Epic Journey. Peru.Bolivia.Chile Preface

I’ve had a tab saved on my browser for 8 years now.  Its called “epic journey”, and its where I save all the links for information pertaining to this route I’ve been dreaming of doing for almost a decade.  Tomorrow I take off from New York City, for non-stop service to Lima to finally start the journey.  Originally it was fly into Lima, do Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, La Paz Bolivia, on through to Paraguay, and eventually fly home from Rio.  Epic indeed.  I’ve finally got the time to take a hack, but I’ve lopped off the Paraguay/Brazil portion due to the World Cup hoopla.  I have the usual pre-trip jitters that are unavoidable when leaving home and country for a month, but the underlying excitement for what this trek has in store is hard to hold back.  

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Well this just in as I’m writing.  Disturbing news.  You may have heard or will hear when you wake up that an M8.0 earthquake just struck off the coast of Chile.  And the tsunami warnings go up to Ecuador, which includes Lima, Peru.  

Shit.  

So far (as I sit with my ear glued to BBC News) it sounds like not very much damage has been done, and that although there are high waves; nothing cataclysmic. 

The area has been highly seismic for the past handful of months (I wonder if its connected to the recent LA quake), and I’ve been following for the past week or so.  More as a human interested in the Earth than thinking my vacation might be affected.  But here I am.  Hopefully this was “the big one” the earlier tremors has led up to, and hopefully the reports of minimal damage stay just so.  I suppose all I can do is go to sleep and hope when I wake up it hasn’t gotten worse.  

I don’t leave until tomorrow afternoon, but this journey is already proving epic.  

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Woke up, and grabbed my phone to check the news.  Seems like any danger of tsunami has passed Lima.  So although I’m uber aware of all the seismic activity in the Chilean area over the past hundred years, there isn’t any reason to abort.  My journeys won’t take me very close to the epicenter, but I’m thinking at least it’ll be a topic of conversation along the way.

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Well after the weeks of anxiety and planning, one grabs their bag, walks downstairs and hails a cab.  The door slams shut, you say “JFK please, United.” and SWOOSH!  The air sucks in and the vacuum of adventure engulfs you.  It’s happening.  ITS HAPPENING!!!!  The floor drops out on any worry of everyday life.  The bags are packed, your ducks are in a row (you hope), the tickets are booked and now all one needs to do to march into the unknown is put one foot in front of the other.  The feeling I describe is not frightening, its the first ecstatic moment of the freedom that comes with travel.  Easily forgotten after the journey, but these first visceral reactions are striking, and glad I finally jot this down.  This is the first time in a while I’m venturing solo into the world with everything I need on my back.  I couldn’t be more happy.  It’s exhilarating, and liberating, and one of the most pure moments in the modern life.  The voyage begins.  Up, up and away.  Sink or swim.  Do it live.  

 

As my cab zips and honks down Houston street, I get giddy thinking I’ll be eating dinner in Lima, Peru tonight.

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Key West Revisited.

About 9 years ago, in another life I spent entirely too much time in Key West.  I think it was 7 months all told.  A telling detail would be that my favorite parts were evacuating for hurricanes.  And being that 2005 was the worst Atlantic Hurricane season on record, we got plenty of trips off the Rock.  Most of us lost our cars, watching from Ft. Lauderdale or somewhere while Katrina or Rita or Wilma or whoever torn into the Gulf.  The loss of our stuff didn’t help morale, but in general the crew was in a pretty bad place.  No one I still talk to has a high impression of the place.  I wasn’t single at the time, but those who were complain about the lack of attractive people to hit on that didn’t have leather skin and/or a parrot on their flabby shoulder.  My biggest beef was that there were no good beaches, no good waves, and after the hurricanes came through all the marine life was smashed so snorkeling and diving became pointless.  Luckily we only had one day off a week back then, but goddamn we got bored.  Oh, and the place stunk.  And no-see-ums are fucking annoying.  And we were right next to the airport and thats about it.  And….ok I’ll stop…

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*“The Rock” and “Alcatraz” both equal Key West in our survivors parlance.

Well almost a decade later I’m headed back.  Not truly by choice mind you, but I had a compelling meet up I needed to do and the best option happened to be Alcatraz.  I was very much excited about the meeting, but figured I would get in and out as quick as possible.  It seemed realistic that maybe 7 months was too much time on The Rock, but a quick trip should actually be fun.  Like Vegas or something.  I planned to land at noon on Monday, have the day on Tuesday, and fly out late afternoon on Wednesday.  48 hours.  I promised myself to keep a positive outlook.  How bad could it be.  

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I landed at noon, and went to go check in at my hotel, Pearls.  It was INCREDIBLY over priced, but I assume my last minute booking and Spring Break season left me gauged.  When the price goes back to normal it would be a nice little place to stay.  I couldn’t check in until 4PM so I figured I’d venture out and about for a bit.  The tropical sun felt amazing as I stepped off the porch.  The Southernmost Point is just 2 blocks (South Duval = one block) away from the hotel.  Figured I’d check out the landmark and see if I could get my bearings back.  When I got there, there were lines in both directions half a block long to get up to it and take your stupid selfie or whatever.  Those too lazy to walk and read were backed up in Trolley Tour traffic around the bend with a cacophony of tour guides spewing their “facts” over PA systems.  “From this very point we only 90 miles away from Cuba.  Guess what everybody…we’re 160 miles from Miami!”  “Oooo. Aww.”  Not a good start.  

 

I reminded myself how good the sun felt, and turned away that clusterfuck. Instead, I’ll just walk Duval to the other end. Grab a to-go beer and stroll around to see what has changed.  Yeah, that sounds nice.  I do have to say, I am a big fan of Key West’s lax (or nonexistent) open container laws.  Nothing better than walking bar to bar with a road soda on hand for the sidewalk.  At first it seemed ok, the southern part of Duval isn’t terrible to walk through.  La-Te-Da is still there (great restaurant/B&B), and a couple cozy bars are there that you can drink on the porch.  As I got closer to Truman street it started getting scary.  

