Monday, November 25, 2019

Italy, 1999

Since my last post, I've been busy with a training trip to Muscatatuck, two wedding paintings, and a proposal-writing project.  None of those things would make a memorable blog post.  So, instead, here's another post from our Great European Adventure in 1999.  We had just left Germany and driven down to Camp Darby, a US military base outside of Pisa, Italy.  So enjoy ...

                Thursday, November 18

We made it safely to Italy.  We're staying at a small Army base called Camp Darby, near Pisa.  The drive down from Germany was the worst of the entire trip.  It is a long drive (8 hours) from Chiemsee.  It was snowing slightly when we left and got progressively worse as we went past Innsbruck and up over the Brenner Pass.  At the top, it was coming thick and hard.  Traffic was heavy, roads were slick, and we did not have a good time.  When we got below the snow line, it turned to rain that remained heavy all the way to Pisa.  During that one trip we had snow, sleet, hail, rain, fog, thunder, lightning, and heavy winds.  Yuck! 

When the weather eased up every now and then, the alpine countryside was spectacular.  The mountains are steep, rocky, and have lots of pine forests.  Every few miles there is a castle perched on a rock.  The route has been a strategic gateway between north and south for thousands of years and it was quite impressive to see the historic reminders of the past.  Particularly when the clouds would part a little bit to allow a glimpse of a sheer mountainside rising thousands of feet above the road.

Camp Darby looks like the Base That Time Forgot.  I don't know what their mission here is (might just be an ammunition storage facility) but it has two parallel main streets about a half mile long, and that's about it.  There is not much in the way of facilities.  Our room is a dump.  I've never stayed in a worse place that I've actually had to pay for.  It's an early-'70's plastic prefab unit.  They covered the plastic walls with plastic wallpaper and every sheet is peeling off.  All the plumbing and electrical wires are external to the wall.  The room has one (1) table lamp which is carefully situated so that it doesn't really shed any light on anything.  There is a TV in the corner which is all of 13" in size .... well, maybe 15" if you include the plastic casing.  We have, by actual count, one Armed Forces Network channel, one BBC channel, one Sky News channel, and 88 Italian channels.  The bathroom is particularly onerous.  The walls are covered with old tile, many of which had holes drilled in them for previous "renovations" which have since been removed.  The bathtub not only has running rust under the tap, it also has big patches of red scaly rust on the bottom.  And you have to run the tap for about five minutes to ensure the water coming out is clean.  When they have two roach motels in the bathroom, you know that's not a good sign!  Fortunately we haven't seen any creepy crawlies, at least not yet.  Of course, we can't get on the net from our room, so we're using the base library, which actually has some very nice computers.

Thursday, however, was a BEAUTIFUL day.  Absolutely crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky, chilly but not too cold.  It was the first really nice day we've seen since we left Prague.  We decided to head into Florence to take advantage of the good weather.  I was here almost four years ago and said then that Florence pegged my "wow"-meter.  It's still awesome.  Mostly we just wandered around and got a feel for the city.  Janis went ape over all the fashions and jewelry and shopping. 

Florence is a city that defines "class".  The old city streets follow medieval patterns and wind in and out between buildings that are hundreds of years old.  Italian buildings are quite a bit different from German ones: they're big, square, usually some variation of gray, tan, yellow, or red stucco that's flaking off, and have green or brown shutters.  Most look a bit worn and shabby.  The exception to all this is the Duomo, which is Italian for "damn big church with a dome the size of Montana".  This church is built with black and white marble laid in intricate patterns, and covered with statues.  We didn't go inside on the first visit (we will on our next visit) but it was beautiful to see. 

Another find, for Janis at least, was the Ponte Vecchio.  This is a centuries-old bridge over the Arno River.  It is lined with jewelry stores on both sides, and has been this way for several hundred years.  Janis went into sensory overload halfway along the bridge.  I never thought I'd see the day when she couldn't look at one more jewelry store window, but friends, it happened on the Ponte Vecchio!

