Two Weeks In Europe: Day 1 – Leaving On A Train, Then Jet Plane

What would become the greatest trip of my life started as a complete coincidence. It was early in 2015, and I’d already thought my travel plans were set for the year; I’d have a week in Mexico, and that would be it. However, my mother called me unexpectedly one afternoon, saying that she’d come across a flyer for the Royal Caribbean cruise line. She’d been considering Greece – this was long before the refugee crisis became headlines here in the States – but decided on something far grander: a two week trip with stops in Spain, France, Italy, and Montenegro. We’d been to this part of Europe before (years before I owned a digital camera, sadly!), but never to Barcelona or Nice. I’ve always been a huge history and art geek, so I was immediately hooked on the prospect of seeing Rome and Venice. Mom had actually been trying for almost a decade to get a trip booked for Rome via her timeshare, but couldn’t get anything in the city itself. This cruise seemed like a feasible way for her to tackle her bucket list, and we wanted to travel together while she was still capable of doing so. So, we made arrangements and marked our calendars.

Skip forward about 6 months (the Mexico trip in June is a story for another time), to the morning of October 18th. I’d slept at Mom’s place overnight – amazing how the living room sofa felt better than my old bed – because we had to leave the house before dawn. Instead of driving to SFO, we stuck with what’s become our go-to option: taking BART train line all the way to the airport. It’s easy to navigate, cheaper than a shuttle, and you don’t have to worry about parking. Assuming there are no malfunctions, protests, or police activity (which all happened coming back from Hawaii last December), it’s a smooth, straightforward trip. It’s just a long ride from our starting point, almost from one end of the line to the other. It feels even longer when you’re still half asleep, shivering in the cold, and hauling 50 lbs of your mom’s luggage onto the platform. We took the first SFO-bound train of the day, and were surprised to find at least two dozen other travelers along for the ride. Any Bay Area commuter knows that getting a seat on BART during the busy hours is like a competitive sport; it’s all about positioning yourself in the crowd and seizing opportunities – and vacant chairs – with keen observation and timing. I usually stand during my daily commutes, but going to the airport is different. We tried getting the coveted senior priority seats (there’s more open space for our bags), but ended up sitting across the aisle from each other.

After about an hour of struggling to stay awake while keeping the bags standing and out of people’s way, we finally made it to the airport. Finding the terminal was easy, but the actual ticket counter was something else. We thought our flight was with United Airlines; it said so in nice, big letters on our printout. However, we failed to read the fine print: the plane belonged to United, but the flight itself was being operated by Air Canada. Cue us wasting about half an hour wandering through the terminal and getting incorrect directions from every information desk. Finally getting our luggage checked was a huge relief, both physically and mentally. Getting through security was surprisingly easy this time, too; I’m one of those unfortunate folks who seem to be a magnet for the TSA. It’s probably the suspiciously long, beautiful hair. Aside from her purse, Mom was toting a large bag full of food and her medications. She was diagnosed with diabetes last year – she carries around the doctor’s note to prove it to the authorities – but it always strikes me funny how she’s able to get several meals’ worth of snacks, cereal, and veggies past security. The most I bring are a couple packages of crackers and two refillable water bottles. With the hardest part out of the way, we had a little less than two hours to kick back and wait.

We weren’t flying straight to Spain, though. We had to fly to Montreal, then make a connection. It’s pretty standard fare…except that there was only 30 minutes between flights. When I wasn’t distracted by the movies (I got to watch Jurassic World, Inside Out, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Reviews coming soon!), I pondered over the logistics of our layover. 30 minutes to disembark the plane, get through customs/security, and find a gate in an airport that I’d never seen before. Yeah, it was going to be messy. Air Canada was well aware of our problem; when we landed in Montreal, they announced that the people with close connecting flights – less than a dozen of us in total – were allowed to disembark first. They were even good enough to find out what gate we needed. Mom and I bolted and got through security quickly – they have a small booth off to the side just for connections – and rushed to the next gate.

But there was no plane.

I checked my watch. No, we had at least another 15 minutes. There’s no way it could’ve left. I went to the flight listing display and searched for ours. Lo and behold, it was still at the airport, but at a different gate, in the opposite direction that we’d come. The Air Canada crew had outdated information. Because it couldn’t be that easy, right? Mom and I nearly sprinted to the correct gate, only to find that they’d been delayed and had just started boarding. We scrambled into the line and got on without any problems. As I sank wearily into my seat and buckled up, I closed my eyes and tried to rub my headache away. We’d been traveling for over 12 hours straight across multiple time zones, and we’d made a connection that, in normal circumstances, should’ve been nearly impossible. Once dinner and drinks had been served – apple juice is my beverage of choice when flying – I tried settling back and sleeping. Time passes strangely on overnight flights; with the windows shuttered and lighting inconsistent, it’s impossible to tell what time it is without looking at a phone or watch. And when you’ve been on your feet for so long, your energy and circadian rhythm are all out of sorts. I think I slept, but I’ve blacked out on flights before. I was more worried about Mom; her endurance isn’t as strong as it used to be. She spent most of the flight trying to find a good sleeping position – often using my shoulder as a pillow – but with little results.

