Thursday, September 27, 2007


The pictures of the Japanese Anemone are taken at a house in Venice beach, Ca, I don't know whose is it. I walk past it every time I walk to the beach. Each year around this time they bloom and give this glorious display. It is not so spectacular this year because the owners neglected them this year. In previous years the display were so awesome, I had wanted to take photos of it but missed the opportunity. I had to wait one whole year till yesterday for these 2 photos. They are still marvelous. My tomatoes had a good run, I gave a lot away and I ate a lot. I'm cleaning the yard today and will dispose them to the green can for recycling. It has been a great year and it is now winding down, not really, I leave for Sicily and Provence in a little more than 2 weeks. When I return preparations for the holidays starts.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Matera, Italy

Here is Mel Gibson on the set while filming 'The Passion of the Christ'. When I saw the movie, I was so moved by not only the movie but also by the place where it was shot. I couldn't get it off my mind. It was hauntingly beautiful, I knew it wasn't in Israel, but where. I checked the website of the movie and found out it was in a little unknown town in Southern Italy. I had to go visit. By being my own travel agent I was able to do it. I read all I could find, there was no easy way to get into the interior of Southern Italy, the easiest was to head south to Bari and from Bari take the train to Matera. This was what we did. What we are seeing are the 'sassi' cave dwellings that has been there for thousands of years, the local peasants lived in these caves with their animals. It was once declared to be so unsanitary but Unesco thought otherwise, it was declared a world heritage site by Unesco. There was a revival of interest in these 'sassi' caves, the city folks began to buy up these properties for development. A lot of them have been converted to lofts, some into hotels. We stayed in such a hotel, the 'Locanda di San Martino'. The owners, a husband who is Italian and a wife who is American, did a great job. It is a beautiful hotel. It is a very unusual place, one can spend endless hours just roaming up and down, in and out of these caves, some are lived in, others are abandoned. Besides Mel Gibson's movie, there were a host of other movies that were shot on location there. So it's not so unknown to the movie industry. It was unknown to me till this movie. I'm always amazed that when I read something or see something that moves me, I want to experience it. Last week, at a Barnes and Noble bookstore, I saw this book about St Catherine monastery in the Sinai desert. Wow, it had the same haunting beauty like Matera. Guess what, I'm making plans to go there, it's in Egypt.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Cinque terre

Looking at old photographs again. The Cinque terre in Italy was so yesterday. We were there last Spring. It rained a little but after walking the 7 miles we became hot and had to shed some of our clothing. It is a truly beautiful area of Italy, five villages clinging precariously against a very rocky and jagged coastline. There is a trail that link all 5 villages and it is 7 miles long, takes a day to walk it. One can lolly gag in each village, hang out, talk to other Americans, have a bit to eat, taste some local wine or have a coffee. The trail is a UNESCO world heritage site. The hillside is being terraced for growing grapes, lemons, fruits and vegetables. This is the view from our window, we weren't actually staying in a hotel, it's someones apartment, we found it on Rick Steves guide book, email them to secure a reservation and told them when we'll be arriving. Someone was there waiting for us to hand us the key. It cost us 46 euros a night for the 2 of us, a great deal. We came from Rome and I went online to check Trenitalia schedule and email back telling them our eta. This place is for the very fit, we had to haul our luggage up a very very steep hill to get to the apartment at the top. We stayed in Manarola, most of Rick Steves' readers stay in Vernazza because that is where he stays when he is in town and it is supposed to be the prettiest of all 5 villages and it is. We met a lot of Americans there and chatted with them. We met this lovely girl from Seattle who was traveling with her mother, she was going to get married, so she and her mother decided to travel together one last time. How sweet. Some of the trails there were pretty tough, we struggled, the rocks were jagged and slippery because of the rain. Some were pretty easy. The view was spectacular. We went to Nice in France after visiting the Cinque terre, we missed our connection and ended up stuck in Genoa for 5 hours. We arrived in Nice, France at 8 pm. The amazing thing is, we were on an Italian train and it just rolled right into Nice, France. We stopped at Ventimiglia, the last Italian town before France for a little while for some kind of immigration check. This part of Italy is so beautiful, there are very beautiful villages on this coast and one day I hope to return to see them all. It is so amazing, I watched the Rick Steves' shows on the Cinque terre and the next thing I know, I'm there. As Rick Steves like to say, keep on traveling.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

