Monday, January 08, 2007

El Resumen/De Samenvatting/Le Sommaire

Distance racked up on the rental car: 1400km (870mi)

Diesel (Gasoléo A) consumed: 140l

Languages spoken: English, Spanish, Arabic, French, Dutch, Farsi (with my Afghan cab driver in Amsterdam)

Cheese consumed, in kilos: incalculable

Jamón consumed, in kilos: incalculable

Wine consumed, in litres: incalculable

Marijuana smoked legally: 3g

Whores banged legally: 0

Attempted robberies: 1

Diseases contracted: 3 (1 each for Elena, J, and myself - none from whores)

Mullets spotted in Barcelona: countless

Cases of fetal alchol syndrome in Gibraltar: countless

American college hippe types with beards in Amsterdam: (see above)

Former heads of state who died while I was away: 2 (Gerald Ford, Saddam Hussein)

Overall Impressions...

Andalucía: This is a stunnignly beautfiul part of Spain, with dramatic landscape, a rich culture, Moorish architecture, and roads that are fun fun fun to drive. I only wish we had more than 5 nights there, but I think we maximized every moment of our time in the region pretty nicely. Next time I'd probably escape the Little Britain that is Marbella and stay in a more Spanish town. It is Spain, after all.

Tangier: Ok, so maybe this isn't the real Morocco, but it was a nice little taste, and it's definitely left me wanting more. How long 'til I decide to make a trip to Marrakech and Rabat? Oh, I've already decided I will. It's just a matter of when.

Gibraltar: Worth seeing for the Barbary Apes and the caves within the rock alone. On top of that, it's just such an odd, fascinating little place, that it simply has to be seen in person to be appreciated. Truly a strange little melting pot.

Barcelona: It was and still is one of my favorite cities in the world... Although I have to say, I like it better in the summer, despite the hordes of tourists. Probably because it's the warmth and sunshine that really bring out the best of Barça. Still, no matter what time of year, this town knows how to party, how to eat, how to drink... Ah, I wish I could move here!

Amsterdam: More beautiful than I remembered it, and much nicer in the winter. The weather's about the same anyway (cold and always ready to rain) only there are fewer tourists than there are in the summer. And fewer roving British stag parties. Still, stay off the beaten path for best results. I'm still not fascinated by Amsterdam in a touristic standpoint, but I maintain that it seems to be one of the most livable cities, and I would absolutely love to live there. If only because the bicycle trumps the car here. And their stance on soft drugs doesn't hurt, either...

Brussels: I've been told countless times that Brussels is the most boring town in Belgium. That Antwerp's more interesting and Brugge more beautiful. Well, if that's the case, I can't wait to see the rest of Belgium. I was pleasantly surprised by Brussels' quaint beauty and old world charm, tempered by modern dynamism. What I can't get over is how homely and poorly dressed the locals are. I'm gonna come back, just to feel like the hottest guy in town.

London: What can I say about Londontown that I haven't said countless times before? It's expensive and too been-there-done-that, but it's "home," and I'll always stop by every time I'm going to Europe. That said, London is very dynamic and constantly changing. Whereas a few years ago it was a culinary desert, it's now home to many top restaurants. And in the last year alone, they've joined the movement toward free-range foods and locally grown produce. Hell, even the meat pie stand at Paddington offers all those healthy, organic, guilt-free options. The place has come a long way from its meat and two veg.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Long Trek Home

Fuck Virgin Atlantic.

Fuck them for having incompetent check-in staff, preventing me from doing any sort of shopping at Heathrow before leaving.

Fuck them for delaying the flight so much that I could have gone shopping with no problem.

Fuck them for bumping the seats I'd reserved months in advance and moving my party to the middle seats of the center aisle.

Fuck them for having a seat pitch so cramped, that my sick self couldn't have a moment's comfort on the plane, unless it was when I escaped through the guys on either end and went and hung out near the lavatories.

