In Which We End Fittingly With A Moveable Feast

My enjoyment of a city grows so much with reading or learning the history of it, so I went to the Shakespeare Book Co. just on the other side of the Seine from Notre Dame to pick up some reading while in Paris. Retracing the steps of Hemingway, we found the only used copy of his book happened to be the one we were looking for: A Moveable Feast.

I read it in the Jardin de Tuileries with the immigrant girls making the rounds asking if we spoke English so they could hold up a piece of paper petitioning money. I don’t know what the paper said, because when they would ask, I would lie.

I read it in our apartment in the 12th arrondissment, where everything was quite peaceful except for the commotion that broke out under our window as we were preparing to leave. I understood enough French to know there was a fight, but that may just have been the screaming and pushing and occasional crash. 

I read next to the fountain in front of the Palais Luxembourg, with the little kids running around catching and releasing their rented sailboats.  Is it bad that I kept waiting for a kid to fall in?

And I carried it in my bag as we visited the Eiffel Tower, Montmarte, and the Musee d’Orsay, Notre Dame, and all the other sights that had to be seen no matter how many times you’ve been to Paris, thinking we might sit and read. In those cases the cold rain or the sunny flowers, or the conversation with my beautiful wife, or the cheese and bread and wine and pastries all did their part to keep me more in the present than in the book.

There is so much I love about Paris, and the sights are only the beginning. I love the culture of people watching too. Cafes are set up with rows of chairs all pointing outward toward tables and the world passing by, not in little cliques around tables facing inward. Benches in parks, on the other hand, all face inward toward the passing scene, and not at the idyllic garden scenes around them. Maybe I’m romanticizing nosy-ness or even rudeness. I don’t mean to.  But people are just so interesting sometimes, and…well…I like to get a good look.  And sometimes I just space out.

Reading Hemingway in an environment like that always makes me want to write the way looking at Rothko makes me want to paint. It’s beautiful enough to inspire me to create, but simple enough for me to think: I could do that. Sometimes, I write a whole story about an immigrant couple trying to make it, or a fight and what started it, or and kid who falls in a fountain, all while I sit there with pen poised over journal, page as blank as my face.

What a treat these last 100 days have been! So many new stories to tell, and so many new sights to have seen.  It feels impossible to write it all down and conclude the whole thing, so I won’t give myself that pressure, but I’m writing something down anyway so it doesn’t all stay in my head.

The exercise of keeping a blog felt a bit presumptuous at first, but I suppose I’ve always been a bit suspicious of mass emailing as well. I also don’t really like randomly spouting out long soliliquies.  I feel honored that you (since you’re reading this) have taken the time to listen in on my trip, and I hope you’ve enjoyed some little tastes of our adventure. I definitely feel full.


In Which Some Chapters May Never Be Written

Usually when I’ve found I have more time for writing, I have less to write about, and vice versa.

These last couple weeks have been the “vice-versa” weeks, and most of it will be forgotten until I corner someone and make them not only look at all 2000 photos we’ve taken, but also listen to the commentary about each one.  The other way I’ll remember some of these stories is by coming back, and then annoying my company with the periodic: “Oh, I remember this, let me tell you what happened here….”  

So that I err on the side of “leaving them wanting more”, these are the stories that didn’t get written in the last couple weeks. The one’s I missed before that, I’ll need the slideshow for prompting.

Bologna by any other name....

Bologna by any other name....


In Which We Spend $4000 on Gelato

In Which My Inner Italian Emerges (part 2)

In Which a Bologna Sandwich in Bologna, Isn’t

In Which We Visit the Sinking City

In Which Decay Really Can Be Romantic

It's not just high tide - the roads are already gone!

It's not just high tide - the roads are already gone!

In Which I Convince All My Friends to Buy a Place in Venice

In Which I Miss My Family, But Find Happy Hour

In Which It’s Not Every Year You Can Take Your Wife to Paris for Her Birthday

In Which We Visit the Leaning City

No trip to Italy is really complete without a stop at the iconic city of Pisa.  While most tourists go directly to the famous “Leaning Tower of Pisa”, they miss out on so much the city has to offer. 

