,” I countered. “Besides, every startup starts at home. Just look at Steve Jobs, he started Apple from inside his parents’ garage.”
“While your only accomplishment so far is eating the apples we leave stored in the garage.”
“Hey, I’m not some kind of freeloader, okay? I can help pay for our Eurotrip you know.”
“Help? How about you help by reimbursing me for your tuition? Don’t forget it’s not just the principal amount. Someone had to provide a second round of funding when you decided to double major.”
“Oh, uh, you’re going to have wait a bit longer for that refund. I’ve only been working for a year, so I don’t have that much saved up.”
“So how were you planning to contribute when you’ve got no money?”
“Easy. With points.”

Because following said graduation, I got a job in consulting, working at a Big Four, which meant I was constantly on the road, or should I say, more precisely, in the air, traveling for work. With a client on the West Coast, my commute consisted of flying out to Orange County every Monday morning, getting a rental car and driving back and forth between the client site and hotel during the week, before flying home again on Thursday nights. After a year of extreme jet-setting, I was suddenly draped in Hilton honors and Delta medallions, having amassed a considerable personal fortune, that is, if net worth was measured in hotel points and frequent flyer miles. Generously pouring all of my capital into the Eurotrip jar, I discovered, to my delight, that I was able to cover the majority of our accommodations for free, thereby setting us up for what-should-been a dream European vacation of a lifetime.

So there.

And in becoming new citizens of a democratic country, we decided to put the democratic process to work by giving each person a vote in selecting where to go. Mom cast her ballot first, for Italy, because as an ardent fan of Roman Holiday, she thought an Asian remake of the movie with her replacing Audrey Hepburn as the star lead long overdue. I went second, and chose France, because I had similar delusions about inhabiting the character of Rafa Nadal, tearing up the clay courts at Roland Garros. Dad, going last, picked Great Britain because Mom told him he could choose any country on the map as long as it was the United Kingdom. But it was the popular people’s choice; having lived in the U.K. as a family when I was a child, we have always wanted to return for a stroll down Memory Lane. For dates, we settled on late-May, when the weather was reportedly perfect and the crowds still mild, Dad and I promptly submitting our requests for paid-time-off from work while Mom extended her tenure as CEO of Ren Enterprises, a family company, abroad. All that was left was figuring out the logistics—what to see and how—a responsibility which Mom placed upon herself mostly because she didn’t trust Dad nor I to do the job properly.

“Never let a person with no fang xiang gan planning a trip,” she said warningly. “Otherwise, you lost before you even beginning. Like you and your father, no direction sense. Spin you one time in parking lot and neither can finding bei anymore. Why you never inherit any of my good traits?”
“Because you said I was fished out of a garbage dump, remember?”

Except in following said directions on Mom’s misguided navigation system, we have arrived not at our final destination, but the precarious edge of a cliff, overlooking a marriage on the rocks. In fairness, I may have, unwittingly, played a part in the breakdown of her marital union, having introduced her to Rick on a recommendation from a friend. But only as a tour guide, I swear; who knew the family-friendly, PBS-loving jolly Rick Steves with a honk of a laugh would turn out to be a homewrecker?

Despite getting caught in bed with another man, Mom remained unrepentant, brazenly continuing her late-night dalliances with Rick as they gallivanted hand-in-hand across Europe: strolling through the cobblestoned piazzas of Rome, visiting the artful galleries of Paris, hobnobbing with the royals in London. Starry-eyed, Mom hung onto Rick’s every word by taking copious notes in a steno pad, filling up the pages with her hand-written records as if she were transcribing the entire book. More egregiously, she also began reporting back on her date nights with Rick, waxing on poetically about where her worldly flame had taken her, and extolling his many virtues.

“He very good man,” said Mom, after recounting a romantic evening with Rick in Venice. “Really considerate about tourist. Not like other guides that just providing useless lists and making traveler figure out everything. How we know? We not been to country before. But Rick? He think of everything for you: how to plan schedule, where to buy ticket, which route to taking, even teach you—why you laughing?”

“I’m not,” I said, trying to straighten my face as Dad fake vomited in the background.

I did my best to stay out of Mom’s trysts, remaining chaste, until she called me at work one day, dragging me forcibly into her entanglements.

“Can you help me calling Italy tomorrow?” said Mom, without even bothering to say hello.
“Tomorrow? No, I can’t. I’m swamped with meetings all day. Can’t Dad help you?”
“I already asking but he say no.”
“What? Why?”
“Because he said he not knowing how to speaking Italian.”
“And what makes you think I can?”
“Didn’t you studying foreign languages? I remember you said you taking spaniel in high school.”
“It’s español.”
“That what I just say.”
“No, you said ‘spaniel’, which is a breed of dog, not Spanish.”
“So you calling Italy?”
“Mom, did you hear what I just said? I said I took Spanish.”

But there was no point in arguing because as every immigrant kid knows, any task involving languages, whether it’s one you know or otherwise, is always your responsibility. Other linguistic duties include reading instruction manuals, deciphering unintelligible voicemails, and filling out a miscellany of forms, both on paper and online. It’s all part of the do-for-me, do-for-me tasks that come standard in the orientation packet that also contains our birth certificate.

“Who are we even calling in Italy? Your new husband?”
“Not yet, I still working on finding one. This for museum tickets, Rick said we need to buying beforehand.”
“There’s pre-sale for museum tickets now?”
“Yes, otherwise we have to waiting in long line if we try to getting ticket there.”
“How many places do I have to call?”
“Four, two in Rome, two in Florence. Do Florence first.”
“Do you have the dates?”
“Yes. Twenty-second for Uffizi Gallery and twenty-fourth for Accademia.”

Grabbing a pen, I jotted down the information on a hotel napkin.

“And for time, I need one fifteen for first museum and nine thirty for second.”
“Wait, you have times too?”
“Of course. What you expect?”

What I didn’t expect, in giving Mom the reins to the planning, that she turn our dream European sojourn into a nightmare military operation. In an internal review of her notes later, I realized, much to my horror, that she had somehow transposed Rick’s every recommendation into a battle plan with daily missions scheduled down to the minute. Attractions, each marked with a level of importance, became targets to acquire while walking tours, pre-mapped with sequential numbers, became tactical routes to most efficiently reach said targets. In preparation for the invasion, we also procured heavy artillery, adding a Nikon DSLR to our arsenal of cameras. With a lens that extended out like a cannon, we were ready to shoot any and all targets upon sight. But as they say in politics, diplomacy must be exhausted before war, so setting my alarm for an ungodly hour, I woke up the next morning, exhausted, to make diplomatic calls to Italy.

