…and we are back. In Europe. Again.

After a crazy set of circumstances, I’ve found myself in Europe again.  This time I’m in Austria (Salzburg, next Vienna).  After that, we head to the Czech Republic (Prague).  Then home.  I’m with the orchestra.  I was promised many solos.  I think I’ll get to play about half of them now, but whatever, I’m here and I gotta do what I gotta do.

Let me get some whining out, then we’ll do the funny stuff.

Short story:  last trip I boosted my seats on British Airways to their premium economy thing.  I got huge spacious seats, more legroom than I could use, and all kinds of fancy service.  I was impressed.  I had read an article somewhere about how Delta’s Comfort+ was better than BA’s version.  So when I had the tour folk book this trip, I asked for that.

Guess what?  It’s not better. It’s like economy with 5 or 6 extra peanuts in your bag, and maybe an inch or two of extra room.  Oh, and the plane we were flying was older, so I was trying to stare at movies the size of a postcard on an old screen that looked like it was about to fall out of the seat.  On top of that, the headphone jack was jacked up (hurr) so if I or my neighbors touched the screen, I got all kind of weird feedback.  Food was exactly the same as my last trip two years ago.  I am kind of peeved that I paid extra for that.  I’m seriously so disappointed that I’ll insist I never ever fly Delta again for the rest of my life.  Gawd.

Ok, now the fun stuff.  Let’s start off by just stating that I have been WHOLLY unprepared for this trip.  I barely had time to read anything about Austria or the Czech Republic.  Unlike Italy, I didn’t spend a couple of months with Duolingo trying to get at least a baby comprehension of phrases/basic instructions.  This is due to the fact that the decision to go was last minute.  I signed up at the end of February, then had a concert series, then got my post put in (ongoing tooth face destruction).  Recovery, panic practicing, then omg I am leaving in less than a week PUT ALL THE THINGS IN A BAG.  So yeah, I did that and now I’m here.  And completely clueless.

I am also writing this blog with about 8 hours of sleep spread out over 2 days, so there is some degree of delirium.

Once I settled in the hotel, I thought I’d go on an adventure. I walked down to the little grocery store down the street.  I drained my account for some precious Euros, went in to pick up some stuff.  I was mostly collecting water, snacks, and a couple of baby bottles of the local vino to try.

Oranges were easy.  I found and threw a couple in my basked.  Then I tackled the water.  As a reminder, I have spent ZERO time getting familiar enough with German to navigate my way verbally or linguistically out of a paper bag.  As a result, I spent way too long staring at the water bottles trying to figure out which ones were sparkling, and which ones were not. After a lot of staring, some confusion, and at one point considering using my precious international data plan megabytes for google translate, I realized one bottle said “Still”. Using my jet-lagged brain logic, I picked the other bottle.

TL;DR:  Prickeld = sparkling

I spent some time ruminating over the untranslatable german language wines (see note above about not wanting to burn precious megabytes).  There was a gal next to me staring down the sparkling wines.  I guess when I walked up and started reviewing baby bottles and either evicting or adding them to my basket, she determined I knew what I was doing (the tour guide did tell us to be assertive here).  So she started to ask me (I presume) about her selection of sparkling wine.  And I had no idea what to say other than “I’m sorry…”.  She then said (again, I presume) “oh, it’s ok” (I did hear the work “ok” in there), and grabbed a bottle and ran.  I hope she picked a good one.

mystery wine – I will get around to translating it.  Decided to sample first.

So I purchased my selections.  Much like SF, they make you buy bags for your groceries. Luckily I was traveling with a backpack, so I loaded it all in and headed back to the hotel.  In that brief time I was in the grocery store, it started snowing.  AGAIN.  Instead of heading out into the historic areas I decided to camp inside.  I have a good chunk of tomorrow to walk around when I’m less tired to do that.

I thought I left this….

Not much else yet to report.  I’ve been here for about 6 hours at this point.  Spent some time with Mary Anne and Marsha.  Tried hard not to fall asleep during conversations.  I’ll be fine after a full night sleep tonight.  Maybe.  Steel yourself for more updates in a day or so!