My journals

This blog is a way of journaling. I want it to change my life, change it dramatically. I write, I journal, I don't force myself to do things just so I have something to write about. I envy people who could write volumes in their journals. Thoreau comes to mind, he went to live in the woods and wrote a detail account of his time there. I have just acquired ' the journals of Eugene La Croix, I have only flipped through it. He was a famous French painter. I have all three books of journaling maven, Hannah Hinchman. She lives in Montana and there's definitely more to write about in a place with four seasons.
I'm cracking my brains here in Los Angeles, we have no weather and no seasons. A little more clouds in the sky is all the weather there is here. Correction, it rained last night, it poured, that's newsworthy in sunny Southern California. There was thunder and lightning, a very rare occurrence. I heard the rattling of the rain upon the skylight in the kitchen. I love that skylight, not only does it let a lot of light into the kitchen, at night I can look up and see the moon. I told my sister that I wished I had a skylight in the bedroom. She said, I don't want a skylight in the bedroom because the rattling of raindrops is very noisy. She's right.
A lot of people take long trips and write about it. Paul Theroux comes to mind. I've read all his travelogues and have enjoyed every one of them. I love 'Pillars of Hercules' which details his travels to the countries that line the Mediterranean sea. I love 'The iron rooster' where he rode the rails in China for a whole year. I love 'The railway bazaar' which is a compilation of all his rail journeys. He has a way of telling about his trips, his interaction with the locals that is fun and interesting.
I have also in my possession a little book, 'Take a line for a walk' about this Englishman who walked from Le Havre in France to Rome. This was his actual journal, he wrote and drew vociferously, some of the writing is so small, I've tried reading them with a magnifying glass. I was so hungry to read and know about his trip.
I've been this way as a child, curious, curious about everything, too curious for my own good. I remember loving history, especially European history as a child of 12. I would read thick history books, a few levels ahead of me. I could remember names and dates, my history teacher gave a an 'A' even on the historical essays. His wife, my Math teacher, wondered aloud, how do you give an 'A' grade for essays. His reply was my level of knowledge was way ahead of my years.
While reading and deciphering information are my strong point, journaling is not. I'm in awe of Hannah Hinchman's journaling skills.
I guess my mind is lazy. It takes no effort to read. It takes much more effort to think up something to write, to observe intently and to write down observations. I should train my mind to think and dream up stories to write. Maybe train it to write fiction.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Palermo, a baroque jewel