Ciao Galleria degli Uffizi, come posso aiutarla?” said a woman in rapid fire Italian.
“Uh, yes, buenos dia—I mean good morn—evening. Do y-you sp-peak inglese?” I said, my brain-fog producing a morning smoothie of all the languages.
Si.”

Si? Was that a Spanish or Italian yes?

“Uh, ye-yes, ca-can I make a reservacion for the galleria?” I barreled on in Spanglishian.
Si, howah many teekets would you likah?” she replied, switching to her Super Mario English for my benefit.
“Th-three please,” I choked, trying to stifle my laughter.
“And for what datah would you likah?”
“May twenty-second please.”

I heard some distant clacking on a keyboard.

“We have threeah teekets for threeah o’clock.”
“Actually, is one fifteen available?”
“We have threeah teekets for threeah o’clock,” she repeated.
“Three o’clock sounds great.”

Let’s hope Mom built in some slack into her Eurotrip Gantt chart.

Va bene. Yourah reservation number eez 1-0-6-6-5-8.”
“Thank you.”
Yourah welcome signora.”

Signora? She thought I was a woman?

It must have been a bad connection.

The week we were due to fly out to Europe, I worked from home and was therefore subjected to more of Mom’s militant planning firsthand. Since we would be gone for nearly a month, she instigated a comprehensive ban on all grocery shopping in a concentrated effort to consume all perishable food items in the house.

“No going to Costco this week,” she said firmly. “We must finishing everything in fridge before we leaving.”
“But there’s almost nothing left,” replied Dad worriedly. “We should at least get some—”
“No shopping! We have plenty of bai cai and huang gua available.”
“But we can’t eat only Chinese cabbages and cucumbers all week.”

Or could we?

Employing the vegetables like they were the secret ingredients in an Iron Chef challenge, Mom expertly churned out the bai cai and huang gua every which way possible: as a soup, as a side, as a starter, and of course, as the main entree. But after a few days of the challenge, Dad and I were clearly on the losing end of this contest; our faces had turned a shade of sickly, vegetal green while our bodies began exhibiting signs of anemia: fatigue, dizziness, difficulties concentrating, and depression. Only Mom remained untouched, her herbivorous constitution enabling her to ingest the endless servings of greens with impunity. Adding fuel to the fire, we were also running dangerously low on carbs, our sack of rice dwindling quickly down to the last grain.

“Oh good,” said Mom happily. “I not expecting we finishing rice too. Now I not worry it go bad before we getting back.”
“Go bad? I’m more worried it’ll go empty before we’ve even left,” I exclaimed.
“Not if we sharing properly.”

Finally revealing her true allegiances, Mom, subsequently, turned our household into a Soviet-era, government planned economy whereby all provisions were centrally allocated as she doled out strictly controlled rations of food that left us still feeling famished after every meal. This endeavour not only exacerbated our existing anemic symptoms, but also introduced new gastrointestinal problems to the mix: a combination of hunger pangs and sudden surplus of dietary fiber sent my digestive tract into overdrive, dispatching me to all available lavatorial locations and at all hours of the day, including a late-night emergency run when I found the guest room alight again.

Enough was enough.

Marching over, I swung open the door wildly, ready to reprehend Mom for her incorrigibly wayward ways.

Except it wasn’t Mom in there this time.

“Dad?”
“Jesus,” said Dad, flinching. “Don’t scare me like that!”
“What are you doing in here at this hour?” I demanded. “Seriously, what’s going on with this family?”
“Shhhh, keep your voice down or you’ll wake up your mother.”
“Why? Are you having an affair too?”
“What?”
“Never mind. What’s that you’re holding?”

Dad’s hand went reflexively behind his back.

“It’s nothing. I was ju-just—”
“Just what?”
“Fine, if you must know, I went to Costco behind your mother’s back,” said Dad sheepishly.
“And?”
“And I bought some beef jerky. I got so tired of eating your mother’s vegetarian special and my meat cravings have been driving me crazy so—”
YOU. BOUGHT. BEEF. JERKY?”
DON’T tell your mother.”
“Only if you promise to share.”

Together, we emptied the bag and destroyed the evidence; it was a very special father-and-son bonding moment.

“I can’t live like this much longer,” said Dad pitifully, sitting forlornly on the edge of the bed, looking like a wilting flower.
“Me neither, but we’re leaving in two days, things will be better once we’re in Europe.”

If only that were true.

Posted by CuriousCaseOf 18:19 Archived in USA Tagged france book italy guide europe uk united kingdom family_vacation eurotrip rick_steves Comments (0)

The Swiss speak everything but English? (Part 2)

How Switzerland makes you say bad words.

After dealing with the car rental fiasco, I thought we could officially begin our Euro trip, part deux. The GPS thought otherwise.

Me: "So, do we know where we are going in Lausanne?
Mom: "Yes, the Olympic museum."
Dad: "I'm trying to find the museum on GPS, but it says nothing found."
Me: "Are you sure you spelled it right?"
Dad: "Of course. O-L-Y-M-P-I-C."
Me: "OK, but do we know if they use the English names here?"
Dad: "Why not? This is an American GPS. "
Me: "Well, you downloaded the European map. And since we're in the French region of Switzerland, I'd think they'd spell things in French."
Dad: "No, I set this GPS to English."
Me: "Dad, you set the GPS lady to speak English when she's announcing directions, but the location might still be spelled in French."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaaa, why you make your father do this? You set GPS. You young man. You learned foreign languages in school."
Me: "Mom. Not this again. I took Spanish. Not French. Spanish. Tu comprendes?
Mom: "What you say? If you say bad words, I smack you!"
Dad: "Yes, you figure it out. We raise you. Now do for me something useful." #DOFORME
Mom: "And hurry up! We already waste half morning."

They hand me the GPS like it's a bomb to diffuse. The timer has been set, and if I don't figure out the French encoding for Olympic Museum in the next 60 seconds, the parental units are going to explode. Anyone who's ever tried a keyword search on a GPS knows it doesn't work like Google. There's no autocomplete. It normally doesn't even produce any results despite spinning for a good five minutes. And now I have to search for something in French? I'm a dead man.

