29 September 2014

Finale

This is my last post on this blog but don't despair. I'm not quitting blogging, I'm just moving platforms. I've been trying to maintain two blogs - this one and my writing one - and found it difficult so I've decided to combine the two at my new blog home. I've copied some of the posts from both blogs over to the new site.  

Some of the comments have transferred over and some haven't but I will continue checking this blog and answering comments. I might turn off commenting on some of the older posts just to avoid spam at some stage.

Anyway, I hope you get reading and, if you have my blog linked, update your links.



28 September 2014

This week I need all the good luck I can get

This is the week that the Arashi concert ballot is decided. I've applied for tickets with the decision to only go to Japan if I win them in the ballot. I can't afford to buy scalper tickets this year.

I figure we have about a 1 in 20 chance of actually getting tickets.

Since you can put your top 3 options, we applied for 2 dates in Osaka and 1 in Fukuoka. Generally, it's easier to get tickets to Fukuoka but it's also a lot more trouble to get there.

So last night I decided it might be worth booking a hotel in Fukuoka on the off chance that we get tickets to the concert. If we booked through a site like Booking.com, we could later cancel the booking with no cost.

Except it seems like everyone else had the same idea. It's almost impossible to get a room for those nights! No point worrying too much unless I actually get tickets and there are always internet cafe/karaoke/coffee shop places to sleep for one night.

Anyway, please cross your fingers and send good mojo my way.


27 September 2014

Tuscany

Tuscany - it looks exactly the same as it does in photos or in those TV shows your mother watches where British people move overseas and renovate old farmhouses. That shocked me.

In Japan, you go to somewhere like Mount Fuji and you really all those photos you've seen of it being all pretty and zen-like were taking from very specific spots, in between industrial buildings and other shit. That makes you jaded. Tuscany is not like that at all.

I did a bit of reading about how to get around Tuscany then realised it was going to be a massive pain in the arse so booked myself on a day tour on a nice air conditioned bus. Except that when I got to the bus, the tour was jam packed. They asked if anyone was on their own and I put my hand up so they squeezed me onto the first bus. I should've kept quiet since there was only one seat left and it was next to this horrible Russian man. 

You'd think he'd have offered to swap seats so I got the window for at least one leg but every time he got back to the bus first and got the window seat. Even when I tried my hardest to beat him, he still managed.

The first stop on the tour was Sienna. In Sienna, they have a horse race called the Palio which is kind of a big deal. Different districts of the town compete to win the prize which is a huge honour and means they can have massive piss-ups for a year. They all pay big money to get good jockeys but the horses are drawn by ballot then the horses get taken to the church to get blessed and it's considered good luck if they poop on the floor (we were told this like 500 times).

We got to Sienna the day before the race so everything was being set up. Every district had their banners flying and bunches of men stood around, trying to set up for the dinners in each area. You can pretty much look at those groups and see who is the pompous old bastards in each area, standing around giving orders and doing no work. Some things are universal.


We had a local guide to show us around and we walked through the city then went to a building that had been an old hospital. Maybe the first hospital in the world or something like that. 

Did you know in the olden days, when people went on pilgrimages, there were places that gave them hospitality but, because all these people were walking so much, they'd get sick so the hospitality places gave them treatment and that's where the word 'hospital' came from.

There were lots of paintings of Christians attacking the Infidels (ie. Muslims) which made me really glad we got all that cleared up back in the middle ages.

Our tour guide pointed out a church on the other side of the city. Apparently it has all kinds of relics and dead saint stuff but we weren't going to see any of that macabre stuff. Except I really wanted to see it. Luckily, I got to see awesome macabre stuff in Bologna but I won't give you spoilers on that.

After some time to wander the town, we headed to lunch at a Tuscan farm near San Gimignano. But first we had to have a tour of the farm and see grapevines and cows. Fuck yeah, never get to see that shit at home. I was pretty much acting like a recalcitrant teenager at that point in the tour but I've been to about 8000 vineyards in Australia and the whole 'growing white roses for white grapes, red roses for red' shit is pretty tired by now. 

