Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Proud to be an American*

When Michelle Obama said it during the campaign, it was considered a gaffe and people seized upon it. I, however, say it with conviction:

Today, for the first time in my life, I'm proud to be an American.

That I didn't previously care shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. While at one point I was an idealist and wanted a life in the whirlwind of politics in Washington D.C. (that dream died after my first trip there and seeing how things really worked), I've never hidden the fact that I really only cared about getting US citizenship so I could have a passport unencumbered by visa requirements in most countries. Sure, the right to vote is pretty cool, but look what that got us in the past...

If anything, I'm the anti-patriot. I love the US Constitution, but I find that most people who wave a flag or sing the hymns are the first to want to trample upon the document. And that was before these last 7 years of post-9/11 jingoism, so you can imagine how I've felt more recently! ...If not, it goes something like this: Fuck your ugly, asymmetric flag, and learn to pronounce "nuclear" while you're at it! California should secede, and maybe bring some of the cool coastal cities with it, just to keep my tax dollars from supporting dumb fucks like you. Hell, I'm moving to France where they have a whole Socialist party and even some Communists just to spite you.

But I digress. Today isn't about vitriolic ranting. It's about celebrating.

And I'm celebrating the rebirth of the optimism that disappeared along with my youth. The optimism that sometimes the system - while definitely very flawed - can work. Optimism that the American people can take a bold step toward something new. Optimism that, one day, America can be the exemplary beacon of liberty and opportunity that it truly has not been since WWII.

Of course, it's easy to be optimistic about something when it's already happened. In just one November day, America proved to the world that the system worked, that it wasn't afraid to take a huge leap, and that it is still an inspiration for the rest of the world. Without a single life lost, battle fought, or vote allegedly stolen, America inspired people all over the world to repeat Barack Obama's mantra, "Yes we can."

Overnight, the world has once again bought into the American dream - the real one and not the fallacy that Reaganites and Neocons have pervertedly peddled, or more often than not, forced down the world's collective throat. People from Africa to Europe to southeast Asia believe the American dream that anyone who studies hard enough, works hard enough, and tries hard enough may well achieve what they set out to do.

Granted, I'm not an Obamaniac - or whatever you want to call his rabid supporters. I haven't drank the proverbial Kool-Aid. When I cast my vote for him, it was as much against the continuation of Reaganomics and the Bush Doctrine. It was against flag-waving and valuing ignorance over intellect. Against the Dubya-fication of politics. Against the beatification of egomaniacs who got shot down and captured in a losing war.

I find Obama to be flawed, and disagreed with many of his stances from the very outset, and found even more to dislike throughout the campaign.

But it's undeniable that he is charismatic. A natural leader. What many have now in a clichéed manner called a "transformational figure." Someone who brings out - as seen all around the world, and right here in my very mirror - the best in people. (Palin rally-goers notwithstanding.) With his eloquence, even-keeled manner, and ability to engage without antagonizing, he has brought back a term that hardly applies to any politician anymore: Statesman.

The fact that he's the son of an immigrant father, from a broken home, who's moved around from Kansas to Indonesia to Hawaii, who passed up the big bucks of law practice after putting himself through Harvard – even if he didn't make it to the presidency – show that he embodies the American dream. And in one election, he fully realized and went above and beyond that dream. For himself, and for African-Americans, immigrants, kids of divorcees, and just about everyone in the world who's been displaced over no choice of their own or told they don't have a chance.

The news has shown kids rejoicing, saying that when they grow up, they want to become leaders. Here in my new adopted home of France, black politicians are inspired. Africans and Afro-Caribbeans make up 10% of the population but have only one minister in the government; now they can hold President Nicolas Sarkozy accountable to his campaign promises of a more inclusive government. In my native country of Iran, a normally cynical youth population is (cautiously) optimistic about their own upcoming election, encouraged not only by the impeachment of the current nutbag president's close ally, but also by the possibility of a new dialogue with Americans.

