Two Weeks In Europe: Day 3 – Villefranche, Nice, and James Bond

Continued from Day 2…

I was woken up by a voice blaring over the ship’s intercom. For a brief moment, I thought there was some kind of an emergency. Why else would they making announcements? Then I heard the words, “We will arrive in Villefranche within the hour.” I sat up with a jolt and fumbled for my phone. Man, I really must’ve had some serious jetlag; I’d slept from about 9 PM – something unheard of for a night owl like me – all the way to almost 10 in the morning. As the announcement continued, I awkwardly stood up and nearly stumbled over my duffel bag. In my stupor last night, I’d overlooked an obvious consequence of having an interior state room: there were no windows, which meant no light. Aside from the tiny dot glowing from the eye hole on the door, we were in complete darkness. And with no clock aside from our phones or turning on the TV, our sense of time was effectively shot.

Also, my phone was displaying the wrong time. It was set to change automatically, but it always reverted to Greenwich Mean Time whenever I was in the room. I didn’t want to connect to the ship’s network – the roaming and data usage costs would’ve been horrendous – which meant my phone couldn’t be used in the room for accurate timekeeping, let alone messaging or Internet access. My old iPod Touch became an unexpectedly useful replacement; I couldn’t get online (which is a blessing in disguise), but I could change the time manually without having to worry about network issues. Besides, that little music player did everything I needed; I can estimate time based on the position of the sun, but taking a cruise requires much more precision. After a few days of excursions and scheduled dinners, and everything else, you will learn effective time management.

I shook off my grogginess and got dressed. No time left to shower. Not now, so close to our first stop already. We still had to get tickets for the tenders, the smaller boats that would transfer us from the ship to the shore. While Mom was still getting ready, I quickly went up a couple of decks and found the ticket counter. We hadn’t scheduled any excursions, which meant getting to town after most of the other passengers had left. We’d be on Tender #8. Another hour’s wait, but was fine. More time to get prepped and eat. After meeting with Mom, we headed to the Windjammer buffet for breakfast. Getting their required a little effort: Taking the stairs from Deck 3 to 9, then walking around the open-air swimming pool. It seemed like a tall order at first – most passengers simply took the elevators, which was slower, crowded, but far less physically demanding – but it eventually became my daily warm-up routine. It paid off, too. I’m already in decent shape thanks to all the hiking I do throughout San Francisco, but I spent almost every waking moment of this trip either climbing stairs, walking, or simply being on my feet. I actually lost a belt notch.

It definitely wasn’t for lack of food, either; the Windjammer was equipped with nearly everything you could want for breakfast. Cereals, fruits, vegetables, bread, bacon and other meat, sandwiches, little cakes, all kinds of juices, teas, and coffee…Yeah, I ate like a king. The buffet also served as our daily supermarket; we didn’t want to spend too much money on food while at port, so we simply brought an insulated bag with us each morning and stocked up. I think I had a turkey breast and Swiss cheese sandwich every lunch until we got back to Barcelona. After watching me practically inhale a couple of bread rolls and several watermelon and pineapple slices, and downing three glasses of apple juice (I was going to be walking all day, after all), Mom told me that we still had time to kill, and that I needed to slow down. She was right, too. Getting such a rough wake up call had left me feeling rushed and stressed, which is no way to start a vacation. I took a deep breath and sat back, finally taking a moment to enjoy the scenery.