The farm house lunch was simple but good. Most of the ingredients were organic and grown on the farm. 

I'd been worried that we'd only have red wine for lunch - I'm allergic to red wine, but we had wine and, when the women sitting near me found out I couldn't drink red, we commandeered all the leftover white. Ergo, I left lunch feeling pretty pissed.

Since I don't care much for cows, I took arty photos of a roll of fencing wire

I don't have any photos of lunch because I was too busy quaffing wine. Oops. The absolute best part of the meal was the dessert - biscotti dunked in dessert wine. OMG, that was amazing. I must buy some to have at home.

So then I slept most of the way to San Gimignano because that's what I do when I drink at lunch time.

We had plenty of options of things to do in San Gimignano but, when one of those options is to get gelato at a place that has won awards for top gelato in Italy, it's pretty much a given where I'd head to.


Next stop, Pisa. I had no interest in actually going inside the tower. There were a few touristy things around but, when we arrived, I saw a hot dog van and was like hell yeah, the leaning tower of hot dog got in my belly. Then I got a beer and lolled about on the grass near the tower.


People were taking photos of themselves pushing the tower but I figured I'd go one better. I was going to full put my legs in the air but I had a dress on and didn't want to expose myself that much.
The Tower of Pisa really isn't that high. It is only about 5 floors. Also, it was recently renovated and had structural work done. They could've straightened it up but choose not to because they wouldn't get any tourists. I think that makes it a bit gyppy.

We had to go on a little toot-toot train from the bus to the tower and back again which meant we got a tour around the city. Wow, a lot of smart people used to hang out in Pisa back in the day. I got annoyed because the tour leader told us about Fibonacci who "you may have heard of in the Dan Brown books". No, I've heard of him because he was a maths genius!

After Pisa, it was back to Florence. Since it was a public holiday, I thought they'd be nothing open for dinner but I found a place. I had my second tiramisu in Italy and again it was pretty ordinary. I never managed to find good tiramisu in Italy at all. Boo hiss.

The best part of the tour was definitely not having to deal with any of the transport logistics myself. I went to places I'd have probably not bothered with on my own. And the bus was air conditioned.

The worst bit was that the tour guide on the bus would tell us about each place before we got there then the local guide would say exactly the same thing. OMG, I hate that shit. It got annoying having to keep to someone else's timetable. And it did feel a bit school-trip like. One of the couples on the tour got off the bus at Pisa rather than travelling back to Florence. I quickly nabbed their seat so that I didn't have to sit with the annoying man -- and got in trouble for moving without permission!

That was the end of my Florence adventures, apart from having breakfast and coffee before leaving the next day. Next stop, Bologna.


26 September 2014

Florence

To be honest, I didn't love Florence. There may be cities that manage to cram in more tourists per square centimetre but I've not experienced them. And, I swear, Florence has more katakana than I've seen anywhere in the world... and I lived in Japan!

After being in Naples and then Rome, the first thing I noticed when I arrived in Florence was all these people standing around at intersections. It made me wonder what the hell was going on, then it dawned on me that they were waiting for the pedestrian lights to change! You don't get that in Naples, that's for sure.




And wow, Florence is a rich city. I walked from the station to my apartment and the most of the way was through streets lined with designer stores. And the city is so clean! 

My apartment was in Oltrarno which is Italian for across the Arno where all the annoying tourists aren't. I am so glad I stayed in this area because otherwise I'd probably be rotting in an Italian jail on murder charges.

Again with the AirBnB, this apartment cost a bit more than my normal budget (I think it was around $60 a night) but so worth it. The absolute best thing about the apartment, apart from being away from tourists was that the host's parents ran a trattoria next door and it had the best food -- and even better desserts. I had dinner there one night then called in just for dessert the next night. 

OMG, I have no idea what this Florentine dessert is called but it is so good. Actually, thinking about the super delicious dessert, Florence wasn't that bad. In fact, it was kinda awesome.


