Back from Europe’s Outie – Or, Homeward Bound for the Asian Griswalds

Day 6 of my trip began with the same breakfast from the previous five days, the European equivalent of a continental breakfast–stale breads, cheese, coldcuts, cereals and coffee. We head out to the cultural center of Florence where we’re informed many great works of art are showcased here, such as Michelangelo’s David, but who wants to utilize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a masterpiece when there is a (European equivalent of a) mall next door? So we went shopping.

My family separated from the pack with these two brothers from our tourgroup, because I had lost a lackadaisical tournament of poker with one of them on the bus two days ago, and the prize was lunch. I was supposed to buy him lunch the day before, but forgot. And so we set out together but somehow, we lost them again right around lunchtime. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I honor things…especially debts owed. But I think my subconscious reluctance with paying off this debt was the fact I would have to have lunch with him. I would have gladly given him the money to buy his own lunch, but didn’t want to spend time with him and lead him on. He had been coming on way too strong since that game with trying to point out all the things that we had in common in a “wow, we both went to high school? We’re like soulmates” kind of way but then acting antagonistic when I wouldn’t go in that direction so it was bugging me.

Michael and I found this pizza stand that had the most amazing pizza I’ve ever had. First of all, it was drenched in olive oil. I’m a compulsive blotter but by the 4th or 5th napkin, I gave up. The pepperoni slices had the thickness of miniature hockey pucks and the mushroom slice had 4 different types of mushrooms on it. So amazingly good.

We headed out to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa which was smaller than I expected it to be. But we had literally 10 minutes to see the tower, including the time it took from the gate to the tower which was a good half mile. Ridiculous. [Actually, about 4 minutes in, I found out from someone on the tour that their classmate had run up and down the tower timing it in 6 min. 22 seconds, so if I had sprinted right off the bus, I could have made it]. So most of us took pictures from the walkway halfway to the tower. There were some street vendors lining the walkway and one of them was selling medieval weapons. This guy sold swords, crossbows and those sticks with spiked iron balls attached by chains. This one kid in our tour touched one of the balls, and a crossbow came loose, falling. I grabbed the bow before it hit the ground and then all of a sudden, the owner of the cart is in my face, screaming at me not to touch the merchandise and and trying to coax the crossbow away from me, the way the cops on TV talk down a suspect with a gun, just before disarming him and beating his ass. So he takes the bow from me and tells me to leave and I’m hugely pissed off because if it hadn’t been for me, he’d have a broken crossbow on his hands and he’s flipping out. So we exchange some words, and not one of mine was a cuss word. Go me.

We run back to the bus only to find it…locked. It appears that our contracted bus driver has decided he will not drive until he receives tips in the amount of $2 euros per passenger ($44 Euros), even though we had all paid out the total tips for the trip to the guide to distribute accordingly on the second day. Our guide argues with him while these other drivers at the stop are telling us, “You’d better pay him because he could leave you guys in Rome and that’s a very dangerous place for American tourists to be stranded.” We collect money from everyone and the bus driver is willing to drive. We’re not sure if it’s a problem with communication with the tour company or the driver, but this has been indicative of this trip. This tour has been poorly planned and organized, and strange things just seem to keep happening. There are a lot of grumblings amongst the travelers. I expect many complaint letters will be written and consensus is that no one will be recommending this tour company to anyone.

On the four-hour busride to Rome, our guide informs us that she found us some New Year’s Eve dinner thing but the price will be about $150 US per person. That price is ridiculously high. She says this is “for the young people who want something better, even though most of us will be happy just to spend New Year’s Eve together.” I don’t think this is the point. The point is not that we want something trendier. The point is that we want something that makes the fact that it’s New Year’s Eve in Europe special. And it’s not about going someplace trendy or expensive. It’s just about being somewhere that feels celebratory, not some hole in the wall Chinese restaurant and then straight to bed. So I ask her if she could find out where people in Rome tend to gather, kind of like Union Square in San Francisco. Free but festive. That’s all we want. She finds out the place but says it’s nowhere near our hotel, which was supposedly in “downtown Rome.” But throughout this tour, when they say we’re staying “in” a city, it tends to mean “on the outskirts.” She says we can get a taxi from the hotel. I question whether it will be hard to get a taxi on New Year’s Eve and she assures me it’ll be fine.

