May 29, 2006


I'm not so sure about Belgium. I've been to Antwerp twice and now Brussels, and I'm just not sure the country appeals to me. Actually I did quite enjoy Antwerp, they had cooler shops than Amsterdam and a nice center and a real river and good restaurants. But we went to Brussels this weekend and they city didn't really win me over. Ok, a large part of this may have been due to the weather, which, until Sunday, was gray and wet and windy. If it hadn't been so crap, maybe we would have enjoyed a park or sat out on a terrace, but as it was, I was just annoyed with the bottoms of my jeans being constantly wet.

We didn't do many touristy things; we didn't even go to see the Mannekin Pis statue. On the first, wetter day, we wandered around a bit, bought some posh Belgian chocolate, and then hunkered down in a not-to-atmospheric cafe for some beer. Well, I wanted tea actually, but somehow O's order for beer was translated by the waitress into an order for two beers, and she sped off before I could even say "wait, what about my order?" I drank as much of the beer as I could, but O ended up drinking most of mine as well as his, which I'm sure was tough for him. We did have a good dinner though at a Moroccan place that had about a hundred lanterns hanging from the ceiling.

The next day we were more touristy and went to the Atomium, a huge model of an atom that was built in 1958 for a World Expo. It was ok, though I'm not sure it was worth the 7 eur entry fee (which was actually reduced from 9 eur due to "inconveniences" from continuing renovations on the building). The first part was fine actually, you move from sphere to sphere of the atom via stairs or escalators that are quite steep and narrow. There wasn't much to see in the spheres, some basic exhibitions and one psychedelic sphere with black-light art, but it was a novelty and you had some good views sometimes. We then waited though to go up the elevator that takes you to the top sphere. The rest of the visit I could have done without. We waited in line for at least 20 minutes to cram in the elevator and be hurled toward the top of the structure. Up there, we checked out the panorama views, including a look down into Mini Europe, and then I grabbed some food because I was starving and knew I would be very grumpy and headachy if I waited until we went back to the center of town for lunch. The restaurant was overly posh and had no kids' food available, though the place is totally aimed at families. We waited in a shorter line to go back down in the elevator and then puttered back to the center. Things were a bit more lively there because there was the gay parade going on. We got lunch at an Irish pub and sat outside which provided a good view for the parade when it came back around to the main boulevard we were on. That evening we went to the Sleater-Kinney show, which I'll write about eventually.

Sunday was sunnier, so we sat out on the Grand Place for a little while and I had the messy experience of eating a Belgian waffle with chocolate sauce. We also fell into Waterstone's 3-for-2 trap and ended up buying 6 books. One of those though is the Rough Guide to San Francisco. Yay! We then ended up making a mad dash for the next train to Amsterdam because we lost track of the time, only to have it be delayed. Of course. And first they said it had a 5 minute delay, but that turned into a half hour delay, with no updates on when the train was ever going to arrive. Gah.

Our big frustration with Belgium though, which we've now learned our lesson on, is that it is so hard to find cash machines there. We had the same problem with Antwerp, wandering for ages with nary an ATM in sight. This time, when our dwindling cash finally ran out and we needed to somehow pay for lunch, we asked at our hotel where the nearest ATM was. There was one only a couple of blocks away; good stuff. But the machine in the lobby was out of order. It only told you this though after you put your card in, so we all waited in line, put our card in, and then walked off cashless. A machine outside the building was also out of service, but at least it told you straight off. Thankfully, there was a post office next door with the Belgian version of Postbank, so there was an ATM in the lobby. I followed a woman in, who actually wanted stamps, not money, but we both left disappointed when we found both machines to be out of service. We had one last hope, an ING bank across the street, and hey, that's a Dutch company, so this should work (and thank goodness all these banks were so close together because ATMs are so hard to find). We waited in line, put our cards in and got a message telling us that we couldn't get money because we weren't a customer of the bank! Fer fuck's sake! Absolutely worthless. We wandered towards where we wanted to have lunch and fortunately found another bank. We walked into the lobby (they seem to prefer this lobby thing over having the machines outside) and found a long line waiting. I asked O if we really wanted to wait for ages just to find out that we can't have money, but he pointed out that we didn't really have much choice. Amazingly, we were allowed to get money, finally. Next time we go to Belgium, we're bringing the money we need in cash...

May 22, 2006

News roundup

Trojan - The news from over the weekend of the demolition of the Trojan nuclear power plant's cooling tower not only showed up on the main page of CNN's website as the most watched video for today, but it was a short news item on the NOS Journaal tonight. Must have been a slow news day. At least the presenter pronounced Oregon correctly, which is more than you can say of presenters from the Eastern US.

More Oregon - I've been meaning to rant about this for awhile: bloody Nike and their shirts that have "OREGON" splashed across the front with a pine tree or something. Because I've seen a lot of people in these shirts here and it's so disconcerting to see all these Dutch people wearing my state's name on their chest when they likely have no clue what it's referring to. There was even some former French footballer wearing one on a BBC show the other night. Ok, maybe it's a bit overboard to be peeved about it, but it is at least really weird.

Where are the coconuts? - Continuing with weird things: for weeks now, both grocery stores we shop at have not had any Conimex coconut milk. Is there a shortage of coconuts? A break in the line of supply to Conimex? It means that we haven't been able to make this Thai chicken that has become a usual for us and I'm starting to miss it.

Ant update - Sadly, the first ant of this bunch of ants has died (not counting the one that didn't survive the transfer to the Antworks box). It's way down in the lowest tunnel though, so we have no way of getting it out of there and these ants don't seem to be bothered about carrying it up to the surface like they're supposed to. So it's just trapped in there. At first a couple of the other ants did pass by the dead (actually, at the time, dying) ant and quickly moved on and now they just seem to avoid that bit of tunnel completely. Not that they don't have enough tunnels... They're still digging and have a whole complicated mess of tunnels and chambers now near the top.