Transportation was easy.  We drove the Range Rover into Florence, which took about 45 minutes through the Tuscan mountains.  We parked below the train station and then walked all over the city from there.  Manned parking garages are the only way to go if you want to see your car, or the stuff in your car, again.

While wandering the city, we came across an archaeological dig in a city street.  It appears that, while digging a trench for utilities, construction workers found some old city walls.  Florence has full-time historians and archaeologists on its staff for just this sort of thing.  They swoop in, dig, take photos, measure everything, then carefully cover it up again.  This preserves the past and allows modern life to continue.  I was impressed.

On Friday, we went into Pisa.  This was a just a short drive from Camp Darby, but of course we got lost both going and coming.  The first thing we saw was the Leaning Tower.  I cannot believe the thing is still standing, it's over so far.  Pisa has a major effort ongoing to keep the tower upright: they're digging around and under it to solidify the base, and meanwhile they've strapped huge steel cables around the tower and anchored them to several supports.  Only the Italians would screw up a site survey, build a big tower on marshy ground, and when the building that never should have been built starts to fall over, turn it into a tourist attraction.  That's like Pennsylvania making a tourist attraction out of Three Mile Island.  Be that as it may, the Duomo, Baptistry, Memorial Cemetery, and Leaning Tower were all beautiful and interesting.  We also wandered around the rest of the town and found it to be quite charming.  Streets in the old city, of course, were narrow, cobblestone, and lined with shabby and colorful old buildings.  People are friendly and except for the Leaning Tower area, it is not a tourist trap.  It was quite lively in the early evening.  Christmas decorations are starting to appear and people packed the streets in the shopping areas.  We saw one of the most beautiful sunsets ever as we crossed the river: the thin clouds were brilliantly lit by the setting sun, with the silhouettes of ancient towers in the foreground, and it all was reflected in the river surface. 

Driving in Italy is certainly an experience.  Speed limit signs, stop signs, lane lines, and other such official proclamations are merely advisory.  It's normal to see three cars abreast on a two-lane road.  When the light turns green, you have 0.5 seconds to get moving or everybody behind you lays on the horn.  In keeping with the Italian nature, driving is an art form, not something that can be regulated.  You want the movement of the cars to flow beautifully, particularly if "beautifully" means that you can pass everything else on the road.  (Note: you don't pass a car in Italy, you surpass it, with all the emotional baggage that such a phrase entails).  In Amsterdam, most people get around on bicycles.  By contrast, Florentines use motor scooters and mopeds.  Herds of them rip along the city streets, dodging cars and buses and pedestrians (usually), and sounding like swarms of angry hornets.  You better stay alert on Italian city streets, or you’ll quickly wind up as road kill.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Wrapup of our Prague, 1999, Adventure

My last post a couple of days ago was a reprint of our travelogue of Prague during our European trip in 1999.  It included the story of Janis's billfold being stolen by pickpockets.  Here's how that adventure turned out.

                Wednesday, November 3

The day after Janis's billfold was stolen, we were discussing the event with our landlord.  She said that we should go report it to the police because sometimes the pickpockets just wanted cash, and would dump the ID cards and rest of the billfold.  Later, American Express said that they would need a copy of the police report if we were going to claim the replacement cost of the billfold (Louis Vuitton and very $$$, so we damned well were going to claim it).  So after we took care of business with American Express and other places, we hoofed it over to the polizei to do our duty.