This is a lousy photo but this guy had walls of sponge cake with some kind of liqueur soaked into the edges. The inside is a layer of custardy stuff and one of dark, bitter chocolate. Trust me, it was so good. Most of the sweetness seemed to come from the liqueur rather than the chocolate or custard so it wasn't sickly sweet, more an artful arrangement of incredible flavours.


This guy is a similar thing but with different flavours. It was super good but the first one was better -- mainly because I love dark chocolate.

Anyway, I did other stuff in Florence. First up, I cross the Ponte Vecchio which is a bridge full of tourists and jewellry stores. I'm not a fan of jewellery especially gold jewellery so pretty much the whole bridge thing annoyed me, especially since I was just trying to get to the other side and not be tourist.



I probably whinge a lot about tourists, and I know that I was one, but it's not so much the tourist factor, it's that they are so freaken oblivious. How do some of these people even survive? I assume they are like it in their everyday lives as well. Just simple things, like if you are walking down a crowded street and you need to check your map, move off to one side out of the way instead of coming to a halt on the footpath.

After dealing with the crush, I made it to the Uffizi. I had a skip the line voucher, which meant I had to go line up to get it exchanged to a ticket. So much for skip the line. I finally got to the counter and the girl manually, with handwriting, copied the details from voucher into a docket book with carbon paper. OMG! I am not kidding. I felt like I was back in Japan. I mean, this has to be the busiest art gallery in Italy, maybe one of the busiest in the world and they have a system like this? Nice work, Florence.

Then only two more lines and a metal detector and I was in the gallery. Okay, this is where I nearly got into a punch up with some American tourists because I decided, after their fourth attempt at a selfie in front of one of the paintings, I'd just barge through. Fuck you, American tourists. If you are going to try to take a selfie in a super busy art gallery, you don't get multiple attempts. Other people in this world want to see The Birth of Venus, you knobs.

The whole gallery pretty much gave me the shits. I don't know why people think their need to take a photo takes precedence of someone just wanting to look at the art with their eyes. I don't know why you would even want to take shitty photos of great art. Do people need some proof that they have seen a painting even when they don't actually look at it, just photograph it?



So, just to amuse myself, I only took photos of paintings of breast feeding Jesus. After a few rooms of art, I needed the cafe. You'd think it'd be bad for the art having the building so inadequately air conditioned but it did make me appreciate my beer more.

That was enough art for me. I realised that I don't really like seeing art in galleries. It's weird.

So, I went to a wine bar and confirmed my opinion that cheeses>jesus. I can't remember the name of the wine bar but that cheese plate had some of the best cheese I'd ever tasted in my life. If you could legally marry cheese, we'd have been wed that night.

The next day, I wandered around the city, checking out the Duomo - I didn't go in because the line was ridiculously long, then I went to the library. Florence has one of the greatest libraries in the world. I'm not sure what their books are like but you can sit around on the covered terraces with a coffee or a wine, smoking a cigarette and reading your book. If I was a student in Florence, I'd be so motivated to study there.

Somewhere along the way, I popped into a shoe shop and got to watch nuns buy shoes. I don't know that seemed so strange to me. I mean, nuns need shoes like everyone else but you just don't think of them doing everyday things like that. I also got to try lots of gelato - including one shop where the girl was making up the cones herself.


Next up, in Kathryn's fun holiday adventures, I went to the laundrymat. That involved wacky times with the guy in the shop next door where I needed to buy tokens for the machine but didn't know or understand the Italian word for token. Fun times. Since I had no partner to make laundry fun, I went for a walk around the neighbourhood then headed across the street to a little bar and had a beer in the leafy courtyard out the back. Man, I drank a lot of beer in Italy for someone who rarely drinks beer. I think it was the heat.

That night, I went to a snotty little bar for aperitivo then a place with an old dude singing Johnny Cash songs. And more of that awesome dessert cake.

The next day, I went on a tour of Tuscany but I'll post that later.