Holidays - Just like that, *boom, boom,* we have booked flights for two different holidays. First up, we're going in July to see a cousin of mine who has recently moved to a place near San Sebastian in Spain. He lived in Spain for ages and he has a Spanish wife, but then they were in the US for awhile and he was teaching Spanish at a college near where I went to college. I haven't seen them since their daughter was a baby, and now she's 6. We were just going to go for about 5 days, but for a couple of reasons we extended the trip to a week and we will see Madrid for a couple of days because we've never been there. One reason for the change was that we have to go through Madrid anyway since there are no direct flights to San Sebastian, so we may as well stop and see the city. The other reason is that we're going the first week of July, at the end of which is the World Cup final, and at first we planned to come back the same day as the final, but the flight didn't get in til 9:30 at night, so we would have missed it. We then moved the dates back one day and due to this and that thought we may as well go for a week.

The other trip is going to the US this fall, the dates of which revolve around a very good college friend of mine (and O's) getting married in early October. We fly first to Portland and are there for about a week and then we'll be road tripping down to San Francisco, taking about 3 days to see the sights, and then spend a week in SF. I'm really looking forward to that, I mean, we had this idea pretty much as soon as we got home from our trip to the US last year. I've been to SF once, 10 years ago (!!!) during my first college spring break and we drove down from Salem, but we didn't take time to see any sights on the way really, plus what was probably one of the prettiest parts of the trip, driving through forest in Northern California, we did at night. So I want to see the forests and the coast and maybe one of those drive-through trees from the 50s and the Oregon Vortex and enjoy the freedom of a car and stay in whatever cheap motel we can find in whatever town we decide to stop in for the night.

May 20, 2006

The Decemberists - Paradiso, 18 May

Ah, one of the shows I was most looking forward to in Our Insane Pile of Concerts - May 2006. I think we were a bit spoiled since we just saw the Decemberists last November and then they kindly came to Amsterdam, of all places, as the only city to play on mainland Europe before playing some shows (and the All Tomorrow's Parties festival) in the UK. Unfortunately it was also the first European show for them so they were adjusting to time differences and such, but the band was still enthusiastic, lively, and played a show that the crowd would remember.

O and I got to Paradiso just a little after the doors had opened, but it was still nearly empty inside. Very different from when we saw Belle & Sebastian, when there was a line of people waiting before the doors opened and it filled up fairly fast. We sat on the floor near the front and later our friends Steven and Natasja joined us. They didn't know the Decemberists incredibly well, but I was happy at the end to find out they enjoyed the show.

The band came out quite on time, which was good, and Colin immediately introduced themselves as being from Portland, Oregon. Woot! The setlist was:

California 1/Y&B Brigade
Soldiering Life
Sporting Life
Apology Song
Both Go Down Together
Summer Song (new)
Legionnaire's Lament
Lost at Sea
Los Angeles
Engine Driver
Bachelor and the Bride
Dreamt I Was an Architect
16 Military Wives
Chimbley Sweep

Encore: I Was Meant for the Stage

I was quite surprised that they chose CA 1 to start with. It was near the end of the show in Cologne and it's the last song of Castaways, plus the first half is rather slow, so it seems more of an ending song. But when they kicked into Infanta, the energy was palpable.

Colin introduced Apology Song as being a true story and then talked about bikes a bit due to bikes being so popular in the Netherlands. He assumed (correctly) that we probably get our bikes stolen quite often, but then pondered that maybe people in the audience were actually the bike stealers, so he asked for a show of hands of everyone who's had a bike stolen, and then a show of hands of who's stolen a bike, to which I saw a group midway back raising their hands, heh. Get 'em!

Petra Haden, who played violin on the Decemberists' last tour, was very absent this time, which we were sad about because she was a lot of fun last time. I yelled out "Where's Petra?" once, but no one heard or answered me, but later I asked again and Colin replied (away from the mic) "She's not here" which, um, yeah, I could see that. I asked "Why not?" and he said, with a weird kind of weary tone "Long story." Hrm. It felt like something was up, but I hope there's not any animosity between the band and Petra.

The one new song was introduced as, I think both Summer and Summer Song, like they aren't sure about the title yet, but it was quite nice. I'm sure it must be the song which Willamette Week reported Jonathan Safran Foer playing some percussion on. As they started it, Colin warned us that they'd never played it live, and John, the drummer, added, "Or jetlagged," so, yes, this was going to be promising. Of course, it was fine.

There was an amusing moment before one of the last songs when Colin realized that he, Nate, the bassist, and Chris, the other guitarist, were all about to start in different keys and they fixed it but John then said "No, try it out and see what it sounds like, I'm curious." It of course sounded like crap. They blamed the jetlag once again. Also before Los Angeles, John was spacing out a bit and wasn't ready to play because Colin was going on about all the bike paths in Amsterdam and the city they were going to sing about has no bike paths. Colin started to play, but John didn't start because he was sitting there trying to think of what city it was, heh. Jetlag! Obviously.

Chimbley Sweep was an awesome, long closeout to the main set. After the first two verses, Colin jumped off the stage and came out into the crowd, practically right in front of me. He went out as far as his cord would allow, making a little opening in the audience. He dropped to his knees, then eventually played on his back, which is when O got this shot. I peeked over the shoulder of the girl standing in front of me to find Colin lifting the bottom of her jeans a bit to look at her All-Stars. He then said "Double-tied?" and the girl went yep. I dunno what that was about, like he was surprised that people still double-tie their shoes? He eventually stood back up and asked if anyone around him played guitar. Someone near the back of the crowd opening said her friend did and a girl came reluctantly forward and Colin managed to pass off his guitar to her. She kept shaking her head though and going like "What am I supposed to play?" Against her protests, Colin brought her up on stage and then I saw that in the meantime Chris found a guy to play his guitar. The two guest musicians played for a bit before being let go back into the audience, the girl getting a hug from Colin. The band then did their sit down thing where Colin sends each band member to sleep and then has the crowd crouch down and asks us all to be very quiet. They didn't play the song in Cologne, so I'd never seen this for myself, but I had heard about it. Eventually the band stood back up, they quietly sang the verse with Jenny being the widow, and then the crowd all jumped up when the song went into the chorus. It was brilliant and the audience played along well.