 

Probably my three biggest pet peeves in life are:  

A.  Slow/non-spacially aware people on sidewalks

B.  Loud motorcycles

C.  Loud people in general

 

I could feel my anger rising as I shuffled behind slow moving herds of sunburnt 14 year girls dressed like hookers.  Pushed past idiotic frat dudes stumbling and yelling with their shirts off and captain’s hats (seriously is this a thing with the youth?).  Then a scary leather faced lady (or man? hard to tell at times) would pop out of nowhere and scar the shit out of me with her toothless cackle.  If I wasn’t ready to start doing the windmill down the sidewalk, I was cursing the pack of obnoxious wannabe Sons of Anarchy cruising down the street on their stupid, loud motorcycles.  I couldn’t handle it.  I was at an annoyance level equal to trying to get through the corners on Broadway and Spring.  I kept trying to remind myself how good the sun felt, and how blessed I was to be here, but jesus I was seeing red.  

 

In the end I put my head down, and powered back out of the mess toward my hotel.  Grabbed a six pack from the Circle K, and sat on the jetty at the Southernmost Beach (southern tip of Duval St.).  The beach and beachclub were filled with the same congress of idiots, but when I put my back to that, put in my headphones and cracked a beer it wasn’t all that bad.  Damn that sun feels nice.  

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I went to bed early that night (combo of early flight, and day drinking on that pier).  The next day I woke up at dawn, and found out that I actually enjoy Key West.  I walked around in the morning light.  I checked out the Old Town neighborhoods.  The streets were quite, with the foliage shrouded bungalows packed in on every block.  Roosters hollered out every once in a while.  It was really nice.  Until the people started coming out.  Any the motorcycles started blaring around.  And the line at the coffee shop was 10 people long.  Time to retreat back to the Pearls.  It has a really nice little pool bar with a couple small pools and became my haven when the annoyance factor reached code red.  

 

Eventually the time came, and I met my friend for lunch.  We grabbed a beer to walk with, and eventually ended up at Blue Heaven.  Awesome place I remember from last time, but never actually ate there.  Its in the Bahama Village, and serves incredible Caribbean/Soul food.  The setting is like being in your Bahamian grandma’s back yard.  Yes filled with Cruise People in the day, but worth the wait.  

 

We rented some bikes, which was also actually fun.  On the southern edge of the island between Smathers Beach and the airport, there’s a nice stretch of road with only the Caribbean Sea laying out until forever.  Nice place to go for a quick cruise that doesn’t involve the blast and chug of Harley Davidson (for the most part).  It reminds me of what would be called a malecón in the spanish speaking world.  

 

Inevitably our time came to an end, and she had to get back on the cruise ship that she had arrived on.  Four hours on land, and back to the floating city.  The ship was docked near Mallory Square, so after it slowly churned out of the port, I stayed to watched the sunset from the famed spot.  Of course the square was chock full of all the tourists I’ve been avoiding, as well as street performers.  Call me a crotchety old man, but that shit sounds like an awful place to watch the sunset.  I grabbed beers, and walked back along the dock to nice my spot.  The sunset was pretty epic.  Ball of light slipping under the distant sheet of ocean.  Just before the sun went out of view a dolphin jumped up in the water in front of me.  Point Key West.

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I didn’t have to be at the airport until 2PM so I took advantage of the morning to check out my only surviving highlight from my last time in Key West.  The cuban restaurant El Siboney is the shit.  Once I was shown it, I think it was a once a week kind of thing.  I remembered it being basically in someone’s house (at least feeling that way), but either my memory is off or they had an upgrade.  Either way inside, it’s still small and cozy.  I’ve dreamed of their grouper, and knew thats what I’d order before I even booked my ticket.  Rounded out with a cup of cuban espresso, and all was good.

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Proper full and caffeinated, I simply spent the last couple hours walking around lost in thoughts and soaking up sun.  Avoiding Duval street like the plague.

 

I guess Key West isn’t that bad.

 

I’m sorry but I can’t even finish that thought.  Maybe 60 years ago Key West was a quirky outpost for artists and lunatics, but today any of that reckless freedom has been commercialized, packed up and sold to fat Americans.  I could have a similar experience at a suburban mall’s food court.  It does have the perk of being an island in the Caribbean.  The sun, seafood and relaxed lifestyle that come with this fact are available on The Rock, but for god-sake, THERE ARE SO MANY BETTER PLACES TO GO ON EARTH!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

Sorry.  Key West still sucks.  

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On a side note, I really like that Florida (at least in Key West and Tampa) they have outdoor areas you can go to while in the terminal.  It’s pretty nice to pass your layover by sitting in a rocking chair “outside” with a cocktail of your choice.  Dear other airports, do that.  

 

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My Humble Guide to Playa del Carmen

For some weird reason in the past couple weeks I’ve literally had 8 friends tell me they are going to Playa, and asked for advice.  I started typing this in an email to one of those lucky peeps but now figure I’d post it.  Haven’t had much time for creative thinking with the crazy work load, but hopefully this is helpful for someone.

 

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Disclaimer: I haven’t been down to Playa in a couple years, but the main point I hope to convey is the general feeling of cool relaxation there.  Its one of those fantastic places that (thanks to tourism) combines friendly Mexican culture with the natural beauty of the Yucatan, and a dash of European chic.  First off, if you’re looking for an all-inclusive kind of thing, thats all you.  There are plentiful on the stretch of Rt. 307 between Cancun and Playa, and I’m sure they are fine.  You’re bound to get an easy-peezy cruise ship experience.  “Free” drinks and generic food at your beck and call, allow one to laze around the pool and gorge while getting no context of their arresting location.