25 September 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

So, I finished reading the new Murakami book last night. I'd actually preordered it so I could read it on holidays but I cancelled my credit card after I lost it and that meant my Amazon order failed. Then I started reading the Game of Thrones books and that killed a few months of my life.

Anyway, Colourless Tsukuru (I can't spell colourless without the "u", American spelling kills my soul), it's shit. Harsh but true.

Have you heard of Nanowrimo? The writing thing where people all over the world get together to write a novel in November? I've participated a few times and you end up writing a pile of junk to meet your word count - trite conversations and unnecessary description with lots of loose threads. The point is after you write that, you might have the kernel of a story that you can edit and shape into something worth reading. Colourless Tsukuru reads like a Nanowrimo first draft.

It made me wonder if maybe Murakami is trying to take the piss out of himself - or maybe his readers. It's like every Murakami cliché has been thrown in there. At one point, the characters go to a cocktail bar and I was thinking whoa, that's new... a cocktail bar not a JAZZ bar. Except right at the end of the chapter, a jazz band starts playing. You could almost play 'spot the Murakamism' with this book.

There are whole big wads of conversation that could be cut. If you've read 1Q84 and got frustrated by the old lady that goes on long rants that read more like personal lectures from the author rather than real conversation, you are going to hate this book. There's no magic, no sparkle, just people pontificating.

The flow of the story isn't helped by the fact that the book includes lots of work play -- on Japanese words. It must've been a translator's nightmare and it is far too clunky to be enjoyable.

I declare this book the worst Murakami book ever. As a reader, I hated it. As a writer, I got a nice glow of inner satisfaction to realise that even an author of Murakami's calibre could write something so shit.

24 September 2014

Rome Highlights Part 2

I did a few tours on this holiday, which is pretty unusual for me. I'm so not a tour person, but sometimes it's the easiest way to see things. I'd never pay to do a tour if I could easily visit places on my own but that's not always possible.

Love and Death: Scandals off the Beaten Track

I could've visited the places on this tour myself but I'd have never got the stories and the scandals on my own, not without a lot of reading and research.



When I turned up for the tour, I was the only one booked on it apart from one of the other guides from the company. Already, that was top notch because many tour companies cancel if they don't meet minimum numbers.

My guide was a pretty cool guy too - really passionate about history and not just giving a canned commentary about sites but telling stories and tying historical events to shit that's happening now. It's mind blowing to realise how much things don't change. 

While the first part of the tour covered many of the same sites as the Colosseum tour I'd taken earlier, the tour guide gave a whole different perspective on things. Then we wandered through the city including the Jewish quarter to Castel Sant'Angelo. I got to see the house where the mother of Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia lived and that alone made it worthwhile - I am totally obsessed with the Borgias.

I'd totally recommend the tour company - Through Eternity - if ever you visit Rome.

After the tour, on my guide's recommendation, I headed to the Tiber where loads of restaurants and bars had set up for the summer and had a few drinks to chill out. I love how you get the free buffet with drinks in Italy!



Vatican

I'm not sure if I'd really call this a highlight. Sure, it's a great museum but you can't really wander through the insanely opulent rooms without thinking about the amount of suffering that has resulted from that opulence.

Korean tourism ads at the Vatican. I didn't realise until later, the pope was visiting Korea at the time. Maybe he scored a free flight because of this.
I'd booked an early morning tour that got you into the Vatican before all the hordes arrived. The tour started at 7.30. What I had forgot to factor in is that I had to travel across town to get there, which meant getting up at like 6.00, only to arrive and wait around for about 30-40 minutes, then enter the Vatican and wait around at the ticket office for ages.

Pretty much all the tour got you was about 5-10 minutes in the Sistine Chapel with minimal people. We got a little tour before that but it felt like the guide was just killing time until we could get in to the chapel. After that, you are free to wander for as long as you like on your own.

Is it worth it? I'm not sure. The crowds got insane once the doors opened to the general public, which made me really narky so maybe. You can do the same thing but after hours so that might be better. My rationale was that it made more sense to have the rest of the day to explore after the tour finished.