Eventually, someone pulled up a shutter, revealing that the sun was already out. I’d lost track of the night at some point, but that didn’t matter. The captain announced that we were within an hour of Barcelona, the port where we’d board the cruise. I rubbed my eyes and shared some bread with Mom. At this point, we’d been traveling for over 24 hours straight. My head was pounding, but I had to focus on what was coming next. Disembarking. Finding our luggage. Hopefully none of it got lost in transit like the last time we were in Spain. Finding the airport-to-ship shuttle service we’d reserved in advance. We were almost an hour late, hopefully they were still waiting for us. Boarding the ship. What did that entail? So many questions, so little time.

Continued in Day 2…

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Opera At The Ballpark 2015

Yes, you read that title correctly. I spent last Friday evening watching opera in a baseball stadium. The San Francisco Opera performed Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the War Memorial Opera House. The show was simulcast for free at AT&T Park, the home of the Giants. Wait, you exclaim. How can something as classy as opera work with something so low-brow as baseball?!

Incredibly well, surprisingly.

I should preface this by saying that I’m not a music critic. I’m geek when it comes to multiple subjects, but I’ve never studied music. I sing poorly, don’t play any instruments, and can muster little more than a shout. The latter is why I find opera fascinating; The quote, “opera singers are the olympians of the music world” is the most apt description I’ve ever read. How much raw talent, dedication, and training does it take to reach those vocal plateaus? My exposure to opera is above average at best. My mother was part of a church choir and loved singing along to Phantom of the Opera on cassette (which I brought to school once, and was promptly ridiculed for it). My father constantly listened to Andrea Bocelli every time I visited, and once had me watch the entire performance of Les Miserables: The Dream Cast In Concert on tape. You know, the one with 17 Valjeans in the encore? I’ve only been to one show in person, which was Phantom at the Curran for a Christmas gift in 1997.

Yeah, I was that kind of kid.

Appropriately enough, it was my mother who told me about the event. We met up after work and walked to the ballpark. I hadn’t been inside since Labor Day weekend in 2000 – during the summer in which it originally opened – so I was interested to see how it changed. We were under the impression that we’d be able to sit on the grass, but were rebuffed by security once we reached ground level inside the stadium. Only visitors who came in through the side marina gate – and sporting the green wristbands to prove it – were allowed onto the outfield. Getting that far would’ve required us climbing back up to the main area and walking to the opposite end of the stadium. I was a little ticked about that (the staff in charge of the lines out front should’ve explained and guided newcomers accordingly) but decided on something better:

Yeah, that’s right. I got seats next to home plate at AT&T Park!…While the Giants were out of town. Heh. It was perfect for what we needed: good chairs with solid backs and beverage holders, and a stone’s throw from restrooms and restaurants downstairs. It exemplified the advantages of watching opera in a stadium; it’s more comfortable, you don’t have to dress up, you can take your kids, and there’s food, accommodations, and friendly staff at the ready. You’d be surprised how well garlic fries and a cold drink go with the opera. Just kick back, relax, and enjoy the show. Putting it on the jumbotron is a great idea as well; not only does it do split-screen to display multiple singers at once, but subtitles as well. That’s a huge benefit for those who don’t speak Italian or have trouble following what’s being sung. That way, the spectators can enjoy the plot and comedy without much confusion.

There are a couple of drawbacks, though. Traditional opera houses are renowned for their phenomenal acoustics, but ballpark loudspeakers and big screens can’t quite replicate the experience. It probably doesn’t matter to 99% of the visitors, but there is a difference. Also, attending an opera means you’re actually inside a building, not an open-air stadium. Summer evenings are pleasant in San Francisco; the temperature is still decent, and there’s a slight breeze by the water. Skip forward to 10 or 11 PM, and things have gotten chilly, misty, and the gorgeous dusk sky has been devoured by fog. If you’re going to stay for the whole show, bring a couple of extra layers to keep warm. I was fine, but my mother was shivering under a sweater and jacket. Also, if you’re taking BART, keep in mind that you’ll need time to walk back to the station. After the awesome curtain call, we had to duck out in front of most of the crowd in order to make our train.