Why Sicily? I know exactly why I went to Sicily. It was a trip to the south of Italy the year before that made me go to Sicily. While in Southern Italy, I was enamored by the little baroque town of Leece. The whole town was built in the baroque style. I've never seen anything like it before, the curvy and florid decorations on the facades of every church and building was so delightful. I couldn't get enough. I remember wondering into this old chapel, there were workmen inside who were gutting the interior. I thought to myself, it will make a great loft. It brought back memories of 'The English Patient', of how romantic it was to set up house in an old, abandoned and dilapidated church.
We, Americans, love old ancient piles of stones that they have in Europe. I thought, at that moment, nothing could be more baroque than Leece. I was wrong, a search for the baroque led me to an out of print book by Sir Anthony Blunt called, 'Sicilian Baroque'. I read that in Sicily, whole cities were built or rebuilt in high baroque style. You haven't seen baroque till you've seen Sicilian Baroque.
So a decision was made to search for the baroque in Sicily. That was the easy part, most of the baroque are found in Palermo and the eastern half of the island. Getting there was more difficult, coming from the west coast of the USA. I went on various sites on the Internet, there were lots of alternatives but I prefer an airline that could fly from Los Angeles to Europe non stop. When I land in the US, I want to land in Los Angeles and I want to clear customs and immigration in Los Angeles and not in New York or San Francisco.
Palermo was the Saracen capitol, it took over importance from Siracusa. The Norman rulers continued to use Palermo as their capitol and left their legacy in the Norman Palace with the beautiful mosaics in the Palatine chapel and the very grand duomo at Monreale with its even grander mosaics. Under the Spanish ( a series of rulers ruled over Sicily) the baroque movement thrived. With the arrival of the various church orders like the Theatines and the Jesuits, with the wealth of Palermo and with the commencement of the counter reformation movement, the baroque movement turned on high gear.
The baroque buildings are readily distinguishable by their curvy exterior, their curvy iron balconies supported by curved decoration which could be simple rounded carvings or very iconic and elaborate carvings of animals or half nude ladies with animated expressions. One either loves it or is repelled by it, one might tolerate a little frou frou but repelled by over the top architectural elements.
However, not all exterior are so elaborately done up. According to Sir Anthony Blunt in his book, 'Sicilian Baroque' (now out of print) in Palermo most of the baroque buildings have more austere exteriors. There is another category of baroque where the interior is aplomb with elaborate decorations of colorful inlaid marble or plasterwork of angels, saints, popes, battle scenes, garlands and other flourishes. No expense is spared and no regard is given to tastefulness. In these churches and Oratories every inch is decorated. One has to see it in order to realize either the gaudiness or the immense exuberance. Such is the case in Casa Professa, a Jesuit church, where every inch is decorated with colorful marble inlay work and there are plaster angels every where. At the first sight of Casa Professa, I gasped, wow, what is this? It is truly beautiful. It was a similar reaction with Chiesa dei S Guiseppe dei teatini, though not as elaborate .
Whether one is into baroque or not, there are three places which are de riguer for even an ordinary tourist, these are the three oratories which contained the work of master sculptor, Giacomo Serpotta. The Oratory of Santa Zita is the most delightful. Giacomo Serpotta is able to polish putty and make them look like marble. In Santa Zita, his cute figures adorned the four walls playfully, but meaningfully too. These are biblical scenes and a scene of the Battle of Lepanto.
Here are my notes written March 20, 2007, 'Cheisa dei Gesus (Casa Professa)- incredible plaster sculptures, colorful marble inlay all over church, making it a delightful church. The marble inlay is all over, from to bottom, covering every inch except in places which was damaged by WWII bombing. These areas have been replaced by frescoes. In between and all over are plasterwork of cherubims, garlands of flowers and fruits and angels. ' The amount of work that went into decorating the church is unfathomable. It looked like no expense or effort were spared. It is a Jesuit church and they are still active, opening the church at the designated time and having priests say mass and hear confession even though sometimes nobody attends these services.
When one mentions Palermo or Sicily, one conjures up visions of danger, lawlessness and the mafia. For the tourists, these things are not evident. Palermo is really easy to navigate and the locals are friendly and helpful. The usual common sense of safety prevails here as in any other place in Europe. Stay on the main streets, avoid unfamiliar and shady neighborhoods especially at night. Wear a money belt at all times.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Palermo, Due (II)