Fuck them for lowering their prices and filling their planes. What was once a cool flying experience is now déclassé and cramped. Whereas VA was a refuge for the travel savvy, it's now full of the same space-taking, inconsiderate mouthbreathers you find on every other airline. You know who I'm talking about.

Then again, I loooove their frequent flyer club. I'm just going to upgrade a class for longhaul flights from now on. And I looooove their flight attendants. I don't know if it was their usual level of beauty, or having been with the uglies in Belgium the day before, but my cold medicine addled brain was falling in love every ten minutes or so.

Joanna - the stunning brunette with the cute Welsh accent on VS019, if you're reading this and ever want a good layover, leave a comment.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

I Kinda Heart London

Offline Update
I think I've mentioned before my love/hate relationship with London. I love it because it's my childhood home and my fallback destination, and I feel like I know the place inside and out. I hate how expensive it is. £4 for a single tube ride? £3 for a pint of beer? £129 for one night in a small, triple hotel room with a teeny tiny bathroom and WebTV for internet access? Aiyeeee! I'm over this place, but something keeps bringing me back.

I attempted to update the blog using the WebTV interface and just couldn't do it. So as of tonight, I've written everything offline for updating as soon as I have a proper net connection. That probably won't be until getting to Heathrow tomorrow morning before our flight home.

Yeah, it's that time: Time to start thinking about going home. I don't want to do it, but for once, I feel completely satisfied with my trip. Maybe it's all the countries we hit up. Maybe it was the change of pace of renting a car for a week. Maybe it was the variety of locales and means of transportation. Whatever it is, i'm not going to hate going home for once. In fact, I'm more than happy to rest up for the trip home.

Elena decided to stay in to recover from her cold, Spencer and Sarah went to meet some London friends for dinner, and J and I opted to have a few quiet ones at the local pubs around Bayswater, my old hang. Overall, a pretty mellow night.

I got home and fiddled with the WebTV again, and noticed I was starting to come down with something, just as J was the night before in Amsterdam. Great... this is going to be a long ride home. Now I'm wondering if it's from licking the sole of a shoe, or just being exposed to a couple of sick travelmates. Mabye both?

The Mussels from Brussels

Offline update
We arrived at Bruxelle-Midi/Zuid/whateverthehellyouwanttocallit train station with no problems. I got in touch with Kimchi, a friend of mine who now lives in Brussels, and got metro directions to go meet up with her for our own little mini-tour of the center of town. Sarah and Spencer split off to do some shopping, while Elena, J and I spent some time figuring out how to ride to the De Brouckere stop. Once we did get on the metro, it was pretty fast and easy, and a bargain at €4 for a day pass. And I was excited that I got to buy our tickets in French, a language I'm not all that self conscious about using, as opposed to say, Dutch or Spanish.

As we were rounding the corner to the escalator out of the station, we heard "Omid!" It still doesn't cease to amaze me when I see friends who live part way around the world. It warms my heart that the world's become so small that it's not inconceivable to meet up with buddies in other countries at a moment's notice.

One thing I did notice, though, is that people in Brussels are ugly. I mean, really really homely. Not to be judgemental of people's looks, but it was hard not to stare at the masses of genetically unblessed, or simply fashion clueless. Not that I'm any sort of Adonis or anything, but like being in Houston or St. Louis, I felt like a supermodel walking around here. That's pretty bad.

But they make up for it by being friendly and warm. Having a lot of French friends, and having absorbed French pop culture, I know it's in fashion to bash the Belgians. Honestly, I don't see why. There wasn't a single shopkeep or transit employee or waiter who wasn't friendly and courteous. Instead of the Parisian cool I'd been used to, I experienced Bruxelloise warmth.

And Bruxelloise mussels and fries - or moules frites if you're so inclined. After walking around the Grand Place and getting the gist of the tourist traps around town, Kimchi took us to Chez Léon, venerable home to the quintessential Belgian dish. Despite the touristy atmosphere, Léon boasts over 100 years of history and is supposed to serve hands down the best moules frites in town, all at some of the best prices. And I don't doubt that. We all gorged on big pots of mussels, going almost completely silent other than the occasional "Mmmmmm!" while we ate.