So we arrive in Rome and eat at the scheduled Chinese restaurant. Really bad food. Much grumbling from tour members but at this point, we’ve already outlined our complaint letters in our heads but that’s all we can do other than just accepting things and trying to make the best of things. We get to the hotel which is in the middle of nowhere around 10:30pm, and find out that not only are there NO taxis, but the square is over an hour’s walk away. It seems at every turn, our guide was trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, by seemingly to try to make plans, but making plans that were unpalatable, unreasonable or simply half-ass. Our guide tells us that we should just be happy to celebrate with the group in the hotel, but I don’t want to sign off this night just yet. I talk to the front desk and find out there’s actually an area of gathering only a 10 minute walk away. But by then, everyone has given up, and it’s just my mom, brother and I. My mom says she doesn’t want to walk if it’s just us, since we’ve been filled with all kinds of stories about the dangers of mugging. So in the 11th hour, all efforts fail and we end up spending New Year’s Eve in the hotel lobby with half of our group (the other half gave up and just went to bed) and the two people who work behind the front desk. New Year’s Eve in Rome…in a hotel lobby. Like taking the kids to Disneyland but telling them they have to watch the rides from the parking lot. But fine…we have to make the most of it, you know? So we had champagne (I was on a mission to get drunk), and one of the front desk guys had a guitar so our tour guide played some music and I talked to one of the kids in the group who wants to be an actress about acting. Not a total wash.

The next day we were up bright and early doing a walking tour of Rome with an Italian guide. We hit the Coliseum which was closed so we observed its exterior. We saw some other landmarks, then headed over to Vatican City. Unfortunately, the Sistine Chapel was closed so we didn’t get to see the ceiling. St. Peter’s, the main chapel, is mindbogglingly huge. Apparently, Michelangelo dedicated the last 25 years of his life to designing the dome, and inside, it’s quite breathtaking. Also, inside St. Peter’s, you can find the embalmed body Pope John XXIII in a glass case. His face has been covered in some kind of wax to help preserve it, giving his head this bleached, unnaturally white hue. People are lined up to file past his body, observing and paying respects, but the thing that seemed to completely contradict the air of reverance was the fact that people would take pictures of him as he f
iled by, sometimes even with cellphone cameras. In the basement are the sarcophaguses of all the previous popes, lining this narrow, drafty passageway. You file by and you can touch them, knowing that their bodies are inside. I kept thinking how creepy this day must be for the young kids on the tour, who just went from seeing an embalmed body upstairs, to being squeezed into a crowded passageway lined by dead bodies.

Our guide kept telling us that going up to the tower of St Peter’s was a once in a lifetime opportunity. So with a few minutes to go before the line was closed down, three of us head towards that line. Suddenly, this old guy with a walkie-talkie jumps in front of us and physically shoves us, yelling in Italian. People turn to look. He’s going off and we’re telling him that we don’t understand him and he knows full well that we don’t understand him but he keeps yelling and we get the drift that he’s trying to tell us that the tower is closed and wants us to turn around. We tell him that we have over 5 minutes left and he’s saying no. So someone in our group tells us we should just go. He’s still screaming at us and we’re telling him he’s being unreasonable and it’s this insane scene, this yelling match in Italian and English with this crowd watching. He tells the guard not to let us in. I mean, it’s literally 3 people. At the end of the line. But the guy was being such a dick. The guard said he didn’t care and yeah, it wasn’t fair, but he couldn’t let us in because that crazy guy was the boss. So we were pissed. We left and told our tour guide about the incident and he asked if it was the crazy old man who had flipped out when we had tried to take a group picture earlier. We said yeah and he said, “Ah…he’s an evil man. And he will die an evil man’s death.” Nicely put.

I’m kind of upset at this point, because this whole trip of being here but not being able to see anything (ie the Coliseum & the Sistine Chapel being closed, not being able to get up to St. Peter’s chapel, etc.) has frankly, sucked. It feels like this whole trip has been about making a list of things I want to see when I come back to Europe on a tour that DOESN’T suck, which makes it suck even more because it feels like we’ve wasted a lot of money coming on this one. And our tour guide spends more time apologizing for things and talking about personal problems and trying so hard to make sure we all still think she’s a good person, rather than being professional.