I am getting ready for my trip back to Sicily. Looking through an excellent guidebook, The Rough Guide to Sicily', I find that there is still a lot to see in Palermo. I'm making notes on things I missed the first trip and when I get there, I'll make a beeline for these places. Even so, I won't be able to see everything.
Most guide books incorporate Sicily into Italy (rightly so) but Italy is packed with sights that a lot of Sicily has to left out. This does disservice to Sicily, it was a country and a kingdom of it's own years ago. Now, even though it is a part of Italy, it deserves a guide book of it's own, which is what makes 'The Rough Guide to Sicily' a standout among the pack. It gives Sicily it's due. Reading it makes me more excited about this trip.
It is very typical of us Americans when it comes to doing anything, we need to ask 'why' a lot. Why am I doing this? Why am I talking to you? Why am I going to the moon? Why am I going to Sicily? That was what everybody asked the first trip. Why two weeks in Sicily, what are you going to do there for two weeks as if we were going to Catalina island or Hawaii. Instead we need to ask 'why not' as the French say, 'pourquoi pas?' Why not Sicily? Why not a second time (or third or fourth) in Sicily? I've come to love Sicily. I've come under the spell of Sicily.
As 'The Rough Guide to Sicily' says, ' Piazza Ballaro, which, together with the adjacent Piazza del Carmine, is the focus of a raucous daily fruit and vegetable market, alive with the cries of vendors. Here gleaming fish curl their heads and tails in the air, squashes come as long as baseball bats and vine leaves trail decoratively down from stalls. There are some very cheap snack and drinking places here, too, where you can sidle in among the locals and sample sliced open sea urchins, fried artichokes, arancini and beer. Above all the activity looms the bright majolica-tiled dome of the 17th century church of the Carmine, a singular landmark amid the dirty and rubbish strewn alleys.' This is typical of Palermo, gorgeous churches and landmarks among dilapidated neighborhoods, dirty alleys and shoddily constructed new buildings or unrepaired bombed out (WWII) older buildings. A warning, Palermo and Catania don't look like Italian cities of the North. Visit with an open mind, the people are proud of their Sicily and are extremely friendly.
Tourism has brought some service jobs to the cities. On Mondays, the young people from the farms crowd into trains bound for the big cities to take up these jobs. On Fridays, they crowd into trains headed back to the farms. On our last trip, on a Friday afternoon, we were caught in the midst of this migration while heading for Agrigento from Catania through the heartland we were crowded into a train from Palermo to Agrigento filled with young people going back to the farms. On Monday, we left Agrigento for Palermo, we saw the same people, now going back to work in Palermo.
Palermo's motto, 'once experienced, never forgotten' , reminds me that I will always remember Palermo. I will always remember my time spent in Sicily. This coming trip, I'm headed west to Trapani, Erice and Segeste. Maybe the next trip (third) I'll see the islands surrounding Sicily.
This trip will include a trip to Bagheria, a suburb of Palermo. There are three things I am interested in seeing,
1) Villa Palagonia, known for some grotesque sculptures.
2) Villa Valguaranera, more sedate, yet sumptuous palazzzo.
3) Villa Cattolica, for its permanent exhibition of Renato Guttuso, Bagheria's famous son, whose pictures were featured in a cookbook by renown cookbook writer, Elizabeth David.
There are still much more than these in Palermo itself. I can keep visiting for the rest of my life and not finish seeing and experiencing everything.
A friend of mine just came back from Palermo. I asked how his trip was, all he could say was, 'it was hot' meaning the weather. That's the problem with taking a guide tour. You get led around with no clue of history or culture, just so you can boast, you've been to Sicily. It is laziness on our part, not to read up before we go and continue to read up after returning. The trip will be so much more meaningful if we did some homework.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