Oh, how naive!  You must remember, these are Soviet-trained officials we're talking about.  The words "courteous, quick, friendly, and efficient customer service" do not exist in their universe.  The police station was the most run-down building on a run-down block.  The anteroom was built about 150 years ago, and evidently the last time it was painted (or even cleaned) was to welcome the Russians after WW II.  There's no reception desk, only a window cleverly placed about waist-high so that you have to bow down to them in order to carry on any kind of conversation.  Which, of course, you can't, because none of them deign to have anything to do with the English language.  They simply aren't interested in anything you have to say in English, and they aren't much more interested if you speak Czech.  Eventually, the one and only English interpreter on the entire Prague police force (no kidding) arrived and we made our report.  She made it clear that if we wanted to report Janis's billfold as "missing", why, she'd be happy to help.  However, if we wanted to report it as "stolen", oh, now that is much more complicated, and would require much filling out of forms.

By this time, we had our dander up, and forms or no forms, these police were going to have to deal with the fact that three guys had ripped off Janis's - Janis's - one and only billfold.  So the interpreter rolled her eyes and put us in the "waiting room" while she sorted out the details with the duty staff. 

Now there is nothing more depressing than a Communist-era waiting room.  It was really a short hallway that was painted a putrid institutional green, with several mysterious doorways leading off it.  One of the "doorways" was a heavy metal barred jail cell door.  One wall had a Rube Goldberg electrical contraption mounted high up featuring a transformer the size of my suitcase and wires leading into a room behind one of the mysterious doors.  Electro-shock therapy, perhaps?   The same wall had two large electrical fuse boxes tastefully decorated with pornographic ads.  There were no chairs, only one long wooden bench, on which were sitting three people who had clearly been there quite a while and were still waiting when we left.  No reading material, of course, except for the pornographic ads, and to keep ourselves entertained, we tried to figure out what the electrical contraption was, and also what was behind Doors #1, #2, and #3.  We were kept in the room for about half an hour.  Then the interpreter burst back in and gave us a police report - in Czech, of course - which she claimed was a summary of everything we'd told her and would we please sign it?  It could've said that we were the assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for all we knew, but by that time we weren't at all interested in finding out what was behind Door #3, so we signed it and said goodbye to our cheerless waiting-room companions. 

As for American Express, well, they wanted a police report and that's what they're getting.  They didn't say it had to be in English.  If they want to know what it says, then they can find their own damn interpreter.

So ends our experiences in the Czech Republic.  We had a good time here, all things considered.  This is a beautiful city with superb food, great art and music, low prices, friendly people (most of 'em), and fabulous weather.  The only drawback was our run-in with the pickpockets (which the interpreter said were "all Rumanian and Bulgarian, definitely not Czech" ..... sure, lady).  Whatever.  We won't be back, but I still think it's a great place to visit.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Adventures in Prague, 1999

Time for another one of our "greatest hits from the goldie oldie '90's" ... in this case a discussion of our experiences in Prague, Czechoslovakia, during our European trip in 1999.  So without further ado ...

                Tuesday, November 2

Our big news is that Janis had her billfold lifted by pickpockets last night.  These guys were pros.  We were in a big crowd of people getting onto a tram.  The three pickpockets got in between Janis and me and blocked her way.  When she pushed through them, they unzipped her purse and lifted the billfold.  It had all her credit cards, driver's license, military ID, checks, the whole works.  There was no cash at all in her billfold, and her passport was back in the room.  Fortunately, she noticed it pretty quickly (too late to catch the guys, who had already gotten off), and we canceled the credit cards and checks within 30 minutes of the heist.  One of the credit card people reported that the thieves had already tried to use at least one of the cards in an ATM but couldn't guess the PIN. 

True to their advertisements, American Express is issuing her a new card today.  My card and Janis’s card had different numbers, so mine is still good.  Visa and MasterCard will be more of a pain.  We now have no valid Visa/MasterCards with us, which will put a crimp on our spending ability.  Unlike American Express, they have no offices that will issue new cards on the spot.  Instead, they send new cards to our "home" address (one of Janis's friends in San Diego, who is a saint) in seven to ten days.  Then we have to get the cards express mailed from San Diego to wherever we are in Europe.  The whole process will take two to three weeks.