The encore started with Colin alone, but as the song built up, the rest of the band wandered back out. The song and the show ended with a bit of instrument bashing, not destruction really, but Colin used his guitar as a bow on Nate's bass and Chris was swinging his guitar around by a few broken strings. Everyone but John left and then John gave a big finale before leaving as well, waving at the crowd.

During the show, O was attempting to get Colin's attention by tossing notes onto the stage asking for 2 minutes of the band's time after the show for a photo project he is starting. We were only two people back from the stage, so the first note he just folded and tossed over Colin's monitor. That didn't get his attention, so he took out the note he'd already folded into a paper airplane and flew it onto the stage. Colin still didn't say anything though until just after We Both Go Down Together, when he said, in sort of mock-surprised tone, "Oh look, there's something at my feet. I suppose I should look at what it is." So he picked up the airplane one and read the note out loud. He paused a bit at O's name, not being sure how to pronounce it, and then at the end O had put "from the guy with the cartoon dinosaur on his shirt" and Colin looked at O and was like "Oh yeah, cartoon dinosaur, you can't miss that." He then admired the note, how O had gone through the trouble to print it out and all, saying there obviously was some effort there (though really, it's just that you can't read O's writing, so it's best for him to print it) and Chris said "You pass notes, they're gonna get read in front of the class." But then they moved on with no answer to what O was asking, so O asked a bit later for an answer, to which Colin just said "We'll think about it." Hrm. After the show, we hung around the hall for awhile and everyone but Colin was packing up their instruments. O talked to Jenny who said they might end up watching the band that was playing upstairs, so he might be able to catch them then. We hung out for a bit with this couple, the girl was from Seattle and the guy from Portland. The couple came with us upstairs when the band members all disappeared, and we found Chris, Jenny, and John at the back of the audience in the kleine zaal. O eventually got up the courage to ask Chris if he could take his photo for a project, and Chris kindly agreed. They went out into the area at the top of the stairs where there was more light, more space, and less noise. O got his photos, and a couple of people came up and got Chris' autograph on their tickets. Then Jenny and John came out and they looked very tired and like they were leaving, but O stopped them and asked them if they'd take part in his project, and they said yes, which was so nice because they looked ready to fall over. After the photos, and signing the other people's tickets, they headed off with a smile and a wave. Three out of five wasn't so bad, though it would have been good to have gotten Colin's photo, but they said that he'd left already because he was so tired.

We then talked a bit to the girl from Seattle and I felt I had a lot in common with her, like the way I feel about living here, but also feeling like I don't want to go back to the US. We talked about the lack of music scenes in Holland, she especially misses the plethora of bands that exist in the NW because she's a musician and she'd love to find a band to play with, but she feels like for most people in bands here it's just a hobby, not something to dedicate much time to, and she would want to take it more seriously than that. Anyway, she was really nice and it was just cool to meet some people like that on top of really enjoying the show.

More Northwestness coming up with the Presidents on Wednesday, and then... finally... after months of delay... Sleater-Kinney. Which I'm sure will just fucking rock.

May 17, 2006

Cartoons and music

In the weekend, O was on a big Cow and Chicken kick, listening to some sound files and finding old episodes. We used to watch the late-night crazy cartoons on Cartoon Network, like Cow and Chicken, IM Weasel, and Johnny Bravo. The first two in particular are just so random and insane and watching them late at night while sleepy just made the confusion factor stronger. So O came across a Cow and Chicken cartoon where they go on a family trip to Oregon to find... headhunters. Obviously. Hey, if there's a place in the US where headhunters might exist, it's likely to be Oregon. The state attracts enough crazy groups as it is. I love the part where someone says something like "Wait, I will speak to them in their native Oregon-i-an tongue" and then throws out a bunch of gibberish and blown raspberries. People I went to school with spoke like that.

I forgot to mention all the stuff I got when I ordered the latest Quasi CD from Domino in the UK. A whole little Domino paper bag came filled with postcards, stickers, and a couple of buttons. Sweet. I think they win over Kill Rock Stars for most stuff sent with a CD.

Tomorrow is the Decemberists in Paradiso, which I'm very excited about. I was just looking at their tour date page and the Paradiso show is the only show they are doing on mainland Europe. I didn't realize that. How cool. I thank them muchly for choosing Amsterdam as the only place to play besides the UK.

May 14, 2006

Bloody hell

I finally, finally have finished the book I've been reading since I think the end of March, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. It's nothing at all against the book that it took me so long to read it, it's just that it is rather dense and Roth loves his sentences that go on and on for half a paragraph, so I often would only get through a few pages a night. But it was a very good book, an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh becomes president at the beginning of World War II instead of Roosevelt and the US becomes more threatening to its Jewish citizens. It sort of alternates between the politics and this imagined other history, and the story of a Jewish family in Newark, NJ, and how having Lindbergh as president affects their world, told from the point of view of a young Philip Roth. I recommend it, though I am glad to finally move on to a new book now, especially since O keeps getting more books and the pile of things I've not read keeps growing.