I typed (and prayed) away feverishly on the GPS, as beads of sweat rolled down the back of my neck. Seriously, am I on vacation or at an audition for The Hurt Locker 2? C'mon.....c'mon! Give me something! Anything! Finally, by the grace of God, the words "Musée Olympique" with an address of Quai d'Ouchy 1, 1006 Lausanne, Switzerland popped up in the list of search results. Sweet Jesus, Lord have mercy upon my soul. I live to fight another day. On the autobahn.

A word of caution about the autobahn in Switzerland. For car enthusiasts who dream about driving on the autobahn, you need to visit Germany, not Switzerland. The Swiss, being a small and economical country where space is a premium, built their autobahn with the same concepts in mind. Instead of sprawling wide lanes that I'm used to in Midwest, America, the Swiss highways were narrow and winding. There's no median, and with a speed limit of 75 mph (a mere suggestion, not enforced) driving on the Swiss autobahn is akin to threading a needle: You have to keep a steady hand or you'll end up drawing blood.

The drive out of Geneva towards Lausanne was also unexpected. I had pictured Switzerland as a country of rolling green hills, with genteel cows wearing cowbells that clanked musically as they grazed on lush grass. Instead, the landscape along the A1 was a canvas of industrial grey, filled with construction and concrete buildings, all smeared with varying amounts of graffiti. I guess Heidi didn't live in this part of town?

Still, we have started our vacation! Our tiredness was replaced by giddiness at the prospect of reaching our first destination.

Mom: "Only 10 km to go."
Dad: "9 km."
Mom: "8 km."
Me: "Guys, the GPS will tell me when to exit. You don't have to count down like it's a rocket launch."
Mom: "We don't want you want to miss the exit."
Dad: "Besides, the roads don't say exit."
Me: "I know. They say sortie. I think it's French for exit."
Mom: "OK. Everyone memorize this word."
Everyone: "Sortie, sortie, sortie."

Having committed sortie to memory, we spent a few glorious days in French regions of Switzerland. I fell in love with our hotel in Montreux. Built in 1870 in the "Belle Epoque" style by Eugène Jost, the Grand Hotel Suisse laid early claim to the best location in town. Our lake view room had a balcony overlooking the North shore of Lake Geneva. All I wanted to do was sit and stare:

montreux-lake-geneva.jpg
(View of Lake Geneva)

gehoert_jetzt_zur_autograph_collection_von_marriott_das_3205e0f4c1e51a8e05b80a7bcc85abea4fb576e4.jpg
(Our amazing hotel)

Sigh. Can I just move to Switzerland already?

Alas, we couldn't stay in Montreux forever, so we got back on the autobahn and made our way to our next stop: Bern — the capital of Switzerland.

I was replaced as the driver because the parental units said: "You drive like a feng zi." Translation: I drove fast and furious. When dad took over the reins, we got passed by every car on the road. Nonetheless, slow and steady got us to Bern, and we parked our car in garage at the Bern train station plaza.

I simply adored Bern. It is probably my favorite Swiss city along with Zurich. Built on a narrow hill, the waters of the Aare loops around the Old City like a lazy river. On a hot day, you can even join the locals for a dip in the river and let the gentle Aare currents take you on a cruise around the perimeters of the city, with its gothic architecture towering overhead. In fact, the city of Bern has become a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site due to the great preservation of its medieval architecture. Built in the 12th century, the Old City has remained largely unchanged since its construction.

What I loved about Bern wasn't just its rich history, but also its modernity. Being the capital of Switzerland, it houses both the parliament and executive council. Thus, as you walk through the ornate arcades of high-end shops, you could be brushing elbows with high-powered legislators. Heck, you could even bump into the Swiss president! (Although executive power is shared by a committee of seven, with the president merely holding a ceremonial title). During the busy lunch hour, armies of these politicians step out for a show of their sartorial elegance and a quick bite. The tall silhouettes of their designer slim-fit suits blend in seamlessly with the tall silhouettes of the pointy towers that are ubiquitous in the city.

I wanted to take pictures of the city's architecture and people, but clean photography is difficult because the skyscape is covered in a latticed patchwork of power lines. These power lines zig zag every which way, forming the backbone of Bern's public transportation system:

Bern-Switzerland-0318.jpg

The Bern S-Bahn (commuter rail network), the Bern Tramway Network, and the Bern Trolleybus Network all run off these lines. It's a necessary comprise to keeping the city green and pollution-free. Bern feels like the perfect example how a city can develop and grow, while maintaining its tradition and roots — a harmonious juxtaposition of the past and the present.

After taking in the major sights (the Bern Cathedral - Berner Münster) and sounds (the Medieval clock tower - the Zytglogge) and taste (the Renaissance water fountains - especially the Kindlifresserbrunnen), we had to bid adieu to Bern. Thus, we turned around and tried to make our way back to the train station. There must have been something in the water because we got totally disoriented.

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to use the Renaissance water fountains as guide posts. Aside from the Kindlifresserbrunnen, there were ten other of these 16th century Renaissance water fountains scattered throughout the Old City. Unfortunately, not all of them were as memorable as the Kindlifresserbrunnen, which depicts an ogre snacking on small children:

4377_-_Bern_-_Kindlifresserbrunnen_am_Kornhausplatz.JPG

Crap.

Dad: "I think we passed one that looked like a man."
Me: "Dad, they're all men."
Mom: "No, one of them was a woman. She had a sword."
Me: "Wait, the statue with the sword is a woman? How could you even tell? It had a blindfold over its face!"
Mom: "Aiiiyaaaa.....she had wide hips! You didn't notice the hips?"
Me: "Uh. No."

(We later fact checked. It was the Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen a.k.a the Fountain of Justice, with Lady Justice atop, with large hips):

Berner_Iustitia.jpg

Dad: "What about the one that was sucking on a straw, and drinking from a large bag?"
Me: "Um....Dad, I think he was playing a bagpipe...."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaaa, why are we talking about fountains? We just need to ask someone where is the train station."

We accosted a few passersby, but none of them spoke English. Finally, we approached a friendly-looking elderly gentleman.

Mom: "Excuse me. Do you speak English?"
Elderly gentleman: "Yes, a little."
Mom: "Do you know where is the train station?"
Elderly gentleman: "I'm sorry. Can you say again?"
Mom: "Train station. We're looking for the train station."
Elderly gentleman: "Station. Station."
Mom: "Yes, for the train."
Elderly gentleman: "Train?"
Mom: "Yes. Train. CHOOOOOOOO CHOOOOOO."