My camino to Santiago de Compostela

It seems a long time ago but it was only 2 years ago when I was training to walk the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. I wasn't going to walk the whole 500 miles because of time constraint. To earn a pilgrim award, one need only walk at least the last 60 miles which happens to be from a little called Saria to Santiago de Compostela. I was planning to walk that last 60 miles, takes about 5-6 days. This desire to go and perform a pilgrimage started 3 years ago when my sister visited Santiago de Compostela and developed a strong urge to tackle the journey. She talked incessantly about the glorious cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Not to be outdone by her (we both have very competitive spirits) I decided to read about the pilgrimage. I begun to accumulate every book written on the camino. I checked the official website everyday for any morsel of the latest news; about the weather there, of the various celebrities who has gone there, including the crown prince of Spain and his wife and of the various low cost flights that fly there. I joined the American pilgrims on the road and the St James confraternity. These are various organizations associated with promoting the camino. The St James confraternity is the society of pilgrims out of Great Britain. I am still members of both and still receive their newsletters.
Before I knew it, I developed a strong urge to perform my pilgrimage and started to train for it. I started outfitting myself for the trip, an expensive backpack, water bottles, a hat, hiking boots and the whole kit and kaboodle which was not cheap.
In the original days of the camino whenever the need arises, one just take off and go. There are 3 important places to which pilgrims go to. Each is considered a holy and venerated site, its 'holiness' level depends on their association with Christ, the closer the holier. Christians believe that a consecrated place has sacred powers, powers to grant that which the pilgrim is seeking. There are lots of ancient books written about the reasons to take a pilgrimage, how to do it, where to go and the prescribed routes that would wend their way practically all over Europe, passing through churches and monasteries along the way where with a little money, the pilgrims could gain more comfort on the trip. It became a money making proposition for the church. Even though a lot of pilgrims were poor, there were richer pilgrims and even famous people and heads of states. The three important places of pilgrimage are the Holy land, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. After the failure of the crusades, it was near impossible to go to the Holy land. The purpose of the crusades was to protect the Holy land and make it safe for pilgrims. Then the next place to go was Rome but there was a period in Rome's history when it was dangerous to go to Rome, so then the pilgrims went to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Pilgrims would come from all over Europe to a little town in the Pyrenees called St Jean pied de port, climb over the Pyrenees and onward to Santiago de Compostela through almost all of Northern Spain. It is in St Jean pied de port that the Pyrenees is the lowest in height and the easiest to cross. The Pyrenees is the mountain range that forms the natural boundary between France and Spain.
The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela was associated with St James, the apostle. He was said to have made missionary journeys to Spain. Jesus' great commission to 'preach the gospel to the ends of the earth' was take with great seriousness and enthusiasm. St Paul, as recorded in the book of 'Acts of the Apostles' speak of going to Rome and from Rome, with the assistance of the Christians in Rome, hoped to embark on missionary journeys to Spain. Presumably they thought that the north west corner of Spain was the 'end of the earth'. After that it was the Atlantic ocean and the end of the land mass. St Paul spent 2 years under house arrest in Rome and was then martyred. It was then presumed that James went to Spain and upon returning to Jerusalem after one of these trips was beheaded by Herod, the date recorded in the Acts was the year 44AD.
The legend started with the death of St James. Some of his followers took his body, put it on a boat for Spain and some how the boat got washed up on the shores near Santiago de Compostela. He was buried there and for a long time he was forgotten. His body and memory of him was later retrieved and a cathedral was built in his name. He became the patron saint of Spain and was credited with helping Spain drive out the Moors. Some pictures depict him as a warrior on a white charger and was given the name 'Santiago, matamoros' or James he Moorslayer'.