I was in the shit

I am recovering from a hard afternoon yesterday spent paintballing. It was my first time and, besides the physical discomfort and sweating, it was a lot of fun. A group of about 16 of us went to a place called Paintball Jungle just west of Sloterdijk station. We got there around 1 and, after suiting up in full-body camouflage suits and learning the rules and how to use the guns, we went for our first game, a simple capture the flag game. At this point, we were playing girls against guys, and we lost horribly twice to the guys, so we mixed up the teams after that. I got hit for the first time only about 5 seconds into the first game; I was poorly prepared and not protected at all. I got hit square in my left thigh, and yes, it does fucking hurt. I have a nice red and blue welt on my leg now, but others fared much worse. One girl got hit hard in her lower back and another was hit right on her tailbone. A guy was very lucky to be hit high on his inner thigh and not a bit more in the center.

The place had about 8 fields and we played most of them before I left with a group that wanted to leave earlier. Besides changing fields, the games also changed, like one team would defend a building while the other tried to grab the flag from near the building, or you'd capture the flag not from the other side of the field but from the center. I usually stayed in a more defensive position and tried to hit people on the other team, though I was never certain if I ever hit anyone. I would have tried to move around more, but I was very hot in the suit and face mask we wore, so I was quickly getting run down. It sucked that whenever we were in a field, we couldn't take off our mask, even if the game was over, and we'd usually play a game twice with the teams switching sides, so I'd be dying for some fresh air but I had to wait til we left the field. Fortunately we went back to the central starting area often so we could get drinks or food. I don't have too many battle wounds to show off tomorrow, but I guess I shouldn't worry about that.

Ant update

When we last left the ants, they had connected some old tunnels and seemed to want to clear out the entire left side of the box they're in, but they hadn't done much new tunnelling besides that. A day or two after I posted, they began making a cross-box tunnel, starting from the bottom right and going to the left in a slight uphill direction. Actually, they finished it in one night; they had done quite a bit when we got home from work and by the end of the evening they'd connected the new tunnel to the mess of tunnels and holes on the left side of the box.

A couple of days ago, after wondering why the ants seemed to prefer to gather at the left side of the box, we turned the box around, thinking it might have something to do with the light (the left side of the box is more towards the living room windows). And light does seem to have something to do with it because they still gravitate to the left. Today they started work on a new tunnel which is nearly identical to the other cross-box tunnel they dug, going at the same slight angle up, so the two together almost make an X when you look through the box. Here, a photo shows it a lot better than me explaining:

All sorts of places for them to crawl around now. I'm not sure they would have made this tunnel though if we hadn't turned the box around, but at least they did make another large tunnel, I almost thought they had quit with the digging.

Belle & Sebastian - Paradiso, 8 May

The show was almost a week ago, but never mind. I had a great time, my 3rd time seeing Belle & Sebastian after what felt like ages of not being able to see them live in the first few years I was a fan because they didn't tour to the US very often, and when they did they never came to the West Coast, or at least not to the Portland area. So all 3 times I've seen them have been in the Netherlands.

It was a bit weird getting to Paradiso... Around the same time as the show, out on the Leidseplein, there was a celebration for the Ajax football team winning some cup, and things were all blocked off and such. We had to walk from a few streets over and then avoid the mess on the plein. Cops were everywhere, next to Paradiso there were at least 8 mounted police hanging out, and the street in front of the venue was lined with riot police vans. The doors for the show weren't open yet, so we got in line and stood watching the riot police gearing up and having a smoke and all that. Plus there were tons of Ajax fans streaming towards the plein which was being serenaded by some Dutch singer. Apparently the celebrations didn't go all too smoothly and there was a bit of rioting, but by the time we got out of Paradiso, it was all over, except for broken bottles everywhere on the ground. It's just weird how oblivious we were to what was going on just up the road.

There was an opening band, but I don't even feel like mentioning their name because they were so crap. Their songs were too long and boring; I saw many people around me openly yawning while they were playing.

B&S came out later than expected, so we were definitely happy to see them after a long wait in a warm hall, and they straight off played an oldie, Expectations. The setlist was a great mix of old and new, which I think would please anyone, no matter how much of their stuff you knew. Some other old stuff they played: She's Losing It, Electronic Renaissance, Dog on Wheels, Fox in the Snow, The State I'm In, Jonathan David, Loneliness of the Middle Distance Runner, and Boy with the Arab Strap. I unfortunately had only listened to the new album once before seeing them, but I could still recognize the new songs, like Blues Are Still Blue, Funny Little Frog, and Sukie in the Graveyard.

The audience was pretty good overall, appreciative of both old and new songs, but I don't think I'll ever get Dutch people at shows. In this case, I would look around every once in awhile to see how much people seemed to be into things, and even though we were near the front, not many people were dancing much, though they would clap and cheer plenty when the song was over. I just didn't get it. Like the two girls behind us, they seemed excited to be there before the band came out, they were all counting down the minutes until the time when they were supposed to start, but then they didn't move much during the songs. I dunno, maybe they aren't much into dancing about, but it seems so weird to just stand there, not moving at all. And what was weirder as I looked around was that all of the people really into things and dancing were all guys, with a couple of exceptions. Bit rare. There was even one guy up in the balcony dancing as much as he could while sitting in a chair, bouncing around and tapping his feet. There's the energy I want to see...

Then there's overdoing it, especially in the case of being drunk, as were two guys who ended up near us on our right side. One of them was a bit more calm, but the other one was being so stereotypically drunk: singing at the top of his lungs, stumbling around all over the place while holding on to the other guy, yelling out nonsense between songs. It was really annoying and I tried my best to ignore him and watch the stage, but it was hard when he kept stumbling in our direction, though O was between me and him. Once between songs, Stuart was asking for a cigarette, even though he dosn't smoke, and some people at the front rushed to provide him with one. The drunk guy then threw his mostly empty pack on stage, which the band appreciated. Later though, during the encore, the idiot asked for the pack back, since the band wasn't smoking them. Cheap bastard. I did make me laugh though when the drunk guy was asking around in the crowd for a light and, out of about 20 people he asked, no one had one. I guess B&S fans aren't much for smoking.