If you're an American and didn't vote for Obama - whether you're afraid of paying taxes, don't want to pull out the troops from Iraq before the century's over, or are afraid of secret Muslims - know that even before he's taken the oath of office, you've benefited from his election. In one day, America's standing in the world is back on the upswing. For one day, no one's burning the stars and stripes. And for one day - and I hope for much longer - I'm proud of America.*

*On the other hand, for the first time ever, I'm ashamed to be a Californian. Fuck the 52% of you who voted for Proposition 8. Fuck Utah and the Church of Latter Day Saints. And mother fuck Howard Ahmanson and his daddy issues.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Italy: Post Mortem

Post mortem. That's Latin for "after death," commonly used - as you probably know - as a term for a debriefing, whether after a disastrous medical procedure gone wrong or a business project. Which are, in the end, often one in the same.

The original Latin might be more appropriate for me, as I woke up sore and stiff this morning and really dreaded getting up. My body was battered and beaten, my feet barely able to stand the cold kitchen tile, my back starting to look like Quasimodo's.

But the sun was shining, the Parisian streets seemed cheery and welcoming, and my office surprisingly warm. One normally doesn't relish coming home to Paris in months ending with "-ember," but trust me, it felt like summer after putting up with this:

Granted, that's Milan which – I found out after consulting the Lonely Planet we picked up three days into the trip – is considered "the London of Italy" when it comes to weather.

I wouldn't rank this trip at the top of my travel experience. Not because of the weather, but because the extent of study I did before the trip was limited to booking trains and hotels. That and trying to learn basic Italian in 10 days. I normally study the hell out of a place and its language before I go, but I've been a little preoccupied with adjusting to a new job, new wife, new country - hell, a new life altogether - for months. If anything, I hoped not planning anything would make for a great escape, a willy-nilly adventure into the unknown.

It turned out to be part family gathering. Part necessary escape from Paris. Part honeymoon. (Alannah and I never had a proper honeymoon, so we now consider every trip a mini-honeymoon in perpetuity.) As such, this trip was appropriately manic, with highs and lows. The lows all came from the rigors of travel: Delayed trains, lost bags, inclement weather, getting lost... The highs all came from people, whether spending time with loved ones or laughing it up with strangers. Sightseeing just happens to be a little bonus on the side.

The ladies are still in Italy, currently soaking up the proverbial Tuscan sun, which I'm assuming is hiding out... I mean, beyond the fact that it's night time at this moment. So this rundown covers my five days.

In five days, I had four journeys by train spanning a total of 19 hours. All four were delayed. Three journeys by bus. Six journeys by metro. Countless hours walking. Many of those in pouring rain. Three of those rain-soaked hours while hopelessly lost. While in transit, I lost a Bialetti espresso maker, a wheel of peccorino alla zafferona cheese, a box of Baci, a package of Kinder happy hippos, and half a bag of rosmarina crackers. I have in my jacket pocket the soggy remains of: one two-day metro pass for Milan, two Portofino area bus tickets, what used to be my US passport (currently an unidentified hunk of blue with ink-smeared pages), and a stack of crumpled receipts. One of those receipts proves that I bought myself some cock in Milan, at 10€ a go...

When not cursing the weather or the lateness of trains, I enjoyed a full ball of mozarella di buffala (and then some), at least a kilo of cured meats, five varieties of pasta, four kinds of pizza, the most fantastic cheese ever (said peccorino from Peck), the most godawful cheese ever (a slice of white Kraft singles from one of my aunts' oddball supermarket runs), McDonald's espresso, kopi luwak, prawns straight of the Ligurian sea, McDonald's fried prawns, some strange riff on taco salad, a tako salad (that'd be Japanese for "octopus"), and enough hazelnut and chocolate in bar/pastry/gelato form to choke a horse or two. All with a side of mostly crappy, spongey, bread, with a notable exception at establishments that baked their own. On top of all that, add enough zucchini flowers to turn my tummy into its own garden, a steak big enough to ensure that I'll never be regular again, and enough cuts of veal to make PETA freaks get naked to protest me. (Which is my goal in life...) And the best street food? Roasted chestnuts.