Outside the train station, my first stop was the “Leaning Map of Pisa” in order to get my bearings. 

leaning-signYou know how sometimes you can be in a city with a lot of famous things, and then suddenly, you round a corner, and then all of a sudden, you’re like: “wow!  Is that the _____?”.  Well, it was happening all over the place for us in Rome, which we kinda expected.  What we didn’t expect was for it to happen in Pisa!  We were just walking along, checking street names and looking at the clock to make sure we had time to catch the train back, when all of a sudden, Vikki grabbed my arm and pointed: It was the often overlooked “Leaning Bicycle of Pisa”!  I made sure to take the traditional goofy picture where it looks like you’re pushing it over but it’s really just a trick.  Don’t worry, I’m not really pushing it over – it just looks that way because of the way the camera is lined up.  I’m safely in front of the bicycle!

leaning-bike1After our little surprise, we finally made it to the “Leaning Column of Pisa”.  I couldn’t think of any other funny poses for this one, so I’m just smiling at the camera.  I had to save the best pose for our final stop.

leaning-postWith only a few more minutes left, we had just enough time to see the sight we came to Pisa for: the “Leaning Birch of Pisa”, Though you might know it by its more common name the “Leaning Tree of Pisa”.  It holds a particularly dear place in my heart because my name is also “Birch”.  Can you tell which one is me?  LOL!  I’m the one that is NOT leaning.  In fact, from the looks of it, it’s going to fall on me, but it’s not.

leaning-birchI was actually reading about how even from the start, the tree was tilting, and then over time, because of the instability of the soil of Pisa (as you can tell from all my pictures), it gradually started tilting more and more.  Finally, to preserve the landmark and to keep it from ultimately falling down, they dug underneath and poured a new and better foundation and actually straightened it up some.  Could you imagine it tilting more than it already is? 

In the end, we were a little disappointed to not have enough time to see all the sights in Pisa, but happy to see what we did.  We’ll just have to leave the “Leaning Gelateria of Pisa” the “Leaning People of Pisa”, and of course, the “Leaning Tower of Pisa” for next time.  After Pisa, we had an amazing time hiking the trails in the Cinque Terre along the Italian Riviera.  That was pretty nice too.


In Which the Earth Moves

First off – we are fine.  Thank you to everyone who expressed their concern for our safety.  The earthquake that struck Italy early this morning was centered about 250 km southeast of Florence, or about the distance from Seattle to Portland.  Boy, now that I think about it that way, it really doesn’t seem far.  I woke up in the middle of the night, but I don’t even know when it was, much less if it was from the earthquake.  By the time we went to lunch, the worst we thought had happened today was that we missed a train.

L’Aquila is the largest city near the epicenter, but there are a number of towns in the area that sound like they’ve just been devastated.  We just saw a clip on the BBC where this poor guy was out, cleaning off his car.  It was a futile effort, the car was covered with dust from the debris, not to mention several large bricks that caved in the roof and smashed the windshield.  He had gone to bed last night with a clean, well running car, and a wife and daughter.  All he could do was pick at the stupid rocks and dust on his poor beaten up car.  His wife and daughter had both died.  Because it was such a small town that he lived in, it was 11 hours before any emergency aid workers made it to the city.  

Not having friends or co-workers here, not speaking the language, we miss so much of what is happening just down the road.  Not having a car, or being able to communicate makes us pretty ineffectual at being able to offer any substantial help.  Maybe I’m just justifying not getting on a train or renting a car and driving straight there.  We’ll definitely be listening and looking out for ways that we might be able to do something toward alleviating the suffering of people who have been impacted, but as we do that, I feel reminded to pray and ask you to pray along with me for the guy picking at the debris on his car, and all the other countless thousands whose world has come crashing down around them.

I feel more thankful for the apartment we have, the family and friends that are safe and well.  Maybe my ears will be sharper, and my eyes keener, and my hand more generous toward helping and being aware of the people around me, and those not so far away.

In Which My Inner Italian Emerges

I’m a second or third generation Italian-American, depending on how you count.  My maternal grandfather Guiseppe Pietro Migliorini emigrated to the US in 1908, though from what I’ve heard, there wasn’t much maternal about him except the fact that in addition to two sons, he had four daughters, one of them being my mother.  It was a time when it wasn’t very cool to be ethnic, so a new world and a new life also meant a new name: Joseph Peter Mentor.

birchardo-with-coliseum1Part of the purpose of our stop in Italy, besides the consumption of copious amounts of gelato, is for me to spend time reflecting on my life and some of the forces both internal and external that have made me who I am.  This knowledge should, in turn, help me think about the future and direction of my life.  Trust me, it’s all very heady, spiritual, and thought-provoking stuff.  