I’d seen photos of the French Riviera before. I knew what to expect; the brightly-colored buildings clustered atop sparkling water and rocky outcroppings, with hills looming in the background. But like any great place, seeing it in person was a completely different experience. What struck me most about Villefranche-sur-Mer wasn’t its beautiful architecture, or even its surprisingly quiet waters. I was much more interested in how the land itself was formed; everything seemed to stem from only a couple of lush hills, creating mini-ridges that spread off in every direction. Steep cliff faces loomed down the coast to the right, dwarfing the buildings lining the waterfront. To the left, the hotels, houses, and roads twisted and stretched further inland, tempting people to come upslope and explore. Citadelle Saint-Elme stood nearby, keeping watch over a city that no longer needed its protection. How much history had happened in just this harbor? How many ships had sailed here? How many people wandered up those hills and into France? No idea. I grabbed my camera and spent the rest of the waiting time on Deck 10, taking photos and ignoring the morning chill. When I finally boarded Tender #8, I made sure to get one of the drop seats next to the open-air doorway. Taking good photos from a moving boat is pretty difficult; I have reasonably steady hands, but a lot of my shots didn’t turn out well. After a few failed attempts, I decided to just sit back and enjoy the ride with my own eyes. Villefranche was someplace new, and I didn’t want to miss it.

The trip to the dock took only a few minutes. As we navigated around a rocky outcropping and a couple of sailboats, I was surprised by how quiet and relaxed the place seemed. Unlike most of the ports I’ve visited – especially the United States – everything looked clean and fresh. The waterfront was decorated with a row of gorgeous, multicolored hotels and cafes. No litter, no dull roar of the tourist crowd. Just quiet, paved streets winding up the hill, the occasional moped parked in the shade of a tree, the faint clatter of a kitchen prepping for lunch, and a few pedestrians. The kind of sleepy little place you’d visit on a visit on a Sunday morning for a leisurely walk, or maybe to enjoy breakfast while watching the ships go by…In retrospect, maybe it was better that we left later than the rest. We disembarked and headed to the tourist information center nearby. We didn’t have an scheduled excursion, which meant we’d have to figure out how to get around ourselves. Also, that night would be the cruise’s first formal night; since our dinner was at 6 PM, we’d have to be back on the boat by 5 in order to wash up and prep. That meant catching a tender by 4:45. After getting a map and consulting a very patient attendant, we narrowed our options to two:

1) Climb up the hill and take the local bus to Nice, or

2) Take the bus or train to Monaco.

Mom’s been obsessed with the latter for years, and I’ve seen enough James Bond movies to recognize the location of the Monte Carlo. However, Mom pointed out that we could use timeshare in Monaco at a later date (and could explore more of the coast with less of a time limit), while Nice was a complete unknown. So, we followed the winding street up the hill, past Passage St. Elme – which has an absolutely gorgeous view of the harbor and clock tower – and deeper into town. The French have a bad rap when it comes to Americans (or maybe it’s the other way around), but the few locals we met along the way were kind enough to provide directions and a smile, even if we didn’t speak the language. I focused on studying Italian for this trip, so I was immensely grateful for the help.

After a couple of switchbacks and a street narrow enough to be an alley, we finally came upon the Octroi bus stop and waited for the #100. That route is popular for a reason; its final stop is the Nice marina, which makes it easy for tourists to find. It also runs frequently and only costs 1.50 Euros, which is still cheaper than most of the buses here in the Bay Area. The fact that I didn’t need exact change instantly made it better for me than MUNI. After finding a seat, I studied the route map. Nice, Villefranche, Beaulieu, Eze, Cap D’Ail, Monaco, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, and Menton. All of these beautiful, luxurious places synonymous with the French Riviera…listed as mere bus stops. Perspective is funny like that.

After reaching the end of the line, Mom and I found an unattended café table and spread the map out. We settled on exploring the Old Town area; lots of historical landmarks, restaurants, and shops crammed into tiny alleys. Aside from the hordes of fellow tourists, what’s not to love? Getting that far required a little educated guesswork, though. Our map used a simple grid layout, which didn’t help once we reached Place Massena, with its massive expanse of chessboard-patterned pavement, Fontaine du Soleil, and crossroads in seemingly every direction. We’d walked past most of the Old Town’s border before we realized where we were. We dove headlong into the surge of visitors, edging our way through shady corridors and souvenir shops. I picked up a keychain – the first of many mementos on this trip – crossed a square, and came across a wall finely etched with a list of World War I casualties. Looking back, those memorials were everywhere; they were in remembrance of people who helped shape our present, yet they were overlooked by so many a century later.