 

 

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First step, book your hotel.  I strongly encourage staying near or on Avenida 5 (la Quinta) in downtown Playa.  Yes this is the tourist epicenter, and yes there will be tons of sunburnt white people with shitty cornrows by day, but usually by the time the cruise ships pull out it is more of a local, european, tropical party zone.  Sadly my favorite spot Basicó is now closed, but if you’re looking for a fancy hotel experience try out Deseo; part of the same design hotel group.  In all honesty, most of the times I’ve gone I just show up in town, and find which ever middle grade hotel has vacancy, and check in there.  For $50-$100 you’ll get a cozy bed, usually AC and often a pool/beach lounge access.  One of the places I’d like to crash is Hotel Kinbe.  My theory is always skimp on the hotel because I really only sleep there, but either way staying near la Quinta will position you in the heart of the nightlife, easy access to the beach, and close to the best restaurants.  I swear those fatties from the cruise ship will go away when their short time at port comes to an end.

http://www.hoteldeseo.com/

http://www.kinbe.com/

 

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Next up transpo.  You’ll fly into Cancun, and assuming you’ll skip Cancun proper (although also awesome if you know what you’re looking for) you’ll need to travel the 40 minutes south to Playa.  Renting a car would be a great idea.  The 307 is a totally smooth, modern highway that covers you all the way from Cancun to Playa, then to Tulum and eventually the Belize border.  Having a car makes you freer to explore the region, but if you don’t want to do that there is plenty of tour companies and infrastructure in town to get you around.   (***If you do rent a car “Topes” means speed bumps, so if you see that sign SLOW DOWN)
If you want to remain car-less, a taxi will take 30-45 minutes from CUN and cost $60-$70.  Same as from my apartment to JFK so still not that big of a deal.  Probably best to have a decent idea of where you’re hotel is to help the driver find it, especially if it is one of those smaller businesses (or nutt up and just show up to find a place!).  You’ll be fine if you look at a map before hand.  Tell the driver to go to Playa and at least have a cross street to give him.  You can’t blame the driver if you ask him to take you to Hotel Azul or whatever and he doesn’t know how to get you door to door.  Its probably not a scam, its like you hoping in a cab at LAX and asking the driver to take you to Joe’s house.
Cheapest option is taking the bus.  There’s also a colectivo which will be a little van that takes a handful of people to whichever hotels they are staying at, but for some reason these annoy me.  If you like the SuperShuttle to the airport, grab a colectivo.  For me I’d rather take the bus.  ADO is comfy, air conditioned, cheap and direct.  For $7 you get straight from CUN to downtown Playa on La Quinta and Avenida Juarez.  If you’ve heeded my advice and are staying downtown it’s a pretty short walk down Avenida 5 to the center of town.  Don’t let the hawkers selling their wares bother you.  They are used to dumb cruisers.  Be friendly, but let them know you don’t want their shit (unless you do).  Maybe they have a recommendation for a dinner spot a “secret” beach nook, or can hook you up with a guy that has a boat to rent.
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Alright you’re checked in, and ready to go.  Depending on your length of stay, and what you’re looking for, do this stuff.
Walk around.  Day one, check out your block, scan for the essentials.  For me it’s beer store, coffee shop and food option.  Take a bit to decompress, figure out your surroundings and ease into the lifestyle.  Head home, take a shower and get dressed in your finest Playa-wear.
Go to Diablito Cha Cha Cha.  Open air, and in the center for nightlife in Playa.  To this day I dream of the Brochetas de Robalo.  Possibly the best grilled sea bass I’ve ever had anywhere.
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First night, enjoy the party in Playa.  If you start with dinner at Diablito you’re in prime locale to start the night.  My first night there my friend Aida told me there was a tradition to visit Las Siete Casas de La Playa.  The goal is seven joints in one night.  Pretty sure we made this “tradition” up, but I try to do it every time I’m back.  The circuit always starts with La Mezcalinna across the way from Diablito.  I had never heard of mezcal when I first went there in ’09, but now it seems the OG Mexican spirit is infiltrating into the US “artisanal” liquor scene.  It’s a good, loud “dive bar” to do some fruit infused shots of mezcal, and start the night wrong (in the best of ways).  After that you have a dozen beach bars and clubs bumping house music to drink, socialize and groove to on the same block.  Traditionally (according to us) you end at La Santanera.  Although my memory is usually hindered by alcoholic agave by-products by the time I get there, I can confidently say La Santanera is one of my favorite clubs on earth.  If you go to Playa, just check it out.  Hopefully it’s late night but either way if you make it, do a tequila shot in honor of Malverde.  If you’ve never heard of him he’s like the Robin Hood of Mexico, and my personal patron saint.  Also the same owner/vibe as Diablito Cha Cha Cha, aka campy perfection.
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Next day you want breakie.  This is the spot “%100 Natural”.  Pronounced “Cien por ciento Nat-tu-ral”.  Yes its a chain, but goddamn it’s levitated me out of hungover terribleness on multiple occasions.  Chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, whatever.  All “na-tu-ral”.  This place bridges the gap for us US folks and traditional Mexican on breakfast.  Its on la Quinta and offers all sorts of healthy brunchy items as well as fresh juice and/or beers depending on you personal vision for the trip.  If you stay at Deseo its a couple blocks to the left.  A life saver for sure.
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Ok so, this is the cross roads.  If your goal for vacation is to chilax, rinse and repeat; this is formula so you’re good.  If after a couple days you get sick of the Playa party stomping grounds, check out Cozumel.  La Isla famed by Beach Boys and Jacque Cousteau is just a ferry away.  This is just my experience, but unless you’ve rented a car and/or are a serious diver a quick glance at Cozumel is all it takes, honestly didn’t gain much for being in the main port.
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It’s easy to get out of town and see some sights from Playa. Just ask the front desk peeps at whatever hotel you choose.  I never knew how obsessed I was with Mayan ruins until I started seeing them.  Please see Chichen Itza and the Tulum ruins.  Wonder about the power of our indigenous people, and take in their massive edifices.  If Playa is too much of a bustling tourist destination, go to Puerto Morelos; just 20 minutes up the road.  If you have a car I’ll tell you how to get there.  Easy Money.  Moral of the story is, eventually get out of Playa and see some amazing spots.
Anyone who knows me will attest to my love and advocacy for Mexico.  Still think it’s the best country to visit, especially for us gringos up north.  The Yucatan/Riviera Maya has a special place in my heart, and I’ve spent some of my happiest moments in Playa del Carmen.
Enjoy your trip, wish I could come.
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Night People UNITE!