The elderly gentleman stares back blankly, but mom doesn't give up. Instead she gets creative.

Mom: "Train. Like this."

She then proceeds to demonstrate train by closing her fists, and then rocks her arms in a circular motion like the coupling rods that connects the driving wheels of a locomotive, all the while miming the blowing of steam with an open mouth. Choo choo!

Me: "Mom....you're demonstrating a steam engine. I don't think the Swiss trains are steam engines anymore."

Mom: DEATH STARE.

The elderly gentleman looks at us amused and bemused.

Dad: "Aiiiyaaaa, help your mother!"

Me: "One moment please."

I fly through the pages of our travel guide like it's a flip book. Damn it. Where's the useful phrases section when you need it? You also realize how not useful these "useful phrases" are in a real emergency.

Exhibit A: "May I have a kilo of oranges please?" I mean, seriously, who walks around with that kind of vitamin C deficiency?

I speed read through the hundreds of unhelpful phrases before finally finding the word for train station.

Me: "Um, la gare?"
Elderly gentlemen: "Ah! La gare. Yes. I know la gare."
Dad: "Oh thank God."
Elderly gentlemen: "You turn left here. Then you see church. You turn right. Near church. Then la gare."
Mom: "Thank you."

Continuing with our theme of bomb-diffusing stress, we make it back to the train station just in the nick of time. Our parking ticket was about to expire. Since I was excused from driving, I immediately conked out in the back seat while the parentals set the GPS for our next destination: Lauterbrunnen Valley, which lies at the foot of the Swiss Alps in the Interlaken district of Switzerland. We needed to hit the road fast and furious again, because at 0530 hours tomorrow, we were scheduled to climb the highest Alps peak in all of Europe: Jungfraujoch.

15 minutes later.

Mom: "Wake up. Wake up."
Me (drowsily): "Wuss the matter?"
Dad: "Do you see sortie?"
Me: "Huh?"
Mom: "SORTIE!"
Me (waking up): "Wait. Why are we still in the parking garage?!?"
Parents: "We can't find sortie."
Me: "What do you mean?"
Mom: "Aiiiyaaa, we can't find the exit."
Dad: "We've been doing laps around and around the parking garage, but there's not a sign for sortie anywhere."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaa, stop sleeping! Find sortie NOW!"
Me: "OK. OK. Can you go around again?"

We took another lap around the garage.

Me: "There. There's the exit. Follow the sign for ausfarht."
Mom: "Ausfarht? Why ausfarht? I thought the word for exit was sortie?"
Me: "Yes, it is. But it's the French word for exit. Ausfarht is the German equivalent."
Dad: "I thought you said you studied Spanish!"

OMG. Really parents? You choose this moment to pick this bone?

Me: "I did. But I happen to know one German word."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaa, too many words! How we supposed to remember all these different languages?"
Dad: "This is too stressful!"
Me: "Just use a mnemonic. That's how I learn new words."
Mom: "Mnemonic?"
Me: "Yeah. A mnemonic is a device such as a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations that assists in remembering something."
Dad: "What's your mnemonic?"
Me (uncomfortably): "Ummmm, it's a bit weird. Besides, it's better to come up with your own. Helps you remember it more."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaa, just tell us! We have no time to create this demonic device."

Me: "Mom, it's mnemonic, not demonic. But anyway. Ass fart."
Parents: "WHAT? WHAT YOU JUST SAY?"
Me: "Ass fart."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaa, why you say these bad words? You qian zou (want a smack)?"
Me: "No. That's my mnemonic device. When you pronounce ausfarht in German, it, um, sounds like ass fart."
Dad: "And how does that help you remember it means exit?"
Me: "Well, farts have to exit out of the ass."
Parents: "Oh."
Mom: "Everyone. Remember this. Ass fart."
Everyone: "Ass fart, ass fart, ass fart."

Posted by CuriousCaseOf 14:45 Archived in Switzerland Tagged hotel grand olympics french ass english italian lost switzerland german bern languages gps majestic lausanne montreux suisse fart lake_geneva autobahn aare_river sortie ausfahrt Comments (2)

The Swiss speak everything but English? (Part 1)

There's no fault in the (Euro) stars - We should have taken the train!

sunny 68 °F

Bonjour! Or should I say guten tag? Or ciao? In any case, it’s greetings from Switzerland!

How I keep surviving travel to Europe with the parental units.....I don't know. Every time we travel, it feels like a war for them, and a peace corps mission for me. And let me tell you, my role as an aide worker to prevent a civil war from erupting between/with the parental units in a foreign land is no easy task! I deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for all my humanitarian efforts.

I mostly blame the complexities of Switzerland for all the in-fighting. As a peace-loving, neutral country, Switzerland was able to avoid both WWI and WWII. Its neutrality, however, could not prevent WWIII from erupting within my household during our visit.

Firstly, as ethnocentric American travelers, I have learned our assumption that Europe speaks English is a major fallacy. I learned my lesson in Italy (see blog: How to order "non-sparkling" water in Italy). But this was Switzerland for crying out loud! Everyone here is a Roger Federer and speaks multiple languages, right?

I had read that the average Swiss national learns a minimum of three languages in school, and the country has four official languages. As a major European hub for travel, commerce, and the home to numerous international organizations — the United Nations, Red Cross, World Health Organization, etc. — surely they speak some English, no?

Of course, I don't suffer from such a severe case of ethnocentrism that I expect everyone to speak English fluently — the Swiss speak either French or German as his/her first language — but their second or third or fourth language is English, right? Right?

Wrong.

The four official languages of Switzerland are:

  1. French
  2. German
  3. Italian
  4. Romansh

English is not on the list. And boy did that throw my family into a vrille a.k.a trudeln a.k.a tailspin.

For our second Euro trip, we planned it all by ourselves again. Given the success of our first Euro mission, I mean, vacation (see blog: Eurotrip Recap) we felt confident it would similar to our last one, if not easier. After all, last time we were traveling for 21 days, visiting 3 countries — Italy, France, and U.K. This time we were on the road for only 16 days, visiting 2 countries — Switzerland and Northern Italy (Lake Como/Milan). Plus, Switzerland is a much smaller country, so how hard could it be?