The band though was awesome, Stevie is always fun to watch, he looks rather pissed off, but I think it's all an act. He has such a 60s aura; he was dressed in a older-style suit, with black-framed glasses, and had a old-fashioned way even of playing the guitar. Also great were his moves during Electronic Renaissance, where he traded his guitar for a little toy instrument of some sort, and he'd make all these Austin Powers-like poses which just made me smile. O caught one of Stevie's poses here.

During the last part of the show, O was trying to find a good moment to try to get a note to the stage mentioning that he'd like to meet the band afterwards for just a couple of minutes for a photo project he is trying to start. He'd already folded the note into a paper airplane to fly to the stage. We kept waiting for a good moment, but he didn't finally throw the paper airplane at the stage until his last possible chance, as the band was giving a bow at the end of the encore before leaving for good. Fortunately it flew fast and straight and landed where Sarah saw it and picked it up. She read it with a curious look on her face, and then looked out into the crowd to figure out where it'd come from (O said in the note to look for the guy wearing a panda on his shirt). Then Sarah showed the note to Stuart who read it and laughed, before they left the note on a keyboard and headed off stage. We waited around awhile after the show to see if any band members would come out, but none did. Oh well, at least they saw the note. Maybe we'll be more lucky with the Decemberists coming up this Thursday.

May 11, 2006

Link roundup

Things I've come across today...

- The writer geek in me loves these cards and shirts with words written in shorthand. I love how the strokes to make the word "unruly" actually look kinda unruly.

- Portlanders beware: the trains being bought by TriMet for the I-205 MAX line look very similar to the lousy new trams Amsterdam bought, also made by Siemens.

- One other Portland thing: Portland has a city flag. Who knew? Ok, it makes sense that they have one, but I swear I'd never seen it or heard of it.

May 7, 2006

Mountains, tourists, and gelato every day

We've been back a couple of weeks now, but finally here's the story about our trip to Italy. We visited two places: Bellagio on Lake Como in the north, and then Florence, which both O and I have both been to, but not together, and the last time he went was like 10 years ago with a school group.

Bellagio and Lake Como were amazing. The entire lake is surrounded by mountains that come straight down to the water, with little towns perched along the waterfront. It reminded me in a way of the Columbia River Gorge, but with even less flat area next to the water. The lake, which is huge - Italy's 3rd largest - is shaped like an upside-down Y. At the bottom of the left (western) arm is Como, at the bottom of the right (eastern) arm is Lecco, and Bellagio sits right where the lake splits into the two arms. There are two main towns across the lake from Bellagio: Menaggio to the west and Varenna to the east, and ferries run frequently between the 3 towns, carrying either only passengers, or passengers and cars.

It took us 5 hours to get from the airport to our hotel. I've never had such a long trip after a flight. I think the Netherlands has raised my expectations of public transport too high, since it never takes that long to get anywhere here and trains and buses run so frequently, in general anyway. But we soon found out that it's another story in Italy when we got to the train station in a town called Bergamo and found out that our train wasn't leaving for another hour and a half. And that was just to get us to Lecco, where we had to change trains to get to Varenna, and then take a ferry to Bellagio. Oy. But we didn't mind so much. It was a gorgeous day, perfect blue sky and warm; we hadn't seen the sun in ages in Amsterdam. We sat on the platform and ate some food we had with us and just waited for the train. O then decided to take some photos of the station and this older guy came out of the station office and said something to O. We both assumed he was telling O to stop taking photos. But no, he was just saying hi (Italians can often sound like they're being argumentative when they're not) and then, after figuring out what language O spoke, he took O on a behind-the-scenes tour of the station. I was just left out on the platform wondering what was happening with my boyfriend. But I saw from the photos later that O was taken into the rather outdated signal room and then to another room where they can see which train is on what track. The station guy in the meantime explained it all as best he could in English. It was awesome. He definitely had a pride about his work and just wanted to tell someone about it.

A couple of hours and two trains later, we'd made it to Varenna where we hauled our suitcase downhill to catch the ferry to Bellagio. And what a ride, taking in our new surroundings from the center of the lake, all the little towns, and the hills nearest us, which aren't so high to really have any snow anymore. But my favourite view, the one I never got sick of:

The mountains to the north of the lake, the edge of the Alps. I was so happy to see mountains again, and then they were such beautiful mountains.

We finally got to Bellagio and walked along the waterfront looking for the street with our hotel. It was hard to find though, as most of the shops and restaurants along the water were shielded against the afternoon sun not just with awnings, but with full-on curtains. Silly Italians who don't fully appreciate the sun. Behind the curtains was a covered walkway in front of the shops and restaurants and then the curtains gave you full shade. We almost missed our street though because even the end of our little street was blocked with a curtain.

And it's not so much a street as a steep alley made of steps.

In pretty much every town on the lake this is what the streets running uphill look like because it is always this steep.

Bellagio itself was very beautiful, we got our legs in shape wandering around the little streets which were filled with shops and restaurants. It is rather touristy, but at least most of the tourists are actually Italian, so it's not as noticable. It also is a bit rich and posh in ways, lost of people in expensive cars and shops selling expensive clothes, and I felt intimidated by it at first, but then I saw more people who seemed normal and I relaxed about it.

One of my favourite things about Bellagio was this huge run-down deserted old hotel at one end of town. At the other end of town is an equally large hotel which is still in use (though I hear it is horribly overpriced and overrated), but this other one, after being used as a hotel and restaurant school, was just left to rot. O took some photos, but none come close to capturing what it was like to see in real life, the size of it, being able to pick out its old grandeur, but now the paint is faded, windows and doors are missing or broken, some balconies had no railings... It was a bit creepy. I wanted so badly to be able to go inside and see what you might find in there.