Bobby (name changed to preserve anonymity) has a secret.  Although it’s a secret shared by a large portion of the population, the shame is too great to admit out loud.  His family suspects the truth, but is happy to hold onto the idea that Bobby is “normal”.  Bobby does his best to appear like his friends and the rest of society, but keeping up the image is exhausting.  What he can’t express is that he is different.  The norms of everyday life that are accepted by the mainstream, don’t feel right for him.  He feels alone.  He wonders if there’s anyone like him out there.  Bobby is a Night Person.  On days off he sleeps past noon and if he wouldn’t be considered a freak he would be comfortable sleeping until 5PM.  Bobby has endured years of being called hurtful words like “lazy”, “narcoleptic”, and even “slacker” with a hard “R”.  Bobby is a pariah, whose natural tendencies are “wrong” to the rest of the world.  Until now.

I too suffer the stigma of being a Night Person.  I’m an ex-raver, which inherently requires all nighters.  My college job was the over-night shift at a hotel, and now I primarily work as part of the late night crew on reality TV shows.  I am perfectly comfortable with waking up at 4 in the afternoon, going for a run, working my shift and hitting the sack at 6AM.  I’m not even on drugs I swear, its just natural.  I think the time is right for us Night People to raise our fist proudly, and declare “Fuck 9AM!”.  In this post-agricultural, post-industrial, Internet society we are free to be awake whenever we want.  The time is now to take up our cause and fight for our rights.

Since the dawn of human kind and until very recently, we’ve depended on hunting, gathering, farming or going to a job as means of survival/making a living.  The “9 to 5” is an anachronistic relic from our past.  It may be one of the deepest ingrained since being awake in the day has seriously helped our success as a species. The time for that practice has passed.  Sleeping when predators are sleeping, getting up at dawn to take care of the crops, and by extension; heading to the office by 9AM don’t matter in the modern age.  The whole world isn’t quite there yet, but as a New York City resident, I can easily take care of any day-to-day business at any hour of my choosing.  And with the Internet, Night People all around the world have a tool to let their freak flag wave.  This idea will be very alien to a day-walker, but I have research (aka Google) to prove my point.

Most day-walkers will say, “Only being awake at night is bad for your health, silly”.  I’ll tell you what’s silly, waking up at dawn for no reason.  Actually a quick search through the interwebs finds many, many more references to the adverse affects of sunlight.  Page after page will teach you ways to avoid getting too much sun.  We have a whole industry of creams to protect us against the sun.  A Night Person ain’t worried ‘bout no sunscreen.  According to an article from health.usnews.com, a fair skinned person needs 10 minutes of direct sunlight to get the daily value needed that doesn’t come from food sources.  Plus if anyone lives “north of Atlanta” none of us get ANY vitamin D from the sun all winter long because “the sun never gets high enough in the sky for it’s ultraviolet B rays to penetrate the atmosphere”.  What do you say now, day walkers? You got no vitamin D from your precious sun.  In your face!

Another argument for the norm is that lack of sunlight affects mood.  That’s a tough one to explain away.  Science says we have circadian rhythms and they naturally guide us to the daylight much like plants, which need sun to survive.  They say disrupting these rhythms lead to depression.  If these species wide rhythms exist and come from our place in nature, why are they considered so important?  Equality should extend to everyone’s circadian rhythms.  Humans don’t migrate seasonally to mate.  We don’t kill and eat the closest thing to us when hungry.  Plus, do you think a raccoon is chronically depressed because he happens to be nocturnal?  Here, I’ll have to break from “scientific findings” and use some empirical observations.  Night People march to the beat of their own circadian rhythms.  I’m happier on my schedule.  If the stigma were lifted from NOS (night owl syndrome) maybe the nocturnal leaning human won’t feel so ashamed of their snoozing.

One thing is certain; lack of sleep is terrible for the mental and physical state of a body, and this is exactly what is harming my people.  Every time a Night Person naturally stays up watching Hulu until 4AM and has to be at work at 9AM he or she is forced into an unhealthy lifestyle.  Forced into physical harm by the establishment!  The Man is keeping us down with shame tactics, and literally weakening our numbers with their old fashioned day time activities.   It’s time to break the shackles of the old guard sleep schedule.  Night People unite!  We must tell our stories.  We must show the world that our lifestyle might be different from theirs, but we are still human beings.  We must proudly do our laundry at 1AM and shop at the bodega for groceries in the wee hours of the morning without shame.  Hit the snooze button in solidarity Night People.  New York City is our promised land!  Let the revolution start here.  Equal sleeping rights FOR ALL!

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A Week Ago I was in San Francisco

<Whew>  Was in Philly for a couple days for Jon and Jen’s wedding and turned out to a pretty heavy trip.  The weight of missed beginnings of love, families and ghosts of the past make my stomp through Midtown to the F Train a bit more weighed down with thoughts than usual.  I’m backed up on thoughts, so here goes a bit about the city I thought was the best a week ago.  San Francisco.

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My month in SF was too short lived.  The immediate love for the grit and ornery nature remained, and with every passing day I found a new thing to obsess over.  One of SF’s nicknames is Fog City and as odd as it sounds, my favorite past-time became watching the fog roll in and out over the Twin Peaks hill.  You probably don’t believe me, but this is a thing that would happen always.  Constantly changing, and better every second.  A unique NorCal version of a sunset, everyday occurrence, but constantly changing and always impressive.  My humble abode at Fox Plaza in the lower Tenderloin had a fucking wood burning stove, so obviously I spent a lot of my free time at home, burning wood and watching fog (and catching up on Breaking Bad).  If you get a chance try it, its pretty dope.

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“How amazingly sublime it is to spend a night on the couch craft beer in hand, the fog drifting in and out through my window.  And a flickering fire in the fireplace.  My ode to San Francisco.”

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I’ll cut to the good stuff; food.  To make a long, gluttonous, food stained story short, these are my favorite joints in San Fran.

My first moments on the ground and off of work, I was told to go to Swan’s.  There is always a line outside of Swan’s, and seemingly foodie/tourist types abound but it is a commitment one must make.  Anchor Steam on tap, counter bar service only, and when they run out of shit they are done.  Closed.  Thank you come again.  We were lucky enough to grab a couple stools, down a bunch of oysters, smoked salmon and a couple beers before work.