I end up just finding my mom and brother (honestly? When you’re feeling down? There’s nothing like your friends and family to make you feel better) and walked around with them. At one point, we walked by these black guys selling fake watches. Now, our guide had spent the multiple-hour bus rides going on and on instilling the fear of God in us about muggers and pickpockets in Italy. So when we walk by, my brother, quite chivalrously, whispers, “Julia. Hold on to your purse. There are BLACK people.”


I immediately turn to my mom and say, “Did YOU teach him that?”

We met up with the group and head off to dinner. This is our last dinner on the tour as we’re all flying back to the states tomorrow. You would expect it to be a celebration. A dinner experiencing the finest of regional Italian cuisine. A dinner that we write home about. Nope. We went to another fucking Chinese restaurant with bad food. In fact, the chicken wasn’t even fully cooked. I kid you not.

So to recap….rang in New Year’s Eve in a near empty hotel lobby in Rome as off in the (walking) distance, thousands joyously celebrated, ate bad Chinese food for 3 out of 4 meals in Italy, bus driver tried to extort money out of us, and tour guide could not offset her lack of knowledge or competence with displays of “niceness” and pleas for personal sympathy.

Unimax Travel out of Alhambra, CA. The most unprofessional tour outfit I’ve ever encountered. Feel free to bombard them with hate mail.

I ended up getting sick the last night in Rome (after our last Chinese meal; unrelated to uncooked chicken) and missed out on the last get together. A bunch of people wanted to go out together and explore, but word was that the tour guide had invited herself. We all agreed to rest for an hour and then regroup, so I went to take a nap but woke up feverish and damn near hallucinating, as I could have sworn that my tour guide was IN MY ROOM, talking to me. No, wait. She had actually let herself into my room and was talking to me. [*sigh* I’m not even going to cuss here. But honestly. HONESTLY. Letting herself into someone else’s room???] She figured that since I hadn’t answered my phone (in fact, I think I hung up once), that she would come and get me. So I realized I was too sick to go out. I had caught a nasty cold from walking around in freezing weather all day. Later I heard that I hadn’t missed much. She showed people some random buildings and didn’t really know where she was going, when people really just wanted to hang out in a cafe or bar and chat.

I was really sick the next day but thankfully someone had some tylenol flu, which got me through the 11 hour flight from Rome to New York. New York found me asleep on the dirty floor of JFK Airport. Another 6 hours from JFK to San Francisco, 3 hours of sleep, the first morning flight out from San Jose to Los Angeles, and I was finally back home, long enough to drop off my luggage and go to work, then leave early to crawl into bed.

On the positive side, they’re opening a Zankou Chicken 2 minutes away from me!

Greetings from Florence

I’m writing from a hotel room in Florence, once again embarking on a post that will not be checked for typos until I return to the states in a few days. The mutiny of the Good Ship we-ain’t-eatin’-no-stinkin’-Chinese-food proved a success as our tour guide spent most of today on the phone with the LA office trying to get us decent plans for tomorrow night. This company has been cutting all kinds of corners so we’ll see what they pull out when they promised us something “trendier” to ring out oh-four.

As of my last post, here is a brief rundown of this trip:

-received a sweet email from my early-morn Swiss tour guide. It appears he’s found my website and found the pictures to be “strange or funny.” Maybe this was something that was lost in translation but it seems, he doesn’t know which. Even in Europe, I get the same reviews…

-no gym + 7 days of gluttony = so glad when my pants fit this morning.

-we visited Venice today which was quite an interesting city. I wish I had more time to just sit and ponder how the hell they constructed the city, since the buildings are built right up to the water’s edge. I know that city is sinking 2 ft. per year, but I wonder if at some point there was more dry land surrounding the water, or how they managed to lay the foundations to the structures. Many of the buildings dated back to the 16th century (I believe. According to the gondola rower with a thick Italian accent). All I could think about was how haunted the city must be. There were pigeons all over St. Marco Square, which is the center of town. For a few euros, you can buy a bag of corn kernels and they would eat them out of your hand, sometimes landing on your head, shoulders, etc. I quite enjoyed watching but didn’t want to participate. I prefer not to have a winged rat shit on me. We took a gondola ride and saw Marco Polo and Casanova’s houses. I think people live in there now. I think that’s so strange, to be living in a house once inhabited by a world icon. I don’t know…I would feel kind of intimidated.
We visited a blown-glass factory where this guy with a gymnast’s body gave us a demonstration in the furnace room and made a vase. I couldn’t get over the masculine curves under his shirt and was apparently, mumbling over and over, “I wish he would do this without his shirt.” Because the guy who was sitting in front of me turned around and told me, “We GET it.”