I took exactly 888 photos with my camera. Alannah took 312. 310 of which are from her newfound favorite "from-the-ground" perspective, which I love.

Yes, we even disgust ourselves sometimes.

Along the way, we saw tens of thousands of hideously dressed Milanese. (Two of 'em shown here!) Upon returning to Paris last night, I was reminded of the Parisian flair for dressing subtly, yet so well that even the homely can look dead sexy. The four-stop metro ride home reminded me of that over and over. Inversely, in Milan, metro rides remind you that even the hottest Italian bombshell stacked like a brick house will look like a Jersey girl when dressed like one. Unfortunately, there's no escaping the eye-searingly bad mode of dress. Flipping on the hotel TV puts more of it on display, in the form of variety shows...

I never cared much for Italian wine because - like French wine - only a limited selection is imported to the US, and other than high-priced luxury choices, most of it is crap. Having access to a wide variety of the stuff gave me a far better appreciation for Italian wines, and now I won't be so quick to judge.

In fact, after just a short time there, I found that to be the case with much of Italy for me. As a land of passionate people that pour said passion into everything they do, just about everything falls into the love-it-or-hate-it category. There's no middle ground. So while it seems there were a lot of things I complained about while in Italy, there was plenty to really love.

Which is why I vow to go back. Not because I haven't yet gotten to see amazing works like David or the Pietà or the Last Supper - stuff I studied and drew inspiration from as a student and still long to see in the flesh (or marble or plaster, as it would be...). Not because I need to pick up another wheel of that crazy opulent cheese. It's because of the manic, bipolar, crazy duality of the place. It rains, but you want to splash through the piazza. Your train is late, but that gives you time for another espresso. There are pickpockets everywhere, but you can enjoy the fact that they will have the living shit beat out of them. The fashion is jarring, but the forward-thinking design means you can find the occasional unforgettable gem that nobody back home will ever have.

Most of all, it's just a beautiful place, with gorgeous scenery and welcoming people as varied as can be for such a relatively small mass of land.

Thinking back to the last five days, I can see what it is about the country that inspires so much amore. The wife and I will definitely have to have another mini-honeymoon there, perhaps when the weather is nicer.

But in the meantime, I'm happiest knowing that being there put such a smile on these people's faces:

Sunday, November 02, 2008

I Sense a Theme Here...

One last backdated post... just got home a little while ago and now have internet.

I'm really glad I found the little rubber earpiece for my sound-blocking headphones before this trip. They're the part that make the sound-blocking part work. Were it not for these little babies, I'd be subject to the ridiculously loud mobile phone ramblings of the little shit down the car from me. In Italian, of course. I recall saying something about the Italian lack of voice modulation. It was in full force in the compartment on this morning's train, too, with a few strangers having an animated conversation about exactly how many minutes every train they've ever ridden on has been late. Despite the miserable guy visibly trying to sleep in the window seat.

Luckily, I have my trusty laptop as an outlet to write. And luckily, it's still functional. And with me.

In the string of overall rotten luck this trip (not mentioned before: one of my aunts had 100€ stolen out of her handbag her last day in Paris) I have been soaked again, this time after trekking around Torino for a few hours between trains.

The morning train arrived at the Porta Nuova station, where I checked in my backpack at left luggage. However, trusting such services as far as I can throw them, I transfered my laptop and SLR into my shoulder bag. When I travel, they do not leave my side, and they most certainly do not get checked in with anyone.