Well, the first way we made it hard was thinking we could get a rental car and drive our way across Switzerland. It all made sense on paper. We would pick up a car from Geneva airport and cruise through the French region (Lausanne, Fribourg, Montreux, Murten) to the German region (Bern, Interlaken, Lucern, Zurich), before dropping off our car in the Italian region (Lugano) and then taking the bus over the border to Lake Como, Italy.

With its famed Autobahnen, we figured driving in Switzerland would be a piece of cake and it would afford us the flexibility to stop wherever and whenever we fancied. If only we could make it out of the airport Avis....

Our flight from the U.S to Switzerland was long, with a two hour layover in Amsterdam. We tried to sleep on the plane, because otherwise jet-lag would hit us like a brick as soon as we landed. However, sleeping was made impossible when we encountered the unlikely event of a water evacuation as the passengers aboard DL0258 flooded the cabin with their tears. How you ask? Well, Delta had the bright idea of offering The Fault in Our Stars as its featured in-flight movie.....to Amsterdam, no less! If you thought a crying baby was annoying on a plane, try a cabin-full of wailing passengers of all ages. The lady next to me was sobbing/sucking air so hard that I swear the oxygen masks would drop from above due to a loss of cabin pressure.

Needless to say, we got no sleep, so when we finally landed in Geneva, we were pretty much The Walking Dead. There was no rest for the weary because mom had pulled out her minute-by-minute itinerary/project plan. According to her project plan milestones, we had to make haste from Geneva airport to Lausanne, so we could tour the Olympic museum and its Old Town area before winding our way through the Lavaux vineyard terraces (i.e. the Swiss wine route) to our hotel, the Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic, on the shores of Lake Geneva.

That was the plan at least. Bleary-eyed and half-asleep, we shuffled our way to the Avis counter. A mousy-looking Avis clerk with greased-back hair told us there were no VW Golfs (the car we booked) available, and asked if we were OK with a VW Transporter? My family is not familiar with the Imperial system of VW sizes. We measure car sizes using the metric system, a.k.a Toyota.

Dad: "What is Transporter? Is it bigger than the Golf?"
Avis: "Yes, bigger than Golf."
Dad: "But how much bigger? Like Corolla vs. Camry bigger?"
Avis: "Camry?"
Dad: "Yes, that's the normal sedan size."
Avis: "No, it's bigger."
Dad: "Bigger than a Camry? Like a Highlander?"
Avis: "Sure.....sure....." (He didn't sound sure at all).
Dad: "Oh OK, that's fine then. We drive a Highlander SUV at home"
Me: "Dad, Transporter doesn't sound like the name of an SUV....."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaaa, why you guys take so long to get car? We need to get moving."

Before I could protest further, Dad took the keys, and the Avis clerk tried to hide a sly smirk. The bastard was basically screwing with us because when we got off the Avis shuttle and followed the signs to lot F4, we were greeted by the VW Transporter.

It wasn't a SUV. It wasn't even a minivan. It was a monstrosity in a shape of minibus, with room for ten:

VW-Transporter-Sportline-Limited-Edition-X.jpg

Dad: "Wow, that's bigger than the Highlander."
Me: "Dad, it's a bus."
Mom: "Can you drive it? You say you drove all kinds of cars when you traveled for work."
Me: "Mom, I was a consultant, not a bus driver. Besides, when I said different cars, I meant I drove a Camaro."
Mom: "What is Camaro? American version of Camry?"
Me: "No. It's Bumblebee. From Transformers."
Mom: "What? You drove a bee? Like a bug? That's small car, la!"
Me: "Never mind."
Dad: "But maybe this is a good deal. It has more room, we can sleep in the back."
Me: "Dad, this is not a good deal! We're not going to be living in a van down by the river in Switzerland."
Mom: "No river. Lake. More lakes in Switzerland."

GARGH.

Me: "NO! I will not be driving us in a bus across Switzerland. People will think we're refugees, not tourists. Besides, how will we park this monster? And do we know how wide the roads are in Switzerland?"
Dad: "Why you so difficult? We pay money in high school for you to take driving class. Now you tell me you can't drive?"
Me: "Dad, they taught me drive a normal car, not a school bus."
Mom: "Aiiiyaaa, just make up your mind quickly, la! We have no time to lose. Lots to see!"

I bit my tongue because further arguing with the parental units would only get them more testy, so I marched my way across the parking lot to the Avis side office to demand an exchange.

Me: "Sir, we can't drove this vehicle called VW Transporter. It's not a car, it's a tank."
New Avis clerk: "How many people in your party?"
Me: "Three."
New Avis clerk: "Three? Oh. And they gave you a VW Transporter?"
Me (jokingly): "Yes, we're Americans, but even so, we didn't bring that many bags."
New Avis clerk: "You are American? No....where are you originally from?"

OMG. ARE YOU SERIOUS RIGHT NOW?!? I'm here to rent a car, not to discuss the Origin of Species!

Me: "There are Asian Americans, you know."
New Avis clerk: "OK. I give you American car then."
Me (sarcastically): "You sure? You don't have a Chinese car?"
New Avis clerk: "No. I have Ford Focus. OK?"
Parents: "Aiiiyaaaa......hurry up, la! You exchanging car or buying car in there?"
Me: "Just give me the keys."

To be continued!!!

Posted by CuriousCaseOf 09:29 Tagged french english italian switzerland german languages euro_trip car_rental avis the_fault_in_our_stars Comments (0)

Table for One?

A guide to dining alone when traveling for work.

When you are on the road traveling for work, it’s hard enough going to restaurants and asking for a table for one. It's made even harder when you forget February 14th is Valentine’s day. Days and dates all blend together and the only day that really matters in consulting is Thursdays. Thursday is the new Friday. On Thursdays, you get to fly out from your client site. Double bonus if you can leave early because there is only one flight back to your home office. So sorry I have to cut the work day short :)

Thirsty Thursdays start as soon as you sit down on your flight and pull out a stack of Delta snack coupons and exchange it for an alcoholic beverage of your choice. Or two. Or three.

By now, a consultant should have leveled up on his/her alcohol tolerance powers.

Well, it was Valentine’s Day, but it wasn’t a Thursday, so I was blissfully unaware until I went about my usual routine of trying a new restaurant for the night. The conquest was The Press Bistro in Midtown, Sacramento. Ironically, I had passed this bistro and bar on one of my late night attempts to run off some of the rolls that had started accumulating around my midsection.