We’ve only been here a little over two weeks, so I expect to discover a lot more about my “Inner Italian”, but I thought it might be informative to share some of what I’ve learned so far.

1)   I do, in fact, look Italian:  This is the one place in our travels where I have been confused as a local.  My dark hair, and ever-so-slightly olive toned skin were recognized right off the plane by no less than three people who immediately starting asking me for information in Italian.  This is aided by the fact that, with Vikki’s help, I’ve been dressing a lot more Italian: read “fashionable”.  People don’t wear t-shirts and jeans here, unless it’s a designer t-shirt, with like, four other layers of hipness on top. 

gelato-at-neri2)   I’ve always loved gelato:  I am not one of the recent converts to gelato in the last five years with all the gelato places opening everywhere.  It started when I was younger and I had a twist on gelato called “ice cream”.  I could eat “ice cream” by the pint without any stomach discomfort to show for it.  I always thought gelato was just Italians way of satisfying the ice cream cravings of the summer tourists from America.  But gelato isn’t only for tourists, or the faint of stomach: these Italians really do eat gelato, and lots of it!  Pretty much every time we get gelato, there are Italians in there by the ones, twos and threes satisfying their cravings.  And they always get their own cones, and they rarely get the “piccolo”s (smalls size).

clearly not Italian, though she does act like it sometimes

clearly not Italian, though she does act like it sometimes

3)   I take my cappuccinos standing up:  Part of it might be the fact that if you want to sit down and sip your caffe, they charge three times as much (not an exaggeration), but I love walking up to the counter, asking for “un cappuccino” and standing there sipping it along with my compatriots.  It is a short lived comraderie however, and I try to hide the fact that I probably add too much sugar, and never get the espresso, but I am still an American too.

4)   I want to roast a pig over a spit:  Definitely not a fear of offending the vegetarians here – the sight of a roast pig laying on a counter, beckoning its patrons with a mouth full of apple was a shock at first, but now it’s reminding me of the parties my Uncle Joe would have with a big ole pig roasting outside.  And now I’m thinking that just might be a good excuse to throw a party when we get back.

I’ll try and keep you posted on other illuminations as I have them, but in the meantime, I’ll keep eating my gelato, sipping my cappuccino, thinking about roasting a pig, and looking good doing it.  Oh, and since it’s a look more cool to be ethnic, for now you can call me: Birchardo Rubentino.


There's a pig, well, half a pig behind that guy.  The lady's cutting it into sandwich bites.

There's a pig, well, half a pig behind that guy. The lady's cutting it into sandwich bites.



In Which this trip could pay for itself

Sights bring tourists.  Tourists bring money.  Money brings everyone else.

Some people sell stuff, and some people sell experience.  

hat selling action

hat selling action


Selling stuff is obvious.  Somehow, I ended up buying a hat when we were in India because I forgot my sunscreen.  The guy had asked 600 Rupees initially, I paid 150, and I’m pretty sure I still overpaid.  But I got a hat instead of a sunburn, so I was happy.  There’s also people selling fake stuff: they carry their merchandise on sheets or carboard displays so that when the police come driving along, they can make a mad dash with their fake rolexes or oakleys or whatever.

Selling experiences is a little trickier.  I think it may have started with people taking wedding photos outside significant sights.  Everyone loves taking pictures of brides, and everyone loves taking pictures of significant sights, so I’m sure some tourist came along and asked to pose with the bride in front of the sight.  Maybe they gave the bride a couple dollars as a wedding gift, an entrepreneur saw the exchange, and a light bulb went off.  The next day, that entrepreneur came back to the sight wearing a wedding dress and made a killing, and a market was created.

The wedding dress evolved of course, because not everyone looks good in a wedding dress, and too many brides spoil the soup, so someone painted themselves green, someone added sparkles, someone else added a caldron with fake gold coins, and creativity was unleashed.  The tourist comes along and sees someone dressed like a circus side-show, and they want a picture.  After the photo-op, they’re expected to contribute a couple coins to the jar at their feet.


guy painted all grey to look like a statue

guy painted all grey to look like a statue

Thankfully someone else came along and improved the idea: “what does a leprechaun have to do with the Colliseum?” they asked.  So our next evolution brought the gladiators.  Well, guys dressed as gladiators, complete with plastic swords, and women dressed up as statues, and then the tourist says: “hey, that’s cool, I can take a picture with a gladiator about to cut off my head in front of the Colliseum!”  