Irony tastes bitter.

I took a step back and realized the list was part of the front wall of the Nice Cathedral, one of the most famous landmarks in the city. We didn’t go in, though; it was closed for the lunch hour, and we weren’t exactly dressed for the occasion. Instead, we found an empty table in front of the church and took a moment to rest, eat some food, and plan our next move. That brief respite ended when a polite-but-firm waitress came over and informed us that we’d taken one of the cafe’s tables, and that we’d have to leave if we weren’t going to buy anything. We sheepishly packed up and ate the rest of our sandwiches as we walked out of Old Town. We didn’t have a particular destination in mind; we’d have to turn back for the ship in a couple of hours, so we needed to keep things simple. We found the waterfront and walked on it for as long as we could, passing by a park, carousel, McDonald’s (Seriously, who goes to France to eat fast food?!), Hard Rock Café, the Centennial Monument, the closed Massena Museum, and the Hotel Negresco. We also snuck into another hotel to use its lobby bathrooms, but the attendants either didn’t notice or care.

When it came time to turn back, Mom suddenly realized she had no idea where we were or how to get back the way we came. I pointed out that the bus stop was at the marina; all we had to do was follow the coastline, and we’d get back to the starting point eventually. Besides, why go back the same way, when we could see more of the city by taking a different route? Mom reluctantly followed my lead (she tends to panic whenever she thinks she’s lost and conveniently forgets that I’ve been a reliable navigator on, you know, every trip we’ve taken together), and spent next half hour trying to find a shortcut back through Old Town.

Eventually, we hit a curve in the road: a small but steep hill jutting out from the rows of buildings, hiding the rest of Nice behind the bend. I looked closer and noticed the stairway heading up from street level. I immediately decided to climb, time limit and Mom’s protests notwithstanding. The sign at the bottom said it was only 90 meters, which is adorable compared to some of San Francisco’s hills. I went up quickly, not knowing what to expect. And man, did it pay off; Castle Hill is topped with a designated lookout point that displays Nice’s coastline, curving far into the horizon. I stood there, gaping and taking photos, while an old man with an accordion played for tourists’ pocket change. Mom made it up a few minutes later, and was astounded at the sight. In our random wandering, we’d stumbled across the best view in the city!

Time was running short, however. We descended Castle Hill and walked around it (and the Monument Aux Morts built into the other side), finally coming back to the marina. With almost perfect timing, too; we had to jog a little bit to meet the bus as it pulled up. There weren’t as many seats this time – we were far from the only tourists going back to the ship – and I ended up standing for the ride back. I also gave directions to quite a few fellow cruise-goers; they were confused about which stop they needed to use to get back, and were surprised to find out I wasn’t French. Hooray for blending in! After getting off at Octroi, Mom and I retraced our steps back to the waterfront. We didn’t go straight for the tender, though; as we walked passed the entrance to Citadelle Saint-Elme, we realized that we still had just under an hour left to kill. We decided to take a chance and made a detour into the monument. Much like the area it overlooked, the citadel was surprisingly quiet and empty. The interior buildings had several works of art on display, mostly medieval paintings and miniature figurines, as well a large collection of sculptures. Centuries-old cannons lay rusting in the ramparts, providing a nice view of Villefranche’s bay. Eventually, we finally ran out of time. The 4:45 tender was a double-decker, so I took the opportunity to climb upstairs and ride back on one of the open-air chairs. A few tourists still lingering in a nearby café watched us depart and waved. I waved back, wondering if I’d ever get to see this place again.