My load somewhat lightened, I made my way to the city center to do whatever it is that tourists to Torino do. Maybe do some shopping, have a hot chocolate, look at statues... that kind of stuff. I was about to start clicking my shutter at all sorts of neat things until the sky decided to open up. This, of course, meant that every historic seat at every historic café overlooking every historic plaza in Turin was suddenly taken by other tourists seeking shelter from the rain. And thus, I was left with the choice of hanging out in the covered arcades with all the enterprising umbrella salesmen from Africa and the Indian subcontinent, or taking refuge at the American embassy.

So off to McDonald's it was. Finally, I was handed the opportunity to fulfill my goal of poisoning myself at er... trying McDonald's in every country I visit. The menu didn't look very intriguing, so I almost made my way out of the non-line (the Italian disdain for orderly queueing apparently goes beyond bus and train boarding), until something caught my eye: Gamberi mariposi, 3 pezzi. That's right - McDonald's in Italy serves butterfly prawns the same way the corporation sells bits of processed chicken bits elsewhere. SOLD!

Unfortunately, the food is nowhere near as intriguing as it sounds. In fact, I dare say the gamberi were even oilier than at any grease schack in New Orleans... as in... the American South. Really. The rest of the food was just as craptacular as American McDonald's, too, only the beef in my burger was somewhat brown and not grey - a promising sign.

What my meal lacked in pleasure, it more than made up for with entertainment. As I exited McDonald's, a "gentleman" trying to look somewhat non-chalant as he carried a rather feminine-looking shoulder bag was grabbed on the same shoulder by one of those impeccably dressed, regal-looking Italian police officers. As he started to run, he was knocked down, then two more GQ-looking officers popped out from the other side of the sidewalk and picked him up so they could drag him somewhere more open for... god knows what. A crowd gathered and cheered as the resisting purse snatcher was finally shoved into the back of an official police Alfa Romeo. God damn! Even the cops are stylish in Italy. (And very pretty, in many cases...!)

I roamed around central Torino for a couple of hours overall, trying to find diversions and distractions, as well as shelter from the pissy weather. At this point, my shoes were starting to slosh around, and none of the open stores (it's Sunday, after all) sold either saffron cheese or Bialetti espresso makers, either of which I would have gladly snapped up to keep warm with retail therapy.

But I was miserable. Cold, wet, and missing my wife, I made my way back to Porta Nuova train station to collect my backpack. I figured with a few hours to go before my train to Paris, I had plenty of time to make it over to Porta Susa station. It didn't look that far on the map, and the directions aren't at all complicated - from one station to the other, it's simply north on a major street, then west. Forward and left. What could go wrong?

I'll tell you what can go wrong.

Italian street signs are second only to British ones in terms of illegibility. (Actually, British signs are easy to read - finding them is the challenge.)

Sure, it's classy (and classic!) to have them engraved into the sides of buildings in a serif typeface, and very small so as not to be garish and conspicuous. (Because, by god, no one here likes anything that's really visible, right??)

So I happened to miss not one, but TWO streets that lead directly to the station as I headed north, and kept going for, oh, probably 2 km more than I was supposed to. Normally, this would probably be fine since I'd left myself so much time to get to the station.

I knew something was amiss when it started looking less and less city center-like and slightly more suburban-business-area. I decided to make my left at that point, hoping to maybe triangulate upon the station, or at least see road signs pointing to it. (There were none, by the way...)

After a number of blocks of going west, that now oft-mentioned feeling of dread hit me.

Now normally, I have no issue walking through "bad" neighborhoods. I've hung out in South Central LA late at night, the "seedy" parts of Paris don't phase me, and my old neighborhood in San Francisco butted up to the projects where seeing a crackhead taking a dump on the sidewalk was no issue.

So walking through a downtrodden Torinese neighborhood with tons of hoodlums hanging out on the sidewalk isn't really a problem. I'm a big boy and can handle myself.