The obligatory stop at the Manneken-Pis (the pissing boy statue), was followed by all the obligatory statements of how underwhelming the thing is. Kimchi likened it to the Mona Lisa - you hear about it for years and years, it's world famous, and it's practically a must-see institution for anyone who's in Brussels. But then you see it, see how tiny it is, and walk off a bit unsatisified. Oh well - at least the guy at the gift shop across from the Manneken-Pis was entertaining. I went in to buy a Belgium patch for my backpack, and walked off with a social commentary railing on about Turks, North Africans, East Europeans, and pickpocketry. Ahh, good to see that political correctness hasn't spread to old Belgian shopkeeper curmudgeons!

Next stop: Au Bon Vieux Temps (Flemish: De Goede Oude Tijd, English The Good Old Times), a very cozy, traditional beer bar featuring over 20 various Belgian ales. J and I opted for La Double - apparently the only Trappiste ale on draft, while Kimchi and Elena, being girls, went for the raspberry and cherry lambics. If you know Belgian ales, you know they're not chugging beers. They're perfect for slowly sipping while talking to friends after work, the type of lifestyle I could totally get used to.

Our time in Brussels was winding down, so it was off to Leonidas to buy a load of chocolate. Sure, there are the more famous Godiva and Côte d'Or outlets, but I can get those easily at home. Leonidas is apparently "the people's choice" for both quality and value, and having not been steered wrong with Chez Léon, I wasn't about to doubt Kimchi's now-expert opinion on Belgian food. We pretty much spent our remaining time in Brussels picking out tons and tons of chocolate to take home. How it was going to fit in our luggage, I wasn't at all sure, but we'd figure something out.

Eventually, it was time to get back to Midi/Zuid/watchamacallit and check in for the Eurostar. Now this is how travel should be. Check in, go through light security, and grab your seat on the high speed Chunnel train. Unfortunately, being nightfall, there was little to see, so we got bored pretty quickly. Elena was feeling sick and trying to sleep, while J and I were fidgety.

Besides the four Jupilers we'd brought on board, and summarily downed, we decided to keep going back to the bar car for beer and snacks. I mentioned earlier that Belgian ales aren't for chugging. We decided to toss logic out the window and pounded back Duvels like they were going out of style. With a nice beer buzz from 9% strength brew, the ride was slightly less boring. Of course, I do stupid things when I'm drunk and have cabin fever. Like eat a bunch of waffles. Or take a £20 bet to lick the bottom of Elena's Adidas. You know, the same Adidas that have strolled the shit and vomit-laden streets of Barcelona, Amsterdam, and now Brussels. Bring it on - if it doesn't kill me, it'll make me stronger, right? Or give me something that'll help me shed the pounds I've packed on during this gustatory trip.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Off to Another Country

Time to wake and bake...

Ok, maybe not. More like time to scramble and get everything together and catch a morning trail to Brussels. I had a little bit of confusion trying to figure out if we're going to Bruxelle-Midi or Brussel Zuid station, only to find out that they're the same place, only one is its French name, and the other Dutch/Flemish.

This should be a thoroughly confusing day... Au revoir, mijn frienden!

Late Night Diary

What's more dangerous? Abundant access to cannabis or access to the internet? Probably the combination of the two.

There's only one full day of this trip left before heading home on Saturday. Normally, this would bum me out, but I don't mind so much this time. It's not so much that I want to go home (I most certainly don't), but rather, I feel fulfilled. I don't often make repeat visits to places I've already been, so it's something special that I've done re-runs on Barcelona and Amsterdam.