The day after getting there we unfortunately lost our sun, but it was still rather warm. We took a ferry back across to Varenna and puttered about town for a bit, but it's even smaller than Bellagio, so there wasn't a whole lot to see. We decided then to walk to Fiumelatte (Milk River), which is called the shortest river in Italy, but it's more of a long waterfall than a river. It gets its name from the milkiness of the water as it tumbles down on its way to the lake. We took some photos on a little bridge over the river, and then saw a sign which we figured said "To source of Fiumelatte". Despite O's slight "I don't wanna climb a hill" protests, we headed up the path, which was first made of steps winding between some houses and then turned into little dirt path going through grass. We passed under the train tracks and went up and up, going parallel to the river. We got to a point called "the source" but it couldn't have been because the water came from further up the hill. But we decided that was high enough. There was a little picnic area up there though with some picnic tables and even a barbeque area built against a rocky area.

From there we took a different path heading across the hill, which two women we had passed told us lead to the castle in Varenna which is up on a high hill. Though the sun wasn't shining and we could still hear cars from the highway at the bottom of the hill, I was so happy walking out in nature, on this unplanned walk, not knowing where we'd end up.

We only passed one other person the whole time til we were back in town. We never made it to the castle, I think we took the wrong fork at some point and ended up heading back down to Varenna instead of up to the castle, but we were starving by this point anyway. One last sight on the walk was ending up at the Varenna cemetary and Italian cemetaries are very different from American ones. In one section were family tombs, little houses with sometimes a dozen people, or places for that many, inside. There were some simple graves, but most were quite fancy, usually meant for a couple, with photos of the dead, flowers, a little electric lamp, and often a cross or statue of Jesus or Mary - or both, in this case.

The next morning it started out overcast, but some blue started poking through. We walked out to the very tip of Bellagio (called “Punta Spartivento” - "the point where the wind divides") where the whole vista of the center of the lake and all the hills and mountains speads right in front of you. It wasn't so much overcast as foggy and we stayed there for a good half hour watching the fog begin to lift and then shift around the tops of the mountains and stick to the water and play peek-a-boo with the towns across the lake. Often you could hear a ferry for quite some time before it finally puttered out from the fog.

The sun eventually won out and it was another warm day. We went for a walk following a map we'd picked up at the tourist office which took you around to various suburbs of Bellagio. We first walked up and over the hill behind the town (it wasn't that high, but it was all steps) and then along the lake, seeing a couple of little villages, a few villas, olive trees (apparently it's the most northerly point where olive trees grow), and a plant nursery before heading back into Bellagio. That night we had a long chat with the owner of our hotel, a very nice man named Giacomo, who told us all sorts of stories about the town and about his family running the hotel. He told us about John F. Kennedy coming to the town only months before he was killed and Giacomo caught a glimpse of Jackie, but said she was very far away and could have been any woman, but he knew it was her. Nowadays, they talk about who is the latest star, like George Clooney, to buy a villa on the lake. As he talked with us, he often paused to plonk behind his computer to show us a photo of something. We talked with him for at least half an hour. It reminded us of the guy at the Bergamo train station, so open and eager to share his stories with others.

The next morning it was time to leave Bellagio and head south to Florence. The plan was to ferry back over to Varenna, take a train to Milan, and then change trains to Florence. We'd checked the times of what ferry and train to get so we wouldn't be waiting for hours, and also because it was Easter Monday, so likely things would be running less often than normal.

But things did not go according to plan... We got the ferry ok, it was actually really early, or maybe really late, so we had plenty of time to head uphill to the train station in Varenna. We got there and there was a British couple checking out the train times as we looked to get a ticket (the train station is so small they don't have a person selling tickets, only a ticket machine). But then this guy came in and babbled to us in Italian and the gist of it was was that no trains were going, you had to go south to Lecco to get a train. After considering our options, we thought the best bet was to get a ferry to Lecco and then the train from there to Milan. So we all head back down to the ferry landing and ask about how to get to Lecco. Sure, there's a ferry to Lecco, but it leaves from Bellagio. Where all 4 of us had just come from. Gah. We waited 20 mins for the ferry back to Bellagio, then we had to wait about 50 mins there for the ferry to Lecco which was an hour-long ride. We didn't get into Lecco until 2 in the afternoon and we weren't even away from the lake by then. It all worked a bit more smoothly after that. We had time in Lecco to grab some lunch, the ride to Milan wasn't too long, and then we just had to cross the platform to get our train to Florence, which was a zippy Eurostar train that only stopped in Bologna before Florence. Getting the tickets for the train though... The train to Varenna when we arrived was so cheap, 8 euros for the two of us and it was a hour away. So I thought even to go all the way down to Florence it'd cost no more than 25 euros. But since it was the Eurostar, and since only 1st class seats were available, it ended up being 90 euros. I nearly choked when the guy told me the price. But we had no choice. And at least it was fast, because as it was we didn't get to Florence until 7 pm, after leaving our hotel in Bellagio at 10:30 that morning. A very, very long day.

Florence was a bit of a shock after the relative quiet of the lake towns. So much traffic and noise and crowded sidewalks and it all seemed so dirty. I realized that Florence doesn't really have many parks or areas of green easily accessible to people just wanting to hang out. Nor are any streets lined with trees. In my mind when I think of walking around there, I just think of brown buildings and the smooth, worn-down stones of the sidewalks. All a bit monotonous and urban. Also there were so many tourists, many American. Bellagio was touristy, but Florence is just swamped by visitors. And I think the amount of tourists in Amsterdam is bad. Florence is much worse. But I got over it the next day and we wandered around town. We sort of put off really doing anything because it was rather gray and it drizzled the 2nd half of the day. We did go into the cathedral though in the afternoon because we wandered past and there was no line anymore to get in. Another thing that day which was really cool was that we were walking down a smaller side street and saw two girls crouched next to a couple of piles of yellowed newspapers. We walked over to have a look and found they were copies of La Nazione, a Florence-based newspaper, from about 1963-1965. Someone had just thrown them out next to a dumpster. Even though they were in Italian, we dug through the piles to see what important news we could find. I realized that the piles should have included news on Kennedy's assassination, but if that paper was in there, someone had already taken it. There was a paper though about the 2nd anniversary of his death, which we took, along with the paper showing Johnson winning over Goldwater and the news that America had developed a new antimissile. As we looked through the papers, others would stop to see what was going on, and then they'd get drawn into looking through them too. One guy just looked on and said a couple of times in amazement "La storia!" ("History!").