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I think the place that stuck out the most was Tommy’s Joynt.  On “Historic Rt 101″ aka Van Ness St, this place remains a bastion of frontier food.  Its like a “joynt” you’d see on Rt 66, but still alive and well in the heart of a metropolis.  Cheap plates of gut busting fare are served up until last calling time, and my first night out Kelly dragged me out of the bar to go freshen up there.  The building itself stands out, and inside they have a raucous, Mom and Pop feeling grub line where they scoop out heaps of deliciousness for CHEAP!  The buffalo chili is my favorite (and at least 5 pounds an order).

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During my incessant walking about I discovered a little place called Canto do Brasil.  Mexican (Taqueria Can-Cun), Chinese (Uhh SF Chinatown), and Middle Eastern food (I’m sworn to secrecy on this one place) spots always impressed and made sense in San Fran, but this little spot near Hayes Valley was a great little catch.  I walked past, ravenous on a Friday night, and they were packed so came back the next day for lunch.  Thank Deus.  Besides the awesome caipirinhas, the food was amazing, and I feel like a good Brazilian place is a rarity in any city I’ve been before.  We all have our clutch sushi, mexican, and thai, but damn I wish I had a clutch brazilian joint on Seamless.com.  Besides the barrage of appetizers, I got the feijoada and that shit was awesome.  Tudo bem.

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A week later I find myself back in New York City after a brief stint back “home” to Philly.  San Fran was awesome, Philly is the best, and the show goes on.

“Tears well up in the corners of my eyes as my train pulls away from the jagged underbite skyline that retains the weight and familiarity of ‘home’.  Philly J’taime.”

San Francisco First Impression

I’ve been to San Fran for a family trip a million years ago, when I was 14 or 15, so Golden Gate, Alcatraz, Lombard St. check, check, check.  Happily work has brought me back to this bastion of maritime/transient history.  I had heard bad things from my comrades on the ground.  “San Fran is dirty”, “Get ready for homeless people shitting on your stoop”, “Bring a hoodie and a switchblade”.  As most of these folks were Los Angelenos, I brashly assumed “I’m a New Yorker, these pussies are getting a dose of reality”.  Welp, turns out SF is gnarly.  They weren’t kidding.  As an original Philadelphian, and relatively new New Yorker, I have to report that San Francisco has the balls and bite that we wish we had.  I’ve only been here a week, and staying in the Tenderloin.  These seedy blocks feel like an era long gone.  Obviously danger is bad, but at the same time it gives a city character.  My first walk from my hotel (Hotel Carlton, aka Hot Carl I’m told when the sign doesn’t work) to set as I dosey doe’d past a gaggle of junkies things got real when I saw a meth or horse junkie about to smash someone in the head with a sharpened hammer.  At this moment I embraced the realness. I can’t think of a block in NYC that I feel fear.  From LES to Jamaica, I figure if you stay cool nobodies gonna fuck with you.  I love the Tenderloin for the fact that I’m on my toes walking home.  Gentrification hasn’t whitewashed this world!  Thank God.  Cut to notes.

Hot Carl

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10/01_San Francisco

San Fran retains a rough authenticity.  More Puck than Pedro.  Even to this day which is surprising and and refreshing.  NYC before Guilianni for better or worse.  Still true to its maritime roots.  In my brief experience, more diversity per block than any place I’ve ever been.  Blessed with the pungent Pacific air.  Tough town.  Murderous Homeless Zombies aside, Viva la Tenderloin.

Tenderloin

Also there are more tranny hookers on my block then I’ve ever seen in my life.

Can’t photograph the scene properly, but hysterical to walk past a group of scantily dressed amazons, only to hear their deep voices speaking spanish with a mexican accent.  They look like Serena Williams but sound like Antonio Banderas.  Needless to say, those dudes are hot.

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Notes from a Summer Tour Part 5: Munich, Germany. Last Stop

7/14_Munich

Arrived in Munich today.  Super weary.  Almost a month on the road now.  The intense work and my growingly annoying habit of enjoying the nightlife between longs bouts of shooting has me on fumes.  Some bullshit with lost bags and air travel began my time here, but spirits perked when we stopped at the Weihenstephan brewery and beirgarten.  Thanks to a snarl of traffic, our bus driver, Claus (who I ended up spending a lot of time with randomly over the next few days), had the foresight (and thirst I assume) to take a detour and stop at the abbey for lunch.  The monks set up shop here in 725 AD to be close to a miraculous water source (the natural fountain still bubbles away in a cave below the grounds).  Open since 1040 AD, Weihenstephan is the oldest continually producing brewery on earth.  Arriving at my first true Bavarian biergarten, I gorged on the usually brots and kraut, and of course had a liter.  The Kristallweisbier (unique filtered hefeweissen) was an amazingly refreshing and pretty beer.  Back on the bus, everyone is stuffed and exhausted, but we plod onward.  Excited for my first glimpses of Munich!

weihenstephan kristallweisbier weihenstephan garten

***

7/18_Gemütlichkeit

Munich is a nice change of pace.  The city is just plain pleasant, thoroughly driving home that I really enjoy Germany.  I learned here that Germany has been a contested and divided area for most of its history.  The country we know today is historically a bunch of regions cobbled together by outside forces, and each region retains its distinct culture and traditions.  Bavaria is a lot like Catalonia, North Ireland and Texas in the respect that the citizens identify more with being Bavarian than being German.  People really wear lederhosin here, and they have a distinctly different variation on the language that even my ignorant ears could detect.  Between our ever awesome tour director, Alex (a native of Bavaria), and the language barrier hindered chats with Claus, I learned a lot about the everyday life in this part of Germany.  Alex taught me the word used for the Bavarian fondness for the simple pleasures in life.  “Gemütlichkeit” is the state of being content, comfortable, relaxed.  I cracked myself internally thinking back to my initial shock going from Italy to German.  Turns out Germans have a decidedly less sexy sounding word for “La dolce vita”, but the sentiment is the same.  Here in Bavaria they definitely enjoy the good life,  say it with me :  ga-MOO-licksh-kite.