Last day: Barcelona

I got off the boat this morning in Barcelona. After my mishap getting over here, I was looking forward to my full day in this city. I tucked the last of my belongings into my bags and got off the ship. Norwegian disembarking is fairly easy. You can do it fancy style and have them carry your luggage off the boat, or if you’re like me and totally forgot to grab the right tags the day before, you can also just drag your luggage off with you. Despite the high number of people on the ship, the lines were very short and quick to get off. Once I was off, I waited in the meeting area for my driver. He showed up (right on time) and off we went.

I am staying at Hotel 1898, which is a few blocks from Catalunya Square (aka Plaça de Catalunya) and a very short drive from the port. Driving up to the hotel I was pleased to see an army of shops and clothing stores. My driver was pretty cool too – the provided a mini verbal tour on the way to the hotel, so by the time I got out of the car I was oriented. We also chatted about San Francisco (he lived there for a few years), Las Vegas, and general city history and differences.

I arrived early at the hotel. Although check-in wasn’t until 3PM, they had an extra room and parked me in there. I unloaded my pile of crap, pushed all the buttons available in my hotel room (you have to try out all the things when you first get into a hotel room, it’s a rule), then headed out on foot to see how long it would take me to get lost.

I did not get lost!

That said, I was initially mildly disappointed. It’s Sunday. Almost everything is closed. There is still quite a bit open, but it’s not much. Clothing stores were all closed (BOO). A lot of shoe stores were open. I did get to see a nice cathedral, fight my way through an open food market, and snap a few nice pictures of the city while on foot. I considered heading to the Sagrada Família but I was just too tired to hop on another bus and fight the tourist crush. Next time!

On my wanderings I did run into a group setting up to play. Among them were relatives, a double reed instrument known as a dolçaina (dulzaina). I told them we were double reed cousins, and they let me snap photos.

Around 2PM I returned to the hotel. I chilled with some sparkling white wine, having invaded the mini-bar. Damn the prices, after all the walking I needed a drink! I also spent more money. When I got back I realized THIS IS BAD. My suitcase is full. The spare empty bag I brought is full. I have no idea where I’m going to shove that stuff. To make it all worse, I discovered a tear in my suitcase near the zipper, so I need to find some sort of strap to hold it all together.

I had a bunch of euros left, and since I couldn’t blow them on clothes I eventually put down the sparkling wine and went to go buy another bag/small suitcase. But first, lunch. Having spent a week on a cruise ship, I’d forgotten that part about buying food to eat when you’re hungry. I marched myself down La Rambla and stumbled on this square full of restaurants (Plaça Reial). Picked one at semi-random, and got a giant dish of paella de pollo.

After that, I went back the way I came, wandered into some gift shops, and found myself a second cheap suitcase. Since all of my airlines do two free bags, it was far cheaper than attempting to ship everything back home. Seriously, I collected a lot of crap along the way. Mercifully, my 6 pack of wine is being shipped so I don’t have to worry about hauling that out of the country.

Euro count is now extremely low, so I figure I’ve got enough for driver tip and another fancy glass of wine. And a postcard. Forgot to get one of those. I walked nearly 7 miles today. By the time I get downstairs and back up, it will be 7 miles. I’m pooped, but definitely got a lot out of my one day in Spain.

I get to go home tomorrow. Well, home after 15 hours of flying and 6 hours of layovers. Then the day after is dentist and work. At least it’s a half day of work. I expect to be fully fried, but I’ll be happy to be home.

Traveling to strange new places alone is definitely an experience. I’m glad I decided to do it. It’s far better than waiting around for somebody to join you. This way I have zero regrets and get to see the things I want.

Now my blog can return to it’s status of post-desert, where the updates are few and not nearly as exciting as this last week.

Cruise Day 6: Marseille, France

First of all, I woke up this morning on the tail end of a minor nightmare. Not Bonine caused this time, just one of my general run-of-the-mill extravagant dreams. Dream is a story for myself, but let’s just say at the end my house collapsed around me and sent me off of the edge of a cliff (which in reality was the sensation of the ship hitting the dock). I woke up before my alarm (boo), tried to snooze a little to no avail, and finally gave up and got up at 5:30 AM.


So this morning I went to do my routine (as you know, The Routine is important).

Step 1: Make Coffee.
Step 1a: Realize there’s only decaf packets.