Our landlord told us that pickpockets are, unfortunately, very common here, but they're not too sophisticated.  Most of the time they just want the cash, and won’t mess with stolen credit cards because they’re a bit of a hassle.  So it looks like this theft may just be a pain in the ass and not a disaster.

In the spirit of "Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”, here are the rest of our adventures before we met up with the pickpockets. 

We drove up to the town of Terezin to visit Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi concentration camp.  The camp is inside an old brick fortification built in the mid-1700's that was pretty much abandoned by the time the Nazis rolled in.  The place is largely unchanged since the end of the war.  It has not been restored and there has not been much money for upkeep, either.  Consequently, what you see is what was there during the war: the original wooden sleeping racks (no mattresses, of course), original sinks, original toilets (one each to serve 100 people), original barbed wire hanging from dilapidated posts ... "Chilling" is the best word to describe it.  I walked around a corner and saw the entry gate with the Nazi slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Makes You Free") painted over it, and my blood ran cold.  They have a museum and quite a number of displays such as prison clothes, drawings, tools, utensils, and other everyday items (all original of course), as well as photos of camp officials and many prisoners, which put a very human face to it all.  Theresienstadt was primarily a transportation waystation and not an extermination camp like Dachau or Auschwitz; still, over 150,000 people went through there in four years and several thousand died.  The town of Terezin is a very short walk away from the fortress grounds.  During the war, the Nazis emptied the town of its regular inhabitants, crammed it full of Jewish prisoners, threw a quick coat of paint on everything, and fooled the Red Cross into thinking that Theresienstadt was a model "retirement" community.  Once the Red Cross left, the Nazis went right back to loading the prisoners onto trains bound for the gas chambers.  We left Theresienstadt with a new appreciation of what people can do to people.  (I wrote this before the pickpockets, so now we've got still another new appreciation of what people can do to people).

Eating out in Prague is bliss.  The other night we each had a salmon steak, with salad, delicate potato croquettes, fresh bread, wine (Janis) and beer (me), and two crepes the size of dinner plates with ice cream, fruit, thick whipped cream (the real stuff, not Cool Whip), and chocolate topping.  Total cost for everything, including tip: $15.  Eating here is cheap and almost all the restaurants we've found are excellent.

Janis wrote some observations prior to the pickpockets:

Okay, so I know I have to live with some inconveniences like no TV, no radio, and no phone in the room, but these towels are ridiculous.  What this penzion gives us for bath towels, I would call “kitchen” towels, and very old, worn-out ones at that.  I guess you could say they have a two-fold purpose: they dry you (sort of), and they exfoliate your skin. 

I’ve gotten used to having to pay to use the toilet (however, better have the right change or you're "piss" out of luck), but I hate paying for recycled toilet paper that also exfoliates!  Thanks but no thanks.  Prague’s buses are relics but, hey, they work and they are pretty much on time.  Trams, for the most part, have single rows of seats; after that you stand and you best hold tight as they aren't known for a smooth ride.  The BEST thing about the tram is that the seats are heated.  It helps heal the raw skin on your bottom from all that exfoliating, and I ask you, could you want anything more for thirty cents than to ride for an hour and a half to anywhere the bus, tram, or underground goes to?  (Skip's note: Well, you might want to have your own bodyguard).

The Czechs have discovered hair coloring in a big way, and the women dress and use makeup in a very up to date way.  I mean, in ten years they go from Communism to Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Nina Ricci, and Hermes.  Really, they’ve grown leaps and bounds in a very short period of time.  The guy that owns the internet place we've been using was born here in Prague and then lived in South Africa.  After the fall of communism he returned (as according to him SoAfrica is "going down the tubes"; well, he's white so you can figure why he feels that way) to open this business.  He says most of the changes in the Czech Republic are cosmetic only and the bureaucracy is as bad as ever, but who knows.

Hey, they even have ice here, unlike some of the other "first world" places we've visited.