Pilgrims, then and now, were supposed to carry only what they need with them on this arduous journey. There are a few prescribed routes from all over Europe but most of them converged on St Jean pied de port for the climb up and down the Pyrenees and onward across the whole of Northern Spain to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. There are villages along the way and refuges set up to accomodate pilgrims. One could stay for one night for a small donation. These would be staffed by volunteers, people who had been pilgrims before.
For 5 months I trained for the camino. I was to fly to Santiago de Compostela, take the bus to Saria and then walk the 60 miles back to Santiago de Compostela. I was ready to go but 3 weeks before the day of departure, a call from my sister (another sister) changed my mind. She was afraid for me, afraid that I might not come back. It was very lame. She begged that I did not go. So I did not perform my pilgrim. My sister said, 'you've already performed the pilgrim, you've walked during your training, albeit not in Spain'. In a sense, yes, I've already walked. What was the object of the doing the camino? I can't remember. I know I have a lot of issues to work out about my work but how would walking a pilgrimage work out these issues? Today I have accepted and am working in spite of these unresolved issues. I know a lot of people perform pilgrimages to resolve issues in their lives. How, I don't know. Jesus did say, 'it will be done to you as you believe'.
Since I couldn't change my flight plans, I did go to Santiago de Compostela, I didn't walk but took the train across Northern Spain to France. I changed my itinerary. In Santiago, I saw pilgrims come in, more overwhelmed and tired than joyful. I don't know when the joy set in. After completing their camino, the thought on their minds is probably a long hot bath, a good substantial meal and how the heck to get out of there and go home. Then the scramble for train tickets and plane tickets to get home from whence they started and back to reality, hopefully with a changed heart and a renewed spirit. Does that really happen? Only if one is able to leave a lot of baggage along the camino. The baggage of intolerance, lack of a loving and kind spirit, fearfulness and a competitive spirit. All these things bog us down and shut out the spirit of joy. Does one need to walk 500 miles to do that? Does walking 500 miles bring joy to our lives?
After visiting the cathedral I took the long train ride to Hendaye in France and then onward to Bayonne. From Bayonne I took the 'pilgrim' train to St Jean pied de port, the starting point of the camino. There were at least 2 dozen pilgrims on the train, some in groups, others were alone. In 28 days or so, they hope to be seeing the steeples of the Gothic cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
At the pilgrim office in St Jean pied de port, there was solemn excitement as the pilgrims seek out information about their camino. It was raining and it sort of dampened the excitement, reminding pilgrims of inclement weather on the trail. For solemn, I mean, it is not a walk in the park, there is a lot between St Jean and Santiago besides 500 miles. There is a lot of walking, blisters, hunger, thirst, fatigue and loneliness. From what I can see their packs were too heavy. They'll soon realize it. I walked the first 100 yards up a steep hill of the Pyrenees. I saw the markings of both the camino and the markings of the GR65. I was out of breath. It is a long climb up the Pyrenees and down into Roncevalles in Spain and then onward through muck, mud and whatever else.
I went and prayed in the cathedral in St Jean. I stayed a while in town before heading back to Bayonne. There were a few pilgrims on this train. Not everyone end up happy in Santiago. Some suffers injury and other ailments that forces them to abandon their pilgrimage and to turn around to head home at the starting gate. They look absolutely forlorn.
I don't think I can change by performing a pilgrimage. I don't think by walking I'll lose the part of me that holds back my joy and contentment. I think I'll change by taking up the cross of Christ daily, by being crucified with Him, by crucifying the self daily. I would lose in me the things that are better lost ie self righteousness that leads to much pain, pride and suffering.
For the while when we are on the pilgrimage, we will lose ourselves to the rhythm of the camino and forget our troubles but they come rushing back when we get home. But by taking up the cross daily, we are given 'new mercies' each day which enables us to continue victoriously through life. Though the deluge comes at us, we will not be drowned. Though we pass through the fires of life, it would not cinch us. The blood of the 'lamb' protects us and the angel of death passes over.
Would I attempt it again later? I don't know.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Markets of Provence