After getting back to our stateroom, I wearily shrugged off my backpack and sat down on the end of the bed. I closed my eyes and waited for my turn in the shower. It doesn’t matter how in shape you are; walking all day in the sun while lugging around a pack with a DSLR, travel guidebook, lunches. and water for two people is enough to make anyone tired. After getting washed up, it was already time for the formal dinner. I normally pack light when I travel, so bringing a suit was something new for me. Dressing up for the cruise wasn’t mandatory – I could’ve just gone to the Windjammer – but I didn’t want to miss such a unique experience. I wasn’t the only one, either; when we went upstairs an hour later, the halls were bustling with guests decked out in their finest. Mom and I waited in line to have our portraits taken, then headed for Aquarius. The dinner itself was uneventful, though eating ice cream in a suit proved a little tricky.

With the meal out of the way, the cruise scheduled a couple hours’ worth of live music and acrobatic stunts in the ship’s central hub. Huge crowds and I do not get along, so I grabbed my camera and decided to explore the ship while everyone was distracted. I wandered up and down each deck and took photos, from the empty movie theater and casino on Deck 5, to the neon-illuminated pool and the rock wall on Deck 9, to the quiet lounge and lonely dance floor on Deck 6, to the dead-end exterior stairs that led to the top of the ship on Deck 11, and back down again.

And yes, I did it all in a suit.

I didn’t feel like changing so quickly, and I liked the attention I was getting from the onlookers. It’s amazing how much leeway and manners people give when you look like a million bucks and act like you’re supposed to be there. Forget going to Monaco to get a taste of James Bond; this was one of the few moments where I could order a “vodka martini, shaken, not stirred” and gotten away with it! I did my share of people-watching, too; while everyone else was craning their necks upward to see the acrobats, I was peering down at the show from the railing next to the Deck 11 elevators. I also came across a lovely young woman who looked like what can only be described as a princess. Elegant, covered with jewelry, and a huge, white ball gown that trailed out for a few feet behind her. There were whispers from the onlookers, that she must be a newlywed or royalty; she certainly seemed beautiful and lively enough to draw everyone’s focus. I later found out that she was celebrating her quinceañera with her family, and immediately felt like a creepy old man. Ugh. What a way to end the night.

To be continued on Day 4…

Two Weeks In Europe: Day 2 – Boarding The Vision of the Seas

Continued from Day 1.

Thus began the most dreaded part of any lengthy trip: Disembarking, standing in line at customs, claiming luggage, and finding ground transportation. For a better part of an hour, people of all ages, genders, sexes, faiths, and countries share the same weariness. It’d be heartwarming, if it weren’t so tedious. You don’t need to share a language to communicate mutual discomfort; everyone is waiting for the person ahead of them to just move already and get off the plane. Aside from the occasional mishap with an overhead bin, physical violence is almost non-existent; people are too tired to do anything beyond clutching their carry-ons and shuffling stiffly into the airport and customs line.

The real problem, however, was with the luggage. We know the pain of misplaced bags all too well; the last time we left Spain, the airline lost Mom’s luggage – including that Moroccan rug – and it took them at least a couple of days to get it delivered. Same thing happened when we came back from Hawaii’s Big Island last December. This time, I approached the luggage carousel with apprehension; if our luggage didn’t show up here, we wouldn’t be able to take them on the cruise. They’d have to be flown, floated, or whatever else it took to catch up with the ship, and we’d be left without clothes or supplies. Yeah, that would be bad. I scanned the conveyor belt several times, but to no avail. As the minutes and bags passed by, my desperation became almost palpable. The crowd was thinning out. Did someone take our stuff off the carousel and leave it off to the side? Or worse yet, did someone steal them?

After a few more tense moments, I finally spotted Mom’s gargantuan red roller. My rolling duffel bag was right behind it. After hauling them off the carousel and rearranging our carry-ons, we trudged wearily outside. Thankfully, the transportation to the ship we’d arranged beforehand was easy to find. After waiting for a few more travelers to arrive, we piled into a van and set off for Barcelona. Mom and I had the last stop – we were the only ones going to the ship – so our ride to the docks felt more like an impromptu city tour. I wasn’t sitting by a window, so the impressions I got were fleeting: overcast skies, narrow streets crowded with cars and motorcycles, tiny alleys, worn pavement, and bustling roundabouts. It wasn’t until we drove past the Columbus Monument that I had a sense of our position.