Aurelio forgot to stock my room. Doh. Free coffee was upstairs, but that required being social. So I did the shower, teeth brushing, hair combing, etc. sans coffee, then headed upstairs to get some. I also toured the buffet briefly and grabbed a croissant, because I remembered how shaky and and tired I was the previous day climbing hills with only coffee in my stomach. After collecting the necessary calories, I headed back down to chill and finish off my routine, with a full cup of caffeine because caffeine.

Around 9:00 AM was the call for my tour, so I headed down to the theater. For the shore excursions, they give you neat little yellow tickets with your call time and location. All of my locations where the Epic theater, which is a two-story theater near the bottom of the ship. After being called in, they directed us off the ship to a little tour bus. This particular tour was a walking tour, but to get to the heart of Marseille is a bit of a drive (20 minutes?), so bus it was. Our guide met us and walked us a few miles through the heart of town, pointing out sites from the French Connection, dispensing information about local politics, and naming sites famous artists lived. We ultimately wound up at the “old port” of Marseille, which has been completely renovated. It’s a great big open bay full of sailboats and merchants now, which according to our guide is a far cry from the drug-smuggling creepiness of 10 years ago.

We did walk through the old quarter, but overall the entire port area is fairly new. Some of the buildings have been restored and renovated, and there’s a lot of new architecture. It was not disappointing. While Cannes is very glitzy, the Marseille folk have been more interested in renovation and restoration. Per our guide, if the building is serviceable or has historical significance, it’s renovated. If not, it’s demolished and replaced with something more functional.


Street art


Some street that appears a lot in movies.  From the top of it.

We only had enough free time to do a little brief shopping, where I loaded up on soaps and postcards.

The Postcards

This started sometime in my early 20s. I was so interested in seeing the world.  It was one of my goals in life. When I did, I would make it a point to purchase postcards from places I had been. During college I used to pin the postcards to my wall for decoration. As I grew older, the postcard collection increased. In my late 20s I realized I had far too many to be sticking into walls with pushpins, so I bought poster frames. I use double sided tape to stick them to the paper insert as a collage, frame them in the original poster frame, than hang them up. Over the years I’ve collected so many that I tend to create a new poster frame every year or two. They hang in my office right now – although after my last couple of trips I may need to branch out to my bedroom. It’s kind of nice being able to walk through the history of my travels on my wall.

There are rules to the postcards: They can’t be just any postcard. They can’t be gifts (there are two exceptions, for good reasons). They also must be pictures of things I have stood upon or seen with my own eyes. They aren’t always standard, either. Sometimes I see a piece of artwork or an artist’s works, and get a postcard of the artist or the work, which counts because I have seen their work with my own eyes. They don’t have to be photographs either – a representation is valid (such as a painting of something I’ve seen).

So yeah, the postcard purchase is required each stop.


For once, I was not the only solo traveler on the excursions. I met a nice lady from England (she didn’t specify where), and another from Colorado. The Colorado gal and I stuck close together most of the trip. She was a lot of fun, and when we got free time we were of the same mind, so we tagged along together during shopping. It was nice to have somebody to chat with for once. I’ve kind of gotten used to doing my own thing with minimal chatting, so it was good to make a buddy. On the way back to the bus to the ship the tour group was lagging, so we sped ahead on a power walk, yakking the whole way. That was a good time, I’m so glad I found somebody to chat with that wasn’t part of the staff.

The End of the Cruise


Here’s me on the last day!

Today was a very short day in Marseille. The ship is taking off early, so I was back on by 1:30 PM local time. We’ll be pushing off soon. We land in Barcelona tomorrow, where I’ll leave the ship, check into my hotel, then go spend a day on foot wandering around trying to blow the Euros I have leftover from my initial ATM stop. After that, I get to go home, hug my dog, pet my cats, kiss my neighbor, then get used to having only 1/3 of the bed to sleep on. I’ll make sure you get a post for tomorrow. I think my hotel has Wifi. I think.

Also, I have to pack tonight.  Triple boo.

Cruise Day 5: Cannes, France

No aka today. Cannes is Cannes. I believe the French would declare war if we were to refer to it as anything else.

We arrived at Cannes this morning. This port is a little different. They don’t allow cruise ships to actually dock, so right now we’re parked a few miles offshore. The cruise ship uses the lifeboats to ferry us ashore, which was actually cool because 1) I got to be in a lifeboat and 2) I now believe the lifeboats actually work.