My first experience with a market in Provence was in Aix en Provence. I had no idea there was a market that day, a Tuesday, to be exact. Wow, that was a lot of fun. It was a complete market, with food, flowers, brocante and household items. This guy was unloading mattressess from his truck which he had them lean against the side of a fountain. There were fountains everywhere and in every corner. I bought a huge homemade sausage, a loaf of nut and raisin bread, I remember it very clearly like it was yesterday. It was 6 years ago. I found a street corner near a store where I bought a bottle of orange juice and ate the food. I shall be in Aix en Provence next month, I shall be there on a Tuesday again. I'm really looking forward to this trip.
This morning my shopping bags were slightly heavier than usual. The apples are coming in and that is very exciting. I bought some Hawk Eye and Molly Delicious apples. I like only sweet apples. The Autumn Royale grapes have arrived also. I went anxiously for this time of the year when I can eat Autumn Royale grapes again. They are so delicious, so very sweet. I love them. Fall is a great time.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Old photographs

Sometimes when I run out of inspiration I take out the boxes of old photographs that I have and go through them. Each old photograph has a story to tell. It is so amazing. What does these say? This was 7 years ago, the year I spent Christmas abroad, in London actually. I took a week off and headed over to London to spend Christmas with my 2 aunts. Before Christmas I took the train and headed off to Paris for 2 days, my very first trip. I remember leaving my aunt's house at 7 in the morning, it was still dark,wet and cold, took the bus, went to the tube station, took the tube to Waterloo to catch the 8.30 Eurostar train to Paris. I remember arriving at Gare du Nord, frightened and bewildered. I took the metro to the Paris Opera house where my hotel was. I'll never forget that first jaunt to Paris. I've been to Paris 4 times since. I arrived back in London on Christmas eve, the rest of my cousins started arriving, it is a tradition, Christmas eve dinner is always steamboat. For those who don't know what that is, it's the Chinese equivalent of fondue except we have a pot of soup boiling in a pot and we dip pieces of meat, vegetables, noodles or fish or any uncooked food and cook them in the soup. Then we drink the soup. My English cousins love it. Then on Christmas day we had roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and roasted parsnips. I brought the roast over with me, in my checked in luggage. I took it out of the freezer just before I headed for the airport, checked in my luggage, lugged it all the way on the Piccadilly line of the tube and to my aunt's house. It was still frozen. There was mad cow disease in England then for a few years and my relatives couldn't stand the sight of another turkey for Christmas. My aunt baked and iced the Christmas cake. She's a great cook. That's Elizabeth serving us the Christmas pudding and we pulled those Christmas crackers after dinner. Since then I've always bought Christmas crackers for my Christmas dinners. There is an English grocery store in Santa Monica where I get my English stuff. I know Tesco, the English supermarket is going to open up a few stores in the USA. I'm still waiting. On Boxing day we went to a friend's house where I met up with my other aunt and her family. It was one of the best Christmas I've ever had.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