munich street

munich fountain

englesher park canal surfers

Beer is undeniably a staple down here.  Obviously being the home of Octoberfest adds a touristy element to the abundance of beer and biergartens, but many of the most recognized German breweries have existed here for centuries (Lowenbrau, Paulaner, Hofbrau, Hacker Pschorr to name a few).  Pretty much any down time we had, we spent at an amazing biergarten or bierhaus.  Yes, a lot were touristy, but all fantastic places to drink huge beers and socialize.  Obviously I’ve been to beer-gardens in the States that try to replicate the German standard, but the sheer immensity of these places in Munich caught me off guard.  Football field sized outdoor arenas for enjoying one brewery’s selection of brews.  My new BFF Claus told me early on that Augustiner was the best and preferred brew for locals so that was my go too, and on our last night we ventured out to the Augustiner Biergarten.  Of all the places we checked out the Augustiner is my favorite.  I had an attachment to the brand thanks to Claus, but this place stood out.  All bavarian biergartens seem to have the same elements; rows of outdoor picnic tables, cafeteria style food serving, and a constant flow of beer to be picked up from a kiosk.  The Augustiner took the cake.  It was packed with a sea of beer drinkers, seemingly bigger than the others (which is saying something because they are all huge), and not for nothing it was the first place I took an entire liter in one pull.  No standing ovation sadly…

hofbrau pano night out

augustiner sign

augustiner biergarten

augustiner brau

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7/19_Back to NYC

It feels weird to be going home.  I’m exhausted, but as the last days ticked by I developed an urge to keep going.  Germany turned out so amazing that I find myself wishing I could keep exploring.  It feels like I’ve been gone a hefty chunk of time, not just a month.  Florence, Venice, Lido, Verona, Milan, Berlin, Munich.  Mostly work, but a lot of reflection and experience.  The people I’ve met, places I’ve seen, and self discovery I’ve contemplated add up to an unforgettable little journey. It’s as if I’ve grown so accustomed to life on tour that “homecoming” is weird.  It’s not the anonymous hotel rooms, shlepping bags of gear, long days of working/walking/seeing, but the oddity is the return to “normalcy”.  The added layer of weirdness at the moment is that through some lucky accident on my transfer in Amsterdam I was upgraded to first class.  I’ve never been and this shit is awesome!  I’m trying to pretend I’ve been here before, but every time the stewardess comes over and offers me something awesome (as I recline in my fucking massage chair of a seat!), I feel like Eddie Murphy in Trading Places.  The stewardesses are nice, they took my dinner ORDER, and they keep giving me champagne…for FREE!  I’m pretty sure I could go fly the plane for a bit if I asked.  “Flight attendants please take you seats…”, about to land back in New York.  Back to reality, stewing in my thoughts and memories.  The beauty of travel.

first class appetizer booyah

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Notes from a Summer Tour Part 4.2: Berlin, Germany

7/13_Berlin Discovered

Berlin ended up growing on me a great deal.  Walking amongst the living history was amazing, just needed a little help pointing it all out.  Our local guide Alex is the man, and an incredible wealth of knowledge.  To paraphrase one of the first things he said to the kids when the tour started; Berlin is unlike most world-class capitols of Europe or elsewhere.  You look at Paris and the beauty is immedietaly striking.  Spend five minute in New York City and the energy is undeniable.  The history and allure of Rome is unavoidable.  But Berlin takes some effort.  You need to look deep.  Notice the artillery holes still dotting major landmarks.  Think about who shot them/who defended them, and for what.  You need to stop for a minute, use your imagination, and picture what the street you are on must’ve been like when a wall ran along it dividing a city, a country, and a globe in two.  The stories of life here a mere 20 years ago, let alone 70, are inevitably equal parts heart-wrenching, humorous and inspiring.

berlin wall

soviet art

berlin squat

berlin sunset

On the flip side, finding the amazing Alice and Wonderland/Adult play ground/Squatter art spaces that make up the nightlife was like something out of an urban fairy tale.  Our first night out we stumbled across Katerholzig.  This place is an outdoor Shoots and Ladders-esque ramshackle collection of “areas” patched together next to the Spree river.  Reminded me of the Fakehaus in West Philly late 90′s, if anyone remembers it, but this place is 50 times bigger.  The seemingly abandoned building the “club” seems based around has a huge rocking cat sculpture as the Jester holding court dangling from the roof.  First night we went was swing night, and the people were fucking swinging!  The other night nights seemed more techno-y, but place doesn’t really even start to get good until 2AM (way past our bed times).  We always had fun wandering the compound, finding new nooks and dance floors.   Another favorite find was Clarchens Ballhaus.  The building goes back to 1913, and there is definitely an old school vibe here (especially with the grumpy staff).  Cool outdoor beirgarten and another labyrinth of a watering hole.  Apparently some scene from Inglorious Bastards (which I still have to see!!!) was shot there.  For me, the kicker was the rockabilly band jamming out in the sweaty main hall.  We were on our way out but the music literally stopped us in our tracks.  We joined the geriatric crowd to twist and jitterbug the night away (really just about 20 minutes before we had to go, but still fun…). Berlin is definitely a place I would like to come back to and party all night, before I get too old…

katerholzig

katerholzig from the roof clarchens ballhaus clarchens ballhaus band

The sausage-fest here was certainly a departure from the Mediterranean diet of a week ago.  I shit you not, I had at least one sausage a day for my entire stay in Germany.  And it was fantastic.  Between the steady diet of tubed meat, pretzels and liters of beer, I was in a perpetual state of flatulent, bloated happiness.  Bratwurst, pig knuckle, snitzel, pretzels the size of a bike wheel, spetzel, mustard, and beers as big as waste baskets.  I happily ticked years of my life every night around dinner time.  To be honest, my former veggie self found the sauerkraut the tastiest part of the meal. Perfect for being mopped up with pretzel.  One of the last days we ended up eating lunch at a farmers market, and all of Hackeschen Markt smelled amazing.  The Turkish influence I had learned about was representing WAY better here than just the questionable curry-wurst.  I picked the stand that smelled the best (although tough decision), and ordered the thing the lady was handing  out.  The sign said “KOFTEDURUM- Lecker (delicious)!”, and she was obviously fixing some fresh ass grub.  What I was handed was a few of hand rolled balls of meat and peppers, seasoned with middle eastern tastiness and wrapped up in a thin pita-like flatbread.  The kofte and couscous salad were like nothing I’d had before (even though I’ve tried to make kofte from internet recipes) exactly, in a great way.  The exotic spices were slow cooked into the ground meat balls, and the tomatoes, lettuce and lemon cut through with every bite.  Delish, and a nice change from long, phallic meat meals.