To be honest, we didn't really do much in Florence but wander a lot and sit in the piazzas (esp the Piazza della Signoria) and people watch. Which was fine. The wandering can wear you out. We'd get an afternoon gelato and enjoy the sun if there was some or sit in under the Loggia which houses a few statues if it was colder and drizzly. It's not so bad to take a more laid-back approach.

We did, however, climb the dome of the cathedral, which I didn't do the last time I was in Florence because it was a thousand degrees and my feet were blistered, so I had no interest in climbing a tons of stairs. We went one morning because, besides having some sun finally, we were walking past and saw that there was hardly a line, when usually at that time the line went on and on around the corner of the cathedral. O and I had both just read Brunelleschi's Dome which told the entire story of the building of the dome, so it was awesome to be inside it and see close up some of the things talked about in the book. The climb was not as hard as I expected. Partly this was because the stairs aren't continuous once you are in the dome, there's lots of landings where you can stop to catch your breath. Also it wasn't as narrow and claustrophobic as I thought it might be, but this idea was influenced by the story of a friend of mine not being able to go all the way to the top because she got claustrophobic. It does get a bit narrow, but I felt worse when we climbed the towers of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The views from the top are amazing, and you have the red tiles of the dome falling away below you. I think what I enjoyed even more than the views though was getting an up-close look at the fresco covering the interior of the dome (on your way up and down, you walk on a platform around the inside edge of the area where the dome is and the fresco is above you). All around the bottom of the fresco are hellish scenes of people being tortured and flayed and being thrown in pits of fire. Above that are layers of saints and angels and whatnot leading to Jesus sitting on a gleaming throne. At the very top is a trompe d'oeil of men looking like they are sitting on a ledge in the top of the dome, each with a column between them, but it is all an optical illusion, it is all flat. I didn't pay much attention to the angels and heaven parts of the fresco because there was so much to look at in the hell part. Each time I looked at one section of it I seemed to notice something I hadn't noticed before, and they are quite gruesome scenes. Someone had a freaky imagination. Plus you get to be so close to the fresco that you could reach out and touch the bottom of it and you can see all of the paint strokes that go into making the figures. I found it all quite amazing.

The other main thing we saw in Florence was the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace, even though I couldn't believe they were charging 7 euros for entrance. We spent a good couple of hours there though, wandering uphill to see over into a green, hilly area, and then down to the other end of the gardens. That part was quite nice, less busy than at the entrance, and there was a wooded bit with all sorts of paths leading through the trees. We went on a path that was covered the whole way with an arch of plants.

The gardens were nice, but we wore ourselves out with the walking. In the end, I felt I could have done with half of the time that we spent in Florence, but it can't be helped. Instead I'll just keep those lovely mountains from the lake in mind...

May 6, 2006

New ants

Two Christmases ago I got O an Antworks and a couple of months later we got the ants we ordered from the UK. These were tiny little things though, about 25 arrived in a plastic container the size of a film roll canister. They lived their 3 month lifespans and for the last year the Antworks has been collecting dust with a pile of dead ants in it that we didn't bother to clean out.

O finally got around to ordering new ants, bigger ones this time from a place in the Netherlands. And bigger they are, at least 4 times larger than the last ones. We only got 10, in a plastic tub. They came yesterday evening and then we had to try to get these big, hyper things into the Antworks box. With the small ants, if a couple died in the process of transferring them, it was no big loss, but this time we only had 10 and they cost a euro each. The first attempt got out of control with the ants running under the lid and onto the table and we had to close up everything again and stick them in the fridge to calm them down. The second attempt went a bit more smoothly and soon all 10 were in the box. Whew. One was lost in the procedure, it was lying in the box curled up and barely moving, and when it did move, it didn't look too healthly. O called it "the gimp" and eventually took it out. So we only have 9 now.

What's great about them being bigger is that you can see their body parts more. You can easily see their large mandibles and their antennae and the segments of their bodies. I learned only a couple of weeks ago via the Straight Dope that ants are actually one of the cleanest animals on earth. They secrete stuff to kill bacteria and they are constantly grooming themselves. You can really see that with these ants; they seem to stop every 10 seconds or so to run their front legs over their antennae and then they lick their legs with their germ-killing saliva. Occasionally they stop to do a more thorough cleaning of their whole body, curling up in a ball to reach their back end and back legs.

The smaller ants were known to not be the most productive. They huddled in the corner of the box for most of the first week we had them and only dug one large tunnel and a little one off in the corner. It wasn't the maze of tunnels all through the box that we imagined. The bigger ants though have gotten right down to work. Here's a photo O took of the main tunnel the smaller ants dug, though it did end up a bit larger than this (it curved back up to the surface). Here though is what the box looked like only a couple of hours ago.

So far they've mostly been widening out the tunnels that were already there, but they also connected the small tunnel that was to the left to the main one the other ants had dug. There's tons of displaced gel bits on the surface, a whole new mountain up there. To the left side they've cleaned out a lot of the gel against the side of the box, I'm not sure why. It's more of a big hole than a tunnel. Still, there are a few connecting tunnel bits and holes, and it's fun to watch them crawl through it.