It took about an hour for us to reach the Vision of the Seas. We hauled our luggage out of the van and headed for the registration building. Since this was my first cruise, I was surprised by how we had to leave our luggage behind with the staff outside before we could register. I’ve been robbed while on vacation before (Summer of 1999 at a certain Puerto Vallarta resort will live forever in infamy) so I’ve become quite leery of letting my possessions out of sight. But apparently, I didn’t have a choice this time; the staff quickly checked our paperwork, tagged our luggage, and promised everything would be delivered by 8 PM. As I went through another security scanner and stood in line for the umpteenth time, I took a moment to breathe. We’d traveled nearly halfway across the world for almost 36 hours, but now we were only two of thousands of people boarding the the cruise. Not just Americans, either; there were at least half a dozen languages being spoken within earshot. In front of me, a young woman wearing a hijab was poring over the latest edition of Rick Steve’s Mediterranean Cruise Ports, the very same travel guide I brought for the trip. Seeing her made me smile. No matter what differences people think they have, curiosity and fascination transcend them.

Registration was surprisingly quick and easy. Royal Caribbean assigns each passenger a special ID card that also functions as a room key and on-board credit card. The cruise operates like a cashless economy; everything from souvenirs and excursions to special food and beverage orders gets charged to the card, and then tallied up on the final statement. It’s pretty nice and efficient, so long as you don’t lose your card. I practically became surgically attached to mine as the days went by. While there was a currency exchange service on the ship, it was to ensure people had enough spending money while on land. Before all that, we had to climb up the ramp, go through another security check point, get our picture taken by the cruise’s photography staff (much more on that later), and find our room. When we originally signed up, we opted for the basic interior stateroom; though we wouldn’t have a balcony, it looked nice and decently furnished on the website. The actual stateroom, however, was…underwhelming. A small bed and couch, vanity, flat screen TV, closet, and a bathroom with a toilet, sink, and shower. That’s it. Just enough walking space and privacy for two people with some patience and creativity. I’ve spent most of my vacations in timeshares, so I was taken aback by the lack of a functioning kitchen, table, and other amenities. Mom wasn’t thrilled with the cramped space, either. Needless to say, we’d be spending as little time in the stateroom as possible.

We didn’t have time to rest, though. After the hearing the ship depart Barcelona, the mandatory lifeboat drill, and getting our luggage back, it was already time for dinner. We were assigned Table 24 in The Aquarius dining room at 6 PM sharp. The staff greeted us at the entrance to the restaurant and gave us a palmful of antibacterial gel. I’m notorious at home for being a neat freak (Hey, you try working with money in a bank vault for 12 years. You’d hate germs, too.), so I was grateful to see the cruise’s disease prevention efforts. Stepping into the The Aquarius was like watching the first half of Titanic; a seemingly endless array of tables adorned with fresh cloth and silverware, wine glasses being filled, dozens of impeccably-dressed waiters, and the noise of hundreds of conversations, and the faint sounds of a live piano. We were the last to arrive at our table; our dinner mates for the cruise were a retired couple from New Jersey, newlyweds from Maine, and two sisters from Australia. While it was kind of awkward at first – I’m shy in social situations – seeing the same people every night was a great way to build friendships and share travel experiences. I can’t remember exactly what I had that first night, but I know it involved a chicken salad, some steak, and a chocolate mousse that looked like a miniature work of modern art.

After dinner, we were too tired to do any more. We’d been on the move since before dawn the previous day; this was finally our chance to relax. We took turns enjoying a well-deserved shower, and then called it a night. I usually stay up late (and sometimes early), but I fell asleep minutes after my head hit the pillow. After all the stress, connections, and thousands of miles, we’d finally made it…and things were just getting started.