The thing is, I generally don't walk through these neighborhoods carrying a backpack, a shoulder bag, and a bright red shopping bag. If sharks can smell blood from a mile away, hoodlums can smell "tourist," at least from 20 metres. Now normally, I don't think this way. Hardly ever, in fact. I know the "law of the jungle," and there's generally no reason for anyone to rough me up. That and I'm about twice as wide as your average western European, and much scarier looking. Except for the fact that within three minutes I'd already witnessed two guys getting beat up... and on the same side of the street I was walking, at that!

As luck would have it, the next person I ran into was a young nun walking out of some church-y looking building. "Scusi!" I approached. She started to cower away, until I removed my beanie to show her I was a respectful, god-fearing (ha!) person. "Dov'è Stazionne Porta Susa, per favori?" I asked. The trouble with asking for directions in a language you minimally understand is that you get the answer in that language.

Following are the words I understood: Normally; you; keep; straight; but; left; but; bad; bad; bad; evil neighborhood; leave this street; future tense of "to be"; more safe.

I tried to say "Thank you, thank you very very much, I appreciate it" as I walked off but in my lousy Italian, I could've been saying, "Now can I see what's under your habit?" I think I got it right, though, because despite the storm above, I wasn't struck by lighting, and despite the thuggins around me, I wasn't mugged. And after stopping to orient myself a few times - and ask a few more puzzled passers-by if I could look under their clothes or whatnot - found the station.

Now I find myself less than an hour from Paris, likely developing a case of pneumonia considering how cold and wet it was at the Torino station and that the AC on this train was on for four hours of its nearly six hour run time.

I'm coming home with a likely pulmonary disorder, soggy shoes, much more weight, and far fewer euros. Worst of all, I'm doing it alone. Right now, all I can think about is drawing a bath, then crawling into bed. My big, empty, not-quite-warm-enough-on-the-right-side bed.

But I'm writing with a slight smile on my face. My wife, my mom, and my aunts don't have their last day for another week, and the weather forecast looks good. After all, I'm fairly certain I used up all of their bad travel karma.

A Family Affair

I knew my cousin's a bit of a celeb around these parts, but I didn't know to what extent.

He couldn't magically make our train arrive on time, but our ocean-view digs at Rapallo on the coast by Portofino more than make up for it. And the magnificent sunshine and summery temperatures? Somehow I don't think he's got connections with God or Mother Nature or whomever you believe is in charge of such things, but it's certainly an antidote to the miserable weather in Milan.

He also arranged a fabulous lunch at Rêve, the ultra-posh, shabby chic, French-inspired restaurant-cum-antique-shop. I'm not sure what I loved more: The squid ink ravioli, the gnocchi in octopus sauce, the Asian-inspired pasta in langoustine tails (and some whole ones for good measure), the warm octopus salad, the fresh porcini mushrooms with potatoes, the stunningly crisp local white wine... Or the tear-jerkingly sweet part, the lovely owner giving my aunt (i.e. my cousin's mom) a gigantic bouquet of white roses to welcome her.

I suppose it pays to be the best (and possibly only real Japanese) sushi chef in the region. Considering his restaurant is the upstairs of a funky, cool, but nowhere-near-fancy bar in Santa Margherita, it's gotta be all about his skill with the knife and his penchant for fresh fish (he goes marketing at the docks early in the morning, just like the guys do at Tsukiji in Tokyo). That and he's a genuinely cool guy, and it was awesome to see how everyone in town really likes him.

He used to work his magic at a chic, glamorous Japanese restaurant in central Milan (which we went and checked out - very schwanky!) but to me, it's obvious he made the right move to the coast. I may be a big city dweller, but there's no way to resist the charm and beauty of the Ligurian coast. The colorful houses with their trompe l'oeil facades, the gorgeous blue sea, the windy roads, the sheer cliffs and green mountains... and a near absence of English-speaking tourists. At least, in the off-season.

While the Portofino area is a playground for the international jetset in the summer, early November seemed to be blissfully... blissful. After four days, it finally felt as though I was on vacation, able to totally relax, and kick back as it was time for someone else (my cousin!) to lead the way.