bratwurst 1

brats times 5

fancy brats

kofte durum

I’m fully taken by Germany at this point.  Berlin was a place of much thought for me.  Life, love and the pursuit of happiness.  The heavy, intellectual zeitgeist of the city is an apt setting for this activity, especially if you have to work and can’t just party for three days straight (which is an enticing option).  With the back drop of Germany’s difficult past, I kept finding myself draw to make comparisons to my own country.  Such tragedies could never happen again.  Right?  Look up the Reischtag Fire Decree and what it caused, and then re-think the Patriot Act.  Just saying.  An interesting look at our current history at the very least.  Anyway.  Next, and last stop is Munich.  Looking forward to seeing “rural” Germany, although I know Munich is a vibrant city.  That said, I’m pretty sure I’ll be seeing some lederhosen and true beirgartens in the near future (can’t help but say that in Stimpy’s voice…).

germany

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Notes from a Summer Tour Part 4.1: Berlin, Germany

I landed in Berlin groggy.  The day at the beach in Lido, steady flow of adult beverages to dull the incredible annoyance of flying out of Venice on Easy Jet, and general fatigue had me on the ropes.  Don’t know if this caused my shell shock after landing in Germany, or just magnified it.  Holy shit, can you go from two different states of mind (or at least so I thought at the time).  I dragged myself into my first trip into Germany, and immediately became brutally aware how little I know about the country.  All ignorance on my part (I’m sorry!), but my knowledge of German culture amounted to the Sprockets skit on Saturday Night Live, 90′s industrial music and a swiss cheese version of German history.  I expected a sterile and efficient land.  What I found was obviously neither to any extreme, and I soon learned that Germany was a quirky and fascinating place.   I had heard from multiple travelers that Berlin is one the most fun cities in Europe so I was curious how this jived with my preconceived ideas.

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The extent of my German language skills are from 8th grade when my friend bought a tape called “Dirty German” at Spencers.  It was an “educational” language tape that only had the translations for slang and curse words.  Pretty damn cool when you’re 13, and tellingly some of it stuck.

scheisse = shit

fich dich = fuck you

elle grossen balcon = she has big boobs (literally big balcony)

OBVIOUSLY this wasn’t going to get me very far, at least with out getting punched in the face first, and I quickly became aware of how alien the language felt to me.  Off the plane, walk to customs and on the floor is “Bitte Abstand Halten!”.  I felt like the floor was yelling at me.  I now know that it simply means “Please keep distance”, and very soon all my notions of German harshness fell to the wayside.

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***

07/08_Berlin Day 1

Having my first bier at Georgebrau in a cute little “old town” in Berlin.  I think it’s called Nikolaiviertel.  Nice pocket next to the Spree river, but judging by all the English being spoken around me, a true biergarten this ain’t.  I am completely a stranger in a strange land.  For the first time in a while, I don’t get SHIT!  I can’t read or say any of the words, and to be honest it makes me feel like a douchebag.  I want to have polite, basic conversation skills, but just…don’t.  Walked around today, and learning Berlin’s history from the street level was cool (went to the Berlin wall and Checkpoint Charlie), but still don’t quite get it.  An interesting thing I learned from my informative cabbie from the airport last night was that Berlin has the highest Turkish population outside of Istanbul (not a fact, just cabbie speak).  Sebastian (I think that was what he told me his name was) said after the War most of the men in Germany had been killed.  So the fragile Soviet and Allied compromise know as Germany for the decades after the mid 1940′s invited folks from friendly nations to emigrate in.  Tax free and dreamy (heard this before).   The influx was heavily Italian but mostly Turkish due to an age old relationship with the Ottaman empire (“like the relationship between Massachusetts with England” in the words of Sebastian).  Apparently Berlin is the birthplace of the doner kebab, and the new regional dish is the curry-wurst (basically a hot dog with a slathering of ketchup, little bun and drizzle of curry powder).  Who would’ve thunk it.

first bier in Germany

curry wurst biatch

Pretty much walked around aimlessly today.  My first experience was walking past a half mile stretch of squats.  (This became a theme but…)  I was surprised.  I have no idea what the story of Engeldamm Strasse is (across the bridge from our hotel), but it felt like Y2K era west Philly.  A good 20 minute walk past vans, cars and cabins that were obviously squatter’s homes.  To the left were brick buildings which seemed in disrepair but inevitably had beautiful gardens all around.  There was a makeshift sign outside one of the buildings that read “Tourists.  No pictures, no problems”.  This was my first clue that the Berlin young cool class are squatters.  I hate the word hipsters, but the young hip in Berlin seem to express themselves with tattered black denim, “stray” dogs and living in abandoned buildings.   At first I thought that this was an unbelievable residue from the punishments placed on Germany after WWII, but eventually I figured Berlin chic is Squatter Style.

Anyway, saw Check Point Charlie and the longest stretch of the Berlin wall today.  Started to awaken my curiosity about the times before the Wall fell.  Walking passed the Berlin Wall has a certain weight to it.  Heavy with history.  Looking forward to learning more about life here.

berlin metaphor

Notes from a Summer Tour Part 3: Off Week

First part of the shoot over, I have 7 days to get from Venice to Berlin.  Freedom to what ever the hell I want in between.  At this point I just want to drop my bags in some fishing village and spend the time sunbathing, drinking local wine and eating the catch of the day.  Renting a car and driving to the Istrian Peninsula in Croatia seems like the jam.  Alexa got in today, and we charged into vacation life.  After a balcony picnic overlooking the Adriatic, we hit the beach.  In Lido they have this thing I’ve never seen before.  Its fucking awesome, especially for a man-child like myself.  For 15 Euro an hour you can rent these paddle boats WITH A SLIDE BUILT ON TOP!  So you just paddlepaddlepaddle past the small breakers and have your own person water slide into the sea.  Add a bottle of prosecco, and you got yourself a hot date. first meal lido paddle slide thing