With the bigger ants, you can see much better what they do to dig the gel out. They bite off a few bits of the gel and then roll it back under their body to make one bigger ball of the stuff. Then they pick that up and haul it up to the surface. Where they put the bit down seems totally random, but maybe there's an ant system to it. Of course they wouldn't want to put it all right outside of the hole they come out of or else it would end up blocking the hole, but they seem to wander around trying to find the perfect spot to leave the lump they have. Anyway, they've done so much work just overnight, it'll be interesting to see how they get on over the next few days.

May 5, 2006

One Arnold to another

Via a technology blog from New Scientist I came across a rather strange site where you can judge whether an email is spam or not, to help developers of anti-spam software make better spam filters. I gave it a go and ended up a bit confused about where these emails came from. It seemed they were real emails, all to people or between people at Enron. Maybe they were all taken as evidence when Enron fell apart? And then handed over to help spam software developers? I dunno...

So, most of the emails I viewed were spam, but occasionally there was a work-related email, usually something boring about a report or whatever. The following made me laugh though:

-----Original Message-----
From: Arnold, John
Sent: Tuesday, October 9, 2001 7:38 AM
To: Arnold, Matthew

what's brian's last name?

-----Original Message-----
From: Arnold, Matthew
Sent: Tuesday, October 09, 2001 8:06 AM
To: Arnold, John
Subject: RE:

which brian?

-----Original Message-----
From: Arnold, John
Sent: Tuesday, October 9, 2001 8:13 AM
To: Arnold, Matthew
Subject: RE:

bad mormon brian

-----Original Message-----
From: "Arnold, Matthew"
To: "Arnold, John"


Like there's such a thing as good Mormons. I jest, I jest... I knew a few Mormons in high school and they weren't so bad. I was even friends with a couple of them. You barely knew they were Mormons, except for those damn rings they were always wearing.

May 1, 2006

Is it May?

I'm having a very hard time believing it's May 1st. And not just because it's incredibly gray and rainy outside. I just don't know how we're suddenly 4 months into the year, and halfway through the spring. I think it's a large part due to the fact that it hasn't felt like spring much. What's new, right? This year I'm telling myself to stop waiting for the warm weather and go with a more zen-like approach to the whole thing. Because last year, in July and August, as day after day passed without one iota of summeriness, my depression turned to an intense anger and frustration at this lousy, mountainless, summerless country, and it was the second year in a row where I was waiting for a summer that never came, so I've realized I just can't do that anymore, it's too much for the nerves. I still hate it, mind, I still cannot believe I found a place to live with worse weather than Oregon without having moved to, say, Siberia, because in Oregon, despite the sometimes seemingly endless rain and gray, and despite summer sometimes not starting til mid-July (my last few years in the US it always seemed to rain on the 4th of July), at least summer did come, eventually, and in full weeks-of-heat force. I think I've only had "weeks of heat" here if you combine the warm weather from the 5 summers I've spent here. Ok, ok, 2003 was warm. But I'm starting to see it as a fluke. Even an older cousin of mine, who spent a few post-college months in the Netherlands sometime in the 80s calls that summer "the summer that never was." He wisely ended up in Spain.

But ok, my office window may be currently blurred with rain, but starting tomorrow warm weather is meant to finally creep in and we should get to remember what it's like to walk around in t-shirts. Either tomorrow or Wednesday I'll be digging out the old bike to ride to work. I still have my doubts though, after they predicted 20 degree weather about a week ago and it failed to show up, and I'm still feeling that sting, so I'll believe it when I see it.

Another thing I can't believe is that O and I will be going to see Belle & Sebastian only a week from now. How these things creep up. Before that though is Andrew Bird this Saturday upstairs in Paradiso. Our Insane Pile of Concerts - May 2006 will finally be underway.

Calexico/Iron & Wine - Tivoli, Utrecht, 27 April

A bit late on this, but it was a busy weekend and I don't really have too much to say... So Calexico and Iron & Wine have been touring around after they released a collaborative EP. I love Iron & Wine and I love the EP, plus I thought it'd be good to see Calexico who are a respected band that have been around awhile.

Iron & Wine came on first and played a few typically quiet acoustic songs. Unfortunately they were half drowned out by the talking coming from the bar area, despite the signs on the doors into the venue saying that the bands asked for your silence. Sam Beam, the lead singer, said between songs, "People told me Utrecht likes to talk, I guess they were right," but he said it so quietly I'm sure it went unheard by the talkers. No one in back shushed them up like it sometimes does happen in Amsterdam. They soon switched to a fuller band playing many instruments, so the music finally won over the talkers. On the last song or two, members of Calexico came out and their lead singer took over a bit on one song. The band was great, though the amount of songs I didn't recognize made me realize how much I only listen to their last album, Our Endless Numbered Days, and the EP, and how I haven't listened to their other stuff in ages. Very bad of me.

After a break, Calexico played their set, and I unfortunately can't say much about it because I don't know their stuff. And it's hard for me to pay attention when I don't know someone's songs. So they were good, they have like 6 members playing all sorts of instruments, but my attention did wane during their set. More of the crowd seemed to be there for Calexico since they were much more enthusiastic than during Iron & Wine's set. What we were waiting for though was for the two bands to play songs together from their EP. I almost thought it wasn't going to happen since there was something said about needing to stop by 11 for some dance night, and Calexico were still going strong after 10:30. But soon, as an encore really, all the members of both bands came out (a total of at least 12 people on stage) and they played the first song from the EP and then a song that neither O nor I recognized. It was good, but I was a bit disappointed, I really thought they would have played more from the EP. At the time though I was ready to head home, which was a half hour train ride back to Amsterdam, so we didn't stick around for long. O of course took photos, so he might be posting some soon, in the midst of photos from Italy and Queen's Day. He got told off though by a guy standing in front of him. The guy asked if O was almost done, and O said "yeah, almost." Humph. O was following his concert photography guide as per usual, and the main rule is "don't be annoying," but this guy got annoyed anyway. Maybe O was clicking too much in the guy's ear.