Unfortunately, it was only to be for a day.

Last night was my last night in Italy. Which in and of itself is bad enough. I always hate the end of a good trip - even one involving getting soaked to the bone in rain and losing a bag of expensive goodies. But it's far worse knowing that I'm on this train alone.

By now, Alannah's with the rest of my family in Cinque Terre for the day - our trains left Rapallo at roughly the same time - and I'm on my way to Torino, where I'll hang out for a bit before catching the high-speed train to Paris in the evening.

If I were a daredevil, I'd have headed down to Cinque Terre for a bit to squeeze out the last bit of time with my wife and family before hopping a train to Torino, but I want a big cushion. Not only do I have to get across Torino to catch the Paris train, but this current train is already half an hour behind schedule.

My sense of utter non-surprise is outweighed only by a silly, juvenile sadness. My wife (and my mom and aunts) will be back in Paris in just a week, but I have this nasty, queasy feeling gnawing at my stomach.

Of course, it could just be all the goddamn food I've been eating.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Mamma Mia!

Another backdated post thanks to craptacular internet access...

Train delays suck.

They suck even more when you're really looking forward to seeing your cousin (and hopefully some of that elusive Italian sunshine) on the other end.

They really suck when you're dehydrated, have a nasty headache, and a body that feels as though it's just been put through a meat grinder.

No, I'm not hung over. I'm jotting down my thoughts in a train compartment with my traveling troupe, who got to the station well before I did. I, on the other hand, had to sprint across the north of Milan with my bags in tow. Without my morning espresso.

Here's how it worked out. We all got up nice and early. Showered, brushed our teeth, packed. I was so efficient, that I got all of my shopping packed into one bag - the really pretty paper Bialetti bag that the espresso maker came in - and then into a plastic bag - the big one that the hunk of luxurious Peck cheese came in - just in case the crazy rain followed us to the station.

We went to the nearest metro station, waited a little bit for the train, switched lines at the next station, then rode it out a few stops to Milano Centrale train station. So far so good, right?

Well, do you remember that trip-ruining feeling of dread I mentioned in my last entry? As we got off the metro at Centrale, it hit me. My expertly packed shopping bag was no longer in my hands. I mentally retraced - the last time it was out of my hands was back at the station by our hotel, when I put it down on the bench next to my aunt.

I looked at my watch. There was enough time for me to head back to the Lima station and - if it's still there - retrieve my shopping bag. I told the ladies to find the platform, and that I'd be back before they know it, hopefully with a fancy coffee maker and fancier cheese in hand. Hopefully.

I hopped back on the Metro and got off at the station to switch lines. Coming out, the station looked nothing like it had just minutes ago. There were construction barricades and caution tape all around. Disoriented, I went back down to the platform, made sure I came up the right exit, and looked again. Same barricades and tape. At that time, an old couple was trying to get to the same platform as I, and I had enough Italian down to figure out what he said: The station is now closed in this direction for scheduled construction, and in order to go south, one must go north one stop, switch directions, and go back south.

When time is of the essence, there's one thing you can absolutely count on: Italian transit's utter indifference to the clock.

I went through the motions, knowing that the ten minutes lost meant the difference between a future full of saffron cheese and crema-topped espressos after dinner and one filled with heartbreaking loss. I finally arrived at Lima station, went to the bench where I'm certain the bag was last, and had to settle for the latter.

The station chief was very nice and actually reviewed his security screens to see if he could find someone picking it up and throwing it away, but no luck. No chance - in a place where just about every vending machine, ATM, and ticket machine reminds you to "beware of pickpockets," there's no way my very conspicuous goodie bag would have been left alone.

But I had no time to feel sorry for myself. I had a train to catch in 20 minutes, with the station a 10 minute dash away. Or an 18 minute limp after leg cramps start forming at the 6 minute mark.

Now, with the train stuck between stations and operating on Italian time, I have plenty of time to feel sorry for myself.