My heart will go on

I spent approximately 5 hours onshore in France. For this port, I chose a very short walking tour – 3 hours. We met at the terminal, walked our way through the main parts of the city, visited the Promenade de la Croisette.


It’s French for “very tiny beach”

Walked through some streets and shopping areas,


and then were dropped off to do our own thing. After our guide hauled us up to the castle/tower for the view, we were let go.


The original Angry Bird

The area we are at is where the Cannes film festival is held. There’s great ugly building on the waterfront, and the entire main row of shops is packed with extremely expensive shops (Chanel, Gucci, etc). It has a very LA/Vegas type feel to it, so much like Venice I wasn’t too overawed by what I was seeing. FYI, lots of real estate, so if you have a cool million Euro laying around you can probably buy one of the properties.

The tour guide chatted the whole way, however her accent was pretty heavy so it was hard to keep up with what she was saying. And she punctuated the ends of her sentences with “yah?” “This is a poster of Ingrid Bergman, yah? She was in <movie>, yah?” I’m not making fun of her – she definitely speaks one more language than I do, just found her verbal punctuation a bit amusing.

As far as what we learned, there wasn’t a whole lot of history other than “seaside town, invaded a lot”. I had gotten used to the very clear biographies of every paving stone I stepped on in Italy, so this seemed a bit thinner. But it’s fine – for me the overview is good, I’ll read up on what I want to know later, and lemme go explore. For the record, I did NOT get lost today. Didn’t even have a map!

The area is beautiful (of course). They have a huge open market in the center area of the city where you can pick up pretty much anything you need to make dinner. The homes/apartments/buildings are well maintained. It reminded me of Florence, but definitely a different vibe and look.

I bought a lot of candy for my sister’s kids. I plan to send them home with their heads spinning.

I think I’m getting a little tired. I was far less enthused today than I have been the first few days of the trip. Upside is my tooth has stopped hurting, and the swelling is going down. Which in dental land tells me I’ll likely need a root canal when I get back (dead nerve). But it’s not as critical or painful, and I’m actually able to eat again.

Tomorrow is Marseille, then a day in Barcelona, then I get to go home! I miss my little house. I’ll be lighter in the wallet, and I’ll have many more memories under my belt when I get back.

Cruise Day 4: Florence aka Firenze


The Florence story is in this post at the bottom, but I had some time so I added bonus stories.

The Cruise Ship

I haven’t touched on this too much, as I have made somewhat of a gross assumption that a lot of people have been on cruises (they are very popular). This is my second cruise. My first was to Alaska a few years go. So what is the ship like? Well, my immediate phrase for anyone who asks is: a giant hotel floating on the ocean. That’s literally what it is. Of course, it’s a ship with limited resources, so think of everything you’d see in a resort hotel or casino, and miniaturize it. The rooms are fully functional hotel rooms, just really compact. Don’t believe the fish-eye lens pictures you see on the sites. The rooms have enough space between the furniture and beds/couches to walk, and that’s it. The toilets make me think of airline bathrooms, but with more flair. You get a teeny shower cubicle. The sink is very similar to an airline sink. The “queen” size bed is two very short twins mashed together. I am 5’1” – if I lay out on the bed my feet reach the end (sorry tall people, this is a midget ship!).

In this case, I have a balcony room. My previous cruise I had a mini-suite. Both were very small. This one is just smaller. But once you get used to the size of the room, it’s just fine. They always give you tons of cabinets and drawers to stash stuff, so when you unpack your room isn’t a total chaotic mess.

The other nice thing is that you get a room steward assigned to you for the duration of the trip. In this case, my guy is Aurelio, from the Philippines. I am pretty sure it’s part of their job training, but they always know my name when I arrive, and greet me by my name when they see me. They come in the morning to do housekeeping duty, and again in the evening to turn down the bed and do a cleanup sweep. Aurelio has been very nice – he asks about my day, what I did, etc. You also see the same people all the time. The same lady greets you at dinner. The same guy is on shift when you go to the bar for a drink. In my case, they recognize me – probably due to the hair, but it’s a nice consistency.

Overall, the only time you really need to worry about ship accommodations is if you are on a long trip (in my case, I prefer 7-10 days), and your first day on the trip (that is always the “at sea” day, where the ship is powering to the first destination).  Maybe another “at sea” day if you are on a long one. Beyond that, if you schedule things right you won’t be around too much to worry. The important part is having a tidy comfortable place to come back to after you’ve spent the day on your feet (or on a bike).  Me personally, I have this thing with seasickness sometimes, so having a balcony that I can orient myself on when we hit turbulent waters helps a ton.