To be continued on Day 3…

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…

Two Weeks On The Mediterranean: An Introduction

Hey, folks. I’m baaaaaaack…

*Crickets chirp*

…Ahem. If you recall, I recently left a message saying I’d be going on an epic adventure in Europe, and that I’d be gone till November. And that’s exactly what I did; I spent the latter half of October on the Vision of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. I’d never done a cruise before, so the fast pace and logistics involved were completely new for me. It was well worth the effort, though. Throughout the last two weeks, I visited Spain, France, Italy, Vatican City, and Montenegro (and Germany, but that was just a layover, so that doesn’t really count). I got to explore Barcelona, Villefranche, Nice, Pisa, Rome, St. Peter’s, Salerno, Pompeii, Venice, Kotor, Risan, and Perast. I saw tons of stuff, celebrated my birthday at St. Mark’s, and took just over 4,500 photos.

Yeah, I’ve been kind of busy.

I’m going to be sharing all of my experiences with you, but definitely not in a single huge post. This travel memoir will be written to cover one day at a time, and likely posted with the same frequency. I seriously can’t wait to show you the sheer awesomeness of the Mediterranean, and I hope it’ll inspire you to travel and seek out your own adventures!

Stay tuned, folks.

BRB, Going To Europe

Hey, folks. Hope your autumn is going well so far! I’m currently packed up and about to head out for yet another epic adventure. In terms of sheer number of places and pacing, this is the biggest trip I’ve ever taken…and that’s saying something. Unlike the last time I was in Europe, I have a decent camera! I won’t say where – it’s better left as a surprise – but I’ve been occasionally dropping hints on social media for a while now. Let’s just say that there will be many, many photos and stories coming soon. In the meantime, the blog is going to be hiatus starting from tomorrow through the end of this month. As Wyclef Jean once sang, I’ll be gone till November. Have a great, safe October, folks. I’ll be back.

The Martian (Book) Review

Mark Watney has a problem. Due to a dust storm during his NASA mission, he’s been stranded on Mars. His teammates – and the rest of mankind – thought he died. He has no way to communicate with Earth. He’s trapped in a small habitat designed to last a month. There’s no breathable atmosphere outside. He has enough food for six people which, even if rationed, will last him less than one year. Since a rescue mission will take at least four years to arrive, he has to figure out a way to grow more food…on a planet devoid of water. But if no one knows he’s still alive, he’s going to starve anyway.

Okay, make that several problems.

SPOILERS

Needless to say, The Martian isn’t your typical survival story. A deserted island is one thing, but Mars is a completely different beast. How do you live on a planet that’s essentially uninhabitable? The answer is an awesome blend of the sheer isolation and desperation of Castaway and the determination and scientific improvising of Apollo 13. Watney was part of the NASA mission for a reason; as the team’s botanist and engineer, he’s got the right skills and knowledge to keep himself alive. Not enough food? Okay, cover the floor of the Hab with dirt, plant potatoes, and use your own waste as fertilizer. Keep track of your daily calories and ration accordingly. No water? Fine, burn some hydrazine, store the results, and be careful not to blow yourself up. Need to go on long excursions outside? Outfit your rover with solar panels, create a breathable atmosphere inside, and find a heat source to keep yourself from freezing. Communications array busted? Scrounge for leftover technology, fix what you can, and send information via telemetry, handwritten signs, or Morse code. Your spacesuit helmet cracked? Duct tape.

Seriously.

While some of these MacGuyver-esque techniques might seem daunting for the non-scientifically inclined, The Martian is quite to easy to read and understand. Andy Weir’s extensive research in potential and existing spaceflight technology shows through in both the details and the way they’re presented. While most sci-fi narratives are bogged down by their technical aspects, this novel benefits from having a narrator with a sense of humor. For all his expertise, Watney is a huge geek with a penchant for sarcasm. His first journal entry is laden with profanity, which is exactly how any normal person would react. His ability to describe realistic science in layman’s terms is impressive and often funny; he can say things like, “Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore” or “Something very hot and very explodey had happened” without coming off as condescending. His journal entries give a sense of confidence and self-awareness; he confronts the dire situation with straightforwardness and honesty, but relies on knowledge and humor to keep himself sane. When he’s not explaining how stuff works, his idle musings over Aquaman, Three’s Company, disco, other pop culture tidbits are more than enough to keep readers hooked.