Honestly, I didn't enjoy Barcelona as much as I did the first time around. Despite the great company and awesome New Year's weekend, it just didn't have the same charm and wonder as when I first came in the warmth of the summer and dodging tourists by staying in the suburbs for a more local experience. Still, I don't like Barcelona any less. Having come in two totally different times of year has helped me see the facets better. Barcelona's like a kalidescope. Just as the view changes dramatically on each facade as you stroll around the Sagrada Familia, the face of Barcelona changes from hour to hour.

Our street alone changed character many times a day, from a haven for workaday people coming and going from their residences, to a brilliant shopping area, to a decent dining area, and to a rowdy nightlife strip. The street transformed itself based on the time of day and the day of the week constantly. And I appreciate that about it. And would still like to live there.

Amsterdam, on the other hand, I like even more than the last time around. Beyond the sex, drugs and rock n' roll image, Holland is very progressive, charming, and livable. Now that I'm a cyclist, I truly appreciate all the facilities for bicycles, how common they are and how great it would be if California were more like it. Within blocks, one can find a rowdy party or a serene, quiet place for contemplation. It's also that much more likeable when you're not surrounded by American tourists, which was probably the issue last time around.

Skunky and Green

I try not to be a tourist, I really don't. But sometimes, there's just too much fun shit to be done on the tourist track.
Take the Heineken Experience, for example. It's cheesy, for sure, but it's fun. €10 gets you three fresh, ice cold Heinekens, a bit of history and entertainment, as well as a gift to take home. And Heineken actually tastes good in its home country. And they let you make your own incredibly silly Dutch singalong video. (Now moved to YouTube). I actually love the Heineken here. It's great when it's fresh, not like at home where it's skunky and green.

Speaking of skunky and green - isn't it fabulous that after guzzling beers at the Heineken brewery, you can walk alongside the canal in front of it and legally enjoy a spliff? Or that after walking the Niewzijdsburgerking-whatever, you can duck into any old coffeeshop and finish off the rest of your stash? Not that I'd know anything about it, but you could totally do that. If you were into that sort of thing.

You could then fill up on Italian food, and you might still be hungry for some inexplicable reason. And then perhaps go to a lesser-publicized coffeeshop, spend only €7 on a gram, drink tons of excellent tea, roll up a spliff, and watch your friend roll up a Mighty Joint with that entire gram. You could do that, but you wouldn't. Your moral fibre would prevent you from smoking nearly all of Mighty Joint, and naturally, you wouldn't chug away on it like a choo choo train on a dare, would you? And neither did anyone in our merry band of three.

Because if you did, you might wander back to your hotel, forget that you have a belly full of Italian food, and then go search the streets for falafel and fries. And maybe a candy bar or two.

I'm not sure if my pants will fit in the morning.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Menace to Sobriety

I'm not sure if it's the coffeeshops or the bruin cafes. Or two weeks of vacation. I must be losing it.

So far today I've purchased some hair styling creme made from mangos, an Amsterdam rain poncho for my bike, and a striped, super-thick fleece-lined wool jacket with a big, elvin poofball hat thingy hanging off of it. Damn Albert Cuypmarket.
Further lack of sense made J and I try to go local and eat some raw herring with onions and pickles. Nasty, I know, but it had to be done, right? The folks at the herring stand laughed and they watched as a couple of idiot Yanks tried to eat their pungent local food. It actually wasn't at all bad. It's just... a bit much for my delicate palate. I got through a bit of it and tossed the rest for some lucky cat to find.

Two days of holiday left to get my sense of judgement back. Ouf!


So after one night in Amsterdam, I have to say I'm relaxed. Even though we've approached the whirlwind portion of this trip, there's something making me feel all chilled out and comfortable. I'm not sure what it is. Perhaps it's the gezellig nature of the cafes here, or maybe it's the rich, foamy cappucino they serve at the, umm, coffeeshops. It has to be something I've ingested anyway... That and sleeping on the most comfortable bed ever, maaaan.

Or maybe it's food coma from having my first full-sized dinner in ages. We jumped from tapas for tiny people to big portions for big people simply by taking a two hour flight north.