Inspired by the French bistro and Italian Trattoria, the Press Bistro offered food and drink of the Mediterranean table in a relaxed, neighborhood atmosphere. The bistro, with its floor to ceiling glass windows and door, was inviting to passersby to peer inside, where small wooden tables of two’s and four’s were neatly arranged throughout the open-concept space. In addition to the dining room, the outdoors patio seating offered a 18-foot redwood community table, creating a social environment to share and enjoy food, drinks, and company.

Like a good consultant, I had done my research beforehand and had narrowed down my menu choice to the grilled swordfish atop a bed of corn and zucchini risotto with a side of lemon butter sauce. It's healthy, and has vegetables and protein. Probably a good idea to if I wanted to avoid rolling in the deep. Well, all I can say is that I have the best of intentions, but sometimes the situation demands a different execution!

I was lucky that we ended up leaving work (relatively) early at 6:45 pm, so I headed straight to the restaurant without dropping off my laptop bag at the hotel or changing out of my work clothes in hopes of beating the dinner rush. As I walked past the glass windows, I could see there were still a couple of empty tables in the back.

Oh goody! This meant I won’t have to wait to get a table.

“Can I get a table for one?” I asked as I approached the hostess.

The hostess looked up, bemused, as if I had just spoken to her in French.

“Do you have a reservation?” she replied after a long pause.

“No I don’t.”

“In that case, the wait will be about forty-five minutes.”

“Forty-five minutes!?” I exclaimed. “Sorry, but I saw two empty tables near the back as I walked by. Aren't those available?”

“Yes, they are, but they are already reserved for couples,” she replied coolly as her elevator eyes scanned me up and down, as if ascertaining the various factors that made me request a table for one. Was it the face? The rolls? The whole package?

“You guys are sure busy on a Tuesday” I said.

“Well, it is Valentine’s Day,” she sniffed.

Of course! No wonder the cast-iron pole with the restaurant’s logo in the cut-out silhouette of an agrarian press had a tiny pink bow tied around it. And here I was with the audacity to demand prime real estate— a table for two with no RSVP on what is probably the busiest night for the restaurant.

Clearly I was deranged. PSA: Valentine’s Day is a day reserved for couples. No singles allowed. I should have just gone back to the hotel and ransacked the mini-fridge, devoured the carton of Ben & Jerry’s, while watching a Bridget Jones’s Diary re-run.

But I was here, and I was hungry. And angry. Angry at the fact that I was clearly being subjected to racism against singles, or what-I-call singlism. Hence, in protest of this grave injustice, I decided to stage my own sit-in at the (bar) counter.

“Well, can I get a seat at the bar then?” I asked indignantly.

Witch, I will not be denied my rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of dinner.

“Yes, but you’ll have to wait thirty minutes,” she replied curtly, clearly over this conversation with lonely boy.

“FINE!”

“Please wait out on the patio. We will call you when a spot is available.”

I swung the glass door open again, and stalked off towards the outdoor redwood table.

“Who does she think she is!?” I muttered angrily as I sat down and pulled out my laptop from my bag. “Valentine’s Day is nothing but an invention by Hallmark as an excuse to sell more flowers, chocolates, cards and pinkness.”

Deciding to make good use of this waiting time, I called up my reliable companion through many nights alone in the hotel room, Ms. Excel. I also pulled out my headphones and immersed myself in a dance with Ms. Excel through a sequence of steps and pivots whilst listening to my Adele playlist.

♫There's a fire starting in my heart.
Reaching a fever pitch,
It's bringing me out of the dark♫

It was now past 7 pm and the dinner rush was starting as other couples began to arrive. All of them were dressed up in smart blazers and dresses, while I looked like a slob in my increasingly wrinkled dress shirt, now half un-tucked. Some couples didn't make reservations either, so they joined me on the waiting list outside.

Every ten minutes or so, the hostess would come outside and call a name:

“John? John? Party of two?” said the hostess as she surveyed her clipboard.

Inevitably, a tall and handsome man wearing a slim-fit suit and tie stands up, proffers an arm to his leggy blonde girlfriend and gives her a peck on the lips before the pair walks jauntily into the restaurant, holding hands.

Vomit.

I was determined not to be distracted by this pair of showboats, so I turned up the music even louder and refocused my efforts on my spreadsheet. I must have become too engrossed in my work because the next time I looked up, I could hear the hostess shouting almost at the top of her voice.

“BEN? BEN? PARTY OF ONE?”

The couples who had all been chatting animatedly around me suddenly became quiet, like the silence that falls over noisy kindergartners in a classroom when the teacher suddenly walks in unannounced. All eyes started to search for this “Ben, party of one.”

Of course, I was not difficult to find. The crowd which had congregated around me slowly parted like the red sea, unveiling a singular figure sitting in the corner, typing away furiously on an HP laptop while wearing a pair of over-sized headphones that made him look like a buffoon.

Can I just say they were BOSE noise-cancelling headphones and they work really well? It’s not my fault I didn't hear the hostess sooner.

Again, I could imagine the congregated crowd collectively join in the elevator eyes exercises, looking me up and down to determine the factors for table for one:

“Must be a workaholic, just look at him, working on Valentine’s Day. No wonder he’s asking for a table for one.”

“Awww, pity, he looks like a nice person. Must be one of those socially inept programmer types, who dates someone through WoW avatars. He looks like the stereotypical nerdy Asian prototype.”

I chose to be the bigger person, and ignored all the (imaginary) snide comments above, and followed the hostess into the restaurant. I was shown to my seat at the bar, and I sat down next to an elderly woman with wisps of snowy white hair.

“Hello dearie,” said the elderly woman as I settled into my bar stool. “Are you waiting for your special lady friend?”

“Um, no,” I replied. “I’m here by myself. I'm traveling for work and forgot today was Valentine’s Day……”

“Oh. I see.”

She didn't seem convinced.

Awkward silence.

“Sooooo…..how about you? Are you, er, waiting for your, er, special gentleman friend?” I spluttered, trying to deflect the attention back onto her.

“Oh, my husband just went outside to the car to get my cardigan. It feels a bit cold in here. Old bones, you know.”

“Yes, yes,” I nodded in agreement.

Idiot. Why did I say yes? What did I know about old bones?

(I will acknowledge it was not the finest demonstration of my linguistic prowess)

Luckily, I was rescued by the bartender.

“Would you like to see a drinks menu?” said the bartender as his hands worked non-stop, preparing a cocktail.