Whenever we need a reminder that Watney’s situation isn’t all laughs, however, the perspective switches over to the rescue operation. NASA discovering he’s still alive is a foregone conclusion; they still have active satellites observing the planet’s surface. Communicating with and getting him back to Earth requires extensive logistics and engineering marvels. The novel examines what would actually happen in this kind of situation; the media frenzy, JPL redesigning rockets with limited time and budget, spaceflight physics, and frantic improvising when things go wrong. There are no villains; everyone wants Watney to make it back alive. How that’s achieved is up for debate, and coming up with a decisive plan is what forms the conflict. While the explanations are in-depth, the characters describing them are not. Most of NASA’s higher-ups (aside from the wonderfully brash Mitch Henderson and supremely competent Mindy Park) are sadly forgettable. Watney’s crew fare little better; their personalities are developed just enough to keep things interesting. There’s potential, like Commander Lewis dealing with the guilt of leaving one of her men behind, or Johanssen’s adorkable interactions with Beck. Aside from those, the astronauts are utterly one-note. Martinez is an ace pilot, constant joker, and nothing else. Then there’s Vogel, the German orbital mechanics and chemistry expert. That’s all. They all provide a little witty banter and technical expertise to get them – and the reader – through the mission, but nothing else. While the story is supposed to be focused on Watney’s survival, a little more time with the rest of the crew would’ve been appreciated.

That doesn’t make The Martian a bad novel. Far from it. It’s got just the right combination of humor and technical know-how to keep readers hooked. Mark Watney is a wonderful protagonist; his snarky attitude and determination turn what should’ve been a tragedy into an epic survival adventure. While the other characters don’t get nearly enough time, they serve their purposes in portraying a nearly impossible rescue mission. The story is well-paced and incredibly difficult not to finish in one sitting. Not due to brevity – the paperback release clocks in at just under 400 pages – but because it’s entertaining. I’m not going to spoil if or how Watney survives, but let’s just say that you’ll be rooting for him every complicated step of the way. This is one of those rare science fiction novels that strives for realism, but absolutely refuses to be weighed down by technical jargon. It can inspire people to study sciences, space flight and exploration, and anything else associated with astronomy. That, above all else, makes The Martian worth reading.

Wind/Pinball Review

It finally happened. After years of letting them fade into obscurity, Haruki Murakami brought Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball,1973 stateside. For longtime English-speaking fans, the 2015 release of Wind/Pinball was a dream come true; finding translated copies of these novels was almost impossible. The fact that they were were the first two entries in Murakami’s “Trilogy of the Rat” made things even worse. While it wasn’t necessary to read them before A Wild Sheep Chase, having some background on the unnamed protagonist and the Rat would’ve been helpful. Now that the full story is here, Western readers can finally get the experience as it was meant to be…for better or worse.

For those of you expecting another round of Murakami’s bizarre shenanigans and magical realism, be prepared to reign in your expectations. Wind/Pinball were his first two novels, and it shows. Hear the Wind Sing is about the college-aged narrator coming back to his hometown during summer break and spending time with the Rat, his longtime friend and binge-drinking partner. The novel tries to encapsulate the sense of change and budding maturity of a young twenty-something. The narrator gradually realizes that the summers of his youth are long gone, and how much of his life he took for granted. He tries to track down a former high school classmate, but fails miserably. He’s had three previous girlfriends, yet can barely muster any memories of them. He attempts to romance a young lady – who, of course, has only nine fingers – but the relationship barely goes anywhere. We’re only given a glimpse of the girl’s issues towards the end of the novel (she’s practically a precursor to Yuki from Dance Dance Dance), but little else. Murakami’s female characters are often regarded as shallow satellites to the protagonists, but it’s especially obvious here.