The AKA Thing

And for those who are wondering: what the heck is with all the AKA business? Well, everything in Italy has the actual Italian name and the English version. I’ve been listing both because after my last trip to Italy I learned that little factoid, and I want to try and remember what the cities were actually called. For example, yesterday I visited St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, but here squares are called Piazzas. So St. Peter’s Square is actually Piazza San Pietro. Another example is the cathedrals (with the grand domes on them). In Florence, the big one is called Il Duomo di Firenze (aka the the Florence Cathedral). After spending a week in Italy last year, I learned the English translations of these things did squat for finding my way around, so I got used to the Italian versions. Another example is the street naming: Via dei Pandolfini versus Pandolfini street. Trust me, it works better. It’s also interesting that when I Facebooked things last year in Italy, they came up with the Italian names, but when I got back to the states everything was neatly translated.

I really do love Italy. After hitting up the rest of the country (mostly), I still think Tuscany is my favorite. I don’t know exactly what it is. I mean, most things are a disorganized mess, the drivers are scary, but the people themselves just have style. Now that it’s my second time around, I can actually spot the Italians vs the tourists. Everything about them, from their dress to their architecture (newer architecture, anyway) is all very neat lines and boxy shapes. Despite the general chaos of their land, it’s like little pockets of self-organization. Naples and Rome were less like this, but the Tuscan region is definitely like this.

Florence (aka Firenze)

This was our third day in Italy. To be clear, the country itself is more like a set of federated states. Each has their own customs, food, styles, and even ways of talking. Old grudges extending back to the renaissance still exist, but are more friendly jokes than anything.

Today was Florence. Last year I spent a couple of days in Florence with Toccata, so I was pretty familiar with the layout. The tour I took today was far more relaxed than the one I did yesterday. We were coach bussed in to the leather district of downtown Florence, given a brief overview, handed a map with the pickup location, and sent off into wonderland.

You’d think after my previous experience I’d be a total pro, but I’ll fess up: I GOT LOST. I crossed the Florence version of the railroad lines and somehow wound up on the wrong side of the tracks. So much for my unerring sense of direction. When I go traveling on foot like that, I tend to pick a street as my cutoff and decide left or right. I did pick that street this time, but I somehow missed the plaque listing it.  Another odd thing about downtown Florence – there are NO street signs. there are plaques on the side of buildings with the street names.


Sample of plaque

So yeah. Missed my street plaque. Wound up a few blocks into a fairly scary part of Florence. Was accosted by a gypsy lady and some other random beggars. Once I realized it, I turned around and hauled ass back to the tourist area.

Fortunately that little detour didn’t cost me much time. While out on my jaunt I bumped into the church we played at last year, and the Uffizi.


We played here last year!

Didn’t run into the Duomo – purposely avoided that area because it’s mostly shops you can find in the US (coach, H&M, Marc Jacobs, etc). I mostly stuck to random alleys and side streets and picked shops you’d only find there.

After my near panic of being lost, I settled down and had a pizza for lunch, then decided to do some Serious Shopping. There were certain things I knew I could only get in Florence, so I think I broke my credit card purchasing everything.

Wine Tasting

Met up with my tour group for our wine tasting trip at the Castello del Trebbio around 1PM. For those who don’t know, the castle was the home of the Pazzo family, who were the main antagonists of the Medici (who were bankers and pretty much owned everything back in the day). The Pazzo family attempted to assassinate the Medici family with backup from the Pope, but failed and were ultimately killed off by the surviving Medici brother. Pazzi is also a word for crazy. So let it be known: if you decide to murder another family in a blood feud you better finish off the job right or everybody will remember you as crazy.

The castle has been renovated by a family that bought it in the 1960s and turned it into a winery. The wine is actually kept in the dungeon. We got a tour of that, then went upstairs for a wine tasting and snack.  Then I bought a bunch of wine to ship home.  #priorities


I stormed the castle

Then we climbed back on our bus and went back to the ship. Overall, I liked this trip far better because I had TONS of free time to (ahem) get lost in the city and just do what I wanted to.

Tomorrow I will be meeting France for the first time. Wish me luck!