As for the show, it was hilarious and amazing. Opera is often stereotyped as being some stuffy, serious, incomprehensible, yawn-inducing thing exclusively for snobby old people. That’s unfortunate (more like absolutely ridiculous), because The Marriage of Figaro is essentially an 18th century romantic comedy. It’s got witty writing, romance, scandal, intrigue, snark, slapstick, likeable protagonists, a scene-stealing drunk gardener, and (of course) killer vocals. I could spend all day watching Philippe Sly and Lisette Oropesa bicker as Figaro and Susanna. Or Nadine Sierra constantly – but narrowly – outsmart Luca Pisaroni‘s Count Almaviva, for that matter. I heard 30,000 people laugh out loud at the look on Susanna’s face during the “Su madre?!” scene, and pretty much anything Angela Brower did as the oh-so lecherous and gropey Cherubino. No matter how old you are, watching a lovestruck idiot awkwardly hide under a bed sheet is somehow the funniest thing ever. If nothing else, this will make you believe that 18th century servant women could Judo-throw their foolish husbands.

The fun wasn’t limited to the show, either. During the intermissions, they displayed some classic Looney Tunes that involved the opera. All of us cartoon geeks in the audience recognized and laughed along to excerpts from Long-Haired Hare and Rabbit of Seville. Val Diamond of Beach Blanket Babylon took the stadium by storm with a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out To The Opera.” There was also a marriage proposal on the jumbotron, and apparently he said yes.

It’s interesting how it’s come to this. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Quite the opposite. Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro 229 years ago. I wonder if he ever imagined his music would survive this long, or himself playing to a crowd the size of a baseball stadium. The fact that there was such a huge turnout is not only a testament to the opera’s appeal, but to the performances as well. If something’s great, people will come to see it. It’s also thanks to the San Francisco Opera engaging the fans in a direct and modern way. They were very active on Twitter, encouraging viewers to make comments and displaying them on the jumbotron. I tweeted throughout the show (only during the intermissions, because it’s the polite thing to do), and got some great responses from the staff, performers, and fellow viewers. I even got a response from Susanna, which prompted me to geek out in the best way. This kind of approach is perfect for younger generations who’ve gotten used to sharing everything on social media.

You know what the best part was? There were lots of kids. Sure, some of them probably thought they were coming to see a baseball game. But they got the chance to experience something new and different. Something that they may not appreciate now, but they will later on. That’s how opera – and all other aspects of our culture – survive; we pass it all down in as many ways and influences as we can think of, and hope it sticks. Judging by the success of Opera At The Ballpark, we have nothing to worry about.

Cee’s Which Way Challenge: Pier 9, San Francisco

Pier 9, San Francisco

My entry for this week’s Cee’s Which Way Challenge. Just a little something I took while walking at San Francisco’s waterfront this weekend.

So, How About That Napa Earthquake, Bay Area?

Hey, folks. Sorry if I’ve gone a little silent the last couple of days. It’s just that there was some stuff going down behind the scenes…like being right next to the epicenter of the biggest Bay Area earthquake in 25 years. Not going into any specifics on the location, but I’m roughly fifteen minutes out of ground zero. So when things started shaking, it felt like someone was ramming a big rig into the house. As I was asleep, I didn’t have time to run for a door frame; all I could do was duck and cover under the blankets and protect my head with some pillows. Not very fun. Lots of shelves fell, as well as about a fifty books in my immediate library. For all you bookworms out there, a book avalanche isn’t as fun as it sounds. One light fixture – a glass antique that’s been in use for at least 70 years – collapsed and shattered. Only a few things on the wall fell, though at least one closet is going to have to be completely rearranged. We were temporarily barricaded out of our back pantry because so much stuff had fallen inside. Then there’s the upstairs office/storage room:

Earthquake Office Cleanup

And no, it doesn’t normally look like that.

However, that’s the worst of it. There’s only some slight buckling on our back deck. For a while, I was afraid the house would collapse; this place is a century old, after all. We were very, very fortunate to have our electricity and water still running, as well as no signs of any leakage. I made sure to keep the lights on and the place open in case the neighbors needed help, but thankfully only half the block lost power and no one was badly injured. At least one neighbor will have to get his chimney rebuilt, though. A couple of the buildings around here aren’t safe, and there have been several flybys from the news helicopters. It’s okay, things could’ve gone much worse. We’ve just got to get things cleaned up and back to normal.

How about you? Have you been affected by the earthquake?