-we headed out to Florence which was a four hour drive. Had dinner at a little restaurant and the previously mentioned mild-mannered algebra teacher who is turning out to be a huge flirt asked the little bald waiter if she could have a box to take home her pasta appetizer to save for breakfast tomorrow. The waiter was so flattered that she liked the pasta so much that he brought her a full portion in a take-out container. What followed was a five minute compliment orgy between her, the waiter, and the maitre’d in which she was trying to tell the maitre’d how much she liked the pasta and how she wanted to have it for breakfast the next day and how nice our waiter was, while the maitre’d kept saying he spoke very little English but he was so happy that she liked the waiter. It went on and on and finally I told her she had to stop because it was starting to sound like she was talking about pasta while the maitre’d was arranging a threesome between the three of them that would culminate in having pasta for breakfast.

-I forgot to mention in my last post about the weird ass porn I saw on regular tv in Switzerland. First of all, the televised porn rules are weird. It’s on a normal channel, and the rules are, you can’t show penis and you can’t show any sort of penetration. But you can show s&m stuff, and lots and lots of chicks masturbating. I was channel surfing all 9 channels that were available and it was on channel 9. I knew something was wrong when I reached it and there was an ad for porn that’s sent right to your cell phone. The next thing I knew, the program comes on and it’s like clips from porns presented music-video style. The one I saw was called Fetish and it was this s&m clip with this guy all decked out like an SS officer complete with monacle, boots, and evil moustache, intently (with a hint of cruelly) watching this leather-clad chick masturbate in an open jet cockpit. While this tied up guy in a leather mask and a bit between his teeth squirmed in anguish. Sometimes, der pretend-fuhrer would march around, clacking his heels while the camera followed his boots, fetishistically drooling. WHAT THE FUCK? It was one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. Yet it was like a car crash. You just couldn’t look away. Thankfully, an ad came on for SWISS DATE with a girl who masturbates using her cellphone so I was able to switch the channel to something more stimulating in my mind…24 dubbed in German. (Even in German, Xander Berkeley’s a freakin’ badass.)

I want to do a quick retrospective list for 2004 but it’s 2am here so I have to get to bed. I’ll do it at a later time. Hope everyone has a fun, safe time tonight.

The Other Venice

Hello from Italy! I’m in a little hotel just outside of Venice right now. We got in after it was dark when everything was closed so I have no idea what’s outside of these walls. I’ll have a better idea when the sun comes up tomorrow morning.

Trip Summary:

# of hours flown: 11 1/2
# of bad movies not slept through: 1 (I, Robot)
# of cities visited: 5 (Paris, Dijon, Lucerne, Milan, almost-Venice)
# of pictures taken: 14 (ran out of space on my memory stick. Bought a new one today)
# of times was acting inappropriate in a picture: zero (!!! Good job, Julia!)
# of times cussed: 1
# of times reprimanded by a stranger: 1
# of cute Swiss tour guides: 1
Getting hit in the face with cold water from a misdirected showerhead at 6am: Priceless

Trip Synopsis:

We spent all of Saturday on a plane to Cincinnati and then another to Paris, arriving on Sunday morning. We immediately met up with our tour guide and started the tour running, with a trip to the Louvre. Our guide said we only had an hour and a half because it took half of us 2 hours to get our bags at the airport (they were accidentally sent to another terminal). Michael was grumpy from not having eaten so we broke from the group to find him food. Then I lost my ticket so I couldn’t get back in. I was a bit upset but my mom hates museums and Michael just wanted to go back to the bus and sleep so she gave me her ticket and they headed back to the bus. I only had half an hour before it was time to meet and our guide said she would dock people a dollar for each minute late whenever they held up the group. I figured I would just find the Mona Lisa and then head back. Well, the Louvre is HUGE. It took me about 10 minutes just to get to it from the entrance. I’m not an art guru so I can’t tell what makes some paintings valuable enough to put in a museum while others are stock wall coverings for Motel 6’s. But the Mona Lisa is really interesting. She kind of looks…alive. I sprinted back to the bus, only knocking down 2 people in the process, only to have the tour group (guide included) return 15 minutes late.