As long as people trying to sell me something, or painted sparkly green and offering themselves for a photo, are polite and respectful, I have no problem with it.  In fact, as an economist, I think it’s great.  The wouldn’t make money if they weren’t providing a service of some sort, and I applaud them for the creativity and the shamelessness to do it.

And so, I want to offer the next evolution in the progression of tourist schtick to make money: “Personalized, Photo-Postcards, Pronto!”  It’s really just a combination of a few things we’ve already seen: the thing where someone writes your name on a piece of rice (or some variation), the thing where you take a photo with a gladiator, and then the thing where Raj (read the previous blog for more clarity) printed out photos of us on an elephant and sold them to us for 50 rupees ($1) an hour later.  That last one was really the most impressive to me.

So here’s what you need:roman-guard2

power (car battery, long extension cord, etc.)

photo printer

photo printer paper (5X7 or printable postcards)

props (statue and chisel, easel and paints, plastic sword and head, etc.) 

digital camera (sorry, I ran out of “p”-words)

Total overhead should be less than $300.  You offer to take photos of tourists with the props in front of the sights and the print off the photos onto postcards to send home, or beautiful 5X7s to take with them as a souvenir.  You could easily charge $5 for 5 postcards, or $2 for a 5X7.  Assuming you can handle about 15-20 per hour, you could make back your initial investment in half a day, all while providing a much needed service.  Nobody prints photos anymore, and sending postcards takes so many steps….heck, you could even pre-stamp the postcards for an extra fee.  I am a cheapskate, and even I might spend $5 to get my photo taken looking like I just painted the Mona Lisa or sculpted the David.

Even if you limited the hours of operation to the peak tourist hours each day, you would have at least 4 steady hours of work each day.  Assuming about 25% of the income went to expenses (another camera, more paper, stamps, etc.), you could still bring in over $200 in half a days work.  I don’t need to tell you that’s more than I make back home.  And that’s more than we spend each day while we’re here.

What do you think?  Anyone want to go into business with me?

In Which You Too Can Ride an Elephant

Vikki and I really are so fortunate to be able to take a trip like this, we’re having a great time, and that’s part of why I haven’t been the best at blogging regularly.  So I’ve decided I want to do what I can to create an experience that’s as close to being in India as I can for you.  I call it my “Virtual India!” series.

Today I’ve included my first two in the series.  I would’ve posted them yesterday, but you experienced the “Virtual India! Get Spotty Internet and Lose All Your Typing” already. 

First off, Virtual India! Ride an Elephant in the Amber Fort”

What you’ll need:

2 friends

1 car

1 very bumpy road

1 hot and sunny day

1 blanket

Step 1) Position your car at the beginning of the very bumpy road on a hot and sunny day.

Step 2) Spread the blanket over the roof of the car and sit on it

Step 3) Have friend #1 slowly drive over the bumpy road while you look at the following picture:elephant-ride

Step 4) Friend #2 walks alongside the car reading from the following script, while you glance periodically at the picture below:

my-name-is-rajFriend #2: I am Raj.  Smile.  I take your picture.  I am Raj.  Look for me in the parking lot.  I have your picture.  It looks very nice.  You look very nice.  I am Raj.  Remember me please.  (repeat from beginning – also note: it doesn’t matter if you actually look nice)

“Virtual India!  Walk the Streets of Old Delhi Near an Open Urinal”

What you’ll need:

1 used pot-a-potty

1 space heater and 1 de humidifier

10-20 friends with cars, motorcycles, auto-rickshaws, and bicycles with bells

2 bags of dust

Step 1) Place the heater and dehumidifier in the port-a-potty and turn on (also plug them in)

Step 2) When the temperature reaches “uncomfortably hot” inside the port-a-potty, go stand inside.

Step 3) Look at the following picture:delhi-street

Step 4) Have your friends start honking their horns, ringing their bells, driving in circles, and yelling things in Hindi.  If nobody speaks Hindi, try just saying words really fast and adding a vowel at the end of everything.  Also, you get bonus points if somebody runs into someone else – nothing major, just a little bump.

Step 5) Open the bags of dust and put them under your feet.  Now walk in place on the dust bags, causing puffs of dust to billow out.

Yay!  You’ve now experienced two of the fun adventures of being in India!  Keep posted for future additions, like: “Virtual India!  Go Shopping in Jaipur”, “Risk Your Life in an Auto Rickshaw”, and “Take 150 Pictures of the Taj Mahal”, and so many more!