I looked at the wine menu, and picked out a lovely Bordeaux blend from Chateau la Valade—Vintage 2009.

The place was busy, so I had drank most of my wine before the bar tender came back to take my order.

“Would you like another glass?” he asked politely.

“Yes, but can I also order some food too? Can I get the pappardelle con raghu?"

Screw the healthy option! I needed some comfort food pronto. Comfort in comfort food, right?

“I’m sorry sir, since it’s Valentine’s day, we only have the Valentine’s day menu….”

Are you freaking kidding me? Even the menu was designed for couples?

Now I was really hungary—angry and hungry. My mind went through the options:

  • 1. Throw a fit and leave angrily after downing the remains of my glass of wine. (Although it would probably make me look like an angry drunk, which would be yet another reason I was asking for a table for one)
  • 2. Try to go to another restaurant, and repeat the same (humiliating) process all over again
  • 3. Go back to hotel and eat the leftover airplane peanuts while ransacking the mini-bar (and end up with a distinct possibility of passing out on the bathroom floor)
  • 4. Stay and request another bottle of wine. There’s no problem that alcohol can’t resolve, right?

I decided to go with option 4.

“Fine, can I see the Valentine’s dinner menu then?” I answered waspishly.

“Sure. But just so you know, it’s a set menu, three courses, and the portions are designed for two.”

“That won’t be a problem,” I replied swiftly. “Valentine’s Day is about heart, right? Well, then I’m going to eat my heart out.”

“Can I get you another glass of wine, then?” he laughed.

“Make it a bottle.”

Two hours later, I was stuffed, drunk, and happy. I knew I was always the bigger person. After this meal, I was literally a bigger person. Mission accomplished. Take that table for one!

#TABLEFORONE

Posted by CuriousCaseOf 16:21 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Can you guess where I am?

Traveling for work is still traveling, right?

rain

Being on the road every week can make traveling seem not fun at times. I mean, who doesn't want to start off every Monday morning with a cup of Starbucks and getting violated by TSA either physically or digitally? Thankfully, I still enjoy traveling, especially when I can take photos of cool places:

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Can you guess where I am? :)

Posted by CuriousCaseOf 20:42 Archived in USA Comments (0)

When a frequent traveler reaches his/her last mile....

Salon Travel: Out of the Blue, a biweekly column about a flight attendant's life

Delays, excuses, tiny airplanes, no peanuts.....ahhhhh.....the joyous world of Up in the Air travel. It's definitely not for everyone. I haven't reached the same boiling point as these people below, but I've come close. Just waiting for that last mile before I snap

A few years ago on a United Airlines flight from Buenos Aires to New York, Gerard B. Finneran, an investment banker, went totally bonkers. Newspaper accounts said that after becoming intoxicated, Finneran demanded more alcohol from the flight attendants. When they refused, he began helping himself to the liquor supply. After being cut off a second time, he became visibly angry. He pushed one flight attendant (federal offense No. 1), verbally threatened another (federal offense No. 2), interfered with a third who was assisting a sick passenger (federal offense No. 3), then walked up to the first-class cabin, dropped his pants and defecated on a service cart in plain view of the passengers and crew. Then he stepped in his own feces and tracked it through the main cabin (federal offense Nos. 4, 5 and possibly 6).

Finneran was arrested upon landing in New York. He subsequently pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to two years probation. In addition, he was given 300 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine and was ordered to pay more than $50,000 in restitution to the airline and to reimburse fellow passengers for the price of their tickets. (Not surprisingly, Finneran's lawyer said his client was "ill" when he committed the now infamous in-flight atrocity.)

Every one of the estimated 110,000 flight attendants currently flying in the United States has witnessed strange behavior in the air. Occasionally, as in the case of Finneran, passenger misconduct exceeds all rational limits. Sometimes these in-flight incidents are violent; sometimes they're wickedly funny. Either way, the following examples will give you a better idea of what flight attendants put up with every day:

*
Seated side-by-side on a 14-hour overseas flight, two business-class passengers became romantically involved. At some point they began kissing and fondling each other while sitting in their seats. The passion became so intense that the couple began having sexual intercourse in their seats. Bewildered passengers immediately began ringing their flight attendant call buttons. Despite the flight attendants' urgent pleas, the couple refused to terminate their airborne lovemaking. Ultimately, the captain had to intervene. It was necessary for him to physically separate the lovers to get them to stop.

*
While a female flight attendant was serving food from the meal cart, a female passenger thrust a small bundle of trash toward her. "Take this," the passenger demanded. Realizing that the trash was actually a used baby diaper, the attendant instructed the passenger to take it to the lavatory herself and dispose of it. "No," the passenger replied. "You take it!" The attendant explained that she couldn't dispose of the dirty diaper because she was serving food -- handling the diaper would be unsanitary. But that wasn't a good enough answer for the passenger. Angered by her refusal, the passenger hurled the diaper at the flight attendant. It struck her square in the head, depositing chunks of baby dung that clung to her blond locks. The infuriated attendant leapt upon the passenger, strangling her until passengers could separate the two.

*
During a full flight between New York and London, a passenger noticed that the sleeping man in the window seat looked a bit pale. Sensing that something was wrong yet not wanting to wake him, the concerned passenger alerted flight attendants, who soon determined that the sleeping man was actually dead. Apparently, he had died a few hours earlier because his body was completely cold. Horrified by the prospect of sitting next to a dead man, the passenger demanded another seat. But the flight was completely full; every single seat was occupied. Finally one flight attendant had an inspiration. She approached a uniformed military officer, and he agreed to sit next to the dead man for the duration of the flight.

*
Passengers on a flight from Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico, were stunned by the actions of one deranged passenger. He walked to the rear of the plane, then charged up the aisle, slapping passengers' heads along the way. Next he kicked a pregnant flight attendant, who immediately fell to the ground. As if that weren't enough, he then bit a young boy on the arm. At this point the man was restrained and handcuffed by crew members. He was arrested upon arrival.

*
When bad weather closed the Dallas/Fort Worth airport for several hours, departing planes were stuck on the ground for the duration. One frustrated passenger, a young woman, walked up to a female flight attendant and said, "I'm sorry, but I have to do this." The passenger then punched the flight attendant in the face, breaking her nose.