Next we went to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, which is one of my favorite places in the world. I love the gargoyles and I love the energy of the place. There were priests in there who were open for confession. They sat in these little offices with signs saying which languages they were able to take confessions in. Today’s priest could accept confessions in: French & Japanese. I thought this was kind of funny. Like when you go to the New Age bookstores out here in LA and they always have a little board withe fliers of all the psychics who are currently available for walk-in readings, along with a list of their abilities.

Again, my mom and brother could care less about the cathedral so they rushed me out and we went to a little cafe across the street. The waiter looked eerily like Dr. Ethan, my head shrink friend in Ohio. Like a French doppelganger. Snooty Faux-Ethan.

As the sun set, we drove around and looked at the other tourist destinations. And by looked at, I mean literally–we would drove by and the guide would say, “To the left…” “To the right…” and the driver would slow down just a wee bit. Sometimes, such as with the Eiffel Tower, we would get out of the car as the driver left the engine running while he held up traffic and we would take pictures as the guide yelled, “Back in the bus! Back in the bus!” (By the way, I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower 8 years ago in the day time and it’s quite non-impressive. But by night, it’s gorgeous. Absolutely stunning. As I thought as I flung myself back into the bus.)

We had dinner at a little French restaurant across from a theater. I say “French” because when we walked in, it was filled with Asians. You know how they always say, if you walk into a Chinese restaurant and it’s filled with white people, then it’s probably not a good Chinese restaurant? So what does it mean when a French restaurant is filled with Chinese? The food was okay. I had the duck and a lot of table wine and kept urging the mild-mannered high school algebra teacher next to me, “Come, Natasha! Ve dance!”

I was determined to hit a Parisian night club. We arrived at the hotel, I saw the bed, I was out.

We left Paris at 8am the next day and headed to Dijon. We were told by the guide that we only had 1 1/2 hours. We looked at a church they had there for a few minutes but no one seemed particularly interested, so everyone headed towards the shopping area instead, towards exclusive French establishments such as Sephora and McDonald’s. The bus couldn’t park at the arranged meeting area so we ended up chasing around the city square for a while. I kind of wish I could have not been involved in that scene and was merely an observer. A bunch of Asian people lugging shopping bags while chasing a large tour bus around an ancient city monument must have been a bizarre site.

We headed out to Lucerne, Switzerland. I was tired from all of the running around and bus-chasing so I unfortunately fell asleep in the bus. From the bits and pieces I gathered about the trip from fleeting moments of consciousness, 1. the mountains were beautiful; and 2. our guide was conducting some acapella karaoke contest. Thankfully, sweet sweet sleep took me to my happy place.

We arrived at Lucerne after it was already dark but I was determined to go out that night. I asked the guy at the front desk if there were any fun bars or clubs in town and he said the town was dead on Mondays so I may as well stay in the hotel. I went with my mom and brother to walk around and we found a small grocery store and went in and looked around. I asked the cashier, “Where are the good looking guys around here?” He directed me to a bar across the street. I headed out. The place was PACKED. Damn lying front desk guy. It was called The Roadhouse and it had kind of an American theme. Decent music. One of those places those traveler’s guides would deem a “cozy expat hang out.” Was harassed by a total doofus who thankfully couldn’t speak English. I made no attempt to use charades to communicate with him. Was finally rescued by a couple of nice German mechanical engineers. They wanted to know what I thought of Bush (I apologized profusely). I wanted to know about Dirk Nowitzki (“Yeah, he’s very good. He’s from Germany.” “Yeah, he’s definitely very good.” long awkward silence). Finally this cute guy in a baseball cap who’d been lurking all night comes and talks to me. He too wants to know about Bush. Again I apologize profusely. He asks me what I think of David Hasselhoff. I tell him that we make fun of him a lot in the US. He says, we do too. Because he has…[he does the universal gesture signifying “manboobs.”] I immediately like this guy. He tells me he doesn’t like horror movies. I figure he’s a Pisces, later confirmed. He’s exactly 9 months younger than me. If you think about it, if both of our mothers were exactly on time, then he was conceived the day I was born. Shout out! The bar closes down and he gives me an impromptu tour of Lucerne. Very sweet. I think I like Swiss boys.