Finished the night by taking the vaporetto over the lagoon to Venice proper.  Dinner over looking the Grand Canal, an evening stroll in San Marco Square, and we were feeling the full charm of La Serrisima.  San Marco square is one the more breathtaking places I know.  Yes there is an unavoidable Disney aspect to it, with hawkers selling their weird light up “toys”, hordes of tourists and over priced cafes, but it was easy to imagine the hub bub around me must have the same energy its had since the hey-day of Venetian culture way back when.  I’m sure even when Napolean came here to conquer and fell in love, there were guys selling crap, victorian visitors dressed in their finest holiday-wear, and certainly the competing mini-orchestras were battling for the open air audience.

san marco cafe life cafe floridian  at night

***

Make a long story short, we never got to Croatia.  Or Cinque Terre.  Or got a car.  Or had that relaxing week. Amidst financial woes between the two of us, the reality of being in Venice (or Lido for that matter) during the high season was an expensive and difficult trial.  No cars to rent for less than a fortune and few hotel rooms to be had.  After a couple days trying to escape via car, we had to accept the fact that we were “trapped” in one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Bums in paradise.  We ended up spending the next couple nights on Lido but in a different hotel, Villa Edera.  It was closer to the port (to avoid the 15 Euro cab from the port to Hotel Petit Palais), in the main part of “town”.  Still over priced, but a cute building seemingly attempting to be in the french style.  They have a good breakfast (from which we would poach enough bread and cold cuts to feed us for the day), and outdoor patio that is a nice place to have a beer, stress about what to do the next day, or simply people watch in the warm evening air.

villa edera villa edera room lido port at night

We took turns cheering each other up, and did a good job of making the best of things.  In the end, we were still in Venice, and didn’t need to have money to enjoy it.  Pictures are free, strolling is free and window shopping is free.  Prosseco was cheap, and luckily we enjoy sharing food.  A gem of the time, and something I would highly recommend to anyone, was the sunset we watched from the Lido dock.  It’s up there with a sunset ride of the Staten Island Ferry for top cheap dates on earth (if you don’t know fellas, you should find out).  We got a bottle of $5 prosecco, grabbed our cameras and watched the sun dip down over the Venice skyline.  Lido looks back directly west over Venice proper and with the bubbley wine, orange glow and lapping waves its a pretty damn pleasant time. lido staple venice sunset

***

We eventually decided we had to get the fuck out of Venice.  It was sucking dry our already meager savings no matter how basic we lived, and we’d pretty much reached our fill of what Venice had to offer on the cheap.  A bartender acquaintance back in NYC told me once he went to Verona on a trip and found it was his favorite city in Italy.  So we decided that was the next stop. Short train ride from Venice, and I hoped off the expensive tourism grid.  We were only there for a short time, but Verona was indeed a nice place.  Best city in Italy….ummm I don’t think so.  But quaint nonetheless.  It was almost equally packed with tourists, and pretty much as expensive as Venice (goddamn high-season!!), but at night the medieval streets go silent aside from small groups of voices ricocheting off the brick and cobble stone, and the orange light draped in patches over the narrow walkways is idyllic.  Being the home town of Juliet and having the historic basis for Shakespeare’s ode to star crossed lovers is the major draw here and you can wedge yourself amongst the crowd in the very courtyard under the balcony that Juliet famously implored “Romeo, Romeo.  Wherefore art thou Romeo…”.  Again my favorite moment comes out of the Poor Man’s Guide to Romance.  Verona is home to the third largest Roman colosseum remaining, and one of the best preserved.  It is still the venue for many big concerts, and in the summer they still do an opera ever couple of days.  We walked passed around sunset, and seeing the dressed-up opera goers asked a scalper how much tickets were on a whim.  They were more than free obviously, and therefore out of our budget, but we found a little cafe tucked just under the colosseum walls.  Over wine and pasta we chilled in the outside area listening to the opera’s beautiful lyrics echoing up and out of the open air arena.  The best seats not in the house.

verona's river

juliets balcony dinner and opera

***

I was determined to get to Milan.  Alexa wanted to go see the fashion center, and it was basically the next stop after Verona, so I figured I could make it happen.  Honestly I had low expectations of Milan.  I figured it would be like Soho in New York at best or Rome minus the history at worst.  The “hour and a half” train ride on the local Trenitalia shit-box version of a locomotive ended up taking over three hours, so our short trip was cut even shorter.  I think we were in Milan for 3 hours, and we both agreed that was enough.  It was actually surprisingly cool in parts, but not a place I was looking to stay in at that point in my journey.  The Duomo there is awesome.  Like a Notre Dame on crack.  And the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is the oldest/coolest mall around.  One whirlwind circle, and Milan…check.

milan's duomo galeria vittorio emanuale II milan guys

***

Just like that, and a week goes by before you have time to savour it’s highlights.  My flight to Berlin was out of Venice Sunday night, so we made our way back to Lido Saturday night, and stayed in our old standby Villa Edera.  It was bittersweet since I had to fly out that night, but in those last hours during my Italy stint we did the only thing that had been missing all along.  We relaxed.  That Sunday afternoon, we stopped by the local market.  Grabbed prosciutto, bread, melon, a bottle of prosecco, and headed to the beach.  You have to pay to sit on most of the beaches in Lido (a la Jersey Shore), but the piers are free, so we joined the other locals on the cement strip and set up camp.  At about $13 we shared a picturesque brunch I’ll never forget for its simple perfectness, and spent the rest of the afternoon laying out on the warm rocks.  Heaven. lido pier bum's brunch

***

Arrivederci Italy.  As I write this (didn’t take many notes at the time, so from memory), its funny how the stress and anxiety of a vacation gone awry shlep off.  As with most things in life, in hindsight the bullshit sheds with time, and the good times rise to the top.  I’d say if I was in Venice with a fortune to blow, I don’t think I’d do it much different. Maybe splurge on a gondola ride.  Each voyage has its own unique learning experiences.  Anyway, next stop Berlin.  Up, up and away. shitty picture of venice from the sky