It seems Argentinian steakhouses are the big deal here. It's like half of the restaurant row around the Leidseplein is a Buenos Aires meat clearinghouse. I don't know how authentic they are, nor do I purport to know anything about Argentinian food, but I do know they're a good value. The competition is stiff, so just about every one of them will throw you all-you-can-eat ribs or some sort of insane mixed grill combo for a reasonable price. I think I ODed on meat. As much jamón as I ate in Spain, that was nothing. I think I had more meat in me in one sitting than Jenna Jameson.

We practically rolled out to catch a tram to the Old Centre and promptly located the Ben coffeeshop. A chilled out, mellow place, and a far cry from commercial Disneyland-of-Weed megashops like the Bulldog and the Grasshopper, it was a good place to relax, drink some cappucinos and fresh fruit drinks, and feel a bit irie to some reggae. Almost two grams later (minus what I rolled into my own spliff for later use) we found the motivation to get up and explore the Red Light District.

The RLD is about the same as I remember it. That is, mildly interesting, until the novelty wears off. Still, I'm always impressed by the number of girls I wouldn't throw out of het bed voor het eten van brood. In fact, it's not a moral dilema for me at all. Just an issue of whether I want to throw out €50.

(By now, all my conservative friends have deleted my email and phone number, I'm sure...)

Back at the hotel, we finished off some of our earlier purchase and slept in the most comfortable beds ever. I've never been happier in a twin bed than I was last night...

Things Get Broken

I'm writing this offline as I couldn't get wireless to work at Barcelona airport, and they're out of wireless access cards at our hotel here in Amsterdam. It seems they're out of everything everywhere we go.

Most noticeably in Spanish bathrooms.

If you need toilet paper, it's a crap shoot. No pun intended. Soap? Don't even think about it. Hot water to make up for the lack of soap? Hope you packed a travel pack of Purell. Hell, there aren't even any paper towels, and half the hand dryers are broken. Even on our Transavia flight from Barcelona to Amsterdam, there were no paper towels left in the lavatory, and when we collected our luggage at Schiphol airport, Sarah's bag had been torn open. Not too badly, but still...

Must... find... a coffeeshop!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Viva Barça

My time in Barcelona has been the opposite of the last time around. Whereas before I got the touristy shit out of the way the first two nights and spent much of the rest of the time incognito amongst the locals, we've spent our last days here being cheesedick tourists.

While Sarah and Spencer slept in, New Year's Day found myself, J and Elena taking the metro out to Gracia to check out Parc Güell. Apparently, everyone and their mother had the same idea. We made the hung over, uphill walk to the park gates, only to find that there were even more people mobbing the place than when I'd last been during the peak tourist season in July. Oh well, at least it wasn't 110 degrees and I was only sweating minimal booze.

Yesterday we got on the damn open top tour bus. It's damn slow, and it's full of damn tourists. I lost my damn ticket mid-circuit and had to spend another damn €19 on a second one. I don't know why I agreed to get on the damn thing. I've already seen every damn thing in the city from a tourist perspective, and it was damn cold up on the open deck. (Can you tell I wasn't exactly thrilled about doing this?).

The best part of the tour came when it dropped us off at Plaça Catalunya, and we stumbled upon Desigual's "sale" store, separate from their full-price flagship store. Discount prices on a unique Barcelona fashion label that you can't find in the States? Sign me up!

On the way home, I bought us a few slots for the evening's "Smashed Bar Crawl" from Travel Bar. Elena wasn't too enthused about this, knowing that it's going to be a cheesy, drunken pub crawl with a shitload of foreigners to a bunch of crappy bars, but I need my outlet. When I travel, I need to meet and get smashed with random people, not hole up with the same few people every night.