We leave at 7am the next morning and do a walking tour of Lucerne. This place is GORGEOUS. Cobblestone walks, quaint little shops and structures, surrounded by snowcapped mountains. With the nicest people around. I tell the tour guide that I think that the people here seem very intelligent. She says that they’re very proactive, as they’re always voting on something, every few days. It’s too bad we couldn’t have important the Swiss in time for this year’s doofus election.

We had a lunch of fondue and then headed out to the mountains. To my chagrin, the mountain we wen
t to was called…Titlis. YES. I kept telling my mom that’s what it was called but she wouldn’t believe me. We took the longest ride up ever, consisting of a lift, a gondala, and a rotating lift (which rotated the people inside so you could get a 360 degree view of the outside.) The mountain was absolutely majestic. Near the summit, we were so high up that we couldn’t even see the ground. We were completely shrouded. The place was incredibly beautiful. In fact, we took a picture up there that looks like we’re standing in front of a cardboard backdrop of a “Swiss Mountain Scene” because it looked so unreal.

When we finally make it back down the mountain, it’s dark already and in the lodge, there are skiers and boarders sitting around fire pits drinking beer while a DJ spun records. Like a ski retreat lodge party. In Europe. The stuff that fantasies are made out of. But of course, I couldn’t stay because we’re on this crazy strict schedule and I have to run my butt back to the bus before I get fined.

This morning I managed to miss my wake up call and have 15 minutes to get ready and out the door. Somehow, the shower nozzle ended up facing outward and when I went to turn on the water, I got hit in the face and chest with some seriously freezing water. It was probably the worst way to be woken up that I can possibly imagine. Lucerne was beautiful in the morning as dawn broke and it was sad leaving. Switzerland is beautiful. There’s something about it–maybe it was the swans in the lake, maybe it was the feeling of safety and calm emanating from the surrounding mountains…it’s definitely a place everyone must try to check out before they leave this earth.

We headed out to Milan, Italy, where we saw the most amazing work of architecture I’ve ever seen. I think it’s called La Scala but I’m not sure because our guide does most of her guiding in Chinese. She got into a little cat fight with another tour guide who told her that she would be arrested for “guiding” inside a church, which was ridiculous. She went off on our guide in Italian and I couldn’t help but notice how catfights just sound a certain way, no matter what language they’re in. All she had to give was the universal sign of “The Hand,” and it would have been the complete experience.

I found this little market that looked like the Fish Market up in Seattle, except it was filled with more pastries than I’ve ever seen in my life. They were stacked in open cases the way the fish are stacked on ice in Seattle. I boughta cannoli because it made me think of Jake (“Have a cannoli, man”) and that thing was like eating a slice of heaven. I don’t like cannolis but wow…WOW.

We hoped back onto the bus because of course, we were only given an hour and a half to hang out in Milan (this tour is crazy…it’s the traveling equivalent of speed dating. I feel like I don’t really get to see things and I’m sprinting through places, spending most of my time just trying to catch the bus). We drove out to Venice were we ate at…at Chinese restaurant. What the fuck? We flew all the way to Europe and we’re eating at a Chinese restaurant? A lot of the people on the tour were really, really pissed about that. Apparently, we’re going to be eating at another Chinese restaurant in Rome as well…on New Year’s Day. Oi vey. Freakin’ Chinese people. They’re really stubborn about that. I went to Mexico once with my family and they insisted on eating at a Chinese restaurant. I personally believe in sampling what a culture does best, especially if I take the time and money to travel–I want to have what I can only get there. But my parents will always want bad Chinese food over no Chinese food. So it was weird. Anyway, I’m really really hoping that I don’t end up spending New Year’s Eve in a Chinese restaurant in Rome. I don’t want to sound spoiled, but that just seems like kind of a waste.