*
A flight attendant returning to work after a double-mastectomy and a struggle with multiple sclerosis had a run-in with a disgruntled passenger. One of the last to board the plane, the passenger became enraged when there was no room in the overhead bin above his seat. He snatched the bags from the compartment and threw them on the floor, then put his own bag in the empty bin. After hearing angry cries from passengers, the flight attendant appeared from the galley to see what the fuss was all about. When the passengers explained what happened, she turned to the offending passenger. "Sir, you can't do that," she said. The passenger then rose from his seat and broke her jaw with one punch.

*
For some reason, a drunken passenger began throwing peanuts at a well-built man across the aisle. The man was sitting with his wife, minding his own business. When the first peanut hit him in the face, he ignored it. After the second peanut struck him, he looked up to see who had thrown it. He threw a harsh look at the perpetrator, expecting him to cease immediately. When a third peanut hit him in the eye, he'd had enough. "Do that again," he warned, "and I'll punch your lights out." But the peanut-tossing passenger couldn't resist. He did it one last time. The victim got out of his seat, then triple-punched the assailant so hard that witnesses heard his jaw break. The plane was diverted to the closest airport and the peanut-tosser was kicked off.

Posted by CuriousCaseOf 19:19 Comments (0)

7 Ways You’re Ruining My Business Travel

Thanks for writing this Mark Stelzner...this is the story of my life! (aka I'm a fellow business traveler, who is working on getting his super-platinum-double-premier boarding group. Only a few thousand miles left to go!)

Remember that (not so great) movie several years ago which featured Tom Hanks living in an airport terminal? For the bulk of 2011, that has been me. And although I’m not exactly setting up camp at O’Hare or living out of a vending machine at Logan, I’m rapidly approaching 100,000 miles of domestic business travel so far this year. I know, I know… I live a glamourous life.

With the exception of the rare burst of wisdom from a drunken journeyman, much of my transit this year has been nothing short of horrific. Every trite travel truism you can possibly conjure has come into play as I’ve toured our great nation. As my frustration grew, I started to look for someone (anyone!) I could blame for my displeasure. It took a few strong in-flight beverages to deconstruct, but I’ve realized that you, fellow traveller, have behaved in seven ways that have destroyed my business travel bliss:

1. TSA What?

As if transported from an era when chiseled stone memorialized common knowledge, these wide-eyed newbies approach the security process replete with wonder and ignorance. “But I don’t want to take off my shoes.” “What do you mean I need to chug my Monster energy drink?” “A seven ounce tube of lube is against what rule, exactly?” These are actual words spoken by those line-jamming plebes who can’t comprehend the endless multi-media displays and government payrolled cattle herders surrounding every airport terminal. Welcome to the modern age and get it together people.

2. “Now Boarding…”

To you self-important and overly entitled status hoarders, I have a simple observation. Although you have chosen a life in the clouds over that of terra firma, stop acting like such assholes when your super-platinum-double-premier boarding group is called. Try and realize that the two dozen passengers you steamrolled with your siamese wheelie/laptop bag might not bow to your ascension to the top of the air jockey pyramid. Desperately crying out “Premier Executive!”, “Platinum!” or “Elite!” puts a target on your back that my venti latte may be magnetically drawn to.

3. “THAT SOUNDS GREAT!!”

I hate to burst the imaginary bubble you believe surrounds you and everything within a twenty foot radius, but I can kinda sorta hear every frickin’ word you’re screaming into your cell phone. Aunt Martha’s ass is still sore from her procedure? Got it. The big M&A transaction fell apart because the investment bank screwed up the valuation (with all firm names called out)? Bingo. Your client, the one accused of rape, was wearing a condom (followed by a big “Whew!” while fifty people wish you a slow death)? Roger that. You are in public. I can hear you, have a camera on my phone and immediate access to social media. Don’t make me break you.

4. Too Much Baggage

Welcome aboard and please be seated as quickly as possible so we can leave on time. Oh, and while you’re at it, pretend your overstuffed carry-on is a marshmallow that can be crammed into the tiny little spot that remains in the overhead. And if that magic trick doesn’t work, repeatedly slam the door until it breaks (which delayed my last flight), remove someone else’s nicely sized piece (causing a flight attendant to declare on a recent trip, “No way honey, get your shit outta there right now!” to applause) or just leave it jutting out and walk away. Passengers and crew alike are getting very surly and will jump on your ass in about two seconds on this one. And yes, I will laugh at your expense. Keep the entertainment coming fool.

5. Are You Comfy?

Ten minutes after takeoff and the little *ding* tells me it’s okay to take out electronics, and this being business travel, I need to get right to work by kicking open my trusty laptop. You, lovely person in front of me, decide that it’s your God-given American right to press that silver button and let gravity be your guide. And although I really don’t want the plane to turn around and jet fighters to scramble because I knocked on your head like a soft-boiled egg, how about we avoid the entire confrontation by you having a little courtesy for those behind you? Or maybe that’s too much to ask…

6. Lushes, Lovers and Losers

One of the beautiful (and occasionally nightmarish) things about modern air travel is the snapshot of Americana present on every single flight. Three of my favorites that I’ve recently encountered are lushes (including the drunk guy next to me who asked for two whiskeys and and shot of Patron, to which the flight attendant responded, “Sir, this is not a flying bar!“), the lovers (such as the couple next to me who nervously looked around while the woman pulled a blanket over her boyfriend’s crotch and they both started moaning) and the losers (like the creepy guy directly behind me who said, “It’s been years since I sat next to a pretty girl“, to which she brilliantly replied, “It’s been years since I maced someone on a plane“). By all means let your freak flag fly, just not in the friendly skies.

7. Get Me Off This Crazy Ride

Despite the first six eff-ups, somehow we manage to arrive at our destination intact and without bloodshed. Taxiing into the gate, cell phones get turned on, makeup is touched up, breath mints are popped and the tension builds toward the final battle – getting off the damn plane as soon as possible. Yet despite grade school knowledge of lines and the natural order of the seating, some people leap up as if cattle prodded, drag their 8,000 pound bag from the overhead and suddenly appear next to you with their chest heaving from the rush of it all. And God forbid the flight attendant asks that “you remain seated so that those with tight connections can make their flights“. Stay calm. Be polite. Wait your turn.

This has been quite cathartic, thank you. Despite my confidence that this is a good list, I’m certain I’ve missed some other gems which make your own travel a horror on high. Share your comments and stories below and I’ll see you at 35,000 feet.

Posted by CuriousCaseOf 14:14 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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