Considering that Hear the Wind Sing is the first entry in the “Trilogy of the Rat,” it’s no surprise that its namesake is the more interesting of the two main characters. Unlike the narrator, the Rat has yet to take the first few steps into adulthood. While all of his friends are off studying at the universities, he spends his time getting drunk and avoiding responsibility. He uses alcoholism to drown out his sense of loneliness. Despite coming from a wealthy family, he loathes being rich and considers himself a social outcast. Like the narrator, he confronts some harsh truths: the times are changing, his friends are leaving him behind, and he needs to be able to connect with people beyond drunken debauchery. It’s rather telling that the narrator introduces the Rat as a “virtual stranger to books,” yet he’s seen reading literature in almost every scene he appears after. Whether this is a result of the Rat’s curiosity towards novels or an attempt to strengthen his friendship with the narrator remains ambiguous. Regardless, his character development adds flavor to an already bittersweet story.

The Rat’s issues are taken a step further in Pinball, 1973. Thanks to his wealthy background, he’s able to spend every day at the bar and have drunken flings…but they’re not as fulfilling as actually living. He’s well aware that life is passing him by, and he has yet to find a purpose. There’s a vague notion that he needs to leave town and find his own place in the world, which is nicely illustrated with Rat’s association with the town’s waterfront. As a child, he used to go down to the beach every night; there was a beacon that would turn on at sunset, and he could sit on the pier and watch the waves. However, his current girlfriend undermines his nostalgia. She lives in an apartment near the beach, but loathes the location. She’s complains about the ocean and shuts the blinds on her window, thus cutting the Rat off from the allure it gave him. It’s foreshadowing their doomed relationship, as well as the Rat’s ever-growing wanderlust. While his decision seems obvious (and a foregone conclusion to English-speaking fans who read A Wild Sheep Chase first), his character development is satisfying.

The narrator’s storyline is a little less straightforward. He’s already made the transition into adulthood, but gets a serious case of nostalgia. His focus is on a pinball machine called Spaceship, which used to be part of the bar where he and the Rat frequented. He goes to great lengths to explain the appeal of playing pinball. The dazzling lights, and the rush of a well-played game, the satisfaction of a new high score…and the inevitable burnout. Anyone who has grown up with video games will understand the sentiments all too well. However, it was something more for him; he describes as an obsessive love affair; it is intense, costly, and ultimately fleeting. He also has to face the unfortunate reality: reliving your past isn’t as easy or fulfilling as it sounds, and most people won’t share your passion, let alone even know what you’re talking about. The narrator goes to great lengths in his search for Spaceship, but recapturing those moments is something else entirely.

Pinball, 1973 also serves as the starting point for Murakami’s signature elements. Anyone who’s read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle will perk up when the narrator mentions wells, and the name (and fate of) “Naoko” ought to give Norwegian Wood fans a jolt. There’s even a pair of identical twin girls – called 208 and 209 respectively – who inexplicably live with and interact with the narrator, yet he never questions their origins and possibly otherworldly existence. It all seems like typical Murakami, but not as structured or developed. Some of these aspects, much like the love interest from the first book, feel tacked on at best. Aside from providing the narrator a little emotional depth and some surreal conversations, they add little to the story. If anything, they’re the rough drafts of the stuff we’ve come to expect from the author.

They don’t make these novels necessarily bad, though. Every author, no matter how popular they are, has to start somewhere. Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 were Murakami’s first attempts at storytelling, and it shows. They’re not perfect by any means, but they do well at capturing the loneliness and confusion of someone coming of age. Longtime English-speaking fans will be glad to finally get the missing pieces of the Trilogy of the Rat and read the story as it was meant to be seen. Though far from Murakami’s finest, it’s still an interesting look into a great author’s humble beginnings.