How to be your own travel agent

This was the little Renault Twigo that we rented while visiting the lavender fields of Provence. Sophie drove, it was her first trip to Europe and she spoke no French. I thought she did pretty well even though the French driver behind us thought she was too slow, he was honking and making obscene gestures. Here we are looking at Rocamodour from a distance. We walked the 3 miles from the train station to get to it and walked back under a hot summer sun. I just finished the final arrangements for our trip to Sicily and France in October. It took me weeks on the computer to find a good fare. Then it was going through a stack of guidebooks to look for hotels. It took me a whole morning to email all the hotels to confirm my reservations. Now my head is spinning. Then when we get there I have to figure out how to get from place to place and where we go and when. It sure will be nice to take a cruise so we don't have to lug our luggage through the streets of Europe and on and off trains. It sure will be nice to have someone else take care of all the travel details. Well, it's always have been me because I like to travel independently. I am my own travel agent.
How do you incorporate seeing the Sassi caves in Matera in Southern Italy with walking the Cinque terre in Northern Italy into one trip? No organised tour will do it for you or you can take 2 organised tours. You can do it if you are the one planning the itinerary. How do you incorporate seeing the lavender fields in bloom in Provence with visiting Conques and Rocamodour in 2 remote areas of the Dordogne and also Canterbury Cathedral in England in one trip? you can by flying into Nice, take a little train to Digne le Bains to see the lavender fields, then using another train, head to the Dordogne area and find local transportation to the 2 monasteries. Then train to Paris and London and onward to Canterbury Cathedral. While organised tours are wonderful, they are limited in their selection of quaint little destinations. At Conques in a very remote area of the Dordogne, is a 13th century church that time forgot. It is peaceful, unhurried and restful. It is not on any organised tour itinerary. Another fascinating place is Rocamodour, perched precariously against a cliff side. This is a more visited site, it's easy if you drive in France, if you don't, like me, then it is a real pilgrimage. The train station is 3 miles away and we walked there and back; there's no footpath, we had to walk through tall weeds to avoid the passing cars. We were enthralled by Canterbury Cathedral.
Now onto how to do it.
1) Guidebooks. an invaluable tool for the independent traveler. For my next trip I consulted 5 different guidebooks. It is the usual number of guidebooks that I use for each trip, though one can get by with 2, Rick Steves and Let's Go.
2) Books. other written resources gives more detailed history and highlights which is oftentimes not supplied by the guidebooks. Besides each traveler has their own partiality. Something I like to see may repel another traveler. I've been fortunate, to so far, having travel companions who has similar interests with me. For Sicily, I read all that was written about it, the reading list is extremely long.
3) The Internet- it has made making travel plans so easy. I can check train schedules for most countries in Europe and I can even purchase train tickets and have it sent to my home. I've done this for SNCF.
4) the itinerary. My next itinerary looks like this
Catania (Piazza Amerina)
Catania (Modica)
Palermo (Bagheria)
Trapani (Erice)
Trapani (Segeste)
Paris (Lyon)
Lyon (Annecy)
Avignon (Tarascon)
Avignon (Aix en Provence)
The places in parenthesis are to be seen as a day trip.
5) Hotel- check description in guidebooks, check Internet for site information. I like charming and homely places where people are friendly. I don't like chain hotels. I don't need an attached bathroom, I can do with shared bathrooms, hostels are OK, proximity to train station is important. If I have a very early flight, a 24 hour concierge service is important, otherwise not. A 24 hour reception only add to the cost of the place.
6) Reservations. some historical sites requires advance booking, like the Alhambra in Spain or the Last supper in Milan. Do it before leaving home.
7) Packing, always pack light. Sometimes you have to run in airports in order to make connections. (It is a good idea to stay in shape). I exercise more and I train with weights, so I can haul my luggage up onto overhead bins.
It is a very stressful but exhilarating way to travel. It is not for everyone. You can see a lot more places and have a self respect that is life changing. I have friends who have gone on Mediterranean cruises but I don't hear that kind of rapture from them regarding their trip. I come home and I can write volumes about my trips. Each trip has highlights that enthrall, enrapture and thrill me to bits. Start with a simple itinerary and with each trip work in more thrills. It requires a lot more research and that is part of the fun.
As Rick Steves says (all the time) 'keep on traveling.'

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

great american institutions

I'm sitting at my dinning table and am writing. I look out the window to see the UPS truck pull up in front of my neighbor's house. How exciting, someone is having something delivered to them. I think the US mail, UPS, DHL and Fedex are great institutions. While the mailman sometimes bring bad news, they, with the UPS, DHL and the Fedex people usually bring much anticipated letters and packages. It is always exciting when either the UPS or Fedex trucks pull up in front. It is an eagerly awaited package, we can't wait to tear open the package- it's the new computer, the digital camera, the stack of books from Amazon or the clothing from Lands' End. That has been what they have been bringing to me over the years. My neighbor remodelled their house last year and it seems like the UPS truck stops in front of their house everyday. Everyday I look into my mail box to see what the mailman has brought me. Besides bills, there are a lot of goodies to look forward to - a check, a magazine, a letter (I still get those) from an aunt who doesn't own a computer.....

Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor day

The temperature is sweltering, but it is really nice to have an extra day of rest. It is going to be a short week and I'm not complaining. The picture of breakfast was taken yesterday, toasted brioche with butter and coffee. I stayed the night at my brother's place yesterday. We went to a Thai restaurant for lunch and then to a music shop in North Hollywood called 'Amoeba'. Last night we watched a DVD, 'Miss Potter' about the life of English author, Beatrix Potter. It is really good, I do recommend it, very heartwarming. Good for children too. This morning we had breakfast at a Chinese restaurant in Arcadia. There was a big group of us, family mostly. I'm home right now and trying to squeeze the most out of the labor day holiday. It's back to work tomorrow and I'm not quite ready.