Unfortunately, the crawl was less what I'd experienced (scads of young, good-looking Europeans and Australians getting really drunk and rowdy) and more what Elena had feared (scads of not-so-good-looking Americans who showed up already drunk and obnoxious.) At least J had a nice Austrian girl to talk to and I occasionally had some cute British arm candy on and off through the night. Elena had done the smart thing and called it an early night after our third bar. We went on to the horrendous awfulness that is the Green Room at Maremganum, and the even more horrendous awfulness that is the nightclub in the same complex. It was even worse than I remembered.

At least by night's end, J and I both got some action. First, it was the ugly-ass hookers throwing themselves at us on the south end of the Ramblas as we were attempting to locate some drunk food. Bocadillos in hand and headed home, we were then attempted to be robbed by a couple of rank amateurs among the craggy streets of the Barri Gotíc. One came up to me, asking for money...

"¿Tiene dinero?" "No." Next thing you know, he's asking me for a light and making several botched attempts to blow out the lighter repeatedly while making a grab at my back pocket. Too bad my wallet was well out of reach, bitch.

Then they both were on J, humped up on either side of him. It wasn't even the artful robbery that Barcelona's known for at this point, but an act on the verge of mugging.

I started cursing in Spanish and English at full drunk volume. Which is LOUD. My gut instinct was to smack them on the head with my jamon serrano sandwich and start kicking them in the shins, but the yelling was enough to get them off and to make sure no one else on the street was fucked with. Being full of booze and having just gone on a lame pub crawl, J and I would have had no issues rumbling. But I have a feeling that getting into fist fights in the streets of Barcelona isn't the way to go on your last night in town.

Oh well. These guys were such amateurs that they're sure to get dropped or hospitalized by week's end. At least when I got my wallet lifted in Prague, I didn't see, hear, or feel a thing.

Off to Amsterdam today...

Monday, January 01, 2007

¡Feliz Ano!

Feliz año, mis amigos. I hope everyone had a killer NYE, as we did.

The day started out a bit rocky, what with the inevitable hangover from copious wine drinking and just about everything being closed. After all, Sundays are a legal holiday in Europe. We split up and roamed around the city, some in search of clothes, some in search of shoes, some for tacky souvenirs; all in search of a buzz. Reconvening at the apartment in the evening, we solidified our plans for the night.

The plan: Head to Plaça Catalunya to ring in the new year, then off to a club to party 'til the wee hours.

We got to Plaça Catalunya in time to eat our 12 grapes at midnight (a Spanish tradition), chug a bottle of cava, and watch an unimpressive fireworks display with thousands upon thousands of drunks. The people-watching alone was priceless. Watching drunks stumble over the riot barricades should be a spectator sport.

We quickly made our escape to the Metro station to catch a train out to the 'burbs and Razzmatazz, a sprawling 4-clubs-in-one complex for their New Year's Eve party. Of all the parties in town, this was among the most reasonable: €32 for two drinks, a commemorative t-shirt, and watching Andy Rourke (bassist of the Smiths) spin a set behind the decks. Or rather, his iBook.

It was one sloppy night. Pours here are stiff. We're talking half a tall glass filled with booze on each round, even with the included drink tickets. It didn't take many cocktails to get shitfaced. Most of us got separated for much of the night, making for an ordeal getting organized to leave. It took us at least an hour to find Elena - we all assumed she'd hooked up with the French guy she was talking to, and we looked for her all over the sprawling megaclub, but it turned out she was just dancing a few meters away from us the whole time. d'OH!

The ride home wasn't too harsh, what with the metro running all night for New Year's Eve. The only trouble is that we needed food to ease the burning in our booze-filled stomachs, yet as I had discovered here two years ago, there's little by way of early-morning drunk munchies. However, I remembered the infamous hot dog stand near the Maremagnum from last time around and dragged J with me to have a disgusting, lukewarm, mayonnaise covered excuse for meat before crashing.

I've been burping hot dog all morning, and just now got a pint of Kronenbourg to wash the taste away. This is how I'll remember New Year's 2007, I'm afraid. But it's still awesome. Happy New Year!