Except that I didn't want to spend the day there because it was full of annoying people. I did enjoy the Borgia apartments though.



After the Vatican, I went to St Peter's where I tripped over and said the word, "fuck" but that's not half as bad as the Japanese man who kept filming a service in one of the little alcoves even though the guard told him three times not to. I was very tempted to jump in front of him going "dame, dame" and doing the crossed arm thing.

Okay, I have to admit this. My favourite part of the Vatican was the gift shop. I do love me some religious iconery. And I did go a bit nuts buying rosary beads (hey, they were in nice tins) and charms and a Pope Francesco thumbs up fridge magnet. And I'm not even Catholic. I was shocked at how rude some of the customers were though -- I think Baby Jesus cares more about good manners than how many trinkets you buy in the gift shop, people.

Food

Of course, food is the main highlight! It was still too hot for me to eat much but I managed a few good meals.

There was a little restaurant down the street from where I stayed and my host recommended it. I walked by a few times and it looked dead but I decided to give it a go. It only looked dead from the street - out the back was a huge courtyard and apparently I should've booked a table! Because I was alone, they squeezed me in and I had a fine meal.

I really wanted to try the carbonara. I've never liked carbonara because it's too rich but I found out that real Italian carbonara doesn't have cream added like they do here. OMG, that makes it so much more delicious (and better for my stomach - I can't handle cream much).

I used Elizabeth Minchilli's Eat Rome app constantly when looking for places to eat. It's really worth the few dollars investment because, as a tourist, it's so hard to know the good places from the mediocre. You only have limited stomach space on hols and you don't want to waste it.

Because of the app, I discovered some great places, none of which I can remember the name of, like a hotel rooftop bar with the best sunset view over the historical centre and a place near the Spanish Steps with a 4 euro pasta lunch - including water!

I really didn't take many photos in Rome, which is unlike me. Usually I post ever meal I eat on facebook. Yeah, I'm that person.


23 September 2014

Rome Highlights- part 1

It's hard to know where to start with Rome so I figured I'd just post some of the highlights then do a part 2.



Rome - it was shitty hot,full of old stuff and not quite what I was expecting. Do not believe everything you read about Rome. a few times I went places because they were touted as the happening areas of Rome. They were dead.

Lots of expat bloggers also raved about the stylishness of Roman woman. Full on fangirl ravings - they are so stylish, no matter what you wear or how much money you spend, you'll never be as stylish as Italian woman. No offence to Italian women, but I saw none of that. Most people I saw wore H&M t-shirt and leggings type outfits and shorts (seriously, every blog I read said not to wear shorts in Italy). I'm not saying women have to be stylish, especially in the summer heat. But some of these bloggers could turn it down a notch or two!

Maybe too, Rome is a completely different experience at other times of the year. In August a lot of people leave the city for their summer holidays so places are shut and people are gone.

That's not to say I didn't love Rome. Sure, it's got some not so great sides to it but mostly, it was awesome. I probably won't go back because I didn't throw coins in the Trevi fountain - it was being renovated - but maybe I will just to prove that wrong.

Anyway, the highlights:

Staying out of the city centre

I stayed in an area out of the centre called Tor Pignattara. The street I stayed in, and the little square, were an amazing escape from the tourist madness and had a really tight community feel. Now, that might not always be a good thing - especially if they don't like outsides - but the people in the area were so lovely. After I met someone once, they'd regret me like a friend the next time they saw me. The ladies in the little coffee bar grinned and knew my order.

I'm so glad I stayed there because Rome, especially around the tourist areas, can be a bit rude and unwelcoming. If I'd stayed somewhere touristy, I think I'd have been a lot more cranky and negative about the city but, being able to get out of all that made a huge difference.





The place I stayed, through AirBnB again, was an old bakery that had been converted into a studio so pretty much a big, open space with a loft bed built in over the bathroom and basic cooking facilities. It had a double doors opening out onto the street with a heavy, industrial shutter that I had to pull down every night (that was a bit of a pain but hey, total security).

The only downside to all this was that I had to catch the bus into the city, a horrible bus that was also so overcrowded that the air conditioning was taxed to the point of being non-existent. Man, I hated that bus. There was a little old tram as well but that didn't go all the way.

Colosseum at Night Tour

I know people who've been to Rome and not gone to the Colosseum but really, do you want to travel all that way and then not see the main attractions? I'm so over all that 'I'm a traveller not a tourist' wank and, if I wanted to spend my days lolling around in a coffee shop, people watching, I'd have stayed in Melbourne. Plenty of that to do here.

On the other hand, I hate people a lot. And people in crowds drive me batty. As does heat and being outside in the sun. So I figured doing a night tour of the Colosseum would be perfect.


I hadn't realised until I got to the tour that we'd do a whole circuit around the really old stuff part of the city so I got to learn a whole heap of history and see a lot before we even hit the Colosseum. The most interesting part of that, for me, was seeing how various buildings had evolved over the centuries - early Pagan temples with Christian bits add on top then converted to some other functionality a few centuries later. Just layers of history.

When we got to the Colosseum, there was a bit of waiting around which was good because they really do try to rigidly ensure that there is only tour group in an area at a time. We nearly did have a gladiator battle of our own when another tour leader cut into our time. That would've been freaken hilarious.

We went all over, from the main arena to underneath then up to the stands. The amazing thing about the Colosseum is it's familiarity. You can go see old buildings and learn stuff about them but sometimes it's hard to imagine but the Colosseum is a stadium and, even though it's really old, the layout is not that much different to any stadium in your own town.

I did my tour through City Wonders but there are a few companies that do the night tours and I'm sure they are all pretty similar. I think the night tours only run in summer.

I went to the Opera -- and I loved it!

When I planned my holiday, I found out you could go to the Baths of Caracalla and see the opera. I was all over that shit. Opera in the ruins of the ancient baths - you don't get to see that every day.

I went online and got tickets. The ticket buying site was in Italian but it wasn't too bad to use - much easier than doing things in Japanese (for starters, they took international credit cards).

Then I realised, I'm not into opera. I've never been to the opera before and figured it was stuffy old folk. And hey, I won't even understand the story. My mum told me to get the book thing (there is a fancy word for the books that have opera stories in them) and read it but I didn't want spoilers and, I told her, since it was the Barber of Seville and I'd seen the Bugs Bunny version, I'd be fine...LOL me.

So, on the day, I got all gussied up. I mean, it's the opera, you dress fancy. Then got to the Baths. OMG total fashion fail! Most of the women were in tights and t-shirts. There were a few in dresses but mainly sun dresses not full-on dressy shit.

Too fancy for the opera and what is going on with my face -- but hey, I used the timer on my camera!
Still, it meant I got more than one wear out of the dress I'd lugged over for my friend's wedding. There was one woman in a full length gown with opera gloves and she looked sensational. I got something to eat from the food vans outside which seemed to be the thing to do and was pretty reasonably priced then went inside, found my seat and got a mojito from the bar. Which was pricey and I did not see her put the alcohol in it. I saw her pick up the bottle then put it down but I didn't see her pour it. Bad form.

I found my seat and waited it for it start then a weird thing happened! They announced the opera was starting and everyone rushed forward to grab the empty seats at the front. I don't think that's a normal opera thing but hey, I paid for the cheapest seat and ended up sitting four rows from the front so I'm not complaining.

Then the opera started. I figured I'd be bored but I could check out the costumes and all that stuff. Hell no. It was awesome.

There was a screen at the sides with subtitles in Italian and English which made it really easy to follow the story. And the whole staging was awesome - they did it in the style of old Hollywood movies including this Esther Williams style swim scene.  It was hilarious.


I totally recommend going to the opera. It was super fun and not nearly as snotty as